David Hartman starred in this one season wonder as an idealistic English teacher in a Missouri high school. Although the series ranked in the Top 20 when it debuted in September 1974, ratings soon cooled. NBC cancelled the show at the end of the 1974-1975 season after 22 episodes.
NBC Shakes Up Its Schedule
When NBC unveiled its 1974-1975 prime time schedule in April 1974, 14 shows had been dropped and 12 new ones added in what The Boston Globe called the network’s “most extensive and expensive fall schedule overhaul in history” . The new schedule included a mix of action/adventure dramas, family dramas, sitcoms, and one new movie night. The network’s new Wednesday lineup consisted of three new hour-long dramas: Little House on the Prairie from 8-9PM ET, Lucas Tanner from 9-10PM ET, and In Tandem (later renamed Movin’ On) from 10-11PM ET.
NBC had high hopes for its new Wednesday evening programming, with Little House on the Prairie considered a possible breakout hit. Larry White, NBC vice president for programs, told Broadcasting that Lucas Tanner, about an unconventional high school English teacher, “is emotional storytelling with guts and David Hartman comes of age as a star–he’ll have particularly strong appeal to women” .
Of the three new Wednesday night dramas, viewers had only sampled one prior to the release of NBC’s 1974-1975 schedule. The pilot telefilm for Little House on the Prairie had aired on Saturday, March 30th. The pilot telefilms for Lucas Tanner and In Tandem aired back-to-back as a special NBC World Premiere Movie from 8-11PM ET on Wednesday, May 8th, 1974.
From the Big Leagues to High School
The Lucas Tanner pilot telefilm, titled simply Lucas Tanner, starred David Hartman as the title character. Lucas Tanner spent a month as a big league baseball pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates before an elbow injury ended his career. He played in just five games. Tanner then became a successful a sports writer working for a magazine called Sports Week.
When his wife Ellie and young son Chip are killed in a car accident, Tanner decides to make another change. After attending graduate school to become a teacher, he moves back to Webster Grove, Missouri, where he and Ellie met and owned a house. Ellie was a high school teacher herself, which inspired Tanner to turn to teaching. He gets a job at Harry S Truman High School as an English teacher and baseball coach.
Rosemary Murphy co-starred in the pilot telefilm as Principal Margaret Blumenthal. Ramon Bieri played Craig Willeman, the head of the English department who didn’t approve of Tanner or his methods. Robbie Rist played Tanner’s young next-door-neighbor Glendon Farrell. Sportscaster Joe Garagioloa appeared as himself.
Jerry McNeely wrote and produced the pilot telefilm. Richard Donner directed it.
Death and Romance
In the pilot telefilm, a student named Clay Winterbury (played by James Carroll Jordan) dies days after Tanner accidentally hit him in the head with a baseball during practice. Blaming himself, Tanner asks for an investigation into the incident. Meanwhile, he tries to help a quiet student named Joyce Howell (played by Kathleen Quinlan) who seems troubled.
One Saturday afternoon, Joyce shows up at Tanner’s house. He invites her to join him and Glendon on a tour of St. Louis. That night, Joyce returns to Tanner’s house and tells him she considered killing herself. She and Clay were dating and she doesn’t know how to go on living without him.
Joyce also reveals that while she and Clay were together at his uncle’s lake house, Clay fell while trying to change a light bulb and hit his head. He was unconscious for a few minutes. The fall is what ultimately killed him, not Tanner’s baseball. But she makes him promise not to tell anyone. She can’t risk her parents finding out she spent the weekend with Clay.
Her parents are very strict and quick to blame Tanner and the school for their daughter’s problems. Eventually, after Joyce’s parents mistakenly assume Tanner was romancing their teenage daughter, the truth comes out. Tanner’s job is saved and Joyce is able to start moving on from Clay with the support of her parents.
Also featured in minor roles were Stanley Livingston as David Elrod, Michael Dwight Smith as Wally Moore, Alan Abelew as Jaytee Drumm, Trish Soodik as Cindy Damon, and Kimberly Beck as Terry Klitsner. All five were students at at Harry S Truman High School who liked and respected Tanner.
Three small details from the pilot telefilm: Tanner owned a dog named O’Casey, he played the saxophone, and Glendon didn’t wear glasses.
