In 1983, Francis Ford Coppola directed a movie based on S.E. Hinton’s beloved novel The Outsiders. A few years later, he helped get a weekly TV series off the ground at FOX. When the premiere aired in March 1990, it earned the highest rating ever for a drama episode on FOX. But ratings fell sharply and FOX soon cancelled the series.
From Print To Film
Published in April 1967 by Viking Books, S.E. Hinton’s influential coming-of-age novel The Outsiders told the story of the Curtis brothers: 14-year-old Ponyboy, 16-year-old Sodapop, and 20-year-old Darry. After their parents are killed in a car crash, the three struggle to stay together. Along with their friends and fellow “greasers,” the brothers often come into conflict with rich “Socs” in town, kids who get all the breaks. Hinton wrote the novel while still in high school.
In a May 1967 review of the novel for The New York Times, Thomas Fleming wrote “by almost any standard, Miss Hinton’s performance is impressive. At an age when most youngsters are still writing 800-word compositions, she has produced a book alive with the fresh dialogue of her contemporaries, and has wound around it a story that captures, in vivid patches at least, a rather unnerving slice of teen-age America” .
Almost 16 years later, in March 1983, a movie based on the novel hit theaters. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the cast included C. Thomas Howell, Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio and Diane Lane. Gene Siskel gave it three-and-a-half stars, critical only of the ending, which he found too abrupt.
“I will always treasure this film for the way it photographs its subjects and for the poetic words they speak,” Siskel wrote. “The teenagers in ‘The Outsiders’ are truly noble, and on that basis I can’t think of a recent movie quite like it” .
Thank you so much for creating a site on The Outsiders televisions series. It is nearly impossible to find information on the shows, not to mention pictures and even video!
Other film critics likewise praised the movie. John Engstrom of The Boston Globe called it “a small, sincere and nearly perfectly realized film about adolescence in Oklahoma” . Rick Lyman The Philadelphia Inquirer referred to the film as a “welcome return to form for Coppola” that saw its themes of “life, death and the swift passage of youth […] treated intelligently and powerfully” . Vincent Canby of The New York Times, on the other hand, called the film “spectacularly out of touch, a laughably earnest attempt to impose heroic attitudes on some nice, small characters” .
The film had its broadcast television debut in July 1987 on CBS.
FOX Takes A Chance
On March 6th, 1989, The San Francisco Chronicle reported that a sequel to The Outsiders was in the works. Coppola would co-executive produce a two-hour made-for-TV movie to air on FOX. Hinton would write the script while Alan Shapiro would direct . According to the Houston Chronicle, FOX was considering a weekly series, potentially to premiere in September 1989 when FOX expanded to Monday nights .
Reportedly, ABC, CBS, and NBC all turned down a TV series based on the novel and movie. The movie’s popularity on home video helped sell the concept and FOX expressed interest. Said co-executive producer Joe Byrne, “They were very youth-oriented, new kids on the block, and were aggressive and wanted to do something different. We had a very nice situation. We had a book that was very successful, a movie that had a lot of big-name actors that came out of it, and then we had the cassette” .
In early May, FOX was considering 13 pilots for use on Monday nights, including the television version of The Outsiders . Later that month the network released its 1989-1990 schedule and The Outsiders was not given a slot on Mondays. Instead, the series would be held in reserve for use as a mid-season replacement . In August, The Los Angeles Times reported that FOX had ordered six episodes .
FOX announced in January 1990 its plan to expand to Wednesday and Friday nights. One possible Friday-night entry was The Outsiders . Instead, in early March the network revealed it was making some spring changes to its 1989-1990 schedule. The Outsiders was given the Sunday 7-8PM time slot. It would premiere with a special 90-minute episode on March 25th, airing from 9:30-11PM, and then move to its regular time slot on April 1st .
According to Peter Chernin, president of FOX Entertainment Group, The Outsiders would be “distinctive, emotional, fun and an affirmation of family values. It captures the nostalgic value of what growing up was like in the ’60s” .
S.E. Hinton, Joe Byrne and Jeb Rosebrook developed the TV series. Zoetrope Studios produced in association with Papazian-Hirsch Entertainment. Ultimately, Hinton did not write the pilot episode. Instead, Alan Shapiro penned the pilot script. Shapiro served as director alongside Sharron Miller. Hinton did serve as executive story consultant. FOX gave the series a 13-episode order.
A New Cast of Teen Heartthrobs
The producers of The Outsiders auditioned some 2,500 actors before settling on on a group of relative unknowns. Co-executive producer Joe Byrne explained “you wanted them to have an edge and be a little different looking. We also wanted them to be attractive in their own right” . Jay R. Ferguson won the lead role of Ponyboy Curtis. Like the rest of the young cast, Ferguson made a splash in teen magazines:
I’m not trying to be like bragging, but I am literally in every teen magazine. I have some friends who are on TV shows that don’t get as much publicity as other people. I have a good publicist and a very nice mom, and mom’s done most of the work. It’s good for the show to do the magazines. They see me in the magazines, and then they’ll see the show. 
