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The biggest pop culture failures of all time

The biggest pop culture failures of all time — EW lists the top 20 flops in movies, TV, music, and books

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To you it’s a big bird with stuffing and drumsticks. But to people in the entertainment industry, it’s death, disaster, humiliation. Thanksgiving season is upon us, so it’s time to take stock of turkeys-those spectacular failures that make show business so interesting. From the annals of movies, television, music, and books, we’ve plucked the 20 most noteworthy turkeys of all time. In addition, we’ve uncovered the turkeys of entertainment technology (remember 8-track?), tracked down movies that bombed as TV shows, and discovered some onetime turkeys that have found redemption.

Making these selections wasn’t easy. Entertainment is subjective, after all; one person’s turkey is another’s bird of paradise. To meet our definition, the movie, TV show, performance, or book had to be more than just bad — which explains why you won’t find, say, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes or Mayberry R.F.D. on our list. No, a genuine turkey must first enjoy a colossal buildup and then make stupendous belly flop, either critically, commercially or both. Small embarrassments just don’t cut it. As for the order of our Top 20, we admit it’s a bit arbitrary. Obfuscatory accounting and unpublished sales figures make it impossible to know exactly how much money some of these projects really lost. But lose they did, and big.

Bear in mind that there is no nobility in failure, and that making the list is not really an indictment. Many of the greatest names in entertainment — Dustin Hoffman, for instance, or even Ernest Hemingway — left spectacular failures behind them and went on to deliver some of their greatest works. No doubt some of the hapless participants in the turkeys on our list will rebound to greatness, too. Maybe even by next Thanksgiving.

1. Howard the Duck
The buildup
The concept for this 1986 movie sounded like a can’t-miss proposition. Fantasy-meister George Lucas of Star Wars fame and his co-writers on American Graffiti, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, would bring to life the plucky, cigar-chomping ’70s cult hero of Marvel comics. Universal’s Howard the Duck was sure to be an odd bird, but Superman had already shown that comic- book movies could fly.

The turkey tale
This $34.5 million bird crashed on takeoff. The headline writers weighed in with such gems as ”Howard Lays an Egg,” and the curdled fantasy ranked 57th among the year’s major-studio releases. Lucas magically escaped without any egg on his face. So did actress Lea Thompson, who went on to make two more Back to the Future flicks. But studio chairman Frank Price quit and was replaced by Lucas’ lawyer, Thomas Pollock, who had engineered the Howard deal.

2. Supertrain
The buildup
This 1979 NBC series was the brainchild of programming whiz Fred Silverman. At the time, Silverman was at the top of his game, coming off such hits as Charlie’s Angels, Happy Days, and Laverne and Shirley. Playing off the success of ABC’s The Love Boat, Silverman decided to transplant that show onto a trans-continental luxury train (cost: $12 million), complete with a swimming pool and a disco, where guest stars would work out their personal lives every week with the help of a friendly crew.

The turkey tale:
Supertrain went off the tracks after less than a month and marked the beginning of the end of Silverman’s winning streak. NBC worked frantically to streamline the show’s format, but when Supertrain returned about a month later, it failed again. The show became a symbol of Silverman’s inability to bring NBC out of third place, and in 1981 he dropped out of sight. But in the past four years Silverman has regained the touch, this time as a successful independent TV producer of such shows as Matlock and In the Heat of the Night.

3. Cleopatra
The buildup
Elizabeth Taylor’s $44 million 1963 extravaganza had more advance publicity than any movie before or since. Twentieth Century Fox made Taylor the first star ever to be paid a million bucks for a movie. When her first set of costars — Peter Finch and Stephen Boyd — quit, they were replaced with Rex Harrison (Julius Caesar) and, fatefully, Richard Burton (Mark Antony). Dick and Liz quickly became the Sean and Madonna of their day. Writer-director Joseph Mank-iewicz lost his battle with the studio to release the movie in two 21/2-hour parts. And Cleopatra opened as a four-hour-and-three-minute feature (the longest ever) on June 12, 1963. Fox ballyhooed the movie in its advertising with unintentional irony as ”the motion picture the world has been waiting for.”

