Two scripts were written for a TV show called Heroes in Trouble that was developed by W. D. Richter and Earl Mac Rauch but never produced. The following article delves into the history of this near miss with a Buckaroo Banzai-like TV show.
“Heroes in Trouble” The Story Behind the Other Attempt at Banzai TV
By Scott Tate
New and Even More Outrageous
Two years after Buckaroo Banzai crossed the eighth dimension in theaters, a bold headline in the April 1986 issue of World Watch One clamored for attention: “W.D. RICHTER CALLS STRIKE TEAM ALERT!” He warned of “a new and even more outrageous force of evil…the most scurrilous multinational conglomerate on the face of this (or probably any other) planet.”
“ABC-TV has a serious hand deep in this business,” Richter added. “They care. And I know they’d be fascinated to hear that you do too. HEROES IN TROUBLE. Who are they? When are they? Ask Brandon Stoddard or Stuart Bloomberg at ABC-TV…”
What was afoot? How was ABC involved? And if Buckaroo wasn’t going to handle this himself, who would?
Old Problems, New Solutions
Bringing the unique world of Buckaroo Banzai to television back in the era of MacGyver, The A-Team, and The Misfits of Science seemed like a natural fit. The film wasn’t exactly a smash hit by commercial standards, but its fandom was active and eager for more, so it wasn’t long before talks were underway to bring Buckaroo into people’s homes on a weekly basis.
Unfortunately, there was a familiar obstacle, the one wall of rock Buckaroo had always had a hard time driving through: David Begelman.
“Begelman owned all the rights, and he was really disgruntled,” Richter explained to World Watch One in 2004. “He thought we had screwed him over somehow [and] he was going to do everything in his power to kill Buckaroo.” When ABC expressed interest, Begelman refused.
Richter and Earl Mac Rauch faced a frustrating dilemma. An offer was on the table, the fan base already existed, and ABC was a promising platform from which to present new adventures. But how could they circumvent the intractable Begelman?
Richter and Rauch, along with Dan Lupovitz (a production assistant on the film), hit upon a plan that was elegant in its simplicity: reinvent Buckaroo from the ground up. Starting with a vaguely similar tone and premise, they could rework the details into something fresh. By introducing new Banzai-like characters and situations, they could effectively create a whole new property Heroes in Trouble which could then take on a life of its own.
“We conceived it entirely for television after being unable to get the TV rights at that time for BB,” Richter recently elaborated. “In other words, there was nothing on paper and no plot worked out when Mac Rauch began the Heroes pilot script. I don’t think we had the foggiest idea of how one develops a TV pilot.” But uncertainty and improvisation have always been part of the Banzai way of doing things.
Rough and Ready
With the basics in place, Richter was ready to tantalize fans in the April 1986 World Watch One. Billing the show as “the spirit of the Banzai universe reincarnated in a different form,” a list of colorful characters followed: Dick Ready, Boron Boy, Euro Showgirl, Solo Rocker, Hen, Max Von Seven, Woo Pig, Doktor Wanko (later revised to Generalissimo Wanko), and others. Groups were also mentioned: Ichiban Ltd., the Destructo Force Special Tactics Unit, the all-volunteer Ready Rider Rapid Action Force, and the menacing Buell Tool Company the latter being “an organization so malevolent and pervasive and powerful that alongside its transglobal reach the machinations of Hanoi Xan seem puny indeed!”
From these scattered details, a picture began to emerge. Team Banzai and the World Crime League were reimagined with a Wall Street edge, as likely to fight it out in boardrooms as hand-to-hand. The show reflected a new sensibility dictated by rapid and profound changes in the cultural climate between 1984 and 1986. The Cold War tensions and consumer-driven cult of personality referenced in TABB were still present, but they were joined by new buzzwords like “junk bonds” and “Ivan Boesky.” A year before the film Wall Street’s notorious “greed is good” speech, Heroes in Trouble was already positioned to comment on America’s renewed corporate obsession.
The November 1986 World Watch One included an excerpt from an early draft of Rauch’s script. In it, Dick has just survived an unusual ambush. A woman named Hen expresses concern, and though she may not be sincere, Dick’s still willing to schedule a date with her. As Hen leaves to meet a corporate raider named Wanko, she reminds Dick to be careful, but that’s not his style: “The word’s not in my vocabulary.” Elsewhere, Max Von Seven a striking individual with a prosthetic hand that can be replaced by various deadly weapons supervises a gang of thugs as they place an ominous gas tank outside a warehouse owned by American Ichiban… (This excerpt, along with the rest of the newsletter, is available for download courtesy of ArcLight at www.worldwatchonline.com.)
