From the Rat Pack to Satan’s Lackie
For all the panic over slasher films and comics, little did parents know that the true gateway to eternal damnation was lurking on their screen the whole time in a tweed jacket and bell bottoms.
Riding high on the fame of his international hit song “Candy Man” and celebrated cameos on shows like All in the Family, actor, singer, and comedian Sammy Davis Jr. had the cache to make just about any wild fantasy come true thanks to his smooth voice and charisma.
So what’s the next logical step in a career of saccharine pop songs about peace and love? Glorifying the majesty of Satan, of course. If Eddie Murphy is to be believed, Davis was a long-term member in the Satanist movement, only cautiously opening up about his lifestyle and belief that “Satan is as powerful as God” to a select few confidantes.
It all began with an unlikely friendship with Anton LeVey, better known as the head of the Church of Satan. His devotion to the faith extended far beyond publicly wearing a medallion bearing his dark master’s likeness. Davis was eager to get his own weekly TV show. Thus, Poor Devil came into existence.
Lest you think this was a half-hearted, schlocky affair, the producers were able to rope in the likes of bankable TV and screen legends like Adam West, Jack Klugman, and Christoper Lee with a pilot script provided by a bevy of illustrious TV writers, including one who previously worked on Leave it to Beaver.
Davis was “104% sure” that Poor Devil would get picked up the following fall season. The NBC execs might have gotten confused, the Christmas-themed pilot about the Devil was shown not on Halloween or December, but rather inexplicably on Valentine’s Day of all dates.
Sammy (Sammy Davis Jr.) is stuck in the bowels of hell, a lowly furnace stoker desperate to sign souls for Satan, on the bad side of his boss for 1400 years after botching the Chicago Fire and failing to enlist the Pilgrims. Davis might have been serious about his faith, but the writers were playing it very tongue-in-cheek.
Lee’s Lucifer is a corporate raider type, reigning not upon a throne of skulls but behind his desk in a modernist office painted with a generous amount of red. Keeping in line with the big-business motif, the demons talk of seven-year deals, stipulations, and “clients,” likely inspired by the legal-drama The Devil and Daniel Webster.
Lee’s straight-man routine stands in contrast to Davis’s comic relief, both surprisingly likable figures. Real-life friends, this is a dynamic that could have actually worked in a weekly format. The Faustian plot is built around the basic idea of demons tempting the desperate and vengeful to relinquish their souls.
As Lucifer says, “Hell has no better prospect than a good man scorned,” and Sammy believably speaks like a sweaty time-share salesman, looking for just the right angle to hook the next gullible sucker.
The demon pitchman is summoned to San Francisco to snag a certain Mr. Emerson’s soul, the disgruntled Emerson played by veteran TV actor Jack Klugman. Sammy reassures Emerson that hell isn’t so bad, with no wars, disease, bigotry, greed, or famine, though he leaves out the part about it being a cut-throat bureaucracy.
Interestingly enough, this show, or at least the pilot, can be interpreted as a critique of business culture and brown-nosers. Emerson’s boss is a despicable middle manager who is more reprehensible than Lucifer himself. Adam West plays against type as the self-absorbed jerk, and totally nails it.
There’s no escaping the fact that Poor Devil has the feel of a Twilight Zone episode stretched out to feature length, a product of its time. That’s to say low-budget and predictable. It ain’t scary, and unlike Rod Serling’s show, it’s not nearly as clever.
Tonally, it’s more akin to Police Squad! (the TV show the Naked Gun series was based on) or Get Smart. The script is workmanlike, but there is a funny subversion of the suicide scene from It’s a Wonderful Life. Poor Devil never overstays its welcome, and the actors play to the level of their material. Despite his billing, Lee is actually barely in this, probably because the producers could only afford him for a few days. It only makes him a more mysterious, ominous figure.
The pilot was not picked up, for reasons that remain unclear. The Valentine’s Day booking didn’t help. One could theorize that NBC was scared of potential outrage from moralistic groups.
Just a note, the Catholic League of Decency famously pestered the ABC network about the size of Robin’s bulge in Batman. A comedy humanizing Satanists? You can take a guess how successful that would’ve played in the Bible Belt in 1973.
Luckily for aficionados of obscure & lost media, it survived, available for viewing on YouTube in glorious 4:3 ratio, with all the gnarly image quality you would hope for from a cursed fifty-year-old pilot made by a drugged-out devil-worshiper.
Poor Devil (1973) Official Pilot Episode