the most expensive episode of its time
SEASON 3 – EPISODE 7
Thirty-seven years ago, Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd’s sparring detectives were the hottest things on television—so they donned Elizabethan garb and spoke in iambic pentameter.
An exclusive book excerpt goes behind the scenes of an epic gamble.
The episode aired on the 25th of November 1986.
Moonlighting premiered on March 3, 1985, as a midseason replacement. It was a detective series—sort of—starring real-life movie star and model Cybill Shepherd as Maddie Hayes. Maddie was a model-turned-detective. She was saddled with unknown real-life bartender Bruce Willis as David Addison, a wisecracking “detective” who may or may not have ever solved a case. Somehow ABC heard this pitch and gave the keys to a network television series, along with a blank checkbook, to Glenn Gordon Caron, whose main credits up to that point were as a supervising producer/writer on Remington Steele and the TV adaptation of Breaking Away. He decided to do a detective series in which the cases wouldn’t be front and center. Instead, it would be an old-fashioned 1940s screwball-comedy love story between the two main characters.
The first episodes were normal detective stories in the sense that there was a mystery and they mostly solved them, but it was the dialogue and chemistry between Maddie and David that sparked viewers’ interest. In season two, the series became a bona fide hit. It continued with the traditional case format, but started to up the antics in the chase scenes, a staple of detective series in the eighties. On Moonlighting, the criminals and detectives slid across hallways in soap suds or had a car chase in a hearse. This season contained the “Black and White” episode, which was introduced by legendary film director Orson Welles. The main characters also started talking to the camera and acknowledging the plot right in the middle of the scenes. They danced with the Temptations in one episode and apologized for a 3D episode gone awry, all before the opening credits. In 1985, prime-time series were not doing cold opens. They didn’t include scenes during the end credits. Television shows existed only between the credits.
In season three, the series went from hit to pop culture icon. There was nothing in 1986-1987 as hot as Moonlighting. Tabloid stories started to spill out from the set that there was trouble behind the scenes. But even while the rumors splashed across the cover of the National Enquirer, the series continued to churn out creative and radically different episodes from week to week. And ABC, which also owned the series, didn’t contest the missed deadlines or the rising budgets, because the series had such huge ratings that today they would be considered Super Bowl-size ratings.
That season, they produced what would become the most famous episode of the series: “Atomic Shakespeare.” The entire episode, from the first shot to its actual airing at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, November 25, 1986, was made in just eighteen days. As you’ll see, theories about the budget range from $2 million to $4 million, making it the most expensive hour of television produced at that time, and in today’s dollars, putting it in Game of Thrones territory.
The episode is a retelling of the Shakespeare play The Taming of the Shrew, which, in 1948, was adapted into the Cole Porter musical “Kiss Me, Kate” (pointless trivia: Cybill Shepherd recorded an album of Cole Porter songs in 1974, which contains several songs from that musical). David Addison, as Petruchio, marries Katherina, played by Maddie Hayes, for her dowry. But Petruchio will be paid only if he can turn her into a dutiful and well-trained wife. The couple fight, banter, throw plates, and fall in love, just like in every other episode of Moonlighting. This special episode passed the singing duties to Bruce Willis, who performed the classic rock song “Good Lovin’” at the forced wedding of the two characters. In the end, it’s Katherina who tames Petruchio, and all is set right in the world. That is all fine and dandy for the characters on the world’s stage, but for the people who had to create this ridiculously ambitious hour of television, there was toil and trouble in the world.
By the way, if you’re curious about where you can watch, or rewatch, Moonlighting, the series can currently be found…just about nowhere. Incredibly, it’s not on a streaming service, the DVDs are out of print, and it was never released on Blu-ray. When Moonlighting was on the top of the Nielsen ratings, TV series didn’t lock up long-term contracts for the use of songs. Today, it would cost a great deal for Disney, which owns the series, to secure all the necessary music rights. For now, the book will have to suffice, unless your local library has those out of print DVDs—and you kept your DVD player.
Glenn Gordon Caron (Creator): Just before I sat down to write Moonlighting I saw Ghostbusters and the amazing performance that Bill Murray gave. It was just a style of comedy going on with young actors like Tom Hanks. It was an irreverence, but that irreverence wasn’t reflected in prime-time television at all. If it was anywhere, I suppose, it was in that first David Letterman daytime show, but nobody saw that. I thought that I’d love for there to be that sort of music, that sort of sound, on a television show. I, like everybody else my age at that time, wanted to make movies, but you kind of can only go where they’ll have you. At that moment in time, the place that would have me was television. So I thought, “Well, I’m going to do television as if it was a movie.”