Predictions & Enthusiasm
Percy Shain, reviewing Lucas Tanner for The Boston Globe, called the telefilm “thoroughly satisfying” . He continued:
Sometimes it got preachy and you could feel the manipulation of a clever script writer. But the values were so solid, and the character so individualistic, the situations so moving, even the Missouri locales so real, that you were drawn to the man and his milieu, which is the main idea for a weekly here. Half of America is going to fall in love with “Lucas Tanner” as he steers round the antagonisms aroused by his unpredictable behavior[.] 
An article in the May 27, 1974 issue of Broadcasting shared predictions for the upcoming 1974-1975 television season from advertising agency executives. They generally agreed that CBS would easily win Wednesday evening with its lineup of dramas: Senior Year (later renamed Sons and Daughters), Cannon, and The Manhunter. NBC would likely finish in second place with ABC a weak third.
Werner Michel, vice president and director of broadcast operations at SSC&B, called Lucas Tanner “Mr. Novak with guts” . Unfortunately for the show, the ad agency experts worried it wouldn’t survive due to competition from Cannon.
David Hartman was excited about playing Lucas Tanner. “I think I’d like to be Tanner if I were a teacher,” he told the Associated Press in July 1974 . “He’s a man of tremendous enthusiasm and excitement about life in general,” Hartman said. “He’s a fulfilled man, for the most part.” The show is about people, he explained. “Young people just juxtaposed with adults. About kids and their growth. Tanner is not an idealized teacher in a classroom.”
To get viewers excited for the series premiere of Lucas Tanner, NBC rebroadcast the pilot telefilm on Saturday, August 31st, 1974 from 8-9:30PM ET.
Critics Split on Tanner
NBC’s debuted its new Wednesday lineup September 11th, 1974. In the first episode of Lucas Tanner, Tanner has his hands full dealing with a student who hates school, wants to drop out rather than finish her senior year, and thinks she’s falling in love with him. Critics were split in their reaction to the series premiere, with some reviews focusing negatively on the show’s idealized and romanticized view of teaching.
Percy Shain, writing in The Boston Globe, compared Lucas Tanner and its perfect teacher to Marcus Welby, M.D. and its depiction of the perfect doctor. But he liked what he saw during the series premiere. “A rather sensitive script kept this story on an even level, and even managed to enrich the spirit at times with its poetic flights of fancy,” Shain wrote. He praised Hartman, who “fits snugly and expertly into the role of the teacher,” as well as the supporting cast and guest stars .
John J. O’Connor’s review for The New York Times was equally positive:
John McGreevy’s intelligent script keeps Tanner safely balanced on the thin line between stereotype and sloppy sentiment. It even manages to get in some material on Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Meanwhile, Mr. Hartman retains the toothiest smile on the small screen. If the scripts retain this evening’s level, the smile may get him through again. 
Barbara Zuanich, in a review for The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, called Lucas Tanner “another quality presentation” while criticizing it for idealizing teachers the way many TV shows have idealized doctors . Tom Shales, writing in The Washington Post, called Lucas Tanner “a tediously romanticized view of a superteacher” while praising the performance of child actor Robbie Rist .
Viewers Tune In, Viewers Tune Out
The series premiere of Lucas Tanner won its 9-10PM ET time slot on Wednesday, September 11th . The episode ranked 15th for the week with a 20.8 Nielsen rating . The following week, however, it dropped considerably, ranking 41st .
NBC pre-empted Lucas Tanner on September 25th for a Bob Hope special and again on October 16th for the fourth game of the 1974 World Series. Thus, only four episodes aired during the first six weeks of the new television season. Whether or not the pre-emptions hurt the new show is a mystery but by early November, Lucas Tanner was seriously in danger. Broadcasting reported in its November 4th issue that NBC would likely replace both Lucas Tanner and Petrocelli at mid-season .
The network kept a close eye on both shows. The October 30th episode of Lucas Tanner earned a 15.5 rating and a 24 share while Petrocelli averaged a similiar 15.3 rating but a slightly stronger 28 share . Both were considered middling performances. The following week, the two shows ranked 33rd and 34th, placing them firmly in the questionable zone for renewal .
NBC ultimately decided to stick with both shows for the remainder of the 1974-1975 season, a decision Broadcasting called risky because they were wasting the strong lead-in provided by Little House on the Prairie . To make matters worse, the network continued to pre-empt Lucas Tanner: on November 27th for Robinson Crusoe; on December 11th for an Andy Williams Christmas special; and December 18th for a special two-hour installment of Little House on the Prairie.
