The Young Rebels
As the Revolutionary War raged on around them, a group of young people in the colonies did their best to help bring about independence while maintaining a publicly neutral facade. The series was part of a wave of relevant, youth-oriented programs that the networks premiered in the fall of 1970. Only fifteen episodes were broadcast.
When CBS and NBC unveiled their 1970-1971 schedules on February 19th, 1970, relevance was the word of the day. Michael Dann, head of programming for CBS, promised shows “dealing with the now scene” while Mort Werner, programming chief for NBC, called the upcoming season “relevant, contemporary and real” . ABC at the time had yet to reveal its schedule but programming head Martin Starger did promise “less and less of pure silly escape and more and more reality” . When the network did release its schedule on February 26th, it included not one but two new programs whose included the word “young” in them .
One was The Young Lawyers and the other The Young Rebels. The former was quite obviously about youthful attorneys but the latter needed some explanation. It was to be set during the Revolutionary War and therefore would feature youthful patriots opposing British Rule of the American Colonies. It would fill the 7-8PM time slot on Sundays, replacing Land of the Giants which was cancelled after two seasons. A two-page advertisement in the March 30th, 1970 edition of Broadcasting laid out the network’s vision for the upcoming season:
Starting this fall, these men will be getting into it, helping people out of it, stopping it and even starting it. And they’ll be doing it all on ABC Television, in seven exciting new dramatic series. All designed for today’s changing audience demands.
And Sundays Rick Ely will be leading “The Young Rebels,” a trio of underground patriots fighting for American independence in 1777.
What does all this mean in the marketplace? It means adults under fifty. Our prime success. And your prime target. In short, it means we’ve designed our fall schedule to entertain this desirable audience and meet your advertising needs. If you’re looking around for the best way to reach your prime customers, look to ABC… we’re to be watched. 
(Similar advertisements focusing on comedies and TvQ measurements were published in the March 16th and April 6th issues, respectively.)
At a Los Angeles affiliates meeting in mid-May, ABC laid out its strategy for fall. The Young Rebels was called an “exciting, colorful, wholesome hour for parents and children alike” that, thanks to a “family-audience compatibility” with The FBI, offered the best opportunity in years for the network to get Sunday off to a strong start . An Associated Press article published in mid-August noted that the networks were continuing to focus on the 18-35 demographic and suggested that the success of ABC’s The Mod Squad (which had premiered in September of 1968) spawned a number of “Now dramas” in the upcoming season, including The Young Rebels, The Interns, The Young Lawyers and The Storefront Lawyers . Joining these shows were the “Now sitcoms” which included Nancy, Barefoot in the Park and The Headmaster.
In early May, Broadcasting reported that Rick Ely, Alex Henteloff and Lou Gossett had been signed to star in The Young Rebels . They all qualified as young: Ely was 25, Henteloff 28 and Gossett 34. The three would portray members of the Yankee Doodle Society, a secret guerrilla movement operating out of Chester, Pennsylvania. Ely played Jeremy Larkin, leader of the Yankee Doodle Society, whose public persona was that of a fairly inept, lackadaisical youth and the perfect cover. Jeremy’s father, played by Will Geer in a number of episodes, was mayor of Chester and a Loyalist. Henteloff portrayed Henry Abington, the Society’s brilliant tinkerer who designed explosives and other devices to help fight the Red Coats. Gossett played Isak Poole, a former slave trained a blacksmith who purchased his own freedom and joined the fight against the British.
Copyright © TV Guide, 1970
Rounding out the cast was 21-year-old Hilarie Thompson as Elizabeth Coates, Jeremy’s girlfriend whose feminine innocence allowed the Society more freedom than it might otherwise have. Elizabeth’s uncle, who was her guardian, disapproved of her relationship with Jeremy. Like Thompson, Philippe Forquet appeared regularly, but not in every episode, as General Lafayette, who the Society encountered in the series premiere.
Gossett, in an August 1970 article in The New York Times, suggested that “Rick Ely’s long-haired rebel image is done quite deliberately for people who frown on long hair per se, to remind them that our first young revolutionaries–Lafayette, Nathan Hale, Aaron Burr–were only 19 and 20 years old. They were babies and they had the full responsibility for writing the Declaration of Independence” . He called Isak Poole “an opportunity to portray a great deal of strength” with “an image that is not derogatory for Black people–which I’m concerned about” . Of the series overall, Gossett felt The Young Rebels was “trying to be as truthful as possible on TV without losing our audience. It’s a noble kind of TV series, but we don’t get too schmaltzy about it. We show the ugliness of war and the weariness of soldiers” .
