Air Date: Feb. 14, 1973 (NBC)
Production Companies: Paramount Television
Running Time: 73 min.
Available on: YouTube
Written by: Earl Barret, Arne Sultan
Directed by: Robert Scheerer
Cast: Sammy Davis Jr., Christopher Lee, Jack Klugman, Adam West, Gino Conforti, Emily Yancy
We’ve been working through our 70’s TV movies chronologically. However, we’ll occasionally backtrack to see if any we missed the first time have become available. Such is the case with today’s film.
This week brings us another unsold television pilot and a 1970s TV movie I really didn’t think I was going to like. Lo and behold, Poor Devil (1973) was surprisingly sweet and charming. How on Earth, or in Hell, as the case may be, did that happen?!? For starters, I didn’t realize that it featured none other than Christopher Lee playing Lucifer. This begs the question: if the pilot had been picked up for a series, would we have received a weekly does of the horror master in the safety and comfort of our own homes?
As the big boss who sits behind a desk in the underworld, Lee’s role is more than just a cameo. He calls the shots, holding his minions accountable for bringing in “new business” in the form of humans who sell their souls to him. He’s strict but has a soft spot in his heart for a lovable loser named Sammy (Sammy Davis Jr.), the titular “poor devil” that can’t ever seal the deal on the topside and has earned a career shoveling coal into the furnace of Hell.
The real bad guy is Lucifer’s assistant Bligh (Gino Conforti.) We’re not sure what he has against Sammy, but he tries to talk his boss out of every opportunity Lucifer wants to give him. Perhaps in later episodes we would have learned why he hates Sammy so much. Sammy has a lady friend named Chelsea (Emily Yanc) who encourages him and provides moral support. If Blight weren’t so stereotypically bitchy, I might think that their issues were over the woman.
Sammy spots Burnett J. Emerson (Jack Klugman) on one of the monitors that displays earthly activities. Because he’s trying to rob the department store for which he’s been a junior accountant the last 25 years, Sammy identifies him as being desperate enough to sell his soul. The trick is, Emerson has to say that he’d sell his soul to the devil. Sammy gets permission to visit him, convince him to sign his name on the contract, and deliver a new resident to Hell at the end of seven years, during which Emerson’s every dream will come true.
Hijinks ensue. I expected bad jokes and slapstick. What I got was some solid comedy writing and a great cast enjoying the heck out of themselves. Earn Barret and Arne Sultan were the writers and they’ve each worked on some classic television comedies, including Get Smart, Barney Miller, Welcome Back Kotter, and… Batman. It may be no coincidence, then, that Adam West appears as our earthly villain, Dennis Crawford, and that I swear I heard a riff on the Batman theme in one scene that Crawford arrives in a car.
By the way, the score is terrific… bouncy and fun. It’s by Mort Stevens, who coincidentally got his start working as Sammy Davis Jr.’s arranger and conductor. He wrote music for Hawaii Five-O (for which he won an Emmy award for the theme), Police Woman, and Gunsmoke. Just as it does for movies, the music can enhance a television show, making it more memorable.
Poor Devil was directed by Robert Scheerer, who IMDb tells me is known for The Danny Kaye Show, Fame, and Live from Lincoln Center. I’ll add that he directed some other classics: A Happening in Central Park (the Barbra Streisand concert film), Disney’s The World’s Greatest Athlete, and an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. All in all, this group of cast and crew has some fun projects on their resumes and Poor Devil shares some of the same characteristics.
I smiled during much of the dialogue. It’s not Shakespeare, but in the right frame of mind, something like the following exchange can be very entertaining:
Emerson: I don’t want to go to hell; I haven’t even gone to Europe. Sammy: It’s like Miami, only less humid. It’s not as bad as you think, but there’s one thing wrong… you have to die to get there.
Lee commands your attention as he explains to Bligh why he wants to give Sammy a chance. He reminds him of himself. He apparently had a rough time at the beginning of his career in the Garden of Eden, until…
Finally, that apple!
West delivers my favorite line. It’s true sense of humor may be questionable, but with him delivering it, it’s comedy gold:
Of course I’ve been drinking. I just came from a cocktail party.
Poor Devil was the best kind of treat for me… an unexpected one. If you want some silly, perhaps old-fashioned fun with unanticipated strength of characters and relationships, give it a try. What do you have to lose? It’s not like you're selling your soul to the devil.
Visit the TV Terror Guide: 70's TV Movies playlist at ClassicHorrors.Club TV on YouTube to watch Poor Devil as well as all the great movies from this series...