Herbie J Pilato: The Interview
What follows is an exchange with this prolific writer, actor and classic television authority. Enjoy. If you haven't checked out his books or his Classic Television Preservation Society, please so, and keep in mind any further questions you may have for Pilato - you never know when he'll be popping up on Facebook or otherwise!
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IAC (Charlie Kondek): Tell us a little more about Herbie J Pilato, the man. You're an actor and a writer. What got you interested in TV and film and made you want to write about it?
HJP (Herbie J Pilato): Well, I grew up in a tough neighborhood in the inner city of Rochester, New York. My parents did not have a lot of money, but they had a lot of love. And they encouraged me to follow my dreams, and one of those dreams had to do with one day working in the entertainment industry, specifically television. Besides Kung Fu, my favorite shows growing up were Bewitched, The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, as well as The Twilight Zone, The Dick Van Dyke Show and so many others. Either way, I knew that one day I wanted somehow to be a part of TV. So very early on I started dreaming big. At the same time, I always had my priorities straight. I knew that above all, family and a belief in some form of prevalent "goodness" was most important. And with that, I later managed to be accepted in Aquinas Institute, one of the most heralded high schools in upstate New York, earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Theatre from Nazareth College of Rochester, studied Television & Film at UCLA, and served my Internship at NBC-TV in Burbank, CA. But still before any of that, I knew in my heart of hearts that I wanted to somehow connect television in a positive way with the world. And that part of the story really began with my particular fondness for Bewitched. When I was about 9 years old, I was perusing the books and magazines in one of the many Wegmans supermarkets in Rochester. I came across a book, titled, The World of Star Trek by David Gerrold, the prolific writer who, among many other wonderful pieces of work, had written the famous Star Trek episode, "The Trouble With Tribbles." I was a huge Star Trek fan, and still am, and I had then said to myself, “One day, I’m going to write about Bewitched like this man has written about Star Trek.” So, right then and there I knew I had to buy that World of Star Trek book. So, I ran to check-out counter, and stood in line. Once I got to the clerk, she told me the price for the book was 90 cents. But I only had 80 cents. An elderly, disabled woman in line in front of me was in a wheelchair. She heard this exchange between the clerk and I, and before she left, she reached into her purse and said to me, “Here, Honey…you take this dime and buy your book.” It was such a gentle and generous moment that I will clearly remember forever. That kind elderly woman taught me so much in that moment…which became a major stepping stone in my career. Had I not purchased that Star Trek book, I might would never had gone on to write The Bewitched Book, let alone The Bionic Book, or the Life Goes On book, let alone The Kung Fu Book of Caine and The Kung Fu Book of Wisdom.
IAC: Why Kung Fu! What attracted you to this show and made you want to produce two books on the subject?
HJP: I was attracted to Kung Fu for the same basic reason that I was attracted to Bewitched, The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, and later, Life Goes On. At the core of each of these shows is the theme of prejudice. Like Elizabeth Montgomery’s Samantha is a witch in a mortal world, David Carradine’s Kwai Change Caine is an Asian in a Western world….Lee Major’s Steve Austin and Lindsay Wagner’s Jaime Sommers were half-human and half-machine. So, they, too, like Samantha and Caine, felt like outsiders. And just as with Life Goes On, which featured Corky, who had Down syndrome, as does the amazing Chris Burke, who portrayed him, and the AIDS-stricken Jesse, played by Chad Lowe. And also, too, of course, Caine, like Samantha, and Steve and Jaime, had special powers, and yet, they kept those powers in check, and at first employed their “inner strengths”…their wisdom, their heart, or their charms to deal with the challenges of life. Only as a last resort, did they twitch, or employ kung fu or bionics to resolve a situation. There was a certain “spiritual essence” to each of these shows, specifically and clearly with regard to Kung Fu. And the great thing about Kung Fu, too, is that while President Nixon was holding historic talks with China’s Chairman Mao, Kwai Chang Caine was introducing the beautiful and wondrous ways of the Asian culture to the American mainstream.