The turkey tale
Although the ill-fated spectacle eventually earned $26 million in film rentals (the amount theater operators paid the studio), Cleopatra’s costs made it almost certainly the biggest money-loser of all time. Most critics gave the epic mixed-to-negative reviews. Fox was so incensed by the stinging criticism Judith Crist of the New York Herald Tribune leveled at the movie that it banned her from its press screenings. Taylor’s star was hardly dimmed, but she was clearly glad her Queen-of-the-Nile days were over. Taylor later said that after attending the film’s London premiere, ”I raced back to the Dorchester and just made it to the downstairs lavatory and vomited.”

4. ‘USA Today’ On TV
The buildup
The concept for this 1988-89 half-hour show sounded brilliant: Bring the nugget-size niblets of news in USA Today, the nation’s second- largest-selling daily at the time, to the small screen in a nightly syndicated program. Spearheading that attempt to revolutionize broadcast news were two superstar television producers: Grant Tinker (best known for The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Lou Grant) and Steve Friedman (the Today show). Gannett Co., the publisher of USA Today, cheerfully bankrolled this syndicated venture.

The turkey tale
The loud, frenetic, superglitzy USA Today on TV quickly repulsed many viewers and potential advertisers — those who could find it. In New York City, it originally aired at 2 a.m. The show lived through three overhauls and the departure of three of its four original anchors. After a little more than a year and an estimated cost of $50 million, the show was finally canned.

”People say USA Today on TV was one of the biggest failures in syndication history,” says Friedman, who has moved on to produce The NBC Nightly News. ”But it lasted 15 months. You know what big failures are? Shows that don’t get on the air — those are failures. We just didn’t succeed.”

5. The Jacksons’ Victory Tour
The buildup
Hot (perhaps too hot) on the heels of Michael Jackson’s 1982 Thriller platinum album, this 20-city, 54-show spectacle was to feature The Gloved One plus brothers Jermaine, Jackie, Randy, Marlon, and Tito (sorry, no Janet). The Jacksons hadn’t performed together in concert since 1981, so fans were eager. In fact, the summer 1984 Victory tour may have been the ultimate in Rockoverexpectations — and backlash.

The turkey tale
Problems began as soon as tickets went on sale. Concertgoers had to pay $30 apiece — a new high for stadium rock shows and a price that excluded many of the Jacksons’ less-financially-secure followers. Although first-time promoter Chuck Sullivan originally guaranteed the Jacksons would receive $41 million, the brothers ended up splitting only $500,000 and a cut of the T-shirt sales. Michael donated his take to charity, but his benign public image had been sullied. Sullivan, then president of the NFL’s New England Patriots, wound up $4 million in the red and in the hospital with heart trouble. He eventually had to sell his team. The Victory album sold two million copies (Thriller sold 40 million) and had no hit tunes.

6. Heaven’s Gate
The buildup
This 1980 movie, a dusty re-creation of the 19th-century Johnson County, Wyo., range wars, starring Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, and Isabelle Huppert, is the quintessence of turkeyhood to many filmgoers today. But when a new group of executives at United Artists signed director Michael Cimino for this picture, Cimino was finishing up The Deer Hunter, which was later named the Best Picture of 1978. It looked like a matchup made in heaven. Heaven’s Gate proved to be more like a movie made in hell.

The turkey tale
Few films actually bring down a studio. This one did. After Heaven’s Gate ran up costs of $36 million and then opened to empty theaters and critical howls, UA’s parent company fired the executives responsible and sold the entire studio to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. What went wrong? An unsupervised Cimino had obsessively filmed away, bursting Heaven’s Gate‘s original $7.8 million budget. Yet he somehow forgot to lavish similar attention on character and plot. Cimino, who rarely discusses the movie publicly, has never fully recovered from the fiasco. His most recent offering, Desperate Hours, came out last month to mostly unfavorable reviews.

7. Ancient Evenings
By Norman Mailer
The buildup
Mailer does few things in small ways. He started talking up his forthcoming big ”Egyptian novel” after Little, Brown began forking over a $1.4 million advance for the book in the early ’70s. When Ancient Evenings was published in 1983, the bombastic author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Executioner’s Song put his reputation on the line. Said Mailer: ”If it’s no good, I’m no good.” He went on to call the book his ”most audacious” and ”most ambitious” work.

The turkey tale
In size, the 709-page Ancient Evenings was colossal. But what was on the pages — exegeses on excrement, sodomy, rape, and the priapic wonders of the Egyptian male — excited a frenzy of critical dismay: ”It’s like going for brain dialysis, this book,” wrote critic D. Keith Mano in the National Review. Said The New York Times, ”It may be that 10 years was too long a stretch of time to spend on the book.”

