Unsold Pilots on Television, 1956-1966
Originally Published May 21st, 2009
Last Updated October 17th, 2012
Dozens of television pilots are produced each year. These test episodes are used to sell potential programs to advertisers and networks but most of them aren't picked up and aren't turned into weekly series. What happens to an unsold pilot? Most are never heard of again. But the costs of making a pilot are high and starting in the mid-1950s it was commonplace for the networks to run summer replacement series made up entirely of unsold pilots. Read about eleven such programs, including Sneak Preview, Vacation Playhouse, Summer Fun, Westinghouse Preview Theatre and new Comedy Showcase, aired between 1956 and 1966.
Broadcast television is a commercial industry. Money is put in and money is expected to come out. Starting in the early 1950s, when the networks solidified their dominance, the broadcast year has revolved around the traditional season running from September through March. The unveiling of new and returning shows kicks off at the end of summer. Underperforming programs are pulled in December or January and mid-season replacements debut. In March and April, shows wrap their current season or end for good and the summer repeat season begins.
Today, the television season runs through May, which is when the networks reveal their new schedules to advertisers in lavish "upfront" presentations. In the past, however, the bulk of the decision making took place between February and April. In a sense, schedule building was a year-round project, with network executives always hard at work mulling changes and preparing their next fall schedules. The networks would always order far more pilots (or tests episodes) for potential weekly programs than they could ever hope to use.
These unsold pilots added up quickly. By August of 1951 there was already some $10 million worth of unsold pilots in existence, with dozens more being filmed each year . Larry Wolters reported in May of 1957 that 170 pilots were being looked at by sponsors . A July 1959 article in The New York Times stated that of the 250 pilot films produced during the 1958-1959 season only 10% were ever broadcast . In December of 1964, it was reported that just 10-20% percent of pilots, which could cost up to $500,000 to produce, would be sold to a network .
As early as 1954 there were those in the industry suggesting that some of these pilots could be packaged and presented on television. Walter Ames quoted screenwriter Frank Guber in June of 1954: "All you have to do is swipe an idea from Peter Potter and call the program Pilot Film Jury. Let panelists look at a portion of the films and air their opinions as to why the pilot flopped. I'm sure I can find at least 1500 half-hour films which should keep me in business for quite a few seasons" .
(Peter Potter hosted a television series called Juke Box Jury and later The Peter Potter Show on CBS from September of 1953 to March of 1954. Music was played and songs were rated by panels and the audience.)
In July of 1956 two summer replacement series premiered on the very same day at the very same time: ABC's G.E. Originals and NBC's Sneak Preview. They may have been the very first programs to consist solely of unsold pilots. Before long it was common for unsold pilots to be broadcast during the summer repeat season. It was a way for the networks to offer fresh programming during the summer and recoup some of their investment. Many of these programs showed half-hour sitcom pilots; a few alternated between hour-long dramas and a pair of comedies. Most were only broadcast during one summer.
The longest running unsold pilot program was ABC's Vacation Playhouse, which aired every summer from 1963 to 1967. From 1960 to 1962 CBS broadcast The Comedy Spot during the summer as a replacement for The Red Skelton Show. Read about these and nine other unsold pilot programs aired between 1956 and 1966.
When The New York Times announced this series on June 8th, 1956, the paper wrote that "the problem of what to do with 'pilot' or sample films of projected television series that previously have failed to sell has been solved" . The ten-week series was sponsored by the appliance and television receiver division of General Electric Company and premiered on Tuesday, July 3rd, 1956, running from 9-9:30PM. The first offering was called "It's Sunny Again," with Vivian Blaine as a singer looking for work and Jules Munchin as a smooth talking manager.
Copyright © The Los Angeles Times, 1956 
Other installments included "Alias Mike Hercules," starring Hugh Beaumont as a private detective working a kidnapping case; "The Green Parrot," with Claude Daupin as a French agent charged with guarding a parrot that knows nuclear secrets; "The Great Lady," starring Vera Miles as an actress who retires and opens a boarding house; and "The Jungle Trap" with Ronald Reagan as the leader of a safari who learns that one of the men under his charge is the judge who sentenced his brother to death. G.E. Summer Originals was last seen on September 11th, 1956.
