Burton Armus Interview

This exclusive interview with Burton Armus was conducted by Dan Rendell (HernesSon) and took place via email between 14th – 16th February 2005.  Credit to Clark M. Van Hoten for making this interview possible and to Mr Armus for patiently answering ever question with good humor.

Burton Armus is not new to the industry. A veteran scriptwriter and Producer, he was employed by Universal as a ‘troubleshooter’ to go in and help ailing shows.

He did this in the early days as a sideline, between working as a NY Police detective. He soon found that more money could be made from writing and producing and finally handed in his badge to work freelance for Universal Studios.

Armus worked on the first season of Airwolf before coming over to do Street Hawk’s first season. When the series was not renewed he went to trouble shoot the ailing Knight Rider.

Was Street Hawk tough to produce and did it run to schedule?

Street Hawk was as difficult as are all action/stunt shows and in this case a little more so since the bike was too fragile for the requirements of the stunts and numerous takes and would required a great many repairs and emergency patchwork. Gately was the stunt bike rider and could do almost anything on the bike but keep the pieces attached every time he jumped it. Johnny Moio was the Stunt Coordinator and did a good job putting him through hoops.

A lot of writers came over from Airwolf and Knight Rider to work on Street Hawk. Those shows had already proved to be winning formulas. Why do you think then that Street Hawk only managed to last a half a season?

All of the writers on the show except Harris and myself were freelance and wrote many of the shows on the Universal lot. I also came from Producing the first season of Airwolf and when I left Street Hawk went on to 2 seasons of Knight Rider. The writers were not the were not the cause of the cancellation but rather the fact that the shows lacked a “star.” Rex Smith was never that as were Jan Michael Vincent or David Hasselhoff.

There was also above the line difficulties with the inexperience of Bellous and Wolterstorff (Ex. Producers) and also too many cooks and nobody wanting to wash the dishes.

If I gave you some names, could you tell me briefly what first comes to mind? Virgil Vogel. Karen Harris. Robert Wolterstorff & Paul Belous…

Virgil Vogel was a wonderful, talented, old timer who knew it all and could also do it all. I think he was 72 or 3 when he did the show and he had the enthusiasm and energy of a twenty year old. He delivered a great product.

Paul Belous & Robt. Wolterstorff were doing their first series. Street Hawk was a character based on a premise by Bruce Lansbury some years before for Universal and now brought to life by the studio with a pilot script by Bel. & Wol. Bruce received shared “Created By” credit and was titled Supervising Producer and although very experienced was not used to any extent by Bel & Wol for reasons of their own.

Karen Harris – I have successfully blanked her from my memory.

Can you tell us a little about the locations used on the show. It was of course L.A Where for example, was Street Hawk Command Centre located, and the Police Headquarters?

Streethawk Command Center and also Police H.Q were located on stage at Universal. The command center was an extravagant and functional set and one of the best I have ever seen. The catwalks, screens, twists and turns gave us many many interesting angles and set ups and gave the scenes with Joe Regalbutto additional life.

You produced the series for the most part but also wrote what turned out to be the very last episode. Was the intention to write more?

The start of the season was spent re-writing scripts that had already been purchased. This done, I then wrote one and had another in the typewriter when we were cancelled.

How did Rex Smith & Joe Regalbutto come to be cast for the roles. Were there any other contenders, and do you remember Rex’s Screen Test?

Joe Regalbutto was brilliant in this part and is one of the finest character actors in the business, We were lucky to have him since he brought a new life and energy to any scene he was in and was always a total pro.

Rex Smith had come from “Pirates” and somebody, somewhere chose him. I assumed he was the only semi star available at the rate they were paying. He was a little full of himself but over all not a bad kid. His training was music and stage and he just wasn’t a series hero. I think he tried to do the best he could. Rex did in fact bring a naivety and youthfulness to the part. What he didn’t have was danger. No actor ever made it to any level of stardom if he couldn’t make you believe he could be dangerous. Go down your list. There might be an exception or two but Rex Smith was never one of them.

Best person to work with?

There was a hard working Line Producer by the name of Steve Craig who helped keep it all running. The crew was excellent and worked hard.

