Before he became a household name with Dallas and Step by Step, Patrick Duffy starred in an NBC sci-fi show called Man from Atlantis. The series started as four made-for-TV movies that all aired in the spring of 1977.
They were successful enough to convince the network to order a regular weekly show. Unfortunately, that only lasted 13 episodes and the de facto series finale aired in June 1978.
Duffy played the title character, a handsome and mysterious man who is found on a beach with no memory. He’s nursed back to health and given the name Mark Harris. He has webbed hands, gills instead of lungs, incredible strength, and can swim faster than a dolphin. He agrees to aide the Foundation for Ocean Research and ends up helping to save the world more than once.
The four TV movies and subsequent TV series are being released as part of the Warner Bros. Archives. You can purchase them directly or via Amazon. I recently spoke with Duffy about his work on Man from Atlantis, the challenges that came along with it and why the TV series didn’t last longer.
When you were reading for Man from Atlantis, did you have any apprehensions about the role — the make-up or the sci-fi aspect?
Patrick Duffy: I don’t think any actor, when they’re first starting out, has any hesitation about taking any role that’s offered to him. It’s so rare to get one. I was literally delivering flowers and working as a carpenter when I was going for the auditions for Man from Atlantis. So, when I finally got it, it was a game changer for my entire life. Going from four dollars an hour, and working your ass off — to still working your ass off but having the lead in a television primetime show. There’s no hesitation. No actor in his right mind would hesitate, and it turned out to be the beginning for me that led to every single thing that I’ve done since then. There’s a direct line in my career connecting all of them.
When you were shooting the movies, did you know it would become a TV series?
Duffy: Well, it actually didn’t start out to be four movies. It started out to be a pilot that would be picked up for a television series. And NBC could not make up their mind at that time, once they saw the pilot. And so, when the season presented itself and then passed, they decided, “Well, we didn’t do a series but we’re still interested. So, do another movie.” So then we did the second movie, thinking that the second movie would lead to a series. And when that was presented to NBC, they ordered two more additional movies after that. So the four movies came through a series of stops and starts and hesitations, and at the end of the fourth movie, that’s when they ordered the thirteen episodes.
The movies were a big success so why do you think the TV show only lasted for one short season?
Duffy: They changed the format. That’s the lovely thing about the Warner Archives collection, and being able to access these things. You can see the change in the format of the show. From the first four movies — which were really good science fiction. Herb Solow (Star Trek, Mission: Impossible) and Bob Justman (The Outer Limits, Mission: Impossible) wanted to literally, because they came from those sorts of shows, wanted to make Star Trek, and make space under water, instead of outer space. That was the concept, and they approached the first four movies individually, as self-wrapped great concepts of science fiction.
When it was picked up for a series, I don’t know whether it was network intervention or what, but the concept changed into that serialized superhero thing. And, I’m not disparaging the show I’m about to mention but, it went from science fiction to Batman. And I think the people who really liked the movies for the quality and the science fiction, thought those aspects disappeared slowly when we started doing the television series and that’s why it was canceled.
A whole crew was added when it became a weekly series…
Duffy: We had to fill an organization that he belonged to, so you got the comic relief character, you got the [other stock character types] and you filled the bill of a running series television show. It lost a bit of it’s sparkle, I think. They were still good in the sense that they were different; he was still the Man From Atlantis, we still did a bunch of underwater stuff, but it did have a different flavor.
Were there any difficulties making the series that you can recall? Any particular challenges?
Duffy: Staying alive was probably it. The difficulty was, and would not be as much in today’s world because there’s so much technology available now, was basically to get underwater shots with the cameras — all the time. There was no way to fake those in 1976. So, you know, it was uncomfortable all the time. You film in the winter, and you know, when I’m being hosed down at 6:00 in the morning, or 10:00 at night, in November on the beach in Santa Monica — it’s cold and it’s miserable. And every episode had something where they just say, “Okay, walk out into the surf and disappear under water and stay under as long as you can.”
And it didn’t matter what the temperature of the water was or whether it was spring or summer — it only varies about ten degrees anyway. It’s miserable. It’s the most miserable you can possibly be. But when you’re 28 years old, you’re bulletproof and you’re excited ’cause you have your own TV show. So you do those things. I could no more do that now, if you put a gun to my head. I couldn’t do it. So that was the difficulty.
What do you think? Do you remember Man from Atlantis? Do you like the movies or the TV series better?