The short answer is that two scripts were written but a TV pilot was not produced. The following article by Dan Berger traces the history of the Buckaroo Banzai TV show that almost happened and then found a new life as a comic book.
Banzai in Limbo—The Short Form
By Dan Berger
The story behind the ill-fated Banzai television series stretches back to 1986. In spite of a bungled release and dismal box office receipts, prospects for a weekly series based on the film appeared promising. Buckaroo Banzai possessed a growing cult following at the time, as evidenced by strong video sales, enthusiastic fanzine and convention activity, and a burgeoning official fan club. The nucleus of a TV audience was out there, waiting for more. In 1986, ABC Television attempted to tap into that audience by bringing Team Banzai to the small screen.
Perversely, David Begelman, the same Sherwood Productions studio executive responsible for green lighting Buckaroo Banzai in the first place, killed the series before it entered development. “Begelman owned all the rights, and he was really disgruntled,” recalled Banzai director W.D. “Rick” Richter. “He thought we [meaning Richter and Banzai screen writer Earl Mac Rauch] had screwed him over somehow...and he was going to do everything in his power to kill Buckaroo.” Begelman flatly refused to entertain ABC’s offer, and the matter came to an end, or very nearly so. A more complete version of this chapter in the Banzai saga can be found at Where is the TV show Heroes in Trouble?
Soon afterward, Begelman dissolved Sherwood Productions and assumed co-ownership of Gladden Entertainment, which in turn inherited the rights to Buckaroo Banzai. By 1994, Gladden was forced to file for bankruptcy. In 1995, David Begelman committed suicide.
After a lengthy settlement, the rights to Buckaroo Banzai landed in the lap of Gladden’s financial backer, French national banking institution Crédit Lyonnais. The entire library of Crédit Lyonnais’ liquidated film and music rights was subsequently purchased by PolyGram Entertainment to acquire some music titles in the bank’s collection.
It was at this point that Steve Gelber, an executive at PolyGram Television and Banzai devotee, made the startling discovery that the rights to Buckaroo Banzai were included in the purchase. With Begelman out of the picture, the way appeared clear for another go at a Banzai TV series. Gelber contacted Richter and Rauch through their agents to ask if they would be interested in developing the property with PolyGram.
“So we all attempted to figure out who exactly owned what rights,” explained Richter. “Did the TV rights go with the movie rights? No documents could be found anywhere because Sherwood Productions, it turned out, had used its sources of independent financing in rather questionable and, one suspects, personal ways and had had, as a result, an aversion to traditional bookkeeping. In that sense they were a cutting-edge company, very Enronish, ironically very World Crime Leaguish. ”
The lack of a clear paper trail continues to plague Buckaroo to this day. It has complicated everything from media rights to merchandising to an official release of the film’s soundtrack. Richter’s attempts to clarify the situation have met with maddening results. “Invariably, you get a call back when somebody’s finally had the time to go through the tangle of contracts, and they’ll inevitably say, ‘We can’t find any relevant paperwork on that point, so we don’t want to tell you we own it or we don’t,’” he said. “‘You’re not going to trick us saying we don’t own the rights because we might, but then again we might not, and you might or maybe you don’t; so there, take that.’”
In spite of the legal ambiguities involved, PolyGram, Richter, and Rauch began developing a series concept for Buckaroo Banzai: Ancient Secrets & New Mysteries in the summer of 1998. “So we went out to meet with PolyGram and agreed to write a pilot for them, worked out a small thread of a story and then, with them, went around to the big television development companies PolyGram might want to partner with,” said Richter. “We went to ABC and NBC and CBS and Fox, and we got Fox to say, ‘Wow! Yeah, we think this is a great idea. Let’s do it.’”
In November of 1998, the Fox Network officially commissioned a pilot script. But with fifteen years stretched out between the release of Buckaroo Banzai in theaters and writing the TV pilot, very real concerns needed addressing. First and foremost was coming to terms with fan expectations versus the expectations of network executives. The prospect of fans seeing Peter Weller reprise his role as Dr. Banzai appeared unlikely at best. “You might be able to get a guest appearance from John Lithgow or Jeff Goldblum, but you really weren’t going to be permitted to cast those people, fifteen years older now, as the leads in a TV series.” Richter explained. “The networks want younger casts. So that gets you into a strange corner where you’re picking up after the movie, but not the next day, and with a brand-new cast.”