When I was in high school, I saw the [Franco] Zeffirelli movie – The Taming of the Shrew, with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. In college, my wife at the time was in a production of it. So I must have seen her in that show 10 times. When I graduated college and was living in New York City, I saw Meryl Streep and Raul Julia perform it in Central Park. So the bones of the idea of two people who seem incredibly attracted to each other save for the fact that they agree on nothing and have completely different worldviews—I thought that’s really interesting and you don’t see that very often.
Jeff Reno (Writer, Producer): I specifically remember the moment I had the idea for the episode. It just came to me—almost full on. I was driving to work on Pico Boulevard. I was trying to think of a special episode. I don’t know if Glenn asked us to think of something special or if we just wanted to.
Ron Osborn (Writer, Producer): Jeff came in one day and pitched the idea of doing a show in iambic pentameter, and I thought that was great. We were going to do it in present day. It was Hamlet.
Jeff Reno: What hit me was that there was a murder mystery in Hamlet: an uncle killed his brother because he was having an affair with his mom. I thought, “We could do that as a detective story.” I had the idea that it would be a kid’s homework and he had to do it before he could watch Moonlighting.
Ron Osborn: We were doing it as a modern-day episode in which the characters were speaking in iambic pentameter. We hit a conceptual snag and told Glenn. He was the one to suggest that we just do it in full-on Elizabethan period.
Jeff Reno: Ron said, “We should just do Taming of the Shrew—it’s the show—and not worry so much about the detective part of it.” That is how we got to it. It just hit our sensibilities right.
Ron Osborn: Glenn’s hand slammed the table, which surprised me, and he said, “That’s it!” Even with how long that script is, it was one of the easier ones to write because you had Shakespeare going for you and you could do very obvious jokes, like when Petruchio rides in on a horse and the horse is wearing sunglasses and has the BMW insignia on the blanket.
Karen Hall (Writer): I have to brag on Jeff and Ron because that was almost the first draft that they shot. They had something like three or four days to write it. I always thought what they did was just miraculous. How do you go into your office in three days and write a perfect script in iambic pentameter?
Curtis Armstrong (Cast Member, “Herbert Viola”): They were using actual dialogue from Shakespeare’s play between David and Maddie. They just transplanted the “What, with my tongue in your tail?”—that exchange. The network tried to cut that because it was too sexual. Glenn went back to them and said, “It’s five hundred years old. This is Shakespeare.” He eventually won that fight.
Cybill Shepherd (Cast Member, “Maddie Hayes”): When Glenn pitched it to me I said, “Who’s gonna play the shrew?” I said it just like a shrew.
Jeff Reno: Every word of that script is a first draft. It went through no rewrites, no changes. The show started shooting after we had only finished three acts. I remember writing just ahead of the camera.
Jay Daniel (Executive Producer, Director): It really was an undertaking. We knew a few weeks earlier that we were going to do the Shakespeare episode, so wardrobe and props, while they were working on the various episodes that led up to it, were also working on the wardrobe for that episode.
Suzanne Gangursky (Production Coordinator): That was just massive—the entire scale. From my end, it was hiring practically every additional talent in town for wardrobe and hair. It was done on such a massive scale. You felt like you were walking onto a major motion picture set. You didn’t feel like you were walking on a weekly TV show set.
Curtis Armstrong: We were working at the Court of Miracles on Universal’s backlot, instead of our home studio at Fox. We were doing interiors in one place and exteriors in another, which again felt very much like a feature film rather than a TV show.
Will Mackenzie (Director of “Atomic Shakespeare”): My mother was a Shakespeare professor at Wheaton College. I, for some reason, had mentioned this to Glenn, and he remembered that I’d done a lot of Shakespeare in college. Glenn called and said, “If you’re interested, I’m trying to get you out of directing your new series, The Popcorn Kid, because we’re doing an episode called ‘Atomic Shakespeare.’” I read the script and loved it. So they got a guy to replace me for two or three episodes and I just left. I was given a week of prep, which was great. We were able to prep it all on the backlot at Universal. They gave us a humongous budget. They never told me exactly, but I think it was close to $500,000.
