Put Wally Cleaver, Bud Anderson and that kid from "Lost in Space" together in a movie and what do you get? Apparently not what you'd think.
Says Billy Mumy (aka that kid from "Lost in Space"): "When you look at this group of baby boomers' dream cast ... you think, 'Oh, it's going to be 'The Love Boat.' Or it's 'Lost in Space' or it's something kind of cute -- 'Love American Style'-ish. But it's very dark and it's pretty hard-hitting in its tone and non-compromising."
What it is is "Overload," an in-the-works indie sci-fi flick that aims to shoot several former child stars into the nether reaches of the galaxy, including Tony Dow (Wally Cleaver of "Leave It to Beaver" fame), Billy Gray (Bud Anderson of "Father Knows Best") and Billy Mumy, who, if we must be detailed about it, played astroboy Will Robinson on TV's "Lost in Space."
Also on board: Angela Cartwright (Linda Williams on "Make Room for Daddy" and Mumy's TV sibling Penny on "Lost in Space"), Johnny ("The Rifleman") Crawford, Don Grady (middle son Robbie on "My Three Sons"), who'll also handle scoring duties, and -- for good measure -- Melissa ("Little House on the Prairie") Gilbert. Er, make that the voice of Melissa ("Little House on the Prairie") Gilbert. (She's the computer.)
Add up all the names and you've got quite an assemblage of ex-TV kids from the 1950s and 1960s. But given the tabloid rep of said ex-TV kids, you (or some other wise acre) might ask is it lawfully safe for them all to work together on one project at the same time?
Don't worry about it.
Billy Mumy "None of these people have been living depressing, compromised lives," Mumy tells Hollywood.com. "They're all happy pursuing the lives they've pursued."
So, bosh the former child star "curse." "Overload" was not borne of a work-release program or a probation condition. It was borne of a ping-pong game.
The way Mumy, now 46, tells it, the saga began on the set of "Babylon 5," the 1994-98 sci-fi TV series. On "Babylon 5," Mumy, who grew up to be a musician ("Fish Heads"), writer ("Space Cases") and sometime actor, played a latex-covered alien while Dow, now 55, played the director. (Actually, Dow was the director -- one of them anyway. Other helmer credits include "Coach" and "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.")
Anyway, Mumy started bugging Dow (and the other powers that be on the show) to cast Billy Gray. Now, Mumy didn't know Gray. Had never worked with him. He just thought he was cool.
"When I was a teenager, I used to watch reruns of 'Father Knows Best,' and I used to think Bud Anderson was the coolest," Mumy says. "'Cause he was human, you know. He was just so great. The way he listened, his comedic timing, just the reality within him. ... And [then] he disappeared [from the screen]. No one's seen him for 20 years. I [thought] it'd be so cool. And, of course, they never listened to me and never tried to bring him in [for 'Babylon 5']."
But Mumy didn't give up on Billy Gray. So Dow, a friend of Gray, finally brought the two together. And they all played ping pong.
During the course of a tournament at Dow's house, Mumy asked Gray, whose once-promising film career ("The Day the Earth Stood Still," "On Moonlight Bay," etc.) was stunted by his TV success and whose TV success was stunted by his show's 1960 cancellation and a subsequent headline-making bust for pot possession ("a handful of seeds and stems") in 1962, if he wanted to act again.
Gray, now 62, has gone on to a comfortable existence racing motorcycles and inventing gadgets since bidding his screen career farewell after bits in the likes of "Porklips Now" and "The Vampire Wars." Did he still possess the desire to perform?
Says Gray: "I've always wanted to act. It's just that I never figured out a way to [get] any work. ... If acting was the only thing I enjoyed doing, I suppose I could have, but I've done a little bit of theater and it's not all that fun."
But Mumy's idea sounded fun, and "Overload" -- about seven space explorers in the near future (circa 2069) trapped on a dying vessel (dare we say, lost in space?) -- was hatched.
Mumy and writing partner Peter David cranked out a script for what was then to be a 30-40 minute short, with Mumy as executive producer, Dow as director and Gray as a cast member in good standing.
Along the way, Crawford, Grady, Cartwright and Gilbert joined the project, with "Star Trek" Lt. Sulu George Takei and "Babylon 5"'s Claudia Christian lending added sci-fi cred. Also along the way, "Overload" morphed from a self-financed short to a feature for Galaxy Pictures (www.galaxyonline.com).
If you think "Overload" got attention (and money) because of the former child star angle, the "Overload" team would agree -- to a point.
"What we wanted to do was use it [the former child star thing] as a sort of hook and then turn it around and say, 'Well, wait a second, this is not exactly what we would expect,'" Dow says. "'Cause it isn't an exploitive kind of thing."
Gray agrees "Overload" will be no one-trick pony: "I think that notwithstanding a bunch of kid actors getting together, just that subject matter is something that hasn't been tackled very often."
By way of the Cliffs Notes summary, Mumy describes "Overload" as "'Steambath' [an Off-Broadway play turned 1972 TV movie about a godly towel attendant] meets 'Lifeboat' in 'The Twilight Zone.'" (Translation: Expect a lot of meaning of life stuff mixed in with your special effects.)
After shooting demo footage in the spring, Galaxy says cameras should roll on the entire flick in the fall. Dow, Gray, Mumy and the others will be ready. And this time, Mumy promises, the erst while Will Robinson will have more to do than "lurching left and right and watching out for explosions."