Rodney Harvey and Boyd Kestner would play Ponyboy’s older brothers, Sodapop and Darry. Their friends Steve Randle and Two-Bit Matthews would be played by Harold P. Pruett and David Arquette. Tim Shepard, the roughest of the Greasers, would be played by Robert Rusler. Buck Merrill, the owner of the bar/service station where Sodapop worked, would be played by Billy Bob Thornton.
Rounding out the main cast were Kim Walker as Cherry Valance, a Soc who went to high school with Ponyboy and was friendly with him, and Heather McComb as a young Greaser named Scout, a new character created for the television series. Scott Coffeey, Jennifer McComb and Sean Kanan would appear occasionally as Socs Randy, Marcia and Greg.
Making their television debuts on The Outsiders were Ferguson, Kestner, and Arquette.
Critics Appreciate Originality
Some saw The Outsiders as a perfect fit for FOX. Robert P. Laurence of The San Diego Union called the series “another example of the Fox network’s willingness to take chances on unconventional stories told in unconventional ways.” He wrote it was “refreshing to see a television drama about young people in which the protagonists are doing something besides drugs, in which their concerns run deeper than clothes and dates.” However, Laurence also criticized the premiere’s “cardboard characters, excessive violence and an episodic, disjointed story line” but suggested the series held promise and “could get terrific” .
Likewise, Ed Siegel of The Boston Globe felt The Outsiders was right at home on FOX, suggesting the network was the first “that seeks thematic unity from program to program, each of which could probably be called ‘The Outsiders’.” The series, he wrote, “lets its characters breathe somewhat less predictable air than the three networks would. Individual greaser types — those on ‘The Outsiders,’ Johnny Depp in ’21 Jump Street’ and Richard Grieko in ‘Booker’ — don’t have to be as emblematic of mainstream values as most of their network cousins” .
“More than anything else,” John J. O’Connor wrote in a review for The New York Times, “this is a class war, and after a decade of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, Fox’s explorations of the traditional divisions adds up to shrewd audience targeting. The poor guys are the heroes, of course. There are more of them out there watching television” .
Matt Roush of USA Today suggested “if you can get past the glorified and tiresome rumbles and taunts between the low-class ‘greasers’ and their rich-kid rivals – the ‘socs,’ pronounced ‘sosh-es,’ a tribe of mostly blond pompadours – there’s a sweet family drama being enacted by some unschooled heartthrobs-to-be” . Howard Rosenberg of The Los Angeles Time wrote “although the characters are too inconsistent to be entirely believable and often act too inanely to be respected, there are enough nice moments here to lift ‘The Outsiders’ above the ordinary and give it promise” .
Noel Holston of The Star Tribune called The Outsiders “a hit series waiting to happen” but worried that “in trying to pander to the prejudices of teens from the lower socioeconomic level, the producers come closer to patronizing them.” He felt it needed “more shading and complexity to be a leader of the pack” .
High Ratings Soon Give Way
The special 90-minute premiere of The Outsiders on March 25th averaged an 11.1/18 in the preliminary overnight Nielsen ratings. That made it the highest-rated dramatic show in the history of the FOX network . Nationally, the debut averaged a 9.3/16 rating. 14.1 million viewers tuned in. It ranked fourth in its time slot and tied for 64th for the week (out of 81 shows) . It lost exactly half the viewers who watched Married with Children from 9-9:30PM.
The following week, in its regular 7-8PM time slot opposite 60 Minutes on CBS and without the benefit of a strong lead-in, The Outsiders could only manage a 5.0/10 Nielsen rating and 7.5 million viewers. The episode ranked 81st for the week out of 85 shows. The only shows that did worse were Booker, Alien Nation and The Reporters, all also on FOX .
The third episode sank even lower, averaging a 4.7/8 rating and ranking 83rd, ahead of only The Tracey Ullman Show . The fourth episode actually ranked dead last for the week with a 4.3/9 rating .
The series remained in the Bottom 5 for its entire run.
The Continuing Story Of The Curtis Brothers
Ponyboy narrated every episode of The Outsiders. On the night of the premiere, FOX aired a brief message from Bart Simpson who explained that Open House and The Tracey Ullman Show would not been seen that night so that FOX could air a sneak preview of The Outsiders. The episode itself started with footage from the 1983 film depicting the death of one of the characters. After the opening credits, the characters were shown attending his funeral.
The premiere introduced several recurring themes. Perhaps the most important was the very real possibility that Ponyboy and Sodapop would be removed from Darry’s custody if they got into trouble or if the Department of Welfare decided their home environment was unsuitable. Even Ponyboy skipping school could jeopardize their situation. Introduced in the premiere was Belinda Jenkins, a girl Ponyboy met at school who had a big chip on her shoulder. He gave her the nickname Scout and the two became friends.
The premiere also saw Tim Shephard, a minor character from the novel, return to town. Darry didn’t want him around because he worried Tim would raise flags with the Department of Welfare. Tim soon got himself arrested and thrown in jail after a rumble (which Darry forbade Ponyboy and Sodapop from joining). Tim returned in the third episode. Darry tried to get him a job but Tim was bitter and angry and kept getting into trouble. He was also was a bad influence on Sodapop, leading to a fight with Darry and another arrest.
