How I created ''Golden Years'' -- Stephen King on how he spooked dozens of TV executives and became America's best-loved bogeyman
At some point between Salem’s Lot, my second book, and The Dead Zone, my sixth, I became America’s Best-Loved Bogeyman. This happened completely by accident. I did not aspire to the position; did not, in fact, even know it existed. Why America should need a Best-Loved Bogeyman is a question I’m not sure I want to think about too deeply, but it certainly seems to be true. For two generations before mine, Boris Karloff filled the position. In the ’50s and early ’60s, Karloff and Alfred Hitchcock were sort of co-Bogeymen, and then Rod Serling took over for both of them. When Serling died in 1975, the position stood vacant for a while, and then I came along.
Well…things could be worse. The hours are good, and there’s no heavy lifting.
One has to pass a number of qualifying hurdles to get to the position of ABLB (America’s Best-Loved et cetera), but the really big one is this: You have to scare the spook-lovers of America weekly by hosting your own creepy TV show. Boris Karloff had Thriller, Alfred Hitchcock had Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Rod Serling, who was sort of the Queen Victoria of ABLBs, had two shows: Night Gallery and The Twilight Zone, a CBS fantasy anthology that scared the bejabbers out of almost every baby boomer in America.
Although it would take me another few years to perfect the terminology, I now know I was first offered the vacant position of ABLB in 1982 when a TV production company offered me my own program. As the company visualized it, every week I would introduce a different story of ”New England horror.” A kind of Down East Twilight Zone, if you like, where the girl would say, ”Do you get the feeling something strange is going around here, Jed?” To which Jed would reply, ”Ayuh.”
I turned the offer down, but it has been renewed half a dozen times in the 10 years between then and now. I wouldn’t have to write if I didn’t want to, I was told again and again. All I’d really have to do was introduce. But I did want to write. Writing is what I do. What I don’t do is perform. Oh, I’ve done a cameo every now and then — if I told you there isn’t a bit of the frustrated actor in me, I’d be lying — but not on a regular basis. I know which side my bread is buttered on, and I am first and foremost a writer of stories. So I kept saying no, and as the ’80s dried up, the offers to do the Rod Serling thing began to dry up too.
All the same, I had been thinking about TV quite a lot, in my own way — which is to say on spec and without telling anybody what I was up to except my wife. On spec because I found myself in the extraordinarily luxurious position of not needing anyone’s advance money; and without telling anybody because when you let other people — especially ”creative people” in the TV business — in on what you’re thinking about, they fall all over themselves in their eagerness to edit your dreams. There is a time and place for editing…but not while you’re still dreaming.
As a kid, the only TV series I really liked was The Fugitive, and I think the reason it so appealed to me was that, unlike most other TV series, The Fugitive actually seemed to have some forward motion; it was doing something a little more interesting than spinning its wheels in place week after week.
In fact, I felt that the writers of The Fugitive were actually trying to tell one whole story. This fascinated me, and my wish for some sort of climax — some sort of closure — was splendidly realized when the series ended not with Dr. Kimble simply running off into cancellation with Lieutenant Gerard baying at his heels, but with a marvelously exciting two-part finale in which the one-armed man was finally revealed as the actual killer of Dr. Kimble’s wife.
When ABC ran Rich Man, Poor Man for 10 weeks in 1976, creating a new American TV form called the miniseries at a single stroke, I was galvanized. Not by the story, as good as it was, but by the possibilities. RMPM, it seemed to me, had finally utilized the one true creative resource TV has that the movies are denied: time. The producers were able to tell the whole story, without the compression that the movies demanded. RMPM unfolded at its own pace; it was far richer in characterization than most movies; it brimmed with subplots and novelistic detail. Most of all, it had a climax. TV, it seemed, had finally found a way out of the dramatic box it had built for itself, where stories have a beginning, a middle, a middle, a middle, and a middle. Rich Man, Poor Man went back to the way old fogies like Shakespeare, Melville, and Faulkner told a story: It had a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Yet it occurred to me that RMPM and all the successful minis that followed — Roots, Shogun, The Winds of War — were based on existing books; they were really just another form of reprint, like paperbacks. But TV’s greatest successes, it seems to me, have never come as the result of adaptations but as creations tailored to accent the medium’s unique strengths and to minimize its weaknesses. What would happen, I wondered, if someone were to create a novel that existed as a limited-run TV program first? The idea excited me. It combined the best features of the TV series, in which one gets to know and like the characters, with the most important feature of good fiction (especially good suspense fiction), the steady march of events toward a satisfying conclusion.