Nobody saw "Nobody." Almost.
With an unwhopping $488 take (less than the price of a big-screen TV), the Phaedra Cinema release was 1999's lowest-grossing feature on record through Dec. 30, industry statistics show.
The film, a Japanese import, represents the flip side of Hollywood's chest-thumping and box-office boasting. For each blockbuster that pulled in $100 million-plus last year (there were 18 in all), there were at least 20 that grossed less than $2,000.
Directed by first-timer Toshimichi Ohkawa, "Nobody" was an action thriller about three friends whose lives changed when a bar fight became something far, far beyond their control. In a review for @NZone Magazine, writer Dustin Putman awarded the film a passing two-and-a-half (out of five) stars, calling it a "tautly filmed and tightly developed" flick that ultimately fell apart.
So, "Nobody," at least according to one reviewer, wasn't terrible. Was it worthy of something bigger than the three-figure gross it pulled in last June?
Sometimes victories aren't measured in dollars and cents.
"Just the fact that you are able to shatter the barrier of getting into a theater is victory enough," says Adam Jahnke, assistant director of Los Angeles operations for Troma Entertainment. "You have to first narrow your vision to the very few independent theaters operating, and then actually get your film booked. It is not an easy process."
Troma - home to low-budget legends such as "The Toxic Avenger" -- knows of where it speaks. The company released the 14th-lowest-grossing flick of '99, "Terror Firmer." The horror flick, a wildly comic tale of carnage, sex and bloodshed on the set of a low-budget movie, earned $1,434 the hard way on just two screens, according to box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations.
"It is an uphill battle all the way," Janhke says. "If you make any money after all that, that's a bonus."
Of course, not all low-grossing films are the products of scrappy filmmakers devoid of big-time studio bucks. Five of 1999's bottom 20 were released by major distributors. Miramax ("Heaven"), Strand Releasing ("Pink Narcissus"), Gramercy ("I Want You"), Lion's Gate ("Elvis Gratton 2") and MGM ("Tinseltown") all issued titles that wound up in the under-$2,000 gross category.
These flicks didn't necessarily want for star power, either. Tony Spiridakis' "Tinseltown," a black comedy about two homeless screenwriters who befriend a possible serial killer with hopes of selling a movie based on the would-be sicko's exploits, featured familiar faces like Kristy Swanson ("Buffy, the Vampire Slayer") and Ron Perlman ("Beauty and the Beast"). The crime drama "I Want You" starred Rachel Weisz, who made 1999's top-grosser list as Brendan Fraser's love interest in "The Mummy." Name talent or no, "Tinseltown" and "I Want You" earned less than $1,800 - combined.
And while 19 of the bottom 20 features played at no more than two theaters, Lion's Gate opened the French-language Canadian comedy "Elvis Gratton 2" on a not-too-shabby 91 screens. But with just under $1,200 at the domestic box office through Dec. 30, "Elvis" actually performed worse (per-screen-average-wise) than any other film on the low-grossers list.
In some cases, last year's bottom feeders are still in release and may well end up making more cash before calling it quits and praying for video pay dirt. Troma's "Terror Firmer," for instance, continues its Los Angeles run -- moving from the USC-area University Cinema to the midnight confines of the New Beverly Theater.
Ultimately, the fate of a very small film -- like a "Nobody" -- is traditionally grim. Without money to promote and little incentive for theaters to book, these features are rarely given the exposure they need -- regardless of quality and content.
"Many times you simply can't put together the marketing campaign that will shout loud enough to get above the Hollywood films that command the market's attention," says Sam L. Grogg, dean of the American Film Institute's Center for Advanced Film and Television Studies. "What is important is the critical play and getting the attention of the film intelligentsia."
But Grogg says realists understand that even that kind of breakthrough is rare.
"You have to understand what the limitations are and use them accordingly," Grogg says. "I've always thought of the theatrical release as a launching pad for other release mediums - whether home video or cable TV. A theatrical release is still sought after, however. If you have a movie, you want to have it shown in front of people."
And not "Nobody."
Here's a complete look at the 20 lowest-grossing films of 1999, according to Exhibitor Relations:
1. "Nobody" (Phaedra) -- $488 2. "Bastards" (Margin) -- $503 3. "Tinseltown" (MGM) -- $517 4. "Summerspell" (Margin) -- $603 5. "Olympia" (King) -- $640 6. "Port Djema" (Shadow) -- $783 7. "The Underground Comedy Movie" (Phaedra) -- $856 8. "Flushed" (1st Look) -- $935 9. "The Milky Way" (Kino) -- $1,098 10. "Wallowitch & Ross: This Moment" (1st Run) -- $1,145 11. "Elvis Gratton 2" (Lion's Gate) -- $1,156 12. "Lilian's Story" (Phaedra) -- $1,220 13. "I Want You" (Gramercy) -- $1,242 14. "Terror Firmer" (Troma) -- $1,434 15. "Sixth Happiness" (Regent) -- $1,540 16. "Virtue" (Margin) -- $1,565 17. "Young and Dangerous" (Margin) -- $1,624 18. "The Pusher" (1st Run) - $1,656 19. "Pink Narcissus" (Strand) -- $1,724 20. "Heaven" (Miramax) -- $1,983