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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Superdad
In the 2002 film Auto Focus, Paul Schrader’s biopic of the late actor Bob Crane, Greg Kinnear as Crane receives Disney’s offer to star in Superdad just as he’s discussing his desire to make a big-budget porn movie costarring Stella Stevens with his friend and enabler John Henry Carpenter (Willem Dafoe). A little later, Kinnear’s recreation of Superdad’s waterskiing sequence plays to a bored audience in a mostly empty movie house. I bring this up at the outset partly as a way to broach the topic of Crane’s life and career in a column supposedly devoted to “family entertainment” but also simply because Auto Focus is a much, much more interesting movie than freaking Superdad.
As you may have guessed, Bob Crane’s career was not exactly riding high when he made Superdad. Crane started out in radio, eventually becoming one of the hottest disc jockeys in Los Angeles. In 1965, he landed the lead in Hogan’s Heroes, one of the unlikeliest hit sitcoms ever produced. He received two Emmy nominations over the course of its six seasons. But after Hogan’s Heroes went off the air in 1971, Crane didn’t have a lot of offers lined up.
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Crane’s sex addiction and penchant for photographing and, eventually, videotaping himself and his partners was a big reason for this. In the pre-internet age, it was still possible to keep this kind of thing relatively quiet. It wasn’t quite all over the tabloids in 1971. But if you knew, you knew. And at Disney, a studio that prided itself on pretending it was still 1955, nobody knew.
You can see why producer Bill Anderson would have wanted Bob Crane at Disney. Crane had a gift for comedy and an image as an all-American nice guy. For six seasons, he’d made audiences laugh at the wacky misadventures of a group of POWs in a Nazi detention camp. Compared to that, whatever Disney threw at him should be a piece of cake. With a little luck, Anderson probably hoped he had the next Dean Jones on his hands.
Setting aside Crane’s off-screen controversies, there are a lot of reasons that didn’t happen. The main one being that Jones himself would have been hard-pressed to do anything with Superdad. The movie was written by Joseph L. McEveety “from a story by Harlan Ware”. Ware, who died in 1967, had written primarily for radio and the pictures back in the 1930s and 40s, so I don’t know what this “story” is. Hell, I’ve seen the movie and can barely tell you what it’s about.
The director was Vincent McEveety (last seen in this column directing Charley And The Angel). The three McEveety brothers, Joseph, Vincent and Bernard, kind of took over Disney for awhile in the 60s and 70s but this was the first time any of them worked together on a Disney project. Did Superdad have some special resonance for Vincent and Joseph or was it just luck of the draw? I’m gonna assume it was the latter but if any members of the McEveety family can elucidate this matter for us, drop me a line or leave a comment.
Given a title like Superdad and Joseph McEveety’s history with such gimmick comedies as the Dexter Riley saga and The Barefoot Executive, you might expect this to be a movie about a mild-mannered suburban dad who becomes a superhero. I know I did. Well, you and I are both very, very wrong about that. Crane does star as mild-mannered suburban dad Charlie McCready. But his only superpower appears to be worrying about his teenage daughter, Wendy (Kathleen Cody, fulfilling the three-picture deal she began with Snowball Express).
For years, Wendy has run around with a disreputable gang of beach bums and layabouts referred to as The Gang (among others, The Gang includes frequent Disney bit player Ed Begley Jr., who later appeared in Auto Focus). The only employed member of The Gang is Stanley (Bruno Kirby, still going by the name B. Kirby Jr.), who keeps getting fired for using company vehicles like ambulances and delivery vans to haul The Gang to and from the beach.
Charlie’s particularly upset about Wendy’s relationship with her boyfriend, Bart (an increasingly bored looking Kurt Russell). Bart is an underachiever and, like another Bart now owned by Disney, proud of it. Charlie blames him for Wendy’s decision to settle for City College instead of a more prestigious university. He’s convinced Wendy will waste her life hanging out at the beach, playing volleyball and cruising around with Bart, Stanley, Stanley’s massive Saint Bernard named Roly Poly and the rest of The Gang singing songs like “Los Angeles”.
No, I don’t mean the song by the seminal punk rock group X. “Los Angeles” is one of three original songs padding out the run time of this 96-minute movie by Shane Tatum. Tatum has been responsible for some of Disney’s least-memorable songs of the 1970s, including “Moreover And Me” from The Biscuit Eater and “Livin’ One Day At A Time” from Charley And The Angel. Country-pop singer Bobby Goldsboro (probably best known for “Honey”, one of the least-enjoyable songs to top the Billboard Hot 100) croons the maudlin “These Are The Best Times” over the interminable opening credits but The Gang handles “Los Angeles”. And I know at least a few of you are thinking, “Wait, you mean this thing has a musical number performed by Kurt Russell, Ed Begley Jr., Bruno Kirby and Roly Poly in an ambulance? I kinda want to see that.” No, you do not. Trust me. It’s not worth it.
Anyway, while Charlie’s fuming about his daughter’s worthless friends, a TV panel show forces him to take stock of his relationship with her. Realizing he hasn’t made any effort to connect with her in years, Charlie decides to tag along and prove what a cool dad he is at the beach. This is where the waterskiing comes in to play. Needless to say, things don’t go well. Not only does Charlie humiliate himself, he’s laid up for a few days to recuperate.
