As a ‘70s kid, I logged countless hours in front of the TV consuming a variety of programs. I was also a huge Sci-Fi nut, thanks primarily to such shows as SPACE: 1999 and STAR TREK. When QUARK premiered on NBC in May of 1977 as a primetime pilot and then returned to air weekly the following February, I was thrilled to find a silly sitcom that was 100% space-related.
To me, QUARK was hilarious, and looking back now the show cracks me up even more because I catch all the clever, adult-oriented jokes that went waaay over my head at nine years old.
I had the privilege of speaking with QUARK star Richard Benjamin about the show and was pleased to discover that he has a special fondness for the short-lived series: “I love QUARK. I hated the fact that they canceled it. There were eight shows and it was just starting to catch on, but NBC said, ‘That’s enough, we’re not going to pick it up.’ But I think if they left it on it would have taken off.”
Following the mundane adventures of Commander Adam Quark and his eccentric crew on his United Galaxy Sanitation Patrol Cruiser in the year 2226, QUARK was truly a product of its time, complete with laugh track and recognizable ‘70s TV stars.
“I heard that Buck Henry — who had created GET SMART and wrote [the screenplay for] CATCH -22 in which I was in and so it was my wife — had a TV pilot,” remembers the WESTWORLD movie star about first getting involved with the show. “There are a handful of people like Buck Henry and Elaine May, and not too many more, who are really funny, deeply funny, and deeply smart and witty. I read that he was doing this and said, ‘Wait a minute you know, I gotta find out about this.’ So I had my agent and I said, ‘Well, I’m interested in this. ‘And they said, ‘Well, yeah but you’re you’re in the movies and stuff, we don’t think we can afford you.’ And I said, ‘Well, let’s not let’s not think about that now. Let’s see if we can make this work because I love the pilot that Buck wrote.’”
Much like Henry’s other sitcom material, QUARK had a deft mix of sophisticated and sophomoric humor to it. “It had all those things in it, all that satire, but it had existential things in it: A garbage man in space, and the cleverness of it: A. Quark, Adam Quark, and Otto Palindrome (Conrad Janis) — Otto is a palindrome — and Gene/Jean (Tim Thomerson), who is sometimes a man and sometimes a woman — look at what’s going on today — who could make this stuff up? It’s too rich. And the girls, The Bettys (Cyb and Patricia Barnstable), one of them is a clone. And he’s crazy about one of them, but he doesn’t know which one because one of them is a clone. And maybe that’s fine, but it’s too much! And then to be sent on these silly, funny missions, it was just the best. So I said, ‘I’ve got to be in this,’ and it’s because of Buck. I didn’t care that, initially, they couldn’t pay me very much. I just wanted to do it.”
Benjamin, a Northwestern University theater alum who cut his teeth in comedy, always had a love for genre material. “Vincent Price, THE FLY, Leslie Nielsen in FORBIDDEN PLANET, I loved all of those things,” he says. “THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, THE BLOB, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN — I loved all those, the real Saturday afternoon movies, and went to every single one of them.”
Benjamin says that making QUARK was just as enjoyable as the final product: “We shot it like film. It wasn’t like a half hour sitcom where you could develop the script over a week or something. Most of the scripts I got were all pretty well finished and we’d tweak some things here and there but, but not too much,” he recalls. “Working on was just as fun, because sometimes I’d be out in space, or being hauled around on these wires and stuff — it was really, really fun.”
The titles of the various episodes were almost all a play on words, including “The Old and the Beautiful,” “All the Emperor’s Quasi-Norms,” “May the Source Be with You,” and “The Good, The Bad and The Ficus.”
“Ficus (Richard Kelton) came in later,” says Benjamin. “The fact that he was a plant, kind of like The Thing or something because he’d grow his parts back — and then the character of The Head (Alan Caillou), who was only a head — I mean that’s all Buck, you know? Buck loved science fiction.”
The material was arguably ahead of its time, or at the very least operating on a higher level than the network execs could grasp: “NBC said, ‘Well, what is this? Should this be on Saturday morning? Is this a children’s show?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t think with those two girls this is a children’s show.’”
NBC aired the pilot during primetime on May 7, 1977, and then shelved the series until the following year, returning it to the airwaves in February 1978 on Friday nights at 8 o’clock as a half-hour mid-season replacement.
“[Audiences] couldn’t figure it out for a while, but they were getting it right towards the end: ‘So wait a minute, this is not a children’s show?!’” says Benjamin with a laugh, pointing out that one unique demographic “got it” right away. “We got fan mail from physicists who were loving it. We’re doing stuff about black holes — to get this fan mail from scientists is a scream because they talk about the particle something or other, and all of this kind of stuff that’s actually in there.”
But before QUARK could really catch on, it was canceled for good in April of ’77. I was very disappointed, as I sure was a fan of the show, and many of my friends were too.
“Anyway, it was a blast,” says Benjamin. “We had such a good time.”
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