Nelson Case was host of this half-hour series that, like G.E. Summer Originals, ran from 9-9:30PM on Tuesdays and also premiered on July 3rd, 1956. The premiere episode, "Just Plain Folks," starred Zsa Zsa Gabor and Cy Howard as a married couple in Hollywood. The following week, a story by Ray Bradbury was adapted by Mel Dinelli in "The Merry-Go-Round." Said The Chicago Daily Tribune: "The story concerns a magic merry-go-round which can make its owner younger or older as it moves forward or backward. production, acting, settings and camerawork are all superlative. If you like thrillers, tonight's play is your meat" .
Other pilots broadcast as part of Sneak Preview include "The Way Back," with Pat O'Brien as a parole officer working with an ex-con; "Carolyn," starring Celeste Holmes as an actress whose best friend dies and leaves her with three young children to take care of; "One Minute from Broadway" with Brian Aherne as a hotel manager who tries to help an aspiring actress. Sneak Preview ran for seven weeks; the final broadcast took place on August 14th, 1956.
The premiere installment of this series, broadcast on Sunday, July 6th, 1958 from 10-10:30PM, was a half-hour pilot called "The Virginian." James Druary starred as a special investigator called in by a judge (played by Robert Burton) trying to get his ranch connected to a local railroad. According to The Chicago Daily Tribune, "had this unsold pilot film hit the channels two years ago, the show would probably be firmly entrenched as one of the top 10 westerns. Unfortunately, despite some very good acting by Andrew Duggan and James Drury, it's now just a collection of familiar events and characters" .
Decision ran for a total of thirteen weeks. Six installments were rebroadcasts of episodes originally aired as part of Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, Screen Directors Playhouse and The Ford Television Theatre. Among the unsold pilots were "Indemnity," starring Richard Kiley as a guard protecting an armored truck carrying $250,000 that disappears while he's having lunch; "Man Against Crime," starring Darris McGavin as a lawyer; "The Tall Man," with Michael Rennie as a detective; and "Man on a Raft" starring Mark Stevens and Diane Brewster as detective and client, respectively, involved in an inheritance claim.
Broadcast by NBC on Tuesdays from 9-9:30PM, this series ran for eight weeks. The premiere, on August 19th, starred Joanne Dru in a pilot titled "The Adventures of a Model." Other pilots included "Night in Havana," with Ricardo Montalban; "Strange Counsel" starring Walter Brennan as a lawyer working for a woman (played by Vera Miles) hoping to ensnare her uncle; "The Claudette Colbert Show" starring Claudette Colbert as a Congresswoman who has taken on more than she expected; and "If You Knew Tomorrow" with Bruce Gordon as a newscaster trying to avert a disaster.
Copyright © The New York Times, 1958 
The fifth installment of Colgate Theater (broadcast on September 23rd, 1958) was written, directed and narrated by Orson Welles. Titled "Fountain of Youth," the pilot (presumably for an anthology series) starred Rick Jason and Joi Lansing as newlyweds who receive as a wedding gift a potion that can provide them with two centuries of youthful vigor. The Chicago Daily Tribune lavished "Fountain of Youth" with praise:
Orson Welles hasn't lost his touch. This is as witty and imaginative a TV film as we've ever seen. Welles has written the screen play, designed the sets, arranged the music, directed the show, and narrated the action, and he comes out ahead on all fronts. Based on a short story by the macabre humorist, John Collier, the film tells of the hilariously harrowing triangular relationship of a vengeful scientist, a lush actress, and a tennis playing playboy. The performances of Dan Tobin, Joi Lansing and Rick Jason as the leads, plus those of everybody else, are superb. But perhaps the outstanding feature of the production is that, for once, every aspect of TV filming has been used for maximum effect. Unlike most films for TV, this one indicates taste, care, intelligence and a sense of humor. 
The paper was less impressed with the following week's pilot, "McCreedy's Woman," starring Jane Russell: "All it proves is that Miss Russell would be a welcome addition to the TV roster, if somebody could find the right format for her. In this play, she appears as the owner of a small night club, wears some attractive clothes, sings a few songs, and struggles thru an extremely obvious teleplay" .
The final broadcast of this half-hour series was a pilot called "Waldo," starring Gil Stratton as an anthropologist whose best friend is arrested for driving without a license and for speeding. The catch? His best friend is a chimpanzee. The series premiered on Monday, August 1st running from 10-10:30PM. Pilots included "You're Only Young Twice," with George Murphy and Martha Scott as an elderly couple who decide to take a second honeymoon; "They Went Thataway," starring James Westerfield as a feared gunfighter who has never actually shot anyone; "The Trouble with Richard" with Dick Van Dyke as a hapless bank teller; and ""Maggie," starring Margaret O'Brien as a rambunctious teenager whose imagination gets her into trouble.
