• Written by Rick Ellis
  • Category: Forgotten TV

Forgotten TV: 1973's 'Sticks And Bones'

The history of television is filled with instances in which the broadcast networks and their affiliates clashed over whether or not a TV episode or movie is appropriate for a local audience. There have been many times when a few stations have decided not to air a show, but few programs met with more resistance from local stations than the 1973 broadcast of the Tony-winning David Rabe play "Sticks And Bones."

Cliff DeYoung plays David, a blinded Vietnam veteran who is angry with his circumstances and his family's inability to understand what he experienced in battle. It's a grim, often dark, look at the then-contemporary American life and it powerfully captured the conflicted feelings of many Americans. Even for fans, it's a challenging play to watch, but it was also a very important project at a time when the war in Vietnam was beginning to hit its final days.

"Sticks And Bones" was the second in a trilogy in David Rabe's Vietnam trilogy, with part three being the very well-received "Streamers." The play had a successful Off-Broadway run and the movie adaptation was greenlit by CBS as part of a long-term deal it had with producer Joseph Papp. Robert Downey Sr. wrote a movie adaptation of the play and directed the film. Along with DeYoung, the film starred Anne Jackson, Brad Sullivan and Tom Aldridge.

The CBS premiere was scheduled for March, 1973 and the network expected a fair number of local affiliates to not air the film. But a week before the airdate, nearly 80 of the network's 186 affilates had opted out. That decision led CBS President Robert D. Wood to indefinitely pull the film, on the ground that the presentation "at this time might be unnecessarily abrasive to the feelings of millions of Americans whose lives or attention are at the moment emotionally dominated by the returning P. O. W.'s and other veterans who have suffered the ravages of war."

There was also a lot of controversy about the characters in the production, which mirrored the character names of the very wholesome TV show "The Adventures Of Ozzie & Harriet." The parents were named Ozzie & Harriet, with two sons named Rick & David.

Papp reacted by noting the film had been screened for affiliates twice in the previous week and that he had made several small edits for language. He also branded the postponement "a cowardly cop‐out, a rotten affront to freedom of speech and a whittling away at the First Amendment." He also announced that he planned to walk away from a production deal he had previously signed with the network, which called for the production of 11 more plays.

CBS eventually aired "Sticks And Bones" in August and 94 affiliates declined to air the broadcast. As you might expect, ratings were terrible and thanks to all of the behind-the-scenes wranglings, the film is unavailable on DVD and hasn't been seen publicly since the original 1973 broadcast. Although apparently Robert Downey Sr. had a private screening of the film in 2012, using a version he claimed had been stolen from the CBS vaults.

The film still apparently sits in the CBS television archives and while at this point there doesn't seem to be a reason not to make it available in some form, not even the UCLA Film & Television Archive has a copy.