Since 1986, those early hints have remained virtually the only information ever made widely available about Heroes in Trouble. Now, we’ve been granted a rare peek at the full script for the proposed pilot episode.
Keep in mind that, even if the pilot had ever reached the point of being filmed, the script would almost certainly have undergone further revisions. But here is our best understanding of what Heroes in Trouble might have looked like had it made it onto television screens circa 1987…
The Lost Pilot
The show begins as Dick prepares for a typical day’s work. His sarcastic robot valet, Boron Boy (one of American Ichiban’s many fine products) lays out his suit, cleans his Colt .45, and recaps the latest Wall Street Journal, which includes news that the mysterious new owners of the Buell Tool Co. have appointed a man named Wanko to run it. Dick knows both Buell Tool and Wanko by reputation, and takes neither of them seriously.
But over at Buell Tool, the new management is very serious indeed. Wanko’s representatives beautiful Hen and sinister Woo Pig inform Buell’s board of directors that the company has an aggressive new agenda. Initially, some executives express reluctance and outrage. Among them is Peter Abbot also known as Max Von Seven, whom Hen seems to consider a rival who has fallen from grace. But any objections are quelled by Wanko’s enforcers: the Double Deathheads, a cyborg squad of bizarre infantry/cavalry hybrids, troops with menacing hydraulic arms who ride into battle on the backs of even larger musclemen with powerful artificial legs.
“Is that the game?” one exec continues to protest. “Like the old World Crime Cartel that went belly-up thirty years ago?”
This outburst doesn’t go over well with Hen. “Generalissimo Wanko operates on a need-to-know basis. And you no longer need to know. I hereby order you terminated. Anyone opposed?”
“Okay, fine. I’ve had it. I’m vested in this company. Just give me my golden parachute and I’m out of here.”
But Hen's idea of termination is more literal. She whips a handgun from under her skirt and blasts the executive from his chair. "Anyone else want their severance package?" she asks rhetorically.
Woo Pig goes on to explain to the rest that they now have information which will give them an edge over their main competitor, American Ichiban.They’ve recently identified several members of Ichiban’s undercover security team, Destructo-Force (including, of course, Dick Ready). This is a surprise to Hen, who is romantically involved with Dick.
And the game is afoot. A Deathhead named Jito unsuccessfully ambushes Dick, who arrives safely at the Ichiban offices where he discovers that several other employees have been similarly attacked. The formerly anonymous members of Destructo-Force have been compromised, and the evidence points to the supposedly defunct World Crime Cartel.
As Dick pieces together the details, we meet a varied cast of characters along the way. Other members of Destructo-Force include the glamorous Euro Showgirl, a maintenance man called Switchblade Waiter, and Solo Rocker, a gorgeous investment banker with a penchant for rapping. We also meet security chief Yoshi “Tiger” Tanaka, research scientist Professor Mozabi, and Ichiban’s mysterious and elderly chief executive officer, referred to only as the Founder.
The Founder believed he had destroyed the WCC many years earlier by arranging a plane crash which killed their leaders, the Council of Twelve (a.k.a. the Apostles). In the face of this renewed threat, the “Cloak of Anonymity” which formerly protected Destructo-Force by allowing them to function independently and incognito, even from each other, is moot. For the first time, the team will have to operate together.
Meanwhile, Max strikes at Ichiban on a second front by looting platinum from one of Ichiban’s own warehouses, which in turn will fund a hostile takeover of Ichiban’s stock shares. Max’s heart isn’t entirely in it, but neither can he refuse his instructions. We get our first look at Wanko, eccentrically concealed behind “a white beekeeper’s jacket and those yellow pongee silk pedal pushers, his face shielded from view behind an extraordinary 17th century Japanese warrior’s helmet replete with primitive goggles.” In turn, Wanko receives his orders directly from the Twelve via a video-phone, where the screen displays a large, inverted pair of computer-generated lips that speak in a dozen eerily synchronized voices.
Dick, Solo Rocker, Switchblade Waiter, and Euro Showgirl move to intercept the stolen platinum before it can be converted to cash. This culminates in a direct clash with Hen, Max, Woo Pig, plenty of Deathheads, and Wanko himself. As bullets fly, Euro Showgirl tries to exploit Max’s self-doubts about his job. Meanwhile, Dick and Hen use the tense and chaotic backdrop as an oddly appropriate setting for a bitter discussion about their relationship, complete with guns in both their hands. When the dust settles, Hen has fled. Woo Pig and Wanko are captured, and Wanko is revealed beneath his padded costume to be “a skinny hairdresser in Bermuda shorts and surfer thongs.” Max, having wavered in the end, is given a job application at Ichiban despite reservations on both sides.