Suzanne Gangursky: I would say the average episodes that were being made around then were around $900,000 for a one-hour episode. It probably cost $2 to $2.5 million, I am sure. It was easily double whatever anyone else had spent on an hour of television.
Jeff Reno: I think it was around $3.5 million. I am not sure if that is correct, but I think it was in that area. Which was a ton back then.
Ron Osborn: We were told $3.5 million, at a time when an hour-long show was about a million and a half. When you think of Hill Street Blues being made for a million with the cast they had, and we had basically a cast of two, it was crazy.
Neil Mandelberg (Editor): As I remember, I could be wrong, but I remember hearing somewhere in the vicinity of $4 million.
Jay Daniel: I hesitate to even throw a number out. I can’t tell you. It would be at least double a normal episode—at least.
Glenn Gordon Caron: I don’t know. I do know it was the most expensive hour of television at that time.
Suzanne Gangursky: The number of extras, the costume designers, the extra crew that we needed, I think we went into golden time for the crew. When people are getting paid more because they are not getting enough turnaround time between shifts, it gets really expensive because of union rules. Add in sets, customs, cast, and crew, it jacked everything up.
Jeff Reno: TV series usually have an A unit and a B unit. The A unit shoots the main stuff, and the B unit grabs the stunts or actions and the extra stuff. This episode had two A units. A lot of people assume it was the sets and costumes that made the episode cost so much. I am sure that added to it. It was because there were two A units filming last minute. That affects a lot of things, like location scouting and a ton of stuff that the director can’t prep for.
Melissa Gelineau (Assistant): It was a great education in terms of learning production, but it was also an education on maybe not the best way to do production.
Jeff Reno: That was just because things were being run last minute. That was how it was. We were handing in pages to them as the thing was being shot. [Laughs.]
Will Mackenzie: Brandon Stoddard was a huge fan of Moonlighting and ran ABC [Entertainment] at the time. They were winning awards, and they were getting ratings. And that’s all they care about. I can’t remember how many days we had, but I’m sure we had thirteen or fourteen days. We had a wonderful second unit that Jay directed.
Jay Daniel: We shot the show in 11 days, but included in those days were five days of B unit. The B unit, which I directed, really was another A unit. I shot the big scenes around the fountain. There were quite a few scenes shot there. We started on the backlot of Universal, which contained the fountain scenes, on November 21, for an airdate of November 25. At the same time, the A unit, with Will Mackenzie, was shooting at the church with Bruce. We would then shuffle Bruce and Cybill back and forth between the church and the back lot. It got very complicated. It was crazy how we did it. But somehow we pulled it together. We had to shoot cutaways, over the shoulders, and use doubles. When you add the days of B unit to the total of A unit, it really took 16 days to shoot it.
Neil Mandelberg: That’s twice the amount of a normal episode—twice the normal amount of a television episode. Not a Moonlighting episode.
Glenn Gordon Caron: We were literally shooting units simultaneously. We had horses, we had a gazillion extras and all that Elizabethan dress.
Ron Osborn: We didn’t shoot any of it on our existing sets, which is also why it was so expensive. We had to rent other sets out. It was also the biggest cast, biggest extras, and the biggest use of animals. [Laughs.]
Jay Daniel: Cybill really got into that episode. Maybe it was the excitement of doing something different. Even with the elaborate wardrobe, she had to deal with.
Cybill Shepherd: Those costumes must have weighed thirty pounds, and they itched. I pretty much faced every challenge in that episode. I’ve always loved a challenge.
Will Mackenzie: That was one of our delays, that she hated the costume. The first day, she was in the first scene—she was in most everything—we had to wait while they put Moleskine into all of her outfits because it was so itchy and so heavy. The wardrobe people had to line her outfit.
Jeff Reno: In Taming of the Shrew, Kate had a real strength; that is why she was considered impossible to wed because her temper was impenetrable. It was those characteristics that comment on Maddie and Dave. The “I see thee in me” line is a way to say, “You don’t see the similarities on the surface because of the way the characters are played.” They each understood that they did have something in common, not only loving each other, but a romantic look at life. Underneath all the huffing and puffing, Dave and Maddie did find that connection.
Neil Mandelberg: Cybill was having a blast on set. She was a wonderful actress when she was having fun. That’s what we found out. When she’s having fun, she’s on. And she loved playing that role. With Bruce, it didn’t matter. Just put anything on him. He had no discomfort. He would walk around in short underwear if we asked him to.
