One of the cinematic rabbit holes I find most alluring is the one containing lost feature-length TV pilots from the ’70s. Sure, it’s fun to revisit the initial episodes of series that later became cult favorites or even iconic boob-tube mainstays, but it’s even more revealing to investigate concepts that almost became series. For instance, it’s astonishing the pilot episode of Poor Devil was actually filmed and exhibited. It’s a broad-as-a-barn comedy about a low-ranking demon who’s desperate to escape his mundane job in Hell, which involves stoking the fires of the underworld by literally shoveling coal into a furnace. The price of getting a promotion? Persuading a mortal to sell his soul. Yep. Had Poor Devil gone to series, every week, the show’s “hero” would presumably have lured some dumb putz into eternal damnation, and/or attempt to do so and suffer a crisis of conscience. Oh, and the project’s star was Sammy Davis Jr.
In the pilot movie, which has a few moments of pith but never overcomes the innately untenable nature of the premise, the would-be “client” is Burnett (Jack Klugman), a department-store accountant. His wife wants nice things that he can’t afford; his smarmy supervisor, Dennis (Adam West), has the store’s top accounting job simply because he’s better at kissing ass; and Burnett has sunken so low as to attempt robbing the store one night. Meanwhile, ne’er-do-well demon Sammy (Davis) has spent centuries in torment after screwing up previous assignments, so he’s eager to impress Lucifer (Christopher Lee) by getting someone to sign a contract. Sammy talks his way into becoming Burnett’s handler, with the understanding that if he fails, his punishment will be hundreds more years of shoveling. The bulk of the pilot depicts Sammy’s attempts to fulfill Burnett’s every wish, per the terms of the contract, even though Burnett knows he can wrangle out of the deal if Sammy botches anything. Proving how the series premise was never going to work, Sammy deliberately screws up once he realizes that Burnett is too nice a guy for Hell.
Nonetheless, Poor Devil has a colorful cast, and Davis does his best to sell the wackadoodle idea. He’s charming if perhaps a bit overzealous. Lee and West are fine if uncharacteristically restrained, and Klugman fares best of all, bouncing between comic anguish and exasperated one-liners. For instance, when Sammy magically appears in Burnett’s bedroom, Sammy helpfully explains, “I’m from down below.” Burnett’s response: “You’re from the Feldmans’ apartment?” Or, as Burnett says later, “I don’t wanna go to Hell—I haven’t even been to Europe yet!” You get the idea. By the by, this movie’s vision of the underworld has a very Austin Powers vibe, with lots of medallions and turtlenecks—apparently the road to Hell is paved with polyester.
Poor Devil: FUNKY