Friday, May 29, 2020

20 Tidbits About 'James at 15'

David Davis is back with a new fabulous list, this time about "James at 15," another of my childhood favorites. I had a major crush on Lance Kerwin -- I've written about him HERE, HERE, HERE and his "Battle of the Network Stars" Speedo shot HERE -- but have been slow to rewatch his show on the DVDs I procured via iOffer. So far it still holds up really well. But what is perhaps the most disturbing part of watching it now is how "problematic" a number of the storylines are -- only you realize it wasn't the show that was problematic but the times. In particular, Damian and I were horrified when James persuaded the pretty girl with a bad reputation (Teri Nunn before she went to Berlin) to come over ostensibly to take photos for the yearbook -- only he really lured her over to try to get her to pose for sexy snaps, and some sexy time. When she resists, he vindictively adds his name to the list of guys on a wall who claim to have had her. In the end, he comes clean and he sort of bullies her into becoming friends because, you know, what mensch he was -- at least he didn't rape her! Nonetheless, the show is effortlessly charming. James's mom is a hoot and Kim Richards -- long before she became a real housewife -- was the consummate scene-stealer. And bonus points for the character of Sly, a young black kid who is ashamed of his family's bourgeois status! And now on to the list:

1. James at 15 (later renamed James at 16) was an hour-long teen drama series that aired on NBC during the 1977–‘78 season.

2. Cast — Lance Kerwin as James Hunter / Linden Chiles as Paul Hunter / Lynn Carlin as Joan Hunter / Kim Richards as Sandy Hunter / Deirdre Berthrong as Kathy Hunter / David Hubbard as Ludwig "Sly" Hazeltine / Susan Myers as Marlene Mahoney / Kevin Van Wieringen as deaf student

3. Premise — Protagonist James Hunter (Lance Kerwin) was the son of a college professor (Linden Chiles) who moved his family across the country to take a teaching job, transplanting James from Oregon to Boston, Massachusetts. James, who had Walter Mitty-like dreams and dabbled in photography, had a hard time fitting into his new surroundings.

4. The series was preceded by the 1977 made-for-TV movie James at 15, which aired on Monday September 5, 1977 and was intended as a pilot for the series. The movie premiered to high ratings for the week of September 5–11, 1977, with a 42% share of the viewing audience, quickly prompting NBC to approve a series. Associated Press writer Jerry Buck said of the pilot movie, “it captures the essence of growing up in America and makes up for all the drivel we’ve had to put up with.”

5. The pilot movie and the series were written by Dan Wakefield, a journalist and fiction writer whose novel “Going All the Way,” a tale of coming of age in the 1950s, had led to his being contacted by Twentieth Century Fox.

6. David Sontag had had a lunch meeting in New York City with Paul Klein, the head of programming at NBC. At lunch Klein said he needed a series for Sunday night. On the spot Sontag created the idea for a coming of age series seen through the eyes of a teenage boy including his dreams, fantasies, and hopes. Klein loved the idea and asked Sontag who would write it. Sontag (Sr, VP of Creative Affairs at Twentieth Century Fox) suggested Dan Wakefield. Despite the above unsourced account of the creation of the series, the on-screen credit reads "Created by Dan Wakefield."

7. Dan Wakefield, who was born and raised in Indianapolis but eventually moved to Boston, said he chose Boston both because he wanted to write about a city he knew well and also because he was tired of television's tendency to give programs Los Angeles or New York City settings. To update his own memories of growing up, the writer spoke with adolescents from Boston.

8. James at 15 was the replacement for the short-lived action/adventure-science fiction series "Man From Atlantis," starring Patrick Duffy on NBC's Thursday night schedule.

9. Critical Response — • A New York Times reviewer applauded the program's avoidance of stereotyping characters, noting: "Sly, a jiving black student, has solidly middle-class parents deeply involved in classical music." • Tom Shales of The Washington Post wrote, “Not perfect, not revolutionary, not always deliriously urgent, James at 15 is still the most respectable new entertainment series of the season. Consistently, it communicates something about the state of being young, rather than just communicating that it wishes to lure young viewers. And if it romanticizes adolescence through the weekly trials and triumphs of its teen-age hero, at least it does so in more ambitious, inquisitive and authentic ways than the average TV teeny-bop.”

10. Critics also approved of the show’s handling of James' first sexual experience, with a Swedish exchange student (Kirsten Baker) in the episode which aired February 9, 1978 — at which point the show assumed the name “James at 16.” However, head writer Wakefield quit in a dispute with NBC over the use of the euphemism responsible for 'birth control' in the episode, as well as the network's insistence that James should feel remorse over his decision.

11. Behind the scenes, the show's original executive producers, Martin Manulis and Joe Hardy, were replaced by Ron Rubin in December 1977.

12. Despite critical praise, the show struggled opposite ratings hits Hawaii Five-O on CBS and Barney Miller on ABC, and was canceled after only one season.

13. Guest actors included Rosanna Arquette, Michael Biehn, William Bogert, K Callan, Lee Chamberlin, Elaine Joyce, Perry Lang, Marc McClure, Trisha Noble, Teri Nunn, Lisa Pelikan, Vincent Van Patten, Fran Ryan, Richard Sanders, Richard Stahl, Eric Stoltz, Vic Tayback, M. Emmet Walsh, Dick Wilson, Debra Winger, and Mare Winningham.

