The Making of Fantasy Island

TV Guide March 1, 1980 pg. 26–30

By Dwight Whitney


  • second-choice actor
  • a little-known dwarf and
  • a discredited script

…to make a runaway hit out of ‘Fantasy Island’

One cold, gray day in the fall of 1975, some key ABC brass gathered in the office of producer Aaron Spelling, the well-known supplier of such TV hits as Charlie’s Angels, Love Boat, Starsky & Hutch, Mod Squad, etc. They were on the prowl for what they hoped would be a 30-share, made-for-TV movie. Spelling and his partner, Len Goldberg, bombarded their visitors with what they regarded as sure winners, but the network forces kept rejecting them as not glamorous, sexy or exciting enough.

Finally Spelling grew impatient. “You guys are impossible,” he said irritably. “Nothing will satisfy you short of some cockamamie South Sea island where a man can have all the booze and broads he wants and anything else he can conjure up, just by asking.”

According to Spelling. Brandon Stoddard, the then vice president in charge of motion pictures for television, said, “Yes! That’s it! Do it!”

Fantasy Island’s emergence was probably not as pat as that. “I think it hit us all at once,” Spelling says. “What had begun as a joke was basically very sound, childlike in its simplicity. A place where you get your wildest fantasies realized! Everybody could identify with that.”

The show, as originally conceived, was not so much “high concept”—a popular term these days to describe shows with bizarre or otherwise attention-getting premises—as low horse-play. It was also a way of doing an old-fashioned anthology and making it Nielsen-proof. It is generally thought that viewers will not watch a series regularly unless they see a familiar face, even if it is only Alfred Hitchcock or the late Rod Serling. Thus, the first order of business became the creation of Roarke, first name unknown, Fantasy Island’s worldly entrepreneur.

Little was known about him, where he came from or the source of his powers, except that he was to be played (Spelling originally hoped) by Orson Welles. Welles, it was thought, would lend the necessary aura. With a sidekick, a beautiful girl for Orson to leer at, à la Charlie’s Angels, how could they miss?

As it happened, they couldn’t, but for a long time the issue was in doubt. In December 1975, veteran writer-producer Gene Levitt, who at the time was just winding up S.W.A.T., was brought in to develop a script. “The boys owed me a two-hour movie,” Levitt recalls. “One day I got a conference call. ‘We got this idea,’ they said, both talking at once. There is this guy who runs this island, see. For $50,000 you get to come for a weekend and act out your fantasy.’ I thought they were nuts.”

Nevertheless, Levitt warmed to his task. He developed three stories regarded as classic American fantasies. There was the one about the World War II correspondent who wanted to recapture his glory days covering the war during the London blitz; the woman who wanted to attend her own funeral so she could “see who really cared”; and finally, in a bold switch on the old story “The Most Dangerous Game”, the ultimate-thrill seeker who wishes to be the hunted instead of the hunter.

When Welles turned out to be reluctant or unable (it was never clear which) to play Roarke, Spelling called on his old friend, the courtly Ricardo Montalban. “He positively dripped warmth and sophistication,” Spelling says. “I’d seen him do ‘Don Juan in Hell.’ He’d give it just the other worldly quality we needed.”

In Spelling’s view the pretty-girl-sidekick idea no longer worked; Montalban was pretty enough all by himself. “I wrote in a guy named Tattoo. Liked the name,” Levitt explains. “His thing was, he wasn’t subservient to the hero. Aaron said, ‘Why don’t we him a midget?’ ‘You mean do small-man jokes?’ ‘No, play him straight’.”

“We had to have something different,” Spelling continues. “That old Ingrid Bergman movie, ‘Saratoga Trunk,’ stuck in my mind. The one with the dwarf. About that time I found Herve Villechaize upstaging the heavies in a James Bond film. Perfect!”

The network was less than delighted. Doubts grew. Indeed, Herve seemed overmatched in a popularity contest with, say, Farrah Fawcett. Somehow or other the TV-movie got made—with Herve. It did so well in the ratings (a 40 share average) that a second movie was ordered. Still the network fretted. Spelling would have to lower the price of a trip to Fantasy Island. Couldn’t let the public get the idea that fantasizing was the exclusive province of the rich. He would also have to “dispense with the midget,” the network people insisted. Spelling recalls, “We finally had to tell them: you want us to make the show, you take Herve.”

They took Herve. As for Ricardo, he always seemed perfectly suited to the enigmatic Roarke. If the trouble with television was that all the mystery had gone out of it, then Spelling and his friends were doing their bit toward putting some of it back:

“Just who is your Mr. Roarke?” asks an early visitor to Fantasy Island.

“Some people call him…” replies Tattoo, rolling his eyes heavenward. “Some people call him…” turning a stubby thumb downward.

“And what do you call him?”

“I call him Mr. Roarke.”

Roarke is omnipotent there seems little doubt. “Boss, it hasn’t rained on Fantasy Island in 15 years,” remarks Tattoo at one point.