IAC: Herbie, my basic thesis in my blog is that Kung Fu took what was basically a formula, the Western, and subverted it with Eastern wisdom and action, and that this was truly what made the show click. Agree? I mean, the show was an excellent Western that featured veteran producers, writers and directors and terrific character actors in the roles and situations. But turned inside out and hinging on the character of Cain - who was often a supporting character in his own series!
HJP: I absolutely agree with that assessment. There was nothing like Kung Fu before it aired on ABC, first as a TV-movie, then monthly series, then weekly show. In many ways, it truly was an anthology series…but with a running character. Or should I say, walking character.
IAC: What about David Carradine? He seems essential to the whole thing, as an actor, a presence.
There would have been no Kung Fu series without David Carradine. He was just as unique a man and actor as Kwai Chang Caine was a character. The amazing thing about David playing Caine is that we saw a peek into his Caine interpretation in another TV western in which he previously starred. It was called Shane, and it briefly aired a few years before Kung Fu. And besides the fact that both shows were Westerns, and that Caine rhymes with Shane, there were other similarities between the shows. In fact, if you watch both shows today, side by side, it is eerie just how similar they are. In both shows, David plays somewhat mysterious loners…and in one episode of Shane, I even recall an interchange of wisdom between Shane and another wise elderly character…very similar to the legendary Keye Luke’s Master PoKung Fu. The similarities between the two shows are just astounding.
IAC: You've studied the wisdom of Shaolin and expressed it as a book. Can you describe it for us? Tell us about the source of Po and Kan's rich philosophy?
HJP: Kung Fu creator Ed Spielman, who wrote the forward to my Kung Fu Book of Wisdom, was inspired by the works of the iconic director Akira Kurosawa, who helmed cinematic classics like The Seven Samurai. And many of the writers from Kung Fu relayed to me how they were inspired by the various wisdoms presented by everything from Hinduism and Buddhism to that of The Bible. It was a fine mix of the best of loving-kind thoughts and beliefs.
IAC: You clearly spent a lot of time interviewing the various individuals associated with Kung Fu, and you had access to the scripts, etc. Tell us about that.
HJP: Before I even started to think about the content of The Kung Fu Book of Caine, I knew I wanted to get it right…and the only way I could have done that was to interview as many people as possible who were associated with the show, including of course, David Carradine, Radames Pera and series creator Ed Spielman. As long as I interviewed these three gentlemen, I knew I would be fine. Attaining interviews with everyone else was icing on the cake.
IAC: What other elements contributed to the success of the show?
HJP: So many reasons…each element of the series was top-notch…the acting…the directing…the writing…the cinematography. All of it was unique. And the show’s success was all about timing. It just came along at the right time…when the world was ready for it. And in the process, it inspired millions along the way.
IAC: How do most people that you talk to seem to remember Kung Fu? It seems it touched the lives of many people that lived through it in the ‘70s and ‘80s when it was in reruns, and it seems from the Facebook page that the show is still winning audiences internationally.
HJP: It’s funny because it has such a wide range in fan base. There are the martial arts fans…there are the spiritual fans…there are the former-hippie fans….there is the massive population of former-kids fans. So many different sectors…but they all loved it for the same reason. It was and remains a hauntingly beautiful show of quality that became the prime-example of just how much a positive influence quality television programming has the potential to have on viewers.
IAC: What's next for Herbie J Pilato?
Things are going so well. A few other books are in the works, and because of my work with Bravo and A&E, I have a few television shows myself that I’m working on developing. And I’ve completed a few scripts that are family-oriented and sci-fi/fantasy-based. Into that mix, I am the Founder & Executive Director of The Classic TV Preservation Society, which is a nonprofit organization whose main mission is to educate individuals, community, arts/media and business organizations, as well as academic institutions, on the social significance and positive influence of classic television. And Kung Fu creator Ed Spielman is our Executive Advisor to the Board of Directors. So, it’s all very exciting stuff…and ultimately it all happened because that kind elderly woman who - all those years ago - gave me that little dime.