Even Mailer’s most ardent fans gave the heavyweight champion of American letters mixed reviews. The book spent 15 weeks on the best-seller list — Mailer’s name sells — but it was a financial fiasco. Little, Brown declined to publish Mailer’s next novel, Tough Guys Don’t Dance.

8. Ishtar
The buildup
As Warren Beatty’s first film since Reds and Dustin Hoffman’s follow-up to Tootsie, Ishtar (1987) could hardly manage tosneak up on its audiences. Once word got out that each actor was being paid $5.5 million for this updated road movie about second-rate singer-songwriters caught up in international intrigue in a mythical Middle Eastern country, critics and moviegoers were fired with million-dollar expectations. Many were curious to see whether the chemistry between Beatty and Hoffman would work.

The turkey tale
Writer-director Elaine May, as notorious a perfectionist as her stars, reportedly spent $50 million and 17 weeks shooting in Morocco and New York — making Ishtar the most expensive comedy ever. When audiences and critics finally saw the results, they could not help marveling — at the magnitude of its banality. ”A truly dreadful film,” shuddered Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Shell-shocked, Hoffman described himself as ”in pain, walking the streets” in the wake of the movie’s opening. By year’s end, Ishtar had grossed only about $15 million. Even with foreign, TV, and video sales, the movie is unlikely to earn enough to get into the black. May has not directed a movie since Ishtar, but Hoffman and Beatty bounced back with Rain Man and Dick Tracy.

9. Pink Lady and Jeff
The buildup
After springing Supertrain on the American public, NBC president Fred Silverman needed a hit for his network in early 1980. Working with bright, young Brandon Tartikoff, the newly promoted president of NBC Entertainment, the TV whizzes developed a show around Pink Lady, a Japanese superstar singing duo of two young ladies named Mie and Kei.

The turkey tale
Not only were the singers virtually unknown to Americans, they didn’t speak much English. To solve the language-barrier problem, comedian Jeff Altman — another unknown at the time — was called in to play interpreter and wear a tuxedo. Dolled up in fishnet stockings, hot pants, and halter tops, Mie and Kei sang and joined Jeff in witty repartee. Trouble was, only the laugh-track operator could understand it. ”It could’ve been funny had we been a little sarcastic about ourselves and not taken the girls so seriously,” Altman now says. Pink Lady and Jeff was canceled in a month and Mie and Kei bid sayonara to the States. But Altman eventually emerged as a popular comic. His second Showtime special aired in May, and he’s now developing his own sitcom for NBC.

10. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
(The Movie)
The buildup
Inspired by the Beatles’ 1967 head-trip album, 1978’s Sgt. Pepper had everything going for it: pop stars then riding high (the Bee Gees, Peter Frampton), genuine rockers (Aerosmith; Earth, Wind and Fire; and Billy Preston), familiar show-biz faces (George Burns and Steve Martin), and a leading rock promoter, Robert Stigwood, as producer.

The turkey tale
This $12 million bomb had two problems: no script and rotten renditions of 29 Beatles songs (the Beatles weren’t in the movie). Rolling Stone called the soundtrack the ”worst album of the decade.” The record sold nearly three million copies, but eight million were shipped to stores. Ironically, even though the Bee Gees were bigger stars than Frampton by the time the movie was released, Frampton’s contract guaranteed him ”sole star billing,” so his name came first in the ads.

11. Turn-On
The buildup
ABC’s 1969 TV comedy revue from Laugh-In executive producer George Schlatter was expected to be another fast-paced laff riot. Advance publicity promised lots of psychedelic stop-action photography, groovy electronic music and a repertory cast with a make-believe computer playing the part of ”host.”

The turkey tale
Turn-On aired only once, on Feb. 5, 1969, making it the shortest running network series in history. Viewers were turned off by what they thought was bad taste and the show’s sexual double-entendres. The general manager of ABC’s Philadelphia affiliate even fired off a telegram to ABC Television president Elton Rule calling the show ”just plain dirty?If you naughty little boys have to write dirty words on the walls, please don’t use our walls.”