“Indeed?” Patter of rain on the roof.

Exactly what Roarke is or isn’t, and how he got that way, are wisely left to the imagination. Indeed, it is Fantasy Island’s big strength: the viewer is permitted to read into it anything he likes. But some people find the dime-store mysticism hard to swallow. That included Fred Silverman, then in the twilight of his reign as ABC’s resident programming genius.

When he saw the first six shows, he hit the ceiling. Kid stuff! No grownup would buy it. He ordered Spelling to fix it or forget about the show. The young line producer, Michael Fisher, was surreptitiously moved aside and, at Silverman’s insistence, a new “script consultant” in the form of a fireball named Harold Livingston installed in an office next to Spelling’s. His orders: tidy up Fantasy Island, knock off some of the rough edges, bring it into the adult world.

“If a girl wanted to be a beauty queen, it was all staged by Roarke’s repertory company,” recalls Livingston. “Aaron wanted it to be real. Once you entered that portal you were on your own à la Twilight Zone. Roarke couldn’t save you. That way your mild process server who has always dreamed of being Sam Spade suddenly wakes up to discover this is for real, he’s facing real bullets, and it’s up to him to save himself.”

Indeed, Livingston devised seven of the “new liberated FI’s.” But that was all he devised. Since none were ready by the premiere date in January 1978, ABC was forced to go with one of Michael Fisher’s “embarrassing” shows.

What happened next would be hard to believe—even on Fantasy Island. The show garnered a whopping 45 share, with no supernatural help, at least from Mr. Roarke. Suddenly everybody was having trouble remembering Livingston’s name and Fisher was enshrined as a new folk hero. “I couldn’t even get Aaron on the intercom,” smiles Livingston. “They slipped my paycheck under the door. Nothing further was said about changing the show.” A few weeks later Livingston was out. Thus are hits made on TV. Fantasy Island is a prime example of an idea so perfectly suited to a series that it is all but indestructible. It deals in the most obvious materials on the most elementary level. The lack of any real depth seems to be an advantage.

Says Spelling: “It’s so simple and works so well that you ask yourself why didn’t we think of this years ago?”

As in the case of all major television hits, it has had far-reaching effects. It rescued Montalban from hawking automobiles in commercials for a living. “I knew immediately it would be a hit,” he says, buffing his nails on his shirt front. “All the elements were there. Fantasy Island is every book ever written. There is nothing we can’t do. A fantasy knows no limitations of time and space. And we’ve only begun to scratch the surface.”

“Roarke? Ah!” His eyes light up. “My character has complete control over his visitors’ destinies. God? Well, no.” He becomes noticeably fidgety. “He’s not that. But there is… ah, a mystery about him. He manipulates everything and everyone. He can bring them very close to the brink.”

He lets the word hang there. Brink? Brink of what?

“Life and death. Yes, in the eye of the fantasizer, Roarke has the power of life and death.”

No less startling a transformation has occurred in Villechaize’s life. The sensitive artiste has become an object of public adoration. He is mobbed everywhere he goes. “Tattoo! Tattoo!!” they shout. Children want to touch him or hug him, which he hates. So do adults, which he hates even worse. On several occasions he has nearly been trampled to death. The network now supplies him with a bodyguard.

For Herve, the result has been a marked tendency to withdraw into his own private world. He now has his own trailer, which befits the “star” he is. If he is not feeling in the mood to talk he will conjure up a sore throat and excuse himself for “a trip to the doctor.” Villechaize finds the character of Tattoo “stupid” and says so. “I want most,” he recently told a friend, “to be treated like a human being.”

Writers like Fantasy Island because it’s an outlet for all those stories that don’t fit anywhere else. The producers buy the stories individually. two per hour show, then intercut between the two, supplying the connective tissue of banter between Roarke and Tattoo themselves. At the beginning of this season an abrupt ratings drop in a new time period brought on a new supervising producer, Arthur Rowe, some further fiddling with the formula to suit “adults,” and a return to the original 10 P.M. Saturday slot.

“We now lean toward wilder, more sensuously mature stories with renewed emphasis on the magical,” Rowe said a few weeks ago. “It turned out to be, uh, magic, and we’re right back on top again.”

Actors love it. The reason is that the parts tend to be larger-than-life, somewhat offbeat and therefore easy to be noticed in.

As for Spelling, his reputation as a sniffer-outer of hit television shows has once again been enhanced. Is it luck? His partner, Len Goldberg, who used to be a network programming executive and is not a bad sniffer-outer himself, thinks not. “Aaron has the instinct,” he says. “It was like magic from the day we saw the first dailies. We knew we had a winner.”

Still it is popular to knock the show. “Sure it could be better,” says a rival producer. “But the point, as far as they’re concerned, is, who needs it to be? It’s a hit the way it is. And an old hand like Spelling—or Goldberg—or Lear, for that matter—doesn’t argue the point. That’s how big-time television operates.”