Similarly, in an August 1970 Associated Press article, Ely admitted that historical liberties had been taken but argued “our scripts are more concerned with the philosophy of the revolution and the moral wrongs that were committed” . To address the historical aspects of the series, each episode ended with voice over, reading aloud text that scrolled on the screen. The text explained what happened due to the events that took place in that episode. For example, young British soldiers who were impressed with the young rebels would return to England changed men. Additionally, at the end of each episode’s closing credits appeared the following disclaimer: “Some of the dates, events, and people in this episode were fictional.”
The series premiere opened in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Brandywine, which took place in September of 1777. The battle was a loss for the Americans and during the ensuing retreat Lafayette was wounded. It was during this retreat that Lafayette met the Yankee Doodle Society. Jeremy’s older brother, Robert (played by Frank Converse), also fought in the battle and had no idea that his brother was secretly a guerrilla. Jeremy and the others devised a plan to recover a number of canon captured by the British. Lafayette commissioned Jeremy as a captain in the Continental Army. Although the canon were recovered, tragically Robert was killed in the process. Lafayette, impressed by the Society, began assigning them missions only they could carry out.
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There was very little actual violence perpetrated by the Society, who preferred subterfuge and sabotage. They would propagandize, intercept orders, spread disinformation and otherwise disrupt the movement of British troopers. At their most successful, the group would destroy cannons or ammunition caches. Because Chester was under British control, there was no shortage of opportunities and targets, but episodes also took place elsewhere, including Williamsburg, Philadelphia and Valley Forge. Given the setting and role of the characters, plots were about what would expected. There were episodes in which a character was wounded and in dire need of medical attention or captured and in dire need of rescuing or had to pretend to be a Loyalist in order to obtain information. Isak fared worse than the others; he was both wounded and captured (in separate episodes).
Family members occasionally got in the way. In one episode Isak was shocked to learn that his brother, a runaway slave, had become an informant. In another, Henry’s cousin’s determination to strike at the British without any concern for civilian casualties leads to Henry being captured by the British and sentenced to death. Elizabeth’s role was often to provide cover or an air of respectability. In the premiere, for example, she and Jeremy are able to hide Lafeyette and others by kissing in a barn, outraging her uncle and amusing the British soldiers.
Rick Ely as Jeremy Larkin
Episodes saw the Society trying to keep the British from melting down a bell to make cannons, attempting to stop an assassin from reaching George Washington without realizing he’s infiltrated their group, learning that an old friend of Robert’s has become a double agent working for the British rather than against them, forced to work with a group of British soldiers after they are all trapped in a mine shaft following a cave-in, and charged with rescuing Nathan Hale, who has been captured and is far behind enemy lines.
Aside from General Lafayette and Nathan Hale, at least one other true-to-life historical figure appeared in The Young Rebels, albeit a little known one. Monte Markham guest starred in the November 29th, 1970 episode as composer William Billings. In the episode, his patriotic compositions offend the British. He is arrested and given the “opportunity” to recant. Instead, he helps Jeremy and the Society destroy a number of cannon protecting a nearby valley. He then reveals that he has altered the lyrics to one of his songs:
The foe comes on with haughty stride
Our troops advance with martial noise
Their veterans flee before our youth
And generals yield to beardless Boys
The title of the song? “Chester,” named by Elizabeth after the home of the Yankee Doodle Society. Billings and the song really existed, although while it may have been written with some young rebels in mind, it obviously wasn’t really named to commemorate the deeds of The Young Rebels.
A total of 15 episodes were broadcast, the last of which was seen on January 3rd, 1971. Over the course of the episodes guest stars included John Colicos, David Soul, Larry Linville, Paul Winfield and Farrah Fawcett.
Reviews of The Young Rebels were either hostile or indifferent. Broadcasting, in reviewing the reviews, suggested that “the week’s booby prizes” went to Nancy on NBC, The Interns on CBS and The Young Rebels on ABC . Jack Gould’s brief review in The New York Times stated simply that it was set in the 1770s rather than the 1970s, reminding viewers of ABC’s ploy to connect the contemporary rebellious youth with the historical, and that it “has the normal appeal of underground forces surreptitiously helping the good guys” . Norman Mark of the Chicago Daily News had perhaps the most vicious review, calling the series “a despicable show” and insisting that the “executives at ABC must have spent long hours creating as silly, as stupid and as needlessly violent a program as this one” .
Ron Powers of the Chicago Sun-Times called out the network: “Clever gambit, ABC. Trying to co-opt the activist young by depicting them as the ones who made this country what it is. I’ve seen more authentic dialogue on the menu of the Old English Room of the Pearson Hotel.” And the New York Post‘s Bob Williams, although conceding that it was “a bang-bang case of…adventure exploitation,” felt the series was “utterly without meaning for the customary young customers of Lassie.”