Lucas Tanner, English Teacher
Most of the main and recurring cast members from the pilot telefilm returned for the Lucas Tanner TV series, including Rosemary Murphy as Principal Margaret Blumenthal and Robbie Rist as Glendon Farrell. One exception was Stanley Livingston, who played a student named David in the pilot. His character was not replaced. Alan Abelew, Trish Soodik, Kimberly Beck, and and Michael Dwight-Smith did return, playing students Jaytee, Cindy, Terry, and Wally.
Several small changes were made for the weekly TV series. First, the name of Tanner’s dog went from O’Casey to Bridget. Second, Tanner no longer played the saxophone. Instead, he played the clarinet. Third, Glendon wore glasses.
Tanner, who Principal Blumenthal referred to as an enigma in one episode, used unusual methods to get his points across, occasionally held class outdoors, and had no problem getting involved in the lives of his students if he thought they were in crisis and he could help. He supported their goals and tried to let them have a role in learning rather than standing and lecturing them.
His relationship with his neighbor Glendon was unorthodox as well. Glendon always called Tanner by his first name and generally treated him like a friend his own age, not an adult. But Tanner didn’t mind. In fact, he encouraged Glendon and looked out for the youngster.
I appreciate seeing someone talk about Lucas Tanner. I lived in Affton, Missouri which is just a couple miles from Webster Groves, Missouri. Anyway they filmed the pilot in Webster Groves. My friend went to the cemetery, by our house, that they used in the pilot. He came to my house and told me all about it. We never had any excitement around Affton like that. They filmed the pilot in Webster Groves but all the other shows were filmed in L.A. We couldn’t wait till it came out. I was in 8th grade when it was on and looked at the show as what High School would be like. I wish it was available on DVD.”
Episodes of Lucas Tanner saw the unconventional teacher going to great lengths to help both students and fellow teachers. In one episode, a 13-year-old prodigy in his class struggles with the social aspects of high school. In another, Tanner refuses to give up on a “slow” student who quits school while also trying to help a group of students who aren’t athletic. He helped a former runaway readjust to living with her family and attending school. And he befriended a frustrated teacher ready to give up on teaching because she’s stuck as a substitute, not a full-time teacher.
Lucas Tanner also tackled a number of controversial topics. Kathleen Quinlan returned as Joyce Howell in an early episode in which Tanner talks frankly with his students about sex. Joyce writes a short story about her relationship with the late Clay Winterbury that outrages her parents and many others. Another episode saw Tanner defend two teachers living together but not married. He also came to the aid of a student with a serious drinking problem whose father would rather be a friend than a parent to his son.
Other episodes involved Tanner taking care of Glendon when his grandmother is rushed to the hospital; a former co-worker’s attempt to convince him to give up teaching and return to sports writing; and an emotional Christmas spent without his wife and son made even more uncomfortable by an unexpected visit from his bitter father-in-law.
Lucas Tanner, Guidance Counselor
Halfway through the season, Lucas Tanner changed gears. In the January 15th, 1975 episode Tanner gave up teaching to become a guidance counselor. “As an advisor,” David Hartman explained, “I’ll be teaching on a one-to-one basis. Instead of being restricted to a 50-minute fragment of a student’s life, I’ll have the opportunity to deal with the whole child” .
According to executive producer David Victor, the change gives Tanner the opportunity to do more than just teach:
Lucas will become involved with the youngsters who, as Tanner explains in one segment, don’t know who they are, what they want or where they’re going. A student’s difficulty may have nothing to do with the classroom. Tanner will involve himself with parents, social workers and probation officers if the resolution of a problem so dictates. 
That same episode also introduced a new principal for Harry S Truman High School: John Randolph as Principal John Hamilton, replacing Rosemary Murphy as Principal Margaret Blumenthal.
In his new role as guidance counselor, Tanner dealt with an art teacher who took his frustration at having failed to succeed as an artist out on his students; struggled to find a foster family for a student and his siblings when their parents were killed in a car crash; and helps a distraught teacher in love with one of her students.
NBC pre-empted Lucas Tanner on March 5th and then again on March 19th, March 26th, and April 2nd. The network gave the show a special one-off Thursday airing on April 3rd from 10-11PM ET in an attempt to improve ratings. The following week, the final episode of the season aired from 10-11PM ET on Wednesday, April 9th–one hour later than usual, again in the hopes of reaching viewers.
Guest stars included Lee Purcell, Sharon Gless, Samantha Eggar, Jamie Farr, Lou Gossett, Alan Fudge, Barry Sullivan, Leslie Nielsen, Linda Purl, Tyne Daly, Nicolas Hammond, Dirk Blocker, Barry White, Norman Fell, Janet Margolin, Butch Patrick, Mark Hamill, Ned Beatty, Tom Selleck, Greg Morris, Larry Hagman, and Samantha Eggar.
