If you can only watch one episode of Fantasy Island — one single hour to help you understand why some kitschy 40-year-old TV show still has a presence in popular culture — I recommend Season Six’s “Legends”/“The Perfect Gentleman,” from October of 1982. Like nearly every other Fantasy Island episode, this one cuts back and forth between two stories. In one, Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas plays an actor/singer who overcomes her crippling stage fright by going back in time and performing for the legendarily ornery Wild West lawman Judge Roy Bean, played by Andy Griffith. In the other, Paul Williams is a rock ‘n’ roll superstar who witnesses a mafia hit and goes into hiding, posing as a butler for three financially struggling sisters.
This episode has everything: An aging TV star, two slightly over-the-hill pop music sensations, some inexplicable swerves into the Western and gangster genres, and in the end, a prim moralism. For seven years, from 1977 to 1984, the ABC network aired this downright deranged show, about a mysterious island where a nattily attired magic man named Mr. Roarke (played by Ricardo Montalbán) fulfilled vacationers’ wildest dreams. Like the Rolling Stones, Mr. Roarke often skipped right past what his customers said they wanted, and tried to give them what they needed… even if that meant a visit from Judge Roy Bean.
This weekend, the horror/action specialists at Blumhouse Productions are debuting a movie version of Fantasy Island, hyped as a darker, stranger version of the TV series. But honestly? Fantasy Island was already plenty bizarre — to the point of feeling like the product of some drunken writer’s stream-of-consciousness exercise. Try not to think too deeply about the two scenarios mentioned above, or you might go mad. Why does a woman overcoming her fears need to take a trip back to a dusty old frontier saloon? How does a story about a celebrity faking his own death become a story about a butler?
You can place some blame for all of this on the nature of television itself in the 1970s. Back when most families only had access to five or six channels, the major networks tried to appeal to the widest possible audience by airing programs with casts that attracted every demographic. Variety shows, talk shows, game shows, TV movies, crime-of-the-week detective series and quasi-anthologies like Fantasy Island assembled talented newcomers and showbiz veterans side-by-side, intending to grab the attention of viewers from age 8 to 80. The stars’ names and faces often factored more into the final Nielsen ratings than whatever dopey thing those actors were hired to do.
Fantasy Island debuted with a TV movie in early 1977, just a few months after The Love Boat’s own pilot movie introduced what would prove to be a reliable formula: familiar actors, playing out intertwining short stories, in an exotic setting. On both shows, the rudimentary story-and-star pairings were rarely fleshed out any more than they had to be. If Fantasy Island’s producers had Andy Griffith booked for an episode, and if they had the vague idea to do something with Judge Roy Bean, well, who cared if the story made sense? Audiences tuned in for the overall vibe (a fun cruise ship! an upscale island resort!), and didn’t seem overly bothered if the plots were half-baked.
And yet it was perhaps because of that slapdash, off-the-cuff approach that Fantasy Island endures. Putting the emphasis on very much of-their-time guest stars like Paul Williams amplifies the show’s nostalgia factor today. And the dream-logic plotting — like having Paul Williams play a rock star going undercover as a butler — makes any given episode feel like it bubbled up from the subconscious.
So, with all due respect to Blumhouse’s grim ‘n’ gritty Fantasy Island “update,” here’s a look back at some of the original show’s most disturbing and/or baffling stories, which collectively give a sense of how Fantasy Island in its heyday combined the mundane, the moronic and the macabre. (Note: Some of these episodes are available on the ad-supported Crackle streaming service; most of the others can be found on YouTube, albeit unofficially.)
“Nightmare” (Season 2, Episode 7; November 4, 1978)
Janine Sanford (played by Pamela Franklin) has been plagued by the same bad dream for years, so she asks Mr. Roarke to let her live through it over and over, until she can understand and conquer her fears.
One of the show’s best-known segments, “Nightmare” is infamous for how uniquely bonkers Janine’s dream actually is. Rooted in her childhood memories, the nightmare sees her returning to her old bedroom, where her toys come to life and torment her until they explode and catch fire. Clowns, grinning monkeys, toy soldiers — all of a typical kid’s usual fear-fuel is littered around Janine’s room, looming ominously even before they all start jerking about and bursting into flames. While the story ends happily — with the heroine realizing that her dream was actually a premonition of danger facing her father — that didn’t help Fantasy Island viewers in 1978 sleep any easier.
“Charlie’s Cherubs” (Season 2, Episode 12; December 9, 1978)
A trio of curvaceous young secretaries want to play detective and crack a mystery with style, just like their favorite sexy TV sleuths.
Fantasy Island’s anthology-like format gave the writers and producers the freedom to steal from — or, more charitably, pay homage to — whatever old or new TV series or movie was widely popular. Often these nods were subtle, but not so with “Charlie’s Cherubs,” where one of ABC’s other big escapist 1970s hits gets a direct shout-out. The three customers (played by Brenda Benet, Melinda Naud and Bond Gideon, three 1970s TV stalwarts who never became big stars) get to enjoy a very low-stakes version of Charlie’s Angels, adopting undercover identities and investigating a robbery. It’s all oddly meta, especially when the “cherubs” start brainstorming theories about the crime by recalling the plots from old Charlie’s Angels episodes.