Darry and Tim patched things up and Tim got a job at a power plant to avoid going back to jail. In a later episode, union workers at the plant went on strike and Tim joined them. Darry, desperate for a job, crossed the picket line to work as a scab, infuriating Tim and Sodapop.
The series also dealt with Ponyboy being in high school. He was a good writer and his English teacher encouraged him. He was once forced to tutor a Socs on his track team. There were dances and fights and trying to find time to study. And above all, there was the fact that Ponyboy was a Greaser. Nevertheless, he maintained friendships with Cherry and Randy, despite the fact that most of Cherry’s friends and family didn’t want her anywhere near Greasers. Making things worse, Cherry developed an attraction to Tim.
Each episode included multiple plots, some of which intersected. For example, one episode saw Ponyboy tried to work up the courage to ask Cherry out on a date, Two-Bit and Steve tricked Sodapop into thinking he’d won $5,000, and Darry hoped to get in on the ground floor of a big construction project.
Other episodes involved Ponyboy losing his virginity to an older woman; Ponboy and Darry fighting about whether or not to help a convict who had escaped from a chain gain; Sodapop thinking he’d gotten his girlfriend pregnant; Two-Bit dealing with his father issues after a baby girl is abandoned; a carnival coming to town; preparing for a tornado strike; Scout running away from home; Darry in a boxing match;
FOX Cancels The Outsiders
As a mid-season replacement, all 13 episodes of The Outsiders were finished months before the series debuted. That forced the cast to wait and hope that FOX would renew the series for the 1990-1991 season. The solid ratings for the premiere episode were a positive sign. Ratings for the episodes that followed were not.
I am so glad someone else was such a fan of the Outsiders T.V. show.
FOX pre-empted the series on May 20th and aired a repeat on May 27th. A few days later, the network announced its 1990-1991 schedule. The Outsiders was one of five shows being cancelled . At the time, only eight episodes had aired. FOX broadcast another three episodes during June. The last two aired in July, with the 13th and final episode broadcast on July 22nd.
Repeats continued through the end of August. A total of nine episodes were repeated.
The Outsiders has never aired in syndication. TV Land aired at least one episode in the early 2000s. It has never been released commercially on any format.
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3 Engstrom, John. “Coppola Scores with Outsiders.” Boston Globe. 24 Mar. 1983: 1.
4 Lyman, Rick. “Without Fanfare, Coppola Triumphs with ‘Outsiders’.” Philadelphia Inquirer. 26 Mar. 1983: D.1.
5 Canby, Vincent. “‘Outsiders,’ Teen-Age Violence.” New York Times. 25 Mar. 1983: C.3.
6 Ross, Chuck. “Coppola, David Lynch Planning 2 TV Movies.” San Francisco Chronicle. 6 Mar. 1989: F.1.
7 “TV heartthrob jumps to big screen as ‘Cry Baby’.” Houston Chronicle. 6 Mar. 1989: 4.
8 King, Susan. “Fox Reaches for Young Crowd with ‘The Outsiders’.” Los Angeles Times. 25 Mar. 1990: 7.
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10 Hodges, Ann. “Response subdued after ‘Roe vs. Wade’ movie airs.” Houston Chronicle. 17 May 1989: 1.
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12 “Fox to Add Two Nights of Programming.” Washington Post. 23 Jan. 1990: c.06.
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14 Carmody, John. “The TV Column.” Washington Post. 6 Mar. 1990: c.06.
15 King, Susan. “Fox Reaches for Young Crowd with ‘The Outsiders’.”
17 Laurence, Robert P. “Coppola leaps in with teen TV series.” San Diego Union. 24 Mar. 1990: D.9.
18 Siegel, Ed. “The Outsider Network New Series Fits Smootlhy Into FOX’s Challenge to the Big Three.” Boston Globe. 25 Mar. 1990: B.25.
19 O’Connor, John J. “‘Outsiders,’ a Drama of Socioeconomic Divisions.” New York Times. 5 Apr. 1990: C.15.
20 Roush, Matt. “‘Outsiders’ is a decent bet to get in with the ‘in’ crowd.” USA Today. 23 Mar. 1990: 03.D.
21 Rosenberg, Howard. “Haves vs. Have-Nots in ‘The Outsiders’.” Los Angeles Times. 24 Mar. 1990: 15.
22 Holston, Noel. “Fox’s ‘Outsiders’ a hit series waiting to happen.” Star Tribune. 25 Mar. 1990: 01.F.
23 Kleid, Beth. “TV & Video.” Los Angeles Times. 27 Mar. 1990: 4.
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25 “Nielsens; ABC gets an Oscar boost; Using this chart.” USA Today. 4 Apr. 1990: 03.D.
26 “Nielsens; ABC claims rare Sunday win; Using this chart.” USA Today. 11 Apr. 1990: 03.D.
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28 Goldman, Kevin. “CBS and Fox Adopt Risky TV Strategies in Fight to Capture Prime Time’s Crown.” Wall Street Journal. 30 May 1990: B3.
Originally Published February 1st, 2004
Last Updated April 22nd, 2018