Will Mackenzie: My wife is a choreographer and a dancer. She helped with Bruce’s “Good Lovin’” scene and gave me some hand gestures for the kids in the chorus. We wanted to hire people who not only could wear the Elizabethan garb but could do what we call finger choreography.
Jay Daniel: I think Bruce sang “Good Lovin’” live. I think it was to a synced track. He wasn’t lip-synching. He was doing it live.
Will Mackenzie: Bruce played the harmonica. He played it live. He played in a band, and he had his little group. We decided that he should play the harmonica. So I’m sure we popped in for a single on him or the camera went in on him.
Curtis Armstrong: No, I think he was lip-synching. I don’t see how they could have done that live. I can’t imagine that.
Jay Daniel: There may have been some work done on the song in post. Everything was going so fast. I don’t think we had the time to refine that in post. I don’t remember.
Will Mackenzie: We had so little postproduction time that I’m wondering whether he sang that live. I feel like we had a prerecorded version. I know we did the playback. But I feel like he played the harmonica live and sang live. But maybe not.
Curtis Armstrong: All I was doing in “Good Lovin’” was being silly. I remember it was late at night and Bruce had a hideous fever. He had a terrible flu of some kind, and his temperature was like 103 or something. He should have been in a hospital. Instead, that’s how he’s spending his night after filming all day. That’s the one thing that I was sort of dazzled about: that as tired as I was, at least I wasn’t sick on top of it.
Jeff Reno: We needed Bruce to have a sidekick in the episode, someone who would marry Bianca. Curtis just worked out perfectly. It was also the parallel of Dipesto being Bianca and Herbert would be romancing her.
Curtis Armstrong: Do I really play any form of Viola at all there? They were still trying to figure out who he was. From a character standpoint, it doesn’t really tell you anything. Viola, if anything, when it came to David would be taking everything much more seriously. He did tend to take everything that David said as being gospel. He looked up to him so much.
Allyce Beasley (Cast Member, “Agnes Dipesto”): I was Bianca as played by Ms. Dipesto. It was like doing it in a theater where Ms. Dipesto was cast as Bianca. I was allowed to look pretty and romantic in that episode. In most episodes, I didn’t get a chance to have that kind of lighting and makeup, as Ms. Dipesto.
Curtis Armstrong: It was like Bruce said later: he referred to Moonlighting as a master class in directing because not only was it shot like a feature film, but it was shot like a different style of feature film every week. “Atomic Shakespeare” is a great example of that. To have that kind of freedom, where suddenly you’re doing this or you’re doing a golden-era musical or you’re doing a haunted-house movie—it was just whatever genre helped tell the story. It was written for people who would appreciate that. You couldn’t do that now. But at the time you were still doing shows that were done in a style that was recognizable to an audience that was more brought up in classic Hollywood.
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MOONLIGHTING – AN ORAL HISTORY
Suzanne Gangursky: I have worked on a series where one show might be expensive but then you tried to make that up on another episode and go under budget to even it out. I don’t think Glenn ever thought about that. He thought, “We are gonna write what we are gonna write and do what we need to do to make it the best episode.”
Will Mackenzie: We knew Bruce and Cybill had never done Shakespeare before and they were terrified, but they’re both so talented. Bruce took to that rhyming and iambic pentameter so easily. Curtis Armstrong had done Shakespeare. I think he’s the only one of the four principals that had.
Curtis Armstrong: I think I was the only actor—aside from Ken McMillan [Katherina’s father, Baptista] and a very well-known character actor, Colm Meaney [Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, and Mystery, Alaska]—who had actually done Shakespeare. I had played the character from Taming of the Shrew that was being sent up in this episode. I felt very comfortable with it.
Will Mackenzie: Colm Meaney was also in that episode. He played a bit part. He’s one of the henchmen in the opening scene and fights Bruce Willis. Colm came in as almost an extra, and he was so good we gave him three or four lines. A few months ago in Los Angeles, I ran into him in the theater. I said, “We worked together on a Moonlighting 30 years ago.” He remembered it, which was great.
