Hervé Villechaize as his pint-sized sidekick, the frequent source of comic relief.
Having begun with a pair of TV movies, the series proper took to the airwaves in 1978 and was an immediate hit (airing right after the aforementioned Love Boat.) Villechaize's pronouncement in the opening credits "De plane! De plane!" as he rang the bell signifying the arrival of the guests via a small aircraft turned into a national catchphrase.
After a while, however, things became a bit grim behind the scenes of the show. The producers as well as the always and ever professional Montalban were distressed at the erratic behavior of Villechaize. The diminutive actor suffered from health issues, depression, prior suicide attempts and an increasing propensity for propositioning women on the set along with heavy salary demands, which let to conflicts with the producers.
The producers had attempted to quell things a bit in 1981 by adding a third staff member of the island, Wendy Schaal as Julie, but this did not work out at all. The rather simple character neither blended in nor demonstrated chemistry with the others and she was swiftly reduced in screen time and eventually written out. Now producers were left in a quandary. What to do with two costars who were by now at considerable odds with one another, yet both very popular. What if one or both of them were to quit or be let go?
Spelling ordered a test run to be shot of a new rendition of the show. He wanted to see if the concept could withstand a new star as the lead if he opted to overhaul the series and go in a new direction. Thus, he arranged for a 38 minute "pilot" of sorts to be produced by different hands. If it came down to where he needed to use it, more footage could be added to pad the material into a full hour show. If not, he could use introductory and closing footage with Montalban to "bookend" the material for use in the next season's lineup of episodes.
The pilot featured Mr. Roake's cousin, clearly on his father's side since this man's name was also Mr. Roarke (!), to be played by Lorne Greene. Greene had enjoyed a lengthy, popular run on Bonanza and the cult favorite Battlestar Galactica as well as just having headlined another short-lived show called Code Red.
He possessed the requisite friendly, fatherly image, yet could also be counted upon to provide a certain amount of mystery and even menace. He even sat in a large wicker chair similar to that of Montalban's.
Spelling, unable to utilize the familiar trappings of the regular series without raising considerable eyebrows from the regular cast and crew, tried to replicate the general feel of Fantasy Island by peopling the program with plenty of sarong-clad natives, hula dancers and even a pig roast! All the lush color, bongo drums and so forth were on hand.
In order to avoid anything with "De plane!," guests for this version of the show arrived by helicopter and touched down on a pronounced helipad next to the main house, a large lodge with comfortable guest quarters.
The first guest turns out to be none other than Aaron Spelling favorite Robert Urich. He portrays a Vietnam veteran who had fallen deeply in love with a field nurse from whom he was separated when an encampment was destroyed. He'd been severely injured and shipped out while she stayed behind, never to be seen or heard from again. His fantasy is to be reunited with her again. (Prior to fulfilling his fantasy, he takes a jog on the grounds of the lodge and returns to his room in the teensiest of gym shorts, as seen below!)
Greene informs an anticipatory Urich that he believes he can help him locate the young lady, but that merely finding her won't guarantee happiness since so much has happened in the intervening years. He also implies that perhaps even Urich himself may not be completely ready to commit to his long lost love.
He sends Urich off on a trek to a remote area of the island where this lady is believed to be living. (Because, you know, long lost and missing army nurses always turn up living on Fantasy Island! But I guess that's as good an explanation as any would be...)
When, after an arduous journey, Urich does come upon his adored one, she turns out to be none other than Miss Barbara Parkins! Sporting a curly, frizzy 'do and decked out in flimsy island-wear, she has been seeking personal retreat from the world following her disturbing tour of duty in Vietnam. The two begin to reacquaint themselves with long strolls on the beach.
But as Green intimated, all is not paradise. Urich begins to experience what we now know as post traumatic stress disorder. He begins to imagine the enemy closing in around him and takes off into the jungle, clambering through vines and over rocky waterfalls trying to escape the enemy!
He's finally rescued and calmed down, but then it all begins again and he starts to think of Parkins as one of the enemy soldiers who nearly cost him his life during the war! She's faced with talking him down from his latest hallucination while held at gunpoint.
The other guest at Fantasy Island is a priest, played by Pernell Roberts. What's fascinating about this casting is that Roberts portrayed Greene's son Adam Cartright on Bonanza for many years, eventually departing the series over concerns about its quality. He later scored a hit of his own, Trapper John, M.D. (which was in fact in the middle of its successful run at this time.) Roberts had long since abandoned his toupee while Greene still held firmly to his...
Anyway, Roberts is facing a crisis of faith. He is considering leaving the priesthood because of all the evil in the world, believing that he's not accomp- lishing anything of note within the bounds of his collar. He wants to confront evil head-on without the restraints of his religious confines and, predictably, Greene warns him of the dangers therein.
With a symbolic chessboard before him, Greene explains to Roberts the complex battle that exists every moment of every day between good and evil. He warns Roberts that once he has set out on his trek, he will be unable to offer him any assistance at all. The determined Roberts shrugs off such warnings and eagerly heads off into the deep wilds of the island.
After fierce struggles with merely the island terrain, Roberts delves deeper and deeper into the dark recesses of the island, exploring a cave than winds up housing unspeakable demons!
After practically being shredded to death by them, he manages to overcome them and escape with his life and, in the bargain, a level of renewed faith. He is, however, an irrevocably changed man.
Lorne Greene threw himself into this makeshift project and one can see that, although he lacks the charming warmth and flair that exuded from Ricardo Montalban. He did, however, have the necessary mystique and severity to helm the program if it did indeed shift gears to a more serious show. But it was not to be...
In the end, Villechaize was fired from Fantasy Island and one Christopher Hewitt was brought in to serve as Montalban's reserved and far less cutesy companion. Where Villechaize once rang a bell in a steeple to announce guests arrivals, Hewitt merely pushed a button that rang a bell to signify their arrival. The show only lasted through the rest of that season, being cancelled in 1984. Hewitt, of course, went on almost immediately to his own sitcom Mr. Belvedere, which ran from 1985 to 1990.
By the way, if any of this sounds unbelievable to you, I must direct you to examine the calendar date for this post and wish you a very happy April Fool's Day! Most of this post is factual, but everything involving the alternate pilot (except for the one photo of the demons) was taken from a two-part episode of Urich's series Vega$ and the images have nothing to do with the text I've assigned to them! Did I get you or were you on to me from the start? :-)