Lou Gossett as Isak Poole
Lawrence Laurent of the Washington Post was more ambivalent, writing that the series “isn’t bad enough to condemn and it isn’t good enough to praise. That makes it a most typical television series for the young.” A kinder review came from Ben Gross of the New York Daily News, who felt the series “should appeal to the youngsters and also to some adults. For it is essentially a Western in colonial costume, with the British replacing the Indians.” By comparison, Cecil Smith of the Los Angeles Times was practically effusive with his praise: “Don’t get the idea it’s kiddie stuff–it’s worth watching whatever your age.”
CBS and NBC began unveiling the new and returning shows on Sunday, September 13th. ABC, however, didn’t start rolling out its slate of new and returning programs until Sunday, September 20th. The Young Rebels was the very first program, new or returning, to premiere. Based solely on New York City overnight Nielsen ratings, it ranked third from 7:30-8PM where it faced the season premiere of Hogan’s Heroes on CBS and the first half of The Wonderful World of Disney on NBC (which had its season premiere the previous week) . When final national Nielsen ratings for the week of September 14th were released, the premiere was outside the Top 40. However, The ABC Sunday Night Movie, which followed The Young Rebels, ranked 21st and on its strength the network won Sunday night . The September 27th episode also ranked third in its time slot .
Ratings for the series never improved and on November 13th when ABC unveiled its mid-season changes, The Young Rebels had been cancelled . Rather than replace it, the network decided to return the 7-8PM hour on Sunday evenings to its affiliates. Overall, ABC would return three prime time hours to its affiliates by cancelling six programs, including Silent Force, Matt Lincoln, The Immortal and Most Deadly Game. A seventh, This Is Tom Jones, was cut back to airing once a month. The move to return so much time to stations was made due to a recent FCC decision forcing the networks to return an hour of prime time to affiliates by the start of the 1971-1972 season. At the time of the announcement, ABC had nine of the bottom 12 programs in the most recent Nielsen report; The Young Rebels was among them .
Hilarie Thompson as Elizabeth Coates
In April of 1970, Herb Jacobs of TV Stations Inc. predicted that The Young Rebels would average a 28 share of the audience from 7-8PM, with Lassie on CBS drawing a 31 share and Hogan’s Heroes a 30 share (for an average 30 share) while NBC would get a 27 share from 7-7:30PM with Wild Kingdom and a 37 share for the first half-hour of The Wonderful World of Disney (for a 32 share). Jacobs, who referred to The Young Rebels as a “200-year-old version of Mod Squad,” had an accuracy rate of 81-97% the previous season, depending on the margin of error used .
Based on national Nielsen ratings through November 8th, covering the first eight episodes of the series, The Young Rebels averaged a 12.7 rating and a 23 share . Out of the 22 new programs on all three networks, it was tied with The Tim Conway Show on CBS in terms of rating and 13th (again with The Tim Conway Show) in terms of share. Out of just the 12 new ABC programs it ranked seventh based on rating and fourth based on share. Only Monday Night Football, The Partridge Family and The Danny Thomas Show drew higher shares.
However, it fared poorly compared to The FBI and The ABC Sunday Night Movie (both of which ranked in the Top 30 for the 1970-1971 season) and was thus the easiest hour for the network to give up on Sundays. Plus, the network’s returning programs on average performed much better than the previous season, meaning there were few time slots open to shift under performing new programs. Had the series done better in the ratings and if ABC had not been planning for the loss of so many prime time hours the following season, it is possible the network could have moved it to another night where it might fare better. But that didn’t happen.
The series quite obviously attempted to draw parallels between the radical youth of 1960s America with the young men who took up arms against the British during the Revolutionary War. The long hair Rick Ely sported in the series, as Lou Gossett noted, poked fun at those who looked down on “dirty, long-haired hippies.” In many respects, the series was little more than The Mod Squad meets The Wild Wild West though neither as counterculture as the former nor as violent as the later. Being scheduled in the 7-8PM Sunday time slot meant keeping violence to a minimum. ABC’s description of the series as wholesome, and the fact that repeats wound up on the Christian Broadcasting Network, gives a pretty good indication of intended tone and desired audience. Younger viewers may have tuned, perhaps even in large numbers, but the overall ratings picture was bleak.