This summer replacement series for The Red Skelton Show actually ran every summer from 1960 to 1962. During the summer of 1961, however, it was made up entirely of repeats of General Electric Theater. The Comedy Spot premiered on Tuesday, June 28th, 1960 and ran from 9:30-10PM. Art Gilmore served as host. The premiere installment, "Ben Blue's Brothers," starred Ben Blue as four brothers taking in the opera. The third installment ("Head of the Family," broadcast on July 19th) starred Carl Reiner and Barbara Britton as parents who try to explain to their son what his father does for a living. The concept led to The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Other pilots broadcast during the summer of 1960 included "The Sky's the Limit" with Ross Martin, Joey Forman and Doug McClure as instructors at a Navy air base; "Meet the Girls," starring Mamie Van Doren, Gale Robbins and Virginia Field as three young woman who move to New York City in search of fame and fortune (and marriage); and "Tom, Dick and Harry" with Gene Nelson, Joe Matell and Marvin Kaplan as three friends, fresh out of the Army, who determine they can get their hands on a free lease for a restaurant if one of them will marry the daughter of the owner.
Although projected to run for thirteen weeks during the summer of 1960, The Comedy Spot was pre-empted twice. Two broadcasts were repeats of General Electric Theater. Two more were repeats of NBC's Colgate Theater: "Adventures of a Model" and "Welcome to Washington (aka The Claudette Colbert Show)."
When the series returned in the summer of 1962 it presented ten unsold pilots and a rebroadcast of "Maggie" (first shown as part of New Comedy Showcase on CBS). Among the pilots were "For the Love of Mike," starring Shirley Jones, Burt Metcalfe and Gale Gordon in the story of a newly married couple with money problems; "Poor Mr. Campbell" with Agnes Moorehead as a woman whose nagging drives her husband to murder; "Charlie Angelo," starring James Komack as an angel charged with keeping a man from torching his nightclub for the insurance money; and "His Model Wife" with Jeanne Crain and John Vivyan as a couple who don't know how to fire their housekeeper.
This series replaced The Nanette Fabray Show (aka Westinghouse Playhouse) during the summer of 1961 on CBS. It premiered on Friday, July 14th, running from 9:30-10PM, with a pilot called "Five's a Family" starring Joe E. Brown as a former detective who joins his son, also a detective, in tracking down an arsonist. Other installments included "I Married a Dog," with Hal March as a man who battles for his bride's attention with her pet poodle; "Happily Ever After," starring John Armstrong and Olive Sturgess as a couple who return home from their honeymoon and realize married life isn't as easy as they thought; "Picture Window" with Jean Byron as a women who is dismayed when her husband buys their son used clothing at a PTA sale; and "The McGonigle" starring Mickey Shaughnessy as a sailor who helps a U.S.O. entertainer meet up with her husband.
The longest running unsold pilot series, Vacation Playhouse ran every summer from 1963 to 1967 on ABC. During the summers of 1963, 1964, 1966 and 1967 it was broadcast from 8:30-9PM on Mondays as a replacement for The Lucy Show and the unsold pilots shown were primarily sitcoms. But during the summer of 1965, it was aired Fridays from 9:30-10PM as a replacement for Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. and the unsold pilots were a mix of sitcoms and adventure shows.
Copyright © The New York Times, 1963 
Vacation Playhouse premiered on Monday, July 22nd, 1963. The first installment was a pilot called "A Love Affair Just for Three" starring Ginger Rogers in dual roles as twin sisters. Other pilots during the summer of 1963 included "Three Wishes," with Diane Jergens as a woman who finds herself in possession of a genie; "All About Barbara," with Barbara Nichols as a famous singer who gives it all up to marry a college professor; and "Maggie Brown," with Ethel Merman as the owner of a nightclub in the South Pacific. The 1963 season ran for 10 weeks and ended on September 23rd.
Season Two premiered on Monday, June 15th, 1964 with a pilot called "Hey, Teacher" starring Dwayne Hickman as an elementary school teacher whose first day on the job involves a snake on the loose. "Hurray for Hollywood," starring Herschel Bernardi as a movie mogul fighting with his stars, aired the following week. The Hartford Courant wrote that "the ingredients for a good series are here, with the colorful characters sparkling an otherwise so-so comedy pilot" .