At this point, I’m thinking, “OK, there aren’t any superpowers, so I guess the movie’s about Charlie trying to fit in with the kids and failing hilariously.” Nope! Charlie’s so mad about the beach trip that he forgets all about trying to have a meaningful relationship with his daughter. Instead, he takes the advice of his coworker, Ira Kushaw (Disney movie #2 for Dick Van Patten). Ira’s old classmate at Huntington College is now Dean of Admissions there. Ira calls up his friend and arranges for him to send Wendy a phony letter rewarding her a full scholarship, while Charlie secretly pays her tuition under the table. That’s our Superdad. Using the power of money and connections to save his daughter from herself. What a guy!
Oh yeah, about Charlie’s job. He’s a lawyer or something working for shipping magnate Cyrus Hershberger (Joe Flynn, of course). Throughout the film, Hershberger is dealing with ongoing labor tensions and a serious public image problem that neither Charlie nor Ira come close to solving even though that’s supposedly their jobs. This subplot never threatens to become relevant until a group of environmental protestors join the striking dockworkers. While watching the protests on TV, Charlie sees that Wendy has hooked up with the protestors’ leader, a radical artist named Klutch (Joby Baker, last seen as gangster Silky Seymour in Blackbeard’s Ghost).
Charlie’s ready to head up to San Francisco and haul Wendy back home. But Charlie’s wife, Sue (Barbara Rush), has had enough of his ideas. While she flies north first to talk to her daughter, Bart stops by, equally worried. Charlie realizes he may have misjudged him when he learns that Bart really did win a scholarship to Huntington. He turned it down to stay with Wendy, who applied but didn’t get one. So not only is Bart smarter, more ambitious and more devoted to Wendy than Charlie had given him credit for, it turns out Wendy is dumber than he thought.
Charlie joins the family in San Francisco where he receives some bad news. Wendy and Klutch are engaged, more or less. Instead of a ring, Klutch gave her his best abstract painting and refuses to take it back. This is the way of radical artists, one assumes. Well, Charlie’s not going to take that lying down. He heads off in a taxi to confront Klutch, accidentally losing his grip on the jumbo-sized painting along the way. It’s damaged by a passing cable car, because San Francisco.
Klutch lives and works on a kind of floating commune houseboat surrounded by Disney’s idea of what scary hippies look like (because, again, San Francisco). Charlie confronts him and Klutch freaks out when he sees his broken painting. There’s a big fight using Disney’s weapon of choice, brightly colored paint. Charlie wins round one but Klutch comes back for more, so Bart takes over, knocking the bad guy overboard onto a pile of fish on a passing skiff. Everybody goes home and Bart and Wendy get married, walking down the aisle to a choral version of “These Are The Good Times” even though anyone who just sat through the preceding 90 minutes can tell you these most assuredly are not.
Movies like Superdad were a losing proposition for Disney at this stage of the game. The studio knew how to make movies for little kids but it was on shakier ground with adults and didn’t have a clue when it came to teenagers. Superdad isn’t just a movie that doesn’t know what its audience wants. It doesn’t even know who they are. If Charlie McCready or Klutch ran into some real-life protestors, they’d be eaten alive.
It sort of feels like Joe McEveety’s script topped out around 45 pages and, when brother Vincent complained it felt a little thin, Joe just wrote more scenes without giving a second’s thought how they’d fit in to the movie. There’s a sequence that follows Charlie on campus, trying to find Wendy at Mother Barlow’s Boarding House. The reasons don’t matter particularly. It’s just an excuse to introduce Mother Barlow (Judith Lowry), the beer-drinking, pool-playing, motorcycle-riding octogenarian who runs the co-ed housing. If this movie came out 15 years later, Mother Barlow one hundred percent would have rapped. No question.
A little later, Wendy hitches a ride home with an older student, a Southern prep school snob named Roger Rhinehurst. Roger’s the kind of boy Charlie approves of but The Gang’s unexpected arrival scares him off before he can even register as a potential rival to Bart. The whole bit is just more spinning wheels and killing time.
That’s Nicholas Hammond as Roger, by the way. Hammond had been one of the von Trapp kids under Julie Andrews’ care in The Sound Of Music. A few years after Superdad, Hammond would find…well, maybe not fame, necessarily…as Peter Parker on the live-action CBS series The Amazing Spider-Man, a pretty lousy show but one I watched religiously. I’m sure I’m not the only one who believes Marvel owes this guy at least a cameo in the next Spider-Movie.
Superdad would have been a tedious, unfunny movie no matter who starred in it but Bob Crane didn’t do himself any favors on set. He had a habit of showing off his photo albums full of past sexual adventures to anyone who asked to see them and plenty of others who didn’t. If he’d been able to keep his private life private, he probably could have survived one bad Disney comedy. Lots of other stars certainly had. But a Disney set is no place to flaunt your swingers’ lifestyle, especially back then. Bob Crane will be back in this column but in a very diminished capacity.
Given what they now knew about Bob Crane, Disney wasn’t sure what to do with Superdad. They shelved the movie for a time before releasing it in Los Angeles on December 14, 1973, and not as part of an Oscar qualifying run. It went into general release on January 18 and went out of it shortly after. Critics and audiences finally found something they could agree on: Superdad was a dud.
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