Curtis Armstrong: I was still unsure about how long this job was going to last. I’d been offered a Shakespeare play back East. I was trying to figure out whether I was going to be on Moonlighting anymore so I could say yes or no to the play. I turned the playdown. I had mentioned this to Jay, and he said, “Well, you may get to do your Shakespeare after all.” I thought, “Oh, great, now I’m gonna get fired.” It turned out it was “Atomic Shakespeare.”
Jay Daniel: I am up on a crane, and all of these extras are in Elizabethan garb, and I am going, “Holy moly, what are we doing here?” We had to find Curtis in the crowd and pan in, and then he sees Allyce. Just before we rolled, I said, “Wish me luck, Will.’’ And I was talking to Mackenzie and Shakespeare.
Will Mackenzie: I think the hardest parts were the scenes between Bruce and Cybill. There’s a scene of them walking around a table. It was hard getting them comfortable. I’m pretty sure that was the first scene we did. Getting them comfortable with the dialogue and making it as natural as David and Maddie—to me, as a director, that was the hardest part. The thing that I admired—and they were getting along—was that they wanted it to be good. I think we all left there thinking, “This is going to be either the worst show we’ve ever done or one of the best.” They worked hard. They learned their lines. They came in prepared. I don’t have any bad memories. I feel like I got out of there before the real shit hit the fan.
Jay Daniel: Cybill’s performance as Kate was really quite good. She loved doing that episode, which was nice because we’d gone through some stuff with her. It was a pleasure. She was ready, willing, and able to go for that episode.
Neil Mandelberg: Roger Bondelli and I were cutting the episode at the same time. So each day we split up the scenes. We showed each other what we did. We weren’t really concerned about matching styles in that episode because it had its own style. Glenn would help bring that to each moment if we missed any of those rhythms as we were cutting. It took a long time to cut. After that, we didn’t do any more of those specialty episodes. The politics started happening.
Sheryl Main (Postproduction): “Atomic Shakespeare” was a very big episode for the editors. We had a lot of coordination. There was a lot of music. There was a lot of effort on everything. Our sound editors were working like crazy. There were so many components.
Neil Mandelberg: We did 16 episodes a year, and we still worked for 10 and a half months for the season. Half of that extra time is about it being film and not digital. The other half is that to shoot those 16 episodes, we spent more time than most people spent to shoot 22.
Ron Osborn: The ratings for that episode dropped down to the high teens. I think whenever you say “Shakespeare” to TV viewers…
Jay Daniel: The show didn’t get big numbers. I can’t really tell you why. I don’t remember what it was up against. It was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. It probably had something to do with that. It didn’t do terribly. We were ranked number 16 and got a 29 share. “It’s a Wonderful Job” aired on the 16th of December, and it was ranked number five. So we were right back up.
Jeff Reno: We were up for a Writers Guild of America Award and an Emmy, but lost both of them. I believe Debra and Carl might have won the WGA for “It’s a Wonderful Job.” I think we lost the Emmy to a Cagney & Lacey episode about alcoholism. We always had to decide whether to be drama or comedy. That was before the lines were blurred. We always entered in drama because it was an hour and it was shot like one. We were up against alcoholism and cancer. We got nominated, but we didn’t win. They didn’t know how to give a drama Emmy to something that was so broadly funny. We always suffered from that. We did get a lot of notices and recognition, but no wins.
Will Mackenzie: I won the Directors Guild Award for that episode. My mom and dad flew out for the dinner. Glenn and Jay were there, and I got a big table. I got to thank my mother in front of my peers. I got to thank my family, the crew, and Jay, who helped so much on that episode. I always give the credit to the script. Jeff and Ron really did their homework.
Allyce Beasley: My favorite director on the series was Will Mackenzie. I worked with him a lot on a Dipesto episode, and I just loved him.
Will Mackenzie: Every once in a while I will get a letter from somebody saying, “We saw this really neat, hip episode of Taming Of the Shrew.”
Curtis Armstrong: It wound up being one of the most famous episodes, mainly because teachers used it as a gateway into teaching Shakespeare to middle and high school students. A lot of people can remember the Shakespeare show probably as an individual show more than any of the others.
Ron Osborn: Obviously we weren’t going to do the ending that Shakespeare did. We wanted to make ours about equals. That was a very conscious choice. As funny and great as that play is—and it’s one of my favorites—in the end, Shakespeare is not very woke.
From the book Moonlighting: An Oral History, by Scott Ryan. Copyright © 2021 by Scott Ryan. Published on June 1, 2021, by Fayetteville Mafia Press.
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