The reason for the shows flop, in your opinion?

The show never caught on. I had no legs. I always felt the bike was a little too tinny and lacked the bulk and strength of major vehicle as compared to KITT or AIRWOLF, or even BLUE THUNDER. The hero had basically the same flaw. In spite of it, it could have been a lot more and also a hit. What it needed it didn’t. Life went on.

What kind of network interference did the production have to face?

Network interference should be the title of a series of 10 novels with addendum’s and photographs. Of course there was interference. The networks are staffed with young inexperienced MBA grads who read research reports and then think they know the best way to do a show. They can neither write, act, direct, or involve themselves in the business artistically so they remain jealous of those professionals that earn much more money and re not MBA’s. They feel they must tell them the right way to do things. Standard or language and dress codes were never a major problem but the artistic input of the useless executives had to be manipulated and eluded to the best of ones ability or fall into the trap of doing a show that was an obvious piece of shit. The studios came up with a+ format of promising them jobs when they left the network and giving them a one year Development Deal at the studio. Very few of them ever had the ability to get anything on the air or the talent to staff any of the jobs on any production. I assume they went back to selling used cars.

What kind of budget did the show have?

I think the budget was about $850,000 an episode, but that was a studio budget which included studio overhead and not really the amount spent on the show. There is no such thing in Hollywood as a real cash budget and nothing ever shows a profit for disbursement. Amazing but true. Everyone is overpaid up front since there is never a back end to any deal.

How did Tangerine Dream (music) get to be signed up?

If I remember correctly there was some sort of musicians strike at the time and Belous went to Germany for the music score. Therefore TD. As to a soundtrack album, we were not on the air long enough for any music to become popular or known by an audience, as was Peter Gunn or Dragnet type stuff.

Did the ‘hyperthrust’ sequences in post-production pose any trouble?

Hyperthrust was never a problem. The film raced, and reaction shots to speed sold it.

I’ve been talking with Andrew Probert who produced the designs that gave the series its hero-bike. I noted there was some difference of opinion originally regarding the look of the bike. The design even changed in the series to accommodate extra guns and missile pods. Any more information on the change?

The bike was always in transition and always in repair. We had a bunch of them designed to do different things but it was never the brute it should have been. They started with a light weight dirt bike for the sake of stunts and kept decorating it with more shit, but it was never a “hero bike” but just a skinny kid with a lot of guns.

So, what in your opinion would have made a better bike?

I always pictured a 1500cc Harley with a full cowling, solid roll bars, and additional armament and weapons.

Was all of the riding done by stunt bikers, or did Rex do any of his own?

Rex could ride the bike and rode before the series, but any (I repeat ANY) stunt riding, even minor stunts, were done by Gately, our stunt rider.

Can you tell us who directed the Title Sequence?

To my recollection the title sequences were shots taken from the first few shows and an experienced editor cut it together along with a lot of input from all.

Jayne Modean was replaced after the pilot by another actress. Was there a problem?

Jayne Modean was a beautiful, fresh looking, talented, young actress who the network thought she was too young looking for the part and she was replaced with a very competent actress who I felt was too old for the part.

Generally, did you experience any problems with any of the Guest Stars?

Guest stars are usually young actors who are happy to be well paid and on network television. They rarely if ever make demands or make trouble.

What happened to the sets ; Command Centre consoles, Maxi Warehouse Billboard, etc?

The set was broken down and sent to the “docks” where pieces of it may have been used as parts of other sets, scavenged, or just plain rotted away.

You mention you had an episode in the typewriter before the show was cancelled?

I think the script I had at the cancellation was a fight show where Rex ends up on the ring and gets the shit beat out of him. Joe Reg.. throws in the towel!

Were there any ideas for the second series?

The studio and network wanted a crime fighter (Batman/Spiderman/Green Hornet) type format for the show and who knows given that mid-season pickup if it would have worked. It made sense since given the parameters of the cast and show structure to keep it light and just the serious side of amusing.

Would you have stayed with the show if it had run for another season?

