Patrick Duffy is in Los Angeles, but not for long. On this day, chatting with me for an episode of my Movies for Grownups radio show, , it seems he’d rather be home with his wife on his Oregon ranch. Still, business is business.
“Not a lot of film being done on the ranch in Oregon,” he says. One thing he’s in town for is to promote the DVD release of his cult classic TV series, Man From Atlantis, but I sense he’s mostly looking forward to is dinner this night with his old friend and former Dallascostar Larry Hagman.
“He’s a lot of fun, which is why he’s been my best friend for 35 years,” he says.
Back in their Dallas salad days, the tabloids always tried to cook up feuds between Hagman and Duffy-but in fact the two were consummate professionals; a pair of very good actors who sensed they had stumbled upon a very, very good thing.
In fact, Duffy was a classically trained actor-in-residence at the University of Washington before he landed the role of Mark Harris, the titular Man From Atlantis, in 1976. He made four highly successful TV movies playing the mostly-human-but-kinda-fishy character (the weekly series, alas, sank after just 13 episodes). Duffy managed to find some dramatic depth in the guy, but what fans seem to remember most is his unusual swimming form-a head-to-toe rippling motion that can best be described as part Michael Phelps, part Flipper. And as Duffy recalls, it wasn’t easy to do.
“It’s just hard on the body,” he says. “You can do it when you’re 28 years old and bullet proof. But it’s hard. And originally, they wanted the action to be side to side, like a snake, until the stunt coordinator-a man named Paul Stader, who did every underwater movie you could ever mention-said ‘The human body doesn’t work that way!'”
To see Duffy streaking through the water, flopping frantically, you’d think that porpoise stroke of his should be a standard for Olympic swimmers. But he confesses there were complex special effects at work…at least, by 1977 standards.
“There was no CGI, no computer effects,” he says. “It was really, ‘Tie a rope to Patrick and tow him through the water.”
The Man From Atlantis also had weird, fish-like eyes, apparently necessary for seeing underwater. They looked cool, but Duffy remembers them as an endless headache.
“They got out model airplane paint, and painted these giant plastic lenses with phosphorescent paint. Then they covered it with another clear airplane paint and popped those little hummers in my eyes. They were the most painful, uncomfortable things you could imagine.
“It was kind of the Lon Chaney syndrome. They’d say, well, let’s try this. Nowadays you would go to a special ophthalmologist, there would be a doctor standing by, but back then it was, ‘Well let’s just pull those eyes open a little bit and see how that looks.’ And you do it because you’re an actor and you go, ‘Oh, this is what I do.'”
When it became clear that Man From Atlantis was drifting off for good, Duffy was already looking for his next job.
“We knew the handwriting was on the wall. I started reading scripts to see if I was ever gong to work again in my life. And a week after we learned Atlantis was not going to be on NBC’s schedule, (producer) Leonard Katzman called and said, ‘Come on in, I have this part I want you to play on a new miniseries.”
That miniseries was a soapy little number called Dallas-and for Patrick Duffy, it became his bread and butter for more than a decade (aside from the one year he left the series after having Bobby killed off; a season so disastrous it was famously written off by the producers as a “dream” just so Duffy could return). But until those initial ratings numbers came rolling in, he, Hagman and the rest of the cast were like any other group of actors-wringing their hands over where their next paycheck would be coming from.
“I figured ‘I’ve got five more episodes, I wonder what I’ll do after that?'” he recalls. “All any of us knew was we had five hours of television. No matter what anybody tells you-and I would say this to Larry if he were sitting right next to me-if he says he knew it was gonna be successful when he read the script, he’s lying. We were all calling our agents saying ‘What’ll I do next? I gotta go get a job!'”
Dallas has been available on home video almost from the time it left the air, but Man From Atlantis-and other niche films and TV shows like it-have had to wait for one of Hollywood’s more innovative DVD distribution strategies: custom-made DVDs.
Warner Home Video launched its Warner Archive a couple of years back, and I’ve already made one radio show praising how it makes forgotten old movies accessible. You go to warnerarchive.com, select a movie from its extensive list, pay for it, and then Warners actually burns the disc just for you and mails it to you in a no-frills package (My personal favorite selection is what has to be the oddest movie made by a major studio in the 1930s, Gabriel Over the White House).
The product line, and its distribution model, are the brainchild of a guy named George Feltenstein, and Duffy is probably his biggest fan.
“I love people who love film,” he says. “He’s this cheerleader for any and all film. Besides films, his dream was to get all this television that’s disappearing back into the public sector. He deserves everybody’s accolades.”
I couldn’t agree more. A few months ago I interviewed Feltenstein for my radio show about Warner Archive, but time constraints kept me from including him in the two-minute program. For the record, and for those who just love movies, I’m including it here (it’s raw audio; be patient through the silent first few seconds) . The man deserves a special Oscar.