14. Lance Kerwin’s real-life younger brother, Shane Kerwin, appeared in three episodes as three different characters.

15. Many viewers assumed the show lasted two seasons because of the title change.

16. Emmy Nods — 🔲 Kate Jackson received and Emmy nomination for her role in the pilot movie. 🔲 Irene Tedrow was nominated for her guest role in the episode, “Ducks.”

17. Theme Song — • The show’s opening theme, “James,” written by Richard Baskin, was performed by singer Lee Montgomery. Here are the lyrics: 🎵 He ain't got no walkin' stick, He don't need no ball and chain, He ain't got no candy kick. That don't mean nothin' to James. Oh oh James, singin' Oh oh James. The people in the streets owe the pourin' of the rain. Is it a feelin' in the heart, or is it something you can name. Oh oh James, singin' Oh oh James. The people in the streets owe the pourin' of the rain. Is it a feelin' in the heart, or is it something you can name. Oh oh oh oh oh oh James. Oh oh oh oh oh oh James. 🎸 When the show became James at 16, a new theme song England John and Dan Ford Coley's "It's All Up to You," was used in its place.

18. Lance Kerwin was actually 16 when the series began, and had turned 17 when it was cancelled, one year older than his character.

19. Kevin Williamson, the creator of Dawson's Creek, cited this show as a major influence on him and named it as an inspiration for his show: “Dawson's Creek came out of my desire to do 'James at 15' for the '90s. It was very provocative and way ahead of its time.”

20. IMDb User Reviews — • lazarillo | November 2004: ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Forgotten series from the 70's... In the last 30 years there have been exactly three halfway realistic TV series about teenagers--“Freaks and Geeks,” “My So-Called Life,” and this one, which is the oldest and by far the most obscure. They were all critically acclaimed, but all three of them put together didn't last even half as long as crap like "Beverly Hills 90210." It's ironic that as obsessed as Hollywood is with teenagers, they rarely show real teenagers, but instead these incredibly good-looking, articulate, acne-free versions usually played by actors in their mid-20's. I remember this show from when I was kid, and then again when it was on some cable network again briefly in the early 90's. It was about three normal middle-class 70's teenagers with normal, middle-class teenage problems. It was a little preachy, but lacked the ridiculous melodrama of "90210" and its ilk. I also vaguely remember this series and the TV movie it was based on being somewhat controversial for their sexual content (tame by today's standards and REALLY tame compared to the things that were actually going in the late 70's). Part of the problem might have been that the sex was portrayed as awkward and fumbling (and the actors were real teenagers) In other words, the teenage sex was too real and not sexy enough--ironic, isn't it? Anyway, I'd really like to see this again someday. • thomas196x2000 | August 2010: ⭐️½ The truth is, this was an AWFUL show! I was 16 when this show came out. It made me distinctly uncomfortable, and worse as the show went on. I kept thinking, man, what is it with this twerpy kid? I loved how another commenter stated that this was great, like "My So Called Life," another show that depicted teens saying things like no teen on earth says them. If that is the kind of show you like, this show is for you. The show was boring, strange, and off putting. I remember it was on a night where nothing else was on, and I carried through like four episodes, and that was enough. I remember the novelty of the show changing names when James turned 16. The reason why this show didn't continue is it really stank. • SkippyDevereaux | July 2002: ⭐️⭐️⭐️ A very good program!! I found this to be a very entertaining program and wished it could have stayed on the air longer. It looked at the world through a teenager's eyes and dealt with subjects that many adults did not think dealt with teens, such as alcoholism, pregnancy, dying, venereal disease. The acting was believable with Lance Kerwin as "James." Susan Myers was also very good in the role of "Marlene," the plain-looking but intelligent friend of "James."

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P.S. One thing David left off the list is that Lance Kerwin, like many child stars, struggled for many years after the show ended. Thankfully I don't think he's ever done anything violent -- although alcohol, pot and, later, cocaine and crack are all on his resume. But he did ache to return to the spotlight, something that wasn't meant to be. In 2010, he was "grounded for five years" for falsifying documents to obtain food stamps and state medical benefits on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. (Kerwin apologized but I'll bet Bernie Sanders would have a thing or two to say about this "crime.") These days, he's either a time-share salesman, a drug counselor, a Jesus freak, or some combination of the three, depending on who you ask. 


Warren said...

Is this show on any where?

joepelpro said...

Love this show

jaragon said...

Kerwin is memorable too in the still scary tv version of "Salem's Lot"

Bill Carter said...

>I don't believe his problems had anything to do with substance abuse or violence.


In the 1990s, he was a minister with U-Turn For Christ, an organization for people "...seeking restoration from drug and alcohol addiction through our Lord Jesus Christ."

Online postings from some of the people who had dealings with the organization are highly critical of its practices.

Michael Thorne said...

I really enjoyed this. I watched the series when it originally aired, and when it was later shown on A&E. One small correction: the original theme "James" was written by Richard Baskin It was used for all the episodes when it was titled "James at 15." When the series became "James at 16" the theme became "It's All Up To You," written and performed by Dan Seals (as England Dan) and John Ford Coley

Michael Thorne