If the show was re-newed I would not have stayed with the show for another season. I was mainly a troubleshooter for Universal at the time and they would have moved me on to another troubled show as they did. I was assigned to produce Knight Rider which was shut down at that time. I enjoy challenges and hard work but I am a lousy babysitter.

Bruce Lansbury later joined me at Knight Rider for that second season. He was also a lousy babysitter.

Steve Cragg went on to Produce other shows.

Belous and Wolt… were never heard from again.

How long, excluding delays, would the average episode take to complete filming?

The show was 7 day First Unit shoot with some 2nd Unit shots added.

Was it a happy crew?

We had a good crew with a good sense of humor and and good work ethics. Happy was not a necessary ingredient. I enjoyed them and liked them a lot better than I did some of the above the line assholes and executives.

Were there any stunts that went wrong?

Not that I recall. The stunt guys were very good at what they did. The unpredictability of the bikes made things quite dangerous though.

There was a scene in one of the episodes (‘Vegas Run’) where the bike leapt up and did a 360 degree spin in the air in order to survey the surrounding landscape. Are you able to tell us how this was achieved? It looked like some kind of pneumatic rig…

The 360 shot was done with a crane and the front tire and camera rig attached. It worked okay if not used too often.

In an early script that I’ve seen, the show/bike is called “Falconer.” An odd title, perhaps with a meaning? How did it come to get changed to Street Hawk?

I don’t remember anything about Falconer and cannot attach any meaning to it.

Did basing the show purely in L.A limit the scope for the series at all?

The show was set in L.A. as are most L.A. based shows since no exterior surrounding shots have to be redesigned or re-dressed as they would if we named another city. Stories are stories and if they are well written, performed well, and shot properly they can be filmed in a phone booth or close to it.

When production was drawing to a close what was the feeling amongst cast and crew?

Life went on. Everyone went on to other things.

Can you tell us a little more about the line difficulties you had with the shows executive producers?

The problems with Belous and Wolterstorff were not necessarily with me alone but with many of the older and more knowledgeable members of the crew and staff..  B & W were rookies, no experience, limited to no knowledge in the action adventure format and any production but ,had firm opinions and dictates in all those fields.

Belous, Executive Producer,  was on the location which was a construction site in Westwood right on the exclusive Wilshire Blvd, residential strip.  The site was rigged for an explosion [ ‘The Adjustor’ ]

Due to production delays they never got to do the explosion and it was cut. Instead of removing the charges and wrapping the company, Belous decided that it was faster (40 minutes) to just blow it up! Under his orders they did so without the usual safety measures and proceeded to blow out the windows on on a newly construct Wilshire Blvd. Synagogue, patio windows in the adjoining hi-rise, and spewing shrapnel around the area.

Much yelling. Much money. Much trouble for the whole company.

George Clooney guest starred as Jesse’s buddy in the first episode. He of course went on to become an international film/tv star later. You said that you thought Rex Smith wasn’t quite “dangerous” enough. Do you think Clooney could have made a good Street Hawk?

George Clooney was a day player and did a good job. He might have been a more capable Street Hawk, or not.  Probably yes, but it would not have changed the surrounding facts that left the show as an incomplete product.  It had the elements, and co stars,  but its failure was at the top.

It’s been said that most of the hard-line NY cops on US tv during the early Seventies were caricatures of your own life as a NY cop. In your script “Follow the Yellow Gold Road” there is a character from the Bronx is there any relation to him and yourself?

Any parody or likeness to my past would be in any scripts for the “Kojak” series, (which I did for 4 years) possibly “Streets of S.F.”, and maybe “Paris” and some of the more realistic cop shows of that era.  Street Hawk was never connected to any factual part of my life and was more of a Western on wheels..

Any memories of working with the late Nicholas Corea?

Nick Corea was a talented friend who jammed at least two lifetimes into one.  I had fun with Nick the few times we worked together.

Any last comments, thoughts, regrets … ?

I am sorry that the show was not successful. Could it have been? Of course. There is always a chance that time slot, casting, or some other element would have taken it over the top. Didn’t happen. That’s the nature of the T.V business.. It keeps moving and you go with it or get off.

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