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OKLAHOMA CITY – Although not mentioned in his Wikipedia entry, Back to the Future director Robert Zemeckis (along with BTTF colleague Bob Gale) wrote a screenplay for a 1975 episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker called “Chopper.”

The episode aired not too long after Zemeckis graduated from University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, in 1973, when Bob Gale also graduated.

Gale’s bio on Wikipedia actually does mention their contribution to Kolchak, an innovative show for its time and one that inspired Chris Carter in his development of The X-Files (still so popular that it is returning to TV very soon).

And I admittedly see some of myself in misunderstood, wisecracking, monster-chasing Chicago reporter Carl Kolchak as played to perfection by Darren McGavin (who would actually in appear in several episodes of The X-Files at the end of his fine career). Sure, his editor Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) didn't understand him, but Kolchak knew a good story when he heard one, particularly if it involved voodoo practitioners, violent robots, or even the reappearance of Jack the Ripper.

His newspaper was Investigative News Service, or INS. I recall while working as a reporter in Louisiana, chasing Bigfoot, UFOs and ghosts, that the first three letters of my Volvo's license plate were "INS" and issued to me in September 2001, eerily enough.

And watching a later episode of Kolchak (sadly, there was only one season - 1974-75) with "Chopper," and already being familiar with Zemeckis and Gale's work (a string of great films like the Beatlemania-focused I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Used Cars, 1941 and the Back to the Future trilogy), I looked for their tell-tale style. And yes, it was there. That said, there’s a sadness to this episode that was undeniable. And with the whole time element, as in BTTF, particularly involving the 1950's, seeing references to that "all-American decade" (1955 in BTTF, 1956 in "Chopper" and involving a form of transportation (a motorcycle), as opposed to a car as in BTTF. (Read a more detailed analysis of "Chopper" here).

As TV.com describes the episode "Chopper," which aired on Jan. 31, 1975: “The strange disappearance of an antique motorcycle is the first sign of trouble. A rash of murders follow where each victim is decapitated with superhuman force by what witnesses describe as a headless motorcyclist. Kolchak discovers the connection between the victims and their killer, but the skeptical police won't listen to his theory. Kolchak must find a way to stop the killings, and discovers that disturbing the dead is not always wise.”

The Jokers and the Bishops were rival bike gangs back in the 1950's. However one of the bikers may have been killed - or murdered - and was missing a head. This got me to thinking about the overt references to assassinated President John F. Kennedy, who is mentioned (and even shown - his bust, anyway) in the Zemeckis/Gale-scripted BTTF trilogy, as noted in great detail in this informative video "Back to the Future JFK Assassination."

Recall that like Kolchak, the man who shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby, was a Chicago native fond of wearing hats with bands. And both Kolchak and Ruby (aka Jacob Leon Rubenstein) were both of Polish descent. But that's where the two part ways, of course. Kolchak was a man in pursuit of the truth wherever it took him. I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Zemeckis is also a native Chicagoan.

THAT'LL BE THE DAY

A ghoulish, sword-wielding motorcyclist kills a cabbie. And he goes after some others too - guys who were associated with his old biker gang 20 years earlier. One of them is nearly sliced and diced by the headless "chopper" rider while working on a phone pole - a "Wichita Lineman" sort of scene, but at night, reminiscent of a scene that Zemeckis film school pal Steven Spielberg would have with Indiana electrical lineman Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) investigating power outages amidst a UFO flap in 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

As Kolchak continues questioning people who may be linked to the murders and the old biker gangs, he comes upon a woman named Lila Morton, whose husband was killed while the headless biker was on his sword-wielding rampage. 

“Nobody ever understood Buddy Holly like he did,” says old motorcycle gang buddy "Studs" (Art Metrano), to Lila, about her "old man." This sets her off.

Lila Morton feigns tears while Kolchak questions her about her Buddy Holly-loving "old man," killed by the headless biker. 

“Buddy Holly. When my old man used to get a couple of beers in him he used to get out an old scratched record of “That’ll Be the Day.” He used to dance to it, he used to sing along, ‘That’ll be the day that I die.’ He used to sing to that, my old man.”

And probably due to cost, the song "That'll Be the Day" by Buddy Holly & The Crickets was not aired during the "Chopper" episode.

Recall, in 1975, pop culture was in the midst of a 1950's revival. Recall how popular Happy Days was at the time. There was renewed interest in Buddy Holly, in fact The Buddy Holly Story film would be released a few years later (my first drive-in movie experience at 6 years old).

