When I was ten or eleven years old, in the wake of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a lot of my outdoor play started revolving around forgotten idols and the relics of ancient civilizations. Most particularly, there were some woods behind my house where we had an ongoing science fiction-themed “war” storyline, as opposed to the more – ahem – “realistic war” storyline that we played out in the “Big Woods” down at the end of the neighborhood. After Raiders, when we went behind our house, we were always finding the ancient weapons of some forgotten planet for use against the newest menace, and there were tunnels and traps and giant pits and climbing along ropes and barely winning fights, just like Indiana Jones.
It was for kids like me that ABC commissioned Tales of the Gold Monkey from Donald P. Bellisario at Universal, but what seems amazing in retrospect is that I never once watched this show and was only loosely aware that it existed. It aired Wednesday nights at 8, opposite the hit Real People on NBC, and not many other people watched it either. It apparently finished the season ranked # 69 of 99 shows. Another Raiders copycat called Bring ’em Back Alive was on CBS on Tuesdays in an even worse slot, crushed by The A-Team on one channel and Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley on the other. (See ratings info here.)
Monkey, which is set in 1938, starred Stephen Collins as Jake Cutter, a pilot based out of Bora Gora in the South Seas. His pals include a resentful and really intelligent dog named Jack, an absent-minded mechanic called Corky played by Jeff MacKay, and Sarah Stickney White, a spy for Uncle Sam played by Caitlin O’Heaney. Their adventures seem to start from a bar run by Bon Chance Louie. In the pilot film, Louie is played by Ron Moody. When ABC ordered this to series, Roddy McDowell took over the part.
Interestingly, I had wondered why Ron Moody had not returned to play the wizard Rothgo in the third series of Into the Labyrinth for HTV, and the reason was simply that he was working in the United States at the time that they would have made that show. He was doing guest shots on things like this and Strike Force and Hart to Hart.
Anyway, so the first episode really underlines just how much of a Raiders copycat this is. It’s a search for a legendary gold monkey that’s said to be about the size of a house and made of some amalgamation of gold and metal that can withstand molten lava, and which Hitler wants for the German war machine. They even mention that he’s after the Ark of the Covenant, which is cute. John Hillerman, taking a break from his regular part in Bellisario’s Magnum PI, is the main Nazi villain, but there are a trio of other baddies on the fringes of the story who show up semi-regularly from here. They’re led by Marta DuBois as Princess Koji, a character who has some history with Jake, although strangely they do not share any screen time in this story and Jake has no idea by the end of the adventure that she was involved at all.
I think that ten or eleven year old me might have enjoyed this. I’m sure I would have wanted to tune in if ABC had run some ads on Saturday mornings, you know, when kids were watching their network. As an adult, yeah, it’s pretty tame. The most impressive thing about it is actually a mammoth jungle waterfall set for the actors to have their big brawl, and for some stuntmen in monkey costumes that sport hideous razor-sharp teeth to swing around, but at no point does it ever look like anything other than a mammoth set in Universal Studios. Weirdly, they obviously spent a heck of a lot of money on this, what with all the location filming in Hawaii, and then they went and had Stephen Collins react to forty year-old black and white stock footage of a plane taking off.
And as for our favorite eight year-old critic, he wasn’t blown away, but there was a lot here for him to enjoy and he said that he liked it. There are fights and airplanes and an erupting volcano, after all. But his favorite character was, unsurprisingly, the dog. I think Jack’s going to steal every episode from his human co-stars.