Other pilots during Season Two include "Papa GI," with Dan Dailey as an army sergeant in Korea who has his hands full with two orphans who want him to adopt them; "He's All Yours," starring Eve Arden as the manager of a travel agency in London forced to work with the inept nephew of the owner; "The Bean Show," with Orson bean, the Beanbaggers comedy troupe and the Serendipity Singers in a half-hour of sketches, music and more; "Love Is a Lion's Roar" with James Franciscus and Suzanne Pleshette as a bachelor and the French dancer who wants to marry him; and "First Hundred Years" starring Nick Adams and Joyce Bulifant as a young couple raising a baby and trying to finish college. Season Two ended on September 14th, 1964.
Copyright © The Hartford Courant, 1964 
Season Three bowed on Friday, June 25th, 1965 with a pilot called "Sybil," about a wood nymph played by Suzy Parker who is sent to Earth and charged with doing 100 good deeds to make up for her vanity. Other pilots include "The Barbara Rush Show," with Barbara Rush as a woman supporting her family by working as a stenographer; "Starr, First Baseman," starring Martin Milner as a baseball player whose career almost ends before it begins; "Three on an Island," with Pamela Tiffin, Julie Newmar and Monica Moran as three young woman helping a boxer (played by Jody McCrea) who can't fight; and "Luke and the Tenderfoot," broadcast over the course of two weeks, starring Edgar Buchanan as a traveling salesman and his inexperienced partner (played by Carleton Carpenter) who work together to stop a fearsome gunman (Charles Bronson). Season Three ended on September 10th, 1965.
Season Four premiered on Monday, July 4th, 1966 with a repeat of "Hey, Teacher" starring Dwayne Hickman. The following week Darryl Hickman starred in "The Good Old Days" about a caveman who goes searching for adventure. Another repeat, Ethel Merman's "Maggie Brown," was shown the next week. Other pilots included "Where There's Smokey," starring Soupy Sales as a Fire Chief whose brother-in-law threatens his perfect record; "My Lucky Penny" with Richard Benjamin and Brenda Vaccaro as a married couple charged with guarding $15,000; "The Hoofer," starring Donold O'Connor and Soup Sales as a pair of vaudeville performers searching for a great gig; and "The Two of Us," with Patricia Crowley as a widow who works as an illustrator and Billy Mumy as her son, who imagines her drawings coming to life. Season Four ended on September 5th, 1966.
Season Five, which began on Monday, July 3rd, 1967, included four repeats from earlier seasons: "My Lucky Penny," "The Two of Us"," "Maggie Brown" and "Hey, Teacher." The latter two were shown three times during the five summers Vacation Playhouse was on the air. Five new unsold pilots were broadcast during the fifth and final season: "The Jones Boys," with Mickey Shaughnessy as the boss of a maintenance crew; "Heaven Help Us" starring Barry nelson as a magazine editor who winds up with two dates on one night and the ghost of his late wife in the mix; "My Boy Goggle," with Jerry Van Dyke as a father whose son is charged with biting a teacher; "You're Only Young Twice," starring Ed Wynn as a inventor who comes up with a pill that can make anyone look ten years younger but only for a short time; and "Alfred of the Amazon" with Wally Cox as a young man whose father owns a rubber plantation in South America who heads out into the jungle to rescue a dentist and his beautiful daughter from headhunters.
Vacation Playhouse was last seen on Monday, August 28th, 1967. It aired a total of 47 unsold pilots from 1963 to 1967, plus a handful of pilots rebroadcast from earlier programs and several repeats.
Unrelated to an NBC series shown in 1954 and 1957, Summer Playhouse was shown during the summers of 1964 and 1965 on CBS in addition to Vacation Playhouse. Thus, the network was showing two unsold pilots each week. It aired on Saturdays from 9:30-10PM and premiered on July 4th, 1964 with a pilot titled "The Free Wheelers" starring Patricia Barry as a woman who finds herself in the middle of an international mess while her husband writes travel books. The first season ran for fourteen weeks; two of the unsold pilots had earlier been seen as part of The Comedy Spot ("You're Only Young Once" and "The McGonicle").