The larger trend towards relevancy taken by the 1970-1971 season was likewise mostly a failure. George Gent, in an early September 1970 article in The New York Times, pointed out that the relevancy was little more than traditional characters “dripping with social consciousness” . Roughly a month after the 1970-1971 season had begun, UPI’s Rick Du Brow wrote “no television trend in recent memory has bombed out as fast the current one in which news [sic] series were advertised as emphasizing social relevance” . He called the rush to relevancy “monumental misjudgement” of two facts: “that network television has a basically middle aged-to-older, middle class, conservative audience, and always will have so long as programming is constructed for mass viewership; and that young persons, who are entirely aware of this fact, simply do not go to television for relevance.”
Philippe Forquet as General Lafayette
Norman Dresser of the Toledo Blade suggested that “viewers have not rejected relevancy” but “phony relevancy, bad scripts, and just plain boring programs” . The Young Rebels failed because it was “just another lousy action drama.” Hilarie Thomson, in Tom Lisanti’s Drive-In Dream Girls: A Galaxy of B-Movie Starlets of the Sixties, discussed the quick demise of the series:
This was an interesting failure. We filmed right next door to The Partridge Family, which started the same year. Both shows were aimed at the teenage audience. Somehow that show connected and we didn’t. If I were guessing why, I’d say it was because of the actors. I believe that the television audience watches a particular show because they want to spend time with the people. They just didn’t catch on to us particularly–not that I took it as a personal affront. It was the show’s whole chemistry. But I could be wrong. Maybe it was the whole Revolutionary War setting. The audience went, “huh?” .
Perhaps what doomed the series was its attempt to fit too many categories: action-adventure, historical fiction, comedy, romance. series suffered from too many. It may have worked as just an action-adventure series if that was all it was. And the historical setting could have worked, too, if not for the relevancy angle and Rick Ely’s hair. The humor, too, if not overdone. That leaves the romance between Jeremy and Elizabeth. It felt wildly out of place as if keeping Elizabeth around was nothing more than an attempt to include the token female who tended to the wounded and allowed British soldiers to argue that they don’t wage war on little girls.
Regardless of why it failed, it did. But despite only lasting for 15 episodes, the series spawned two novels — published by Aces and penned by prolific TV tie-in author William Johnston — and a single Dell comic book.
3 “ABC fits its final pieces into jigsaw.” Broadcasting. 2 Mar. 1970: 20.
4 [Advertisement]. Broadcasting. 30 Mar. 1970: 78-79.
5 “How ABC views the fall season.” Broadcasting. 18 May 1970: 52.
6 “Hollywood Churning Out 107 Shows.” Associated Press. Hartford Courant. 16 Aug. 1970: 3L.
7 “Program notes.” Broadcasting. 4 May 1970: 37.
8 Stone, Judy. “Lou Gossett: ‘Did We Always Eat Watermelon?’.” New York Times. 30 Aug. 1970: D18.
11 Lowry, Cynthia. “ABC ‘Young Rebels’ Takes Liberties with U.S. History.” Associated Press. Press-Courier [Oxnard, CA]. 11 Aug. 1970: 11.
12 “Better reviews for latest shows.” Broadcasting. 28 Sep. 1970: 44.
13 Gould, Jack. “TV Review.” New York Times. 21 Sep. 1970: 87.
14 All further review segments were excerpted in the September 28th, 1970 edition of Broadcasting (“Better reviews for latest shows,” Page 45).
15 “ABC strong in first New York ratings.” Broadcasting. 28 Sep. 1970: 46.
16 “CBS beats NBC in premiere week.” Broadcasting. 5 Oct. 1970: 57-58.
17 “Nielsen, Arbitron differ on ratings.” Broadcasting. 5 Oct. 1970: 59.
18 “Ferretti, Fred. “A.B.C. Revamps Network TV Lineup.” New York Times. 14 Nov. 1970: 35.
19 “Networks at work on casualty lists.” Broadcasting. 16 Nov. 1970: 54.
20 “A forecast of TV’s ’70 fall season.” Broadcasting. 13 Apr. 1970: 60-61.
21 “A midpoint recap of the TV season.” Broadcasting. 21 Dec. 1970: 44.
22 Gent, George. “TV Will Drip Social Significance.” New York Times. 7 Sep. 1970: 37.
23 Du Brow, Rick. “Relevance Bombs Out.” United Press International. Modesto Bee. 15 Oct. 1970: 9.
24 Dresser, Norman. “Is it ‘Relevant’ or Just Sensational?” Toledo Bee. 9 Nov. 1970: 40.
25 Lisanti, Tom. Drive-In Dream Girls: A Galaxy of B-Movie Starlets of the Sixties. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 167-168.
Originally February 15th, 2005
Last Updated October 7th, 2012