“Bowling” (Season 2, Episode 24; May 12, 1979)
Happy Days favorite Al Molinaro plays an ordinary guy who dreams of becoming a champion bowler, good enough to beat the top pros. That’s it. That’s the plot.
Here’s something else you need to know about television in the 1970s: Millions of people watched bowling. The sport had enough of a following that Fantasy Island could draw an audience with big-name special guest stars like, um, Mark Roth, Marshall Holman and Dick Weber. Luckily for those bowlers, they didn’t have to do much more in this episode than just hang around in the background, while Molinaro plays out one of the show’s tried-and-true cautionary tales, in this case about a schlub named Lou who gets a swelled head once Mr. Roarke’s magic turns him into a strike-rolling machine. Before it’s too late, will Lou learn that his true talent was inside himself all along? And for goodness’ sake, couldn’t the writers have come up with a snazzier title for this segment than just “Bowling”?
“Marathon: Battle of the Sexes” (Season 3, Episode 4; October 5, 1979)
Like “Bowling,” “Marathon” pits regular folks against world-class athletes, with the opportunity to win life-changing money. All of which raises a question: If the people who come to the Island pay for their fantasies, and their fantasies involve winning more money than the whole trip costs, how does Mr. Roarke stay in business? In “Marathon,” the “champion for a day” plot gets a (somewhat) feminist twist, in that every other competitor in this big combination running/cycling/hang-gliding race is a man, save for the barbell factory’s representative Bunny Kelly, who takes over for the injured galoot who was supposed to run. Bunny is played by Hugh Hefner’s ex-girlfriend Benton, who guest-starred on Fantasy Island eight times in the show’s first five seasons.
“The Victim” (Season 3, Episode 11; December 1, 1979)
Julie Brett (played by Joan Prather of Eight Is Enough) demands to be paired up with her dream man, only to find out he’s the kingpin of a sex-trafficking ring — and that she’s going to be the latest addition to his roster of prostitutes.
Another story from the darker side of Fantasy Island, “The Victim” (like “The Nightmare” before it) proceeds like a bad dream. This is one of the rare scenarios where Mr. Roarke tries to warn his client away from her fantasy — although he stops just short of telling Julie that the guy she wants so badly to date is a merciless pimp and kidnapper, saying only that he’s “dangerous.” She gets abducted early in the episode, and suffers degradation after degradation before leading her fellow sex slaves in a revolt. The final moment of vengeance is sweet, but doesn’t quite compensate for the preceding hour of sour.
“The Devil and Mandy Breem” (Season 4, Episode 1; October 25, 1980)
Roddy McDowall plays the literal devil, who tussles with Mr. Roarke when Roarke fights for the soul of a young woman (played by Carol Lynley) who made a pact with Satan to revive her dying husband (played by Adam West).
The Fantasy Island writers avoided saying too much about exactly who Mr. Roarke is or what he can do, but they did occasionally suggest that he was an immortal being, well-known among other supernatural superstars, like, y’know, the devil. McDowall guested more than once on this show in the role of Satan, but he was at his best in his first appearance, where he torments his debtor Mandy with potential soul-saving tasks she can’t complete, before finally getting tricked by Mr. Roarke into breaking his contract with her. It’s all very spooky and surreal, with a pervasive sense of hopelessness barely alleviated at the end.
“The Quiz Masters” (Season 5, Episode 20; April 10, 1982)
Here’s one for the true 1970s/1980s TV nostalgists, who’ve always wanted to see all-time great host Rayburn as a game show contestant. Montalbán appears to be having a ball doing his own hosting routine as a tuxedoed Mr. Roarke, asking two old frenemies to choose between doors that lead either to a wonderful fantasy or to instant death. The competition itself is suitably freaky, with the fantasy doors having their own unique time-travel properties, sending the people who walk through them into the violent distant past. Ultimately, while they’re scrambling to safety, everyone learns a lesson about cooperation and camaraderie — but not before one crazy scrape after another.
“The Mermaid and the Matchmaker” (Season 7, Episode 18; March 24, 1984)
In her third appearance on the series, a mermaid princess (Michelle Phillips once again) demands something of Mr. Roarke that he can’t give.
Like the devil, the mermaid Nyah was a recurring character on Fantasy Island, appearing every now and then to ask Mr. Roarke for the impossible. In her final turn, toward the end of the show’s final season, the immortal Nyah asks to be allowed to die. When Roarke refuses, she embarks on a campaign of mischief and sabotage that appears to change his mind. For a few minutes, it looks like Fantasy Island is going to take its bleakest turn yet — until a handsome human agrees to become a merman and give Nyah the passionate love affair she’s always really wanted.
One could argue that Fantasy Island’s reliance on happy endings is a cop-out, and takes some of the sting out of its creepier twists. But the show never really lets viewers off the hook. In a way, just knowing that there might be an island out there somewhere populated by demons and mermaids and bowlers and butlers — well, that alone is enough to haunt anyone’s imagination.