In an age when television shows with premises as preposterous as those at the center of Charlie’s Angels and Fantasy Island became monster hits, perhaps you could forgive NBC for gambling, and gambling big on Supertrain. (It was the most expensive tv show ever made up until that time). Its science fiction premise was simple…the titular Supertain is an atomic-powered, coast-to-coast bullet train, roughly twice as wide as an ordinary train. Every week, guest stars like Steve Lawrence, Larry Linville, Joyce DeWitt and Isabel Sanford join cast regulars Edward Andrews (the conductor) and Robert Alda (the train’s doctor!) for Love Boat style adventures. Yet this isn’t a sit-com. It’s a drama. And another thing, unlike the Love Boat, it’s a bullet train. The whole point is that it arrives at its destination in only a few hours, not a few days. And yet it is appointed with all the amenities of an ocean liner, including a gymnasium, a hospital, a swimming pool, etc.
NOW: I know I said we could forgive NBC…but can we? It’s funny how the mind works. There was another movie from around the same time with a similar premise, and all these years I had it established in my mind that it had been a parody of Supertrain. It was called The Big Bus, and it was set on a nuclear powered, cross-country Greyhound bus, equipped with a cocktail lounge, bowling alley, hot tubs, etc. The all-star cast is not to be believed: Stockard Channing, Joseph Bologna, Rene Auberjonois, Ned Beatty, Bob Dishy, Jose Ferrer, Ruth Gordon, Harold Gould, Larry Hagman, Sally Kellerman, Richard Mulligan, Lynne Redgrave and Stuart Margolin. Here’s what it looked like:
Researching it this week I discovered something amazing. The only things I got wrong were that The Big Bus was a theatrical release initially, not a tv movie….and that it came out three years prior to Supertrain. The Big Bus was 1976; Supertrain was 1979. This means the idea for their serious show had already been vetted as a comic idea three years previously, but the producers went ahead and made it anyway. But they didn’t make too many…only 9 episodes were produced and aired between February and May, 1979. And guess what impressionable young future leader of America was watching?