(The script consulted for this article is the second revised first draft, dated December 1986, and is the version that was most fully developed for ABC’s consideration. It was written by Earl Mac Rauch, with the series creators acknowledged as Mac, Dan Lupovitz, and W.D. Richter.)
Like any good pilot, the story raises as many questions as it answers. How will Dick react when Hen eventually reappears? Will Wanko and Woo Pig remain in custody for long? Can Max ultimately be trusted by either side?
Richter admits that whatever resolutions were under consideration at the time are now long forgotten. “If I could actually remember all those details, I would have failed to have had a life since then,” he quips good-naturedly. “I’m sure whatever we were up to was exceedingly clever, maybe even brilliant, and now lost forever.”
That’s all part of the process, though. “We would have had fun figuring it all out,” Richter says. “Mac and I tend not to know what’s going to happen next so that the writing itself is an adventure. Write yourself into a corner; write yourself (and the audience) out!”
Heroes, In Trouble
So what happened? Why didn’t development continue? The answer lies largely in the sudden appearance of a new contender. “There was some genuine interest,” Richter stated years later, “but then ABC purchased Max Headroom.”
The pseudo-computer-generated Headroom (actor Matt Frewer), originally a UK veejay, was already popular in the U.S. as a Coca-Cola spokesman. His quirkiness and pre-existing fanbase were what ABC originally hoped to tap with Buckaroo before the substitution of Dick Ready. ABC Vice-President Stu Bloomberg cast his lot with Max, and the network followed.
“I think the script [for Heroes] came in close to their pilot-decision deadline,” Richter recalls. “While Mac was writing it, they made the Headroom acquisition. …[Heroes] was truly well-received, but Max Headroom, an established success in England, was purchased by the network and filled their ‘originality’ slot.”
Ideally, both shows could have complemented each other, offering multiple insights into the zeitgeist of 1980s American consumerism. But primetime slots on broadcast networks have always faced stiff competition, as hotly contested as any boardroom transaction faced by Dick Ready. ABC felt it couldn’t justify airing two such experimental series simultaneously. The die was cast, and Max Headroom debuted in March of 1987. By October, it was gone after only 13 episodes, although Bloomberg says he still “holds a tender spot for Max Headroom” even today.
Headroom may not have been the only factor in ABC’s decision to rethink Heroes. A recent film-to-TV property, Starman, landed on their 1986 fall schedule with a resounding thud. Heroes was still under consideration when Starman was cancelled in 1987 after one season. Some executives may have felt that gambling on a similar venture so soon was too risky.
Richter, though, holds no personal animosity. “I got a lovely hand-written letter from Stuart Bloomberg [at the time of the decision]. Stuart is a tremendously nice fellow, and he wrote that turning down the Heroes script was the saddest decision he'd ever had to make.”
Richter can’t recall with certainty if Heroes was shopped around to other networks, although he assumes the matter was discussed. However, they were mindful that the show was “extremely radical for network TV…and there was no vibrant cable market [yet].” Without ABC’s support, the conflict between American Ichiban and Buell Tool would go unseen.
Heroes for Today
Could Heroes still be dusted off and made to work for modern audiences? Was its tone too firmly grounded in the 1980s? Would today’s viewers be at ease with characters who carry concealed weapons into office buildings and on the subway? Do we perhaps need such heroes more than ever?
“We are exploring the matter,” Richter revealed.Although monolithic corporations remain heavy players in modern culture, in some ways more than ever, today’s world is also significantly different from when Heroes was first pitched. Richter readily acknowledges that a new take on the story would have to reflect that. “The concept certainly isn’t dated. The execution certainly needs ‘polishing’.” Still, it might work. Shows like Alias and 24 have done well in recent years, and they tap into the same general vibe that Heroes could capture.
It might have an easier time finding a niche, as today’s options are more varied than in 1987. Richter speculates that “a movie or cable channel willing to let us make it really credible” might be the way to go if Heroes were being filmed today. He further muses, “Perhaps a graphic novel that mutates into a feature? Who knows?” With the upswing of commercial and critical success in recent years for graphic literature being adapted into onscreen media, that might be a distinct possibility.
For now, any future development remains mere speculation. But, as Richter said, who knows? Maybe Dick Ready’s still out there somewhere. Is it conceivable he might yet turn up? It may be a long shot, but nothing’s impossible when men like Dick or Buckaroo are involved. Perhaps Dick Ready is out there fighting the good fight at this very moment…and, as always, in trouble.
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