Starring Anthony Perkins, Leigh Taylor-Young, Joshua John Miller, Juliet Sorci, and Pam Matteson
Directed by Alan Rafkin
With both the Halloween season and the new fall television season officially in full swing now seems a good time to combine the two and discuss a little known footnote in the hallowed halls of television horrordom that never was. I’m talking about The Ghost Writer.
No. Not the Nickelodeon series of the same name that would come along two years later about a kid solving crimes with the help of a ghost that can only communicate by writing down words.
The Ghost Writer I’m talking about is the rejected Fox Network comedy pilot from 1990 starring the legendary Anthony Perkins as Anthony Strack, the world’s most successful horror author living in an Addams Family manor with his eccentric teenage son (sort of Peter Lorre by way of a goth Stewie Griffin), batty bombshell maid Miss Blasco, his new relatively normal wife Elizabeth, and her perpetually perturbed young daughter Cindy, who I strongly suspect was named Cindy due to how much the actress looks and sounds like Cindy Brady from the The Brady Bunch.
“The Brady Bunch,” this is not. Nor is it “The Munsters” or “The Addams Family.” It is, however, one of the strangest attempts at a sitcom I have ever seen. Created by Alan Spencer, the madman who previously conjured up the short-lived cult cop comedy series “Sledge Hammer!,” The Ghost Writer proves good for a few chuckles but none of the broad comedy is nearly as laugh out loud funny as the studio audience laugh track desperately wants you to believe.
For example, when the new Mrs. Strack finds out how the original Mrs. Strack really died and it wasn’t nearly the “natural causes” he had previously told her, this comedic exchange occurs:
“She took a nasty fall down those flight of stairs and broke her neck.”
“You call that natural causes?”
“Well, of course. When you take a nasty fall and break your neck, naturally, it causes you to die.”
I don’t know if you’re laughing right now but the live studio audience died. There’s a good reason canned laughter has mostly gone the way of the dodo.
Two things do make The Ghost Writer an intriguing misfire that you’d still probably come away from wishing they had made more episodes.
First and foremost, the original Psycho Anthony Perkins displays impeccable comic timing even when the one-liner he’s delivering is DOA. The mere casting of Norman Bates himself as more or less Stephen King if Stephen King lived in his own horror novel world is brilliant stunt casting. Perkins plays Strack as a weirdo who doesn’t realize he’s a weirdo since morbidity is his normality. He’s mostly oblivious to the abnormality of his gothic home filled with more weird knickknacks and eerie décor than a Spirit of Halloween store or the bizarre behavior of his teenage son and surly housekeeper. That’s the job of his new bride Elizabeth, the voice of normalcy in this strange environment, and little Cindy, the voice of a young girl horrified by her new home, her creepy unwelcoming stepbrother, and the lurid maid who behaves stand-offish to everyone except young Edgar, all of whom will one day lead to years and years of psycho therapy.
The other thing working in The Ghost Writer’s favor is that while it isn’t terribly funny, it’s just too damn weird. I mean, the climax of this sitcom pilot sees Anthony dancing with the skeletal remains of his deceased first wife in a scene that is meant to be funny and heartfelt. For all the ghoulish goings-on, The Ghost Writer truly achieves peak weirdness whenever it tries to be tug at the heartstrings.
Fox in its infancy was easily the network most willing to push the envelope in the relatively mundane television landscape of the late Eighties/early Nineties period but even with that in mind it’s hard to imagine even their execs not bristling at suicide jokes involving a teenage boy who also appears to be into S&M with hints he may be having a sexual relationship with the maid. And yet this same potential series still wants to be a family friendly sitcom. Wrap your mind around that.
Or, for that matter, the fact that a small child spends virtually the entire running time of the pilot episode of this family sitcom in a constant state of emotional distress.
In retrospect, it’s kind of hard to imagine why Fox didn’t take a chance on The Ghost Writer when you consider many of the actual short-lived sitcoms they did put on their air at the time that today sound like dart throws from a coke-fueled mind with nothing to lose.
We are talking about the same television network that actually believed a weekly sitcom starring Howie Mandel as the wacky owner of a funeral home determined to put the “fun” back into funerals was a viable premise.
Remember “Charlie Hoover,” the sitcom with late comedian Sam Kinison serving as the crude, screaming Jiminy Cricket to a man experiencing a mid-life crisis?
How about “Women in Prison?” Because nothing screams situation comedy quite like women in prison.
Don’t forget about Top of the Heap, the atrocious “Married with Children” spin-off with Joseph Bologna and Matt LeBlanc as garbage men turned wannabe grifters.
Ah, hell. Fox is the network that greenlit “Woops!;” a sitcom that would go on to be ranked by TV Guide as one of the worst television shows in the history of television. A post-apocalyptic “Gilligan’s Island” with the mismatched survivors of a nuclear war living on a farm contending with giant turkeys, magic crystals that cause women’s breasts to grow huge, radioactive hallucinogenic berries, and that very special Christmas episode where they get visited by a depressed Santa Claus suffering from survivor’s guilt because Mrs. Claus and the elves didn’t make it into the bomb shelter in time before the North Pole got nuked. Somehow we got 13 episodes of that but not The Ghost Writer?
Oh, well. Even if it had been picked up for series The Ghost Writer would not have been long for this world. Anthony Perkins would tragically die of AIDS-related complications less than two years later.
One final freaky footnote to this story: IMDB’s plot synopsis for the pilot:
“Blocked novelist Anthony Strack is desperate enough to plot suicide. Before he completes the deed, he is visited by unearthly beings, whose presence helps him to write again.”
That’s not even close to accurate. Where did that synopsis come from? See for yourself.
A workprint of The Ghost Writer pilot has been floating around for a long time now. For all its flaws I’d argue it’s still more inventive than most of the mundane sitcoms that currently litter the networks these days.