As the credits roll, you’ll notice this production is headed by Harve Bennett and produced by Universal Television for the ABC-TV television network, which aired this as their “Movie of the Week” on January 8, 1972.
Of course, we all know the connection between Universal Studios and ABC-TV with 1978’s Battlestar Galactica*. But you’ll also notice several familiar names from Bennett’s next production: The Six Million Dollar Man, which aired as a 1973 TV movie, then as a 1973 to 1978 series on ABC. (And near the end of both series, Bennett gave us the coolest do-it-yourself astronaut with Harry Broderick in another great TV movie (and ill-fated series), Salvage 1.
The lead in The Astronaut, Monte Markham, portrayed the Seven Million Dollar Man (as Barney Miller/Hiller in “The Seven Millon Dollar Man” and “The Bionic Criminal” episodes). Of course, we remember his co-star, Richard Anderson, as Oscar Goldman in the series. You’ll also recognized several familiar TV and film support players, such as Susan Clark (Colossus: The Forbin Project; ’80s TV Webster), Jackie Cooper (the original Perry White in 1978’s Superman), and Robert Lansing who, ironically, starred as General McAllister the 1989 TV movie, Bionic Showdown: The Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman — but we remember him for the trash classics of 1977’s Scalpel and Empire of the Ants, 1980’s S*H*E and Island Claws, and 1988’s The Nest. (How is it that I watched all of those Lansing movies? I don’t know if that makes me cool, or just very sad). Keener eyes will pick up on ubiquitous TV actor John Lupton (Airport 1975), along with the he’s-everywhere James B. Sikking (TV’s Hill Street Blues, Outland, the ’80s Star Trek movies) as one of the ill-fated Mars astronauts.
The Astronaut was the film, well, teleplay, writing debut for TV scribes Charlie Kuenstle (who went on to write Airport ’77), Gerald Di Pego (who wrote the 1974 pseudo-giallo W, the beloved 1974 Linda Blair TV romp Born Innocent, and a couple The Incredible Hulk TV movies), and Robert Biheller, who continued with his prolific TV acting career (but also worked as a staff writer on TV’s CHiP’s and Charlie’s Angels). Robert Michael Lewis wrote a slew of TV movies throughout the ’70s and ’80s, most notably: 1974’s highly-rate Prey for the Wildcats (yep, with Andy Griffith from Salvage 1) and The Day the Earth Moved (with Jackie Cooper). (Remember that, at the time, Watergate was the crime of the decade, and you’ll see that conspiracy-cover up concept the frames of the teleplay.)
Monte Markham is Col. Brice Randolph, the first man on Mars (in an Apollo rocket and LEM, just like the later Capricorn One from 1978). As Randolph sets foot on the surface and begins to explore, the TV coverage is abruptly cut off. Officially, the story is that it was a slight communications glitch and the crew is heading home. Unofficially, Mission Control officer Jackie Cooper and a few top-ranking officials (Richard Anderson) know the truth: Randolph died on the surface due to a bacterial infection.
If the news of his death gets out: goodbye space program. So, instead of faking the mission or killing off the astronauts in a cover up (as in Capricorn One), NASA recruits a fellow officer, Eddie Reese, and — with a little surgery and a switcheroo at the splashdown site — passes him off as Randolph. But the plan begins to fall apart when Randolph’s wife (Susan Clarke) starts to realize something’s not quite right about her “husband.” And when the Russians announce they’re going to Mars, will the U.S. warn them of the dangers of the Red Planet?
(And if this all sounds a bit like the 1999 did-anybody-actually-see-it Johnny Depp box office bomb, The Astronaut’s Wife, it probably is.)
Markham went back to the moon — alongside Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead, Re-Animator) in the 2016 English-language Serbian-Korean-Slovenia co-production The Rift: The Dark Side of the Moon (not to be confused with the underwater Alien ripoff, The Rift, or the better, other Alien ripoff, The Dark Side of the Moon). The plot concerns a sleeper CIA agent in Belgrade dispatched as part of a multi-national team to secure the remains of a crashed satellite in Eastern Serbia. The team comes to discover the satellite has vanished and they work to discover the truth behind the crash and their ill-fated mission. As you can see by the trailer, the production values and acting are of a high quality. (I liked this one, but opinions vary — to the side of “suck,” so you know how that goes.)
The VHS and (grey market) DVDs for The Astronaut are out there, if you want a hard copy for your sci-fi collection, but you can watch an okay taped-from-TV VHS rip of The Astronaut for free on You Tube.
And by the way: We reviewed a pretty cool German variant of the Capricorn One concept with 1977’s Operation Ganymed. Put all three together for a night of viewing.
* Be sure to check our our two-part, month-long Star Wars ripoffs and galactic droppings blowout “Exploring: Before and After Star Wars.”
There are more TV movies to be had with our “Week of Made for TV Movies,” “Lost TV Week,” “Son of Made for TV Movie Week” and “Grandson of Made for TV Movie Week” tribute spotlights to those films that, in many cases, are even better than the movies that played in theatres.