With these ideas in mind, I set out to write Golden Years, an idea that had been perking around in my mind as a potential novel for almost a year. It would deal with innocent people living under the influence of a shadowy and ominous government agency called the Shop, a top secret experiment gone awry, and an exciting cross-country chase with the good guys being hounded by a nasty Shop operative named Jude Andrews, who will stop at nothing an insane version of The Fugitive‘s Lieutenant Gerard, if you like. Most important of all, it was a love story about two nice old folks, Harlan and Gina Williams, and I hadn’t told a real love story since The Dead Zone. I loved them almost as much as they loved each other, and I was passionately interested in knowing how things were going to turn out for them.
I envisioned this as a 14- or 15-hour series — something that would run for one entire season, with a two-hour opening episode and a bang-up two-hour finale. I began to discuss the idea and actually show some of the work after I had written four hours’ worth of script. No one was very interested. The network powers-that-be still wanted an anthology series of creepy stories, because everyone knew that was what an ABLB is supposed to do; Karloff, Hitchcock, and Serling proved it. Besides, the age of the blockbuster miniseries was long over.
Well, I said through my agent, don’t think of this as a miniseries; think of it as a regular series that just happens to run only one year. But at that point, rational discussion pretty much broke down. TV executives, it seems, find it as impossible to understand the concept of a regular series that ends as I am to understand the ramifications of Einstein’s theory of relativity.
Yeah, they said, but what if it’s a success?
Then we do it again next year, I replied.
You mean we continue the story? they asked, sounding puzzled but a little hopeful.
No, I said. We tell a different story in the same way. All new characters. All new situations. All new plot. All new conclusion.
But TV people, I learned, are extremely uncomfortable with any concept that includes the idea ”all new,” and so the proposal lapsed. My interest in the characters who populated Golden Years — Harlan and Gina, Jude, General Crewes, Major Moreland, and Dr. Todhunter, that maddest of mad scientists — did not lapse, and I actually finished writing two more episodes of the tale before other commitments forced me to shelve it. I didn’t continue because of network interest, nor did I drop it when the networks continued to stay away in droves. In the end, my work on Golden Years came down to what is always the bottom line: I wanted to know what happened next. It was a simple case of what Paul Sheldon, the hostage writer in Misery, calls ”the gotta.”
If there is anything instructive in all this, it’s simply that this is the way creative projects in TV and the movies often develop, from the first germ of an idea to the program that debuts in fear and hope some months (or years, in this case) later. If you’re very lucky, a rescuer eventually comes along, and usually when you least expect it. Not a knight on a white horse, but a producer whose armor is apt to consist of Ray-Ban sunglasses and whose lance is apt to resemble a Pentel pen with which he makes notes on a yellow legal pad.
The producer who rescued Golden Years was Richard Rubinstein (Creepshow). Richard read the Golden Years scripts in first draft and was the only production-side person who really liked them. But as an independent who was % just getting his feet wet in the syndie TV market at the time, he had very little clout. He asked me to keep him in mind, however, and it was pretty clear he was keeping the series in his mind. Whenever we met, he’d ask me what was cookin’ with Golden Years and the people who populate that rather weird scientific facility in upstate New York.
Nothing much did cook for a time, and then the factors that finally resulted in production began to come together. The most important factor of all may have been the success last year of the ABC version of my novel It. That miniseries scored both in the Nielsens and with TV critics, who have, as a rule, almost no use for horror tales. The ironic side of this was that my name became golden (to coin a small pun) on TV as the result of a Nielsen bonanza that I had little to do with…beyond lending it my name, that is. As a result, the current CBS series isn’t really Golden Years, after all. The official copyrighted name of the show is Stephen King’s Golden Years, which sounds like a documentary about my retirement.
In the end, Richard Rubinstein got Jeff Sagansky, entertainment president of CBS, to take a close look at Golden Years, and the show got a green light from the network…following one final, crucial compromise. CBS wanted a series that could go on and on (and on) if the audience liked it. I wanted only to tell the story of Harlan Williams, an elderly janitor who happens to get caught up in a disastrous secret experiment. We resolved it by creating a character, Terrilyn Spann, who if necessary could carry the series on when Harlan’s tale was told. And although I wish Terry nothing but the best, I have to confess that it’s still Harlan I care about. And because even his story can’t be completely told in the eight-hour summer run of the series, I’m hoping people will like Golden Years well enough to bring it back for a full run.
What is a full run, anyway? Well, I still believe there’s a place on TV for long, complex stories — electronic novels, if you will — that exist in that medium alone and have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Who knows; maybe they will be some of the best-sellers of the 21st century.
I can hear the literary critics screaming now.