Even so, Rauch felt that some story continuity between the original film and the series’ opener was essential. “So there was in his pilot script a sense of Buckaroo’s having dropped out of the public eye, gone away and either having had a nervous breakdown or gotten married,” Richter said. “And when he comes back in the pilot, we find new characters, new Cavaliers, younger people who would have cycled through the Institute, and they make references to the legendary Reno, New Jersey, and stuff from the past.”
Another issue lay in how best to bring the members of Team Banzai into the present. “I think the most formidable challenge facing Buckaroo these days is that he is a modern man with all that implies, with a passion and curiosity that almost no one shares anymore in a post-modern world, where all that matters is money and celebrity,” noted Rauch. “As a result, Buckaroo is at constant risk of becoming a kind of quaint caricature. Most people don’t really care anymore about ideology; it’s all about lifestyle.”
That said, Buckaroo is who he is, and the same goes for his ideology. “I’m not sure he has evolved,” Rauch emphasized. “He continues to struggle between the extreme poles of his personality, between Eastern mysticism and an outdated Western belief in progress toward a Utopian world based upon reason and a simple cowboy ethic of right and wrong.”
After wrestling with the many variables involved, Richter and Rauch delivered a script to Fox in mid-December of 1998. “With ‘Supersize those Fries,’ we went in a more broadly comedic direction,” explained Rauch. “It was a pretty funny script, with a crazed Lizardo returning from the ‘dead.’ Actually, he kind of grew himself back together like a regenerating reptile.” Fans anxiously waited for the results as Buckaroo made his way through the studio’s development queue.
When Fox finally did send the script back, their notes focused on concerns that the script was too “dense.” Perceptions at the studio were that the pilot packed a feature film’s worth of story and character into the space of an hour-long script. Fox’s misgivings were totally understandable, even as they missed the point. Kinetic cerebral and physical action has always been the Buckaroovian standard. “As usual, a lot was happening at once,” explained Richter, “but we pointed out that it was an hour pilot and the only reason for time was precisely so that everything didn’t happen at once... But they had the money. So we thinned stuff out.”
Over the course of a year, more than sufficient time had passed to allow for the possibility of Hollywood’s ever-changing corporate politics to influence the pilot’s eventual fate. In November of 1999, Sandy Grushow became Chairman of Fox Television Entertainment Group; a new position created to oversee the company’s television production studio and network programming. The shift represented a definitive change from the situation a year before, when Doug Herzog was president of Fox Network’s entertainment division and the man with the final say on whether or not a new pilot should be committed to film. It is unclear exactly how much of a direct bearing this change had on the events that followed, but it is certain that such changes rarely favor properties under development.
A revised script was delivered to Fox in December of 1999. “We got great responses from all the people at Fox, who kept passing it upward until it reached the top guy...and he passed on the project,” said Rauch. “We were one pen stroke away from getting to shoot the pilot, but that’s the way it is.” By the Spring of 2000, Buckaroo’s journey to the small screen came to an end at the hands of Sandy Grushow.
With Fox exiting the scene, future prospects for the series turned bleak. “You’d have to go around town after that thumbs down and try to make people think, ‘You should do this rejected Buckaroo pilot,’” noted Richter. “The SciFi channel was actually interested, though...for about ten minutes. Maybe twelve."
So ended another chapter in the annals of the Banzai Institute. “Supersize those Fries” was copied in triplicate and filed away with every expectation that the story would live on only in the after-jam roundtables of the Hong Kong Cavaliers and the memories of those fortunate enough to have seen the script, but the matter of a Buckaroo Banzai TV series wasn’t over just yet. For more information, see What information is there about the Banzai Institute TV Series? and What other proposed BB TV series concepts not involving the original creators were considered?
This page was last updated on June 10th, 2016.
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