Professional athletes Don Drysdale, Maury Wills, and Joe Kapp played themselves in the September 18th, 1974 episode (“Instant Replay”). Musician Jose Feliciano played himself in the April 9th, 1975 episode (“One to One”).
School’s Out for Lucas Tanner
Repeats of Lucas Tanner began airing on April 16th. Four days later, on April 21st, NBC released its 1975-1976 schedule . Lucas Tanner was not on it. Petrocelli, however, did make the cut and was moved to Mondays at 10PM ET.
For the 1974-1975 season as a whole, Lucas Tanner ranked 50th out of 84 shows. Its competition fared better: Cannon on CBS ranked 20th and The ABC Wednesday Movie of the Week ranked 38th. Petrocelli performed only slightly better than Lucas Tanner, ranking 48th. Little House on the Prairie ranked 14th. .
NBC continued to air repeats of Lucas Tanner throughout the summer of 1975. The final repeat aired on Wednesday, August 20th.
Pyramid Books published three TV tie-in novels based on Lucas Tanner, all written by Richard Posner. Lucas Tanner: A Question of Guilt, published in 1975, novelized the pilot telefilm. Lucas Tanner #2: A Matter of Love, also published in 1975, novelized the episodes “A Matter of Love” and “Three Letter Word.” For Her to Decide: Lucas Tanner #3, published in January 1976, featured an original story.
Duchess Music Corporation published sheet music a piano solo of the “Theme from Lucas Tanner” composed by David Shire.
After Lucas Tanner
Lucas Tanner marked the end of David Hartman’s acting career. On November 3rd, 1975 he debuted as one of the co-hosts of ABC’s Good Morning America, a position he held until February 1987.
The pilot telefilm later aired in local syndication and on cable but the series itself was not sold into syndication. However, cable channel TV Land aired at least two episodes of Lucas Tanner: “Thirteen Going on Twenty” and “Merry Gentleman.” The Christmas-themed episode “Merry Gentlemen” aired twice as part of TV Land’s Merrython marathon, first in December 2000 and again in December 2001.
Lucas Tanner has never been released on home media.
Lucas Tanner © 1974 Universal City Pictures, Inc.
2 “Housecleaning in prime time as networks issue line-ups.” Broadcasting. 29 Apr. 1974: Page 17.
3 Shain, Percy. “Night Watch: Twin bill blanked by Sox game.” Boston Globe. 10 May 1974: 64.
5 “Agencies lay heavy odds on CBS’s fall line-up, but see tight race for second place.” Broadcasting. 27 May 1974: 19.
6 “Actor Sees Himself in TV Role.” Hartford Courant. Associated Press. 31 Jul. 1974: 67A.
7 Shain, Percy. “200 callers protest brutality in ‘Born Innocent’.” Boston Globe. 12 Sep. 1974: 66.
9 O’Connor, John J. “TV: 1870, 1950 or 1974? New Shows Up on the Times.” New York Times. 11 Sep. 1974: 90.
10 “Prime-time viewing: the critics’ choices.” Broadcasting. 16 Sep. 1974: 18-19.
11 Ibid., 19.
12 “Out of the gate.” Broadcasting. 16 Sep. 1974: 4.
13 Shain, Percy. “Rhoda, NBC win first week sweepstakes, Chico rates high.” Boston Globe. 19 Sep. 1974: 68.
14 Shain, Percy. “Hope show a bit tired; ratings show ABC slide.” Boston Globe. 26 Sep. 1974: 67.
15 “In Brief.” Broadcasting. 4 Nov. 1974: 6.
16 “Paul Sand’s promise exceeds performance.” Broadcasting. 11 Nov. 1974: 39.
17 Shain, Percy. “Jacques Cousteau opener goes well beyond the sea to depict endangered tribe.” Boston Globe. 14 Nov. 1974: 32.
18 “TV networks change horses in midseason.” Broadcasting. 12 Dec. 1974: 14-15.
19 Pannone, Olga A. “Hartman To Become Counselor.” Hartford Courant. 29 Dec. 1974: 5M.
21 Shain, Percy. “NBC cuts 8 shows in fall shake-up.” Boston Globe. 22 Apr. 1975: 45.
22 Shain, Percy. “‘All in the Family’ at top fourth year in row.” Boston Globe. 23 May 1973: 16.
Originally Published May 31st, 2021
Last Updated May 31st, 2021