Some of the other pilots broadcast during the summer of 1964 include "Apartment in Rome," with Susan Oliver and Allen Case as a married couple in Rome who have to keep their unconventional lifestyle a secret from a relative; "Apartment House," starring George Gobel as the overworked manager of an apartment building (with cameos from Fred MacMurray, William Frawely, Steve Allen and Reginald Gardiner); and "The Jimmy Durante Show," with Jimmy Durante, Eddie Hodges and Audrey Christie in a story about a man who wants his grandson to be an entertainer just like him. The first season ended on September 19th.
Summer Playhouse returned on Monday, June 28th, 1965, running from 8:30-9PM. The season premiere was a pilot titled "McGhee" starring Jeremy Slate as a painter from New York City who inherits a poor town in California. Other pilots include "Sam and Sally," with Gary Lockwood as a young man who meets a young woman (played by Cynthia Pepper) in New York City and gets her to fall in love with her on a bet; "Mr. Belvedere," starring Victor Borge as a fashionable gentleman who helps a young girl hoping to see her father at Carnegie Hall; "Kibbe Hates Finch" with Don Rickles and Lou Jacobi as firefighters whose friendship is threatened when one is promoted (Pert Kelton and Nancy Andrews played their wives); and "The Young in Heart," starring Mercedes McCambridge as the house mother for a sorority who angers her charges when she tells the dean about a late night visit by a football player.
Two pilots had earlier been seen on The Comedy Spot ("Full Speed Anywhere" and "His Model Wife") while a third was a repeat from the 1964 season ("Mimi"). Summer Playhouse was last seen on September 6th, 1965.
One of two unsold pilot programs ABC aired during the summer of 1966 Summer Fun was broadcast on Fridays from 8-8:30PM and premiered on July 22nd, 1966. The first installment was titled "McNab's Lab" and starred cliff Arquette as a pharmacist who would rather be tinkering than dispensing pills. Other pilots included "Baby Crazy" with James Stacy as a young pediatrician who has his hands full; "Meet Me in St. Louis," starring Celeste Holm and Shelley Fabares and based on the 1944 Judy Garland film; "Thompson's Ghost" with Bert Lahr as a bumbling ghost 4,700 years old; and "Little Leatherneck," starring Scott Brady as a drill sergeant and Donna Butterworth as his nine-year-old daughter. Summer Fun was last seen on September 2nd, 1966.
This ABC series ran for five weeks on Sundays from 8-9PM as a summer replacement for The FBI. It premiered on August 14th, 1966. The hour-long pilots included "Pursue and Destroy" starring Van Williams as the commander of a submarine battling the odds during World War II; "Somewhere in Italy," with Robert Reed and Harold J. Stone as soldiers cut off behind enemy lines; "The Cliff Dwellers," starring Bert Convy, Gretchen Walther and Carol Rossen as alumni celebrating their tenth college reunion only to have murder get in the way; "Roaring Camp," with Richard Bradford and James McMullan as a small town marshal and a gunman forced to team up; and "Great Bible Adventures" starring Hugh O'Brian as Biblical Joseph, sold into slavery with his brothers. Preview Tonight last ran on September 11th, 1966.
2 Wolters, Larry. "Where to Dial Today: Conjurers Faded by TV Magic." Los Angeles Times. 30 May 1957: A6.
3 Anderson, Jack. "'Coercion' Cited On TV Show Time." New York Times. 11 Jul. 1959: 39.
4 Bart, Peter. "Hollywood Resumes Seasonal Rush on TV Pilots." New York Times. 1 Dec. 1964: 52.
5 Ames, Walter. "Henry Fonda Emcees New Series of TV Films; Noble is Marilyn's Aide." Los Angeles Times. 4 Jun. 1954: 26.
6 "G.E. Will Sponsor TV Series in Summer Using Previously Unsold 'Sample' Films." New York Times. 8 Jun. 1956: 37.
7 "Previews of TODAY'S TV." Chicago Daily Tribune. 10 Jul. 1956: A6.
8 "Previews of TODAY'S TV." Chicago Daily Tribune. 6 Jul. 1958: 18.
9 "Previews of TODAY'S TV." Chicago Daily Tribune. 16 Sep. 1958: B10.
10 "Previews of TODAY'S TV." Chicago Daily Tribune. 23 Sep. 1958: A2.
11 "TV Previews." Hartford Courant. 27 Jun. 1964: 23.