12. Across the River and Into the Trees
By Ernest Hemingway
The buildup
After publishing For Whom the Bell Tolls to great acclaim in 1940, Hemingway sank into a professional funk. So fans and his publisher, Scribners, eagerly anticipated Papa’s next book, the 1950 tome, Across the River and Into the Trees, hoping that it would revive Hemingway’s by-then languishing reputation.

The turkey tale
The book, actually a short story pumped up to novel length, followed the reminiscences of Army Colonel Cantwell, a self-described bastard and an obvious stand-in for the author at his self-mythologizing worst. Its style, terse even by Hemingway standards, read like inadvertent parody: ”We will try it out tonight, he thought. With whom, he thought, and where, and God help me not to be bad.” Across the River and Into the Trees became the modern benchmark for critically-despised works by famous writers. E.B.White parodied the novel in The New Yorker as ”Across the Street and into the Grill.” But Hemingway demonstrated the grace under pressure he had so often saluted. His next novel, The Old Man and the Sea, helped him earn the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.

13. TV shows starting with the words ‘The New?’
In television, shows with the words ”The New” in their titles might just as well carry signs reading TURKEYS AHEAD. Sometimes ”The New ” signals an attempt to trade on audience goodwill for a series that’s downright dull. Examples: The New Dick Van Dyke Show, The New Andy Griffith Show, or The New Bill Cosby Show. In other cases, producers are just trying the equivalent of television CPR; witness the syndicated disasters The New Gidget and The New Monkees.

Occasionally, ”new” doesn’t mean new at all, but very, very old (see the entire cast of 1985-89’s The New Leave It to Beaver). In 1984, Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels tried to reduce the concept to its essence with his prime-time NBC variety hour The New Show. It lasted less than three months.

14. The 1990 U.S. stadium tour of Aida
The buildup
The ads said it all: ”THINK SPHINX.” A blue-chip roster of American and Japanese companies — Holiday Inn, American Airlines, Hitachi — promised (threatened?) to unleash a monumental production of Verdi’s opera in outdoor stadiums in New Jersey, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The extravaganza featured a five-story Sphinx, a 15-foot python and a cast including 1,200 extras. Similar mega-performances sung by the International Opera Festival had played to 850,000 people around the world in 1988, so how could this one miss?

The turkey tale
Some things just don’t translate to America. Poor ticket sales forced producers to cancel the tour before it ever reached our shores. For example, two shows planned for 92,516-seat L.A. Memorial Coliseum sold a total of only 2,000 tickets in advance. By their own reckoning, Aïda producers lost $2.5 million. As Opera News editor Patrick Smith told New York Newsday, ”We have plenty of spectacles in the United States; we don’t need Aïda.”

15. Dolly
The buildup
”It takes a lot of money to make me look this cheap,” was Dolly Parton’s oft-quoted crack at the time ABC launched her variety show in September 1987. Indeed it did. The network sank $44 million into the production, partly to build a rustic living-room set. ABC execs boasted that the show would single-handedly revive the musical variety genre. Part of the Dolly buildup was Dolly’s slim-down. She took off so much weight that the Parton waist contracted to an itty-bitty 17 inches.

The turkey tale
ABC promised it would stay with the show for two years. But after one season of cellar ratings, Dolly was put out to pasture. It’s not that the country curioso didn’t try. She sang ”Hey, Good Lookin”’ with Pee-wee Herman, vavoomed through a music video with Hulk Hogan, took on-screen bubble baths, and — thanks, Carol Burnett — matched wits with the studio audience. Parton did not prove a natural comedienne though and, as research and common sense indicated, few Americans wanted to watch a variety show.

16. Chicken Soup
The buildup
Jackie Mason’s ABC sitcom Chicken Soup was supposed to be the big hit of the 1989 fall season. Remember? The borscht-belt comic had just come off a long-running one-man-show on Broadway that drew critical raves. This would be his first TV series. Cast as his foil and love interest: Lynn Redgrave.

The turkey tale
Each week, Chicken Soup floundered in the ratings, losing millions of viewers from its top-rated lead-in, Roseanne. What went wrong? ”Maybe my own personality is not the kind of a personality that appeals to the average American,” speculated Mason after the show’s seventh and final episode. Maybe Mason should have kept quiet off the set, too. During New York City’s ’89 mayoral election, he described candidate David Dinkins as a ”fancy shvartzer with a moustache,” a comment that embarrassed even his most ardent fans.