And in 2014, I had a number of Buddy Holly syncs happen to me. Note "That'll be the day," a post that still haunts this lifelong rock n' roll fan. And then there was my post "I'm on a wavelength far from home," where I sync with the Buddy Holly-esque film Six-String Samurai, where, like the headless "Chopper" rider (whose nickname was "Swordman," as it turns out), uses a sword to deadly effect in a post-apocalyptic "alternative 1950's/60's" (sound familiar, fans of Back to the Future Pt. II?) while trying to outrun guitar-playing, sword-wielding "Death" and make it to Lost Vegas, home of King Elvis. It's a fave of mine.

This got me to thinking about a Dust Devil Dreams post I made back in May titled “Sleepwalk (Gnik nus).”  I talk about the 1968 Fleetwood Mac song “Albatross” (released the year BTTF's Marty McFly was born) and how it was inspired by the Summer of ’59 instrumental hit by Santo & Johnny – “Sleep Walk.” A song the brothers Santo and Johnny wrote after having an "idea" at 2 in the morning. The song is used in 12 Monkeys, as you may recall. 

That’s because Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green, their guitarist at the time, was inspired by “Sleep Walk” to create “Albatross,” another dreamy instrumental.

As I wrote at the time: “As for the inspiration for “Sleep Walk,” it was recognized as a tribute to Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper, who died in a plane crash earlier in the year (Feb. 1959) near Clear Lake, Iowa. Twelve years later, folk musician Don McLean would score a major hit with “American Pie,” which talks about ‘the day the music died,’ the day those three early rock musicians died in that plane crash in a snow-covered field. Perhaps Buddy Holly’s ghost is trying to remind us of something.”

Which brings me to the next paragraph (which syncs us back to Robert Zemeckis): “That event (the deaths of the three musicians) hung heavy over America. Just as rock was really taking off, it suddenly dropped off, and the pop crooners of 1960-63 really took hold – until The Beatles and the British Invasion took over.”

And that brings us to Zemeckis’s first film: I Wanna Hold Your Hand, released in 1978 and within a month of the release of The Buddy Holly Story.

I Wanna Hold Your Hand is about some New Jersey teens trying to get to see The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964, an event witnessed by millions, and an event that took some of the sting out of the American psyche, still reeling from JFK’s murder a few months earlier. It’s a great film and a great debut for Zemeckis and the first film Spielberg ever executive produced, interestingly enough, having just come off the UFO trip of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was as if I Wanna Hold Your Hand took up where The Buddy Holly Story ended, eerily enough.

FORGIVE AND FORGET

Jim Backus, best-known for his role as millionaire Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island, appears as motorcycle dealer Herb Bresson, a man Kolchak questions during his investigation.

While Kolchak asks the salesman about a certain kind of motorcycle tire no longer in production, Bresson notes that the Jokers and Bishops bike gangs preferred those tires 20 years earlier. And the tire marks from the "mystery" chopper, Bresson says, are from a "cherry" tire. Perhaps a cherry for an American Pie?

“That tire was very popular with the bike gangs when Ike was in the White House,” Bresson tells a perplexed Kolchak.

Carl Kolchak questions motorcycle salesman played by Jim Backus. 

And where it turns somewhat sad and awkward for Kolchak is when Bresson him that he was a Navy flyer and shot down over Tarawa during a battle with the Japanese. It’s clear that Bresson is still suffering from PTSD of some sort, finally telling Kolchak, before he leaves: “Forgive and forget.”

During a later scene, where Kolchak is in a morgue, a sign is seen behind the reporter reading off various names of dead people. One name is “Backus.”

What is interesting is that the dead man simply wanted to be reunited with his missing head, the one that was accidentally severed by his biker pals all those years earlier. 

This is a dark episode. Zemeckis has a dark streak that comes out every so often, even though he is generally known for his lighter fare. 

WAITING FOR OCTOBER

And so now, here we are, 40 years after Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale brought us this Kolchak episode, and 30 years after they brought us Back to the Future with the 9/11 and JFK assassination syncs. And in a matter of weeks, we are going to see the latest creation from Zemeckis - the 9/11-resonating film The Walk - about French high-wire walker Phillipe Petit who successfully had a "coup" in crossing between the two Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in August 1974, on a wire, probably around the time the "Chopper" episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker was written and filmed. 

Hang in there.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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