17. Star!
The buildup
Having collaborated on that super-saccharine 1965 megahit, The Sound of Music, director-producer Robert Wise and songstress Julie Andrews seemed likely to make cash registers come alive again. They chose Star! (1968), a musical biography of the acerbic English-born stage star Gertrude Lawrence. The ad campaign, as exclamatory as the movie’s title, helped raise expectations: ”A totally wonderful musical entertainment! The love affair of the century — between a woman and the world!”

The turkey tale
Despite tunes by Noel Coward, Cole Porter, and Kurt Weill, the three-and-a-quarter-hour, $14 million movie rang a sour note. The New Times’ Renata Adler wrote that Lawrence was ”portrayed as a kind of monster.” Twentieth Century Fox quickly pulled the movie from release for emergency surgery, even changing its name to the overly optimistic Those Were the Happy Times. Still, Star! lost an estimated $10 million. A dumbfounded Andrews suggested that ”the public wasn’t very happy with seeing me in drunken scenes.” The up side? The trauma surrounding Star! and Andrews’ 1970 companion flop Darling Lili provided much of the material for Blake Edwards’ bitter and knowing 1981 Hollywood comedy, S.O.B.

18. Trump Surviving At The Top
The buildup
His first autobragography, The Art of the Deal (co-written by Tony Schwartz), went to the top as though ordained for wealth and power, and it towered over the New York Times‘ best-seller list for 31 weeks in 1988. So Trump’s publisher, Random House, naturally figured the sequel was a cinch to do the same and reportedly paid The Donald $2 million for it.

The turkey tale
Shortly before the book came out last August, Trump’s romance with Marla Maples — not to mention Marla — went public in a big way. Then Trump ran into major cash-flow problems, and his golden image began to tarnish badly. Whether inflamed by blood lust or not, the critics didn’t just pan Surviving at the Top, they guffawed over it. Advance orders from the bookstore chains helped land Surviving at the Top on the Times‘ best-seller list for seven weeks, but sales then fell precipitously. Although Random House stands to lose a bundle, don’t worry about Trump. As he declares brashly in the book: ”I know that, whatever happens, I’m a survivor — a survivor of success, which is a very rare thing indeed.”

19. Mick Jagger’s solo career
The buildup
In the early ’80s, CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff pulled off a coup: He signed the Rolling Stones to his label for $28 million and got rights to solo albums by lead singer Mick Jagger. Until that time, Jagger had never recorded a full album alone. He finally went into a Bahamian studio in 1985 and came out with She’s the Boss. Two years later, Jagger released his second solo effort: Primitive Cool.

The turkey tale
Stones’ fans got little satisfaction from either album. She’s the Boss resulted in a forgettable Top 20 hit, ”Just Another Night.” Jagger was later sued for plagiarism over the song (he won)ck. Primitive Cool peaked at number 41 on the charts, and its single, the galling ”Let’s Work” (”The world don’t owe you/Ain’t gonna cry for you/If you’re lazy”), never climbed above 39. After an unsuccessful tour to boost lagging sales of these two albums, Jagger shucked the idea of a solo career and has been singing with the Stones ever since.

20. The David Letterman (morning) Show
The buildup
Letterman was a frequent sub for Johnny Carson in 1980, so NBC figured he was ready for his own program. NBC president Fred Silverman thought the comedian would be ideal at 10 a.m. as an alternative to the standard morning fare of quiz shows and The Jeffersons reruns.

The turkey tale
Actually, this show wasn’t much different from its late-night descendant, except that nobody watched. Letterman interviewed celebrities, toured RCA offices, employed a core of regulars, including newsman Edwin Newman, and made surprise phone calls to ”the folks at home.” There were even crowd-pleasing Stupid Pet Tricks. The critics loved Dave, but the show proved to be one big stupid programming trick. ”There was nothing wrong with the show, except that it wasn’t a morning show,” said one affiliate executive later. Before NBC pulled the plug after 14 weeks, Letterman resorted to phoning program managers at stations and begging them to stick with it. NBC wisely refused to give up on the former weatherman, reportedly continuing to pay him $20,000 a week to stay with the network. About a year and a half later Late Night premiered, and the turkey host became golden.

(Written and reported by Jess Cagle, Mark Harris, Tina Jordan, Gregg Kilday, Bob Mack, and Benjamin Svetkey)