TV’s first feature-length animated film and its companion pop storybook album, all about a kingdom where all things were required to have points, happened in a roundabout way.
RCA Victor Records LSPX-1003 (12” 33 1/3 RPM LP / Stereo)
CD Reissues: CDD/BMG Special Products (1998); RCA Legacy Family Artist Series 07863651282 (2002)
Currently available for streaming and download
Released in 1971. Producer/Writer/Narrator: Harry Nilsson. Arranger/Conductor: George Tipton. Engineer: Ritchie Schmitt. Technical Engineer: Dennis Smith/ Contributing Engineers & Technicians: Mike Leary, Hank McGill, Kent Tunks, Frank Trupia, Pat Ieraci. Album Design: Dean Torrance. Cover Needlepoint: Kathy Torrance. Storybook Illustrations: Gary Lund. Productions Secretary: Marge Meoli. Special Thanks: Murakami-Wolf Films. Running Time: 32 minutes.
Songs: “Everything’s Got ‘Em,” “Me and My Arrow,” “Poli High,” “Think About Your Troubles,” “Life Line,” “P.O.V. Waltz,” “Are You Sleeping?” by Harry Nilsson.
Story Segments: “The Town,” “The Game,” “The Trial & Banishment,” “The Painted Man,” “The Birds,” “The Clearing in the Woods,” “Oblio’s Return” by Harry Nilsson.
The ABC-TV network ran The Point on February 2, 1971, on the Movie of the Week, a series of 90-minute “world premiere movies” that were descendants of the live and filmed anthologies of television and the “B” movies of Hollywood. Each Tuesday (and later Wednesday), a new movie would air that was “created especially for ABC” just as each new episode of the anthology series Suspense had been “especially created for radio” in the 1940s.
Movie of the Week was such a huge success, for a while these TV-movies moved into syndication and briefly nudged out theatrical features with lower costs and proven ratings that made them attractive to stations. The memorable Movie of the Week theme music had been previously recorded by Burt Bacharach as “Nikki,” an instrumental named for his daughter.
Like the low-budget films it emulated, Movie of the Week could be frothy comedies, tear-jerking dramas or suspense thrillers, but also occasional opportunities to showcase new talent, explore new themes or experiment with the form. One of the most famous was Steven Spielberg’s Duel, an unsettling battle of wits between the driver of a car (Dennis Weaver) and an unseen adversary behind an 18-wheel truck. Like Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett and Zorro episodes(as well as The Point), it was released to theaters after its broadcast.
Harry Nilsson was as much a planner and entrepreneur as he was a musician, singer and songwriter. The Point was not some idle, capricious lark but a result of ideas he had been kicking around for a long while, in hopes of putting together an innovative musical property. In a documentary called “Nilsson on Screen” included with the recently released 50th anniversary Blu-ray of The Point, biographer Alyn Shipton details how Nilsson had been developing a musical about the Wright Brothers with several of the musical and visual concepts that ended up being used in The Point.
Nilsson had also been doing some very unusual and interesting things with film and television narrative conventions. He sang every word of the end credits (even the legal disclaimer) in what was what many consider the only instance of wit in the otherwise “so-bad-it’s-unbelievable” 1968 generation gap comedy feature Skidoo. He also created a “Greek chorus” of sorts for the popular ABC sitcom The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, singing a few words in various scenes to comment on the action. The theme for the series was a rewrite of a previous song called “My Girlfriend.”
When he did finally arrive at the decision to create a story about a round-headed little boy treated as an outcast in a mythical kingdom of points, he wrote an illustrated story with about a dozen pages. Hanna-Barbera was approached to produce it as an animated film but negotiations broke down, according to actor Curtis Armstrong (Revenge of the Nerds, Supernatural), also a Nilsson historian who wrote the liner notes for RCA’s 2002 CD reissue of The Point. Once Fred Wolf (who shared his experiences in this Animation Spin about another TV landmark, Free to Be… You and Me, for this Animation Spin), was on board, the entire project began to take shape. Wolf assigned author Carole Beers to work with Nilsson on a treatment that would include characters like The Pointed Man, Balloon Ladies, The Rockman and so forth.
The fact that Nilsson felt it necessary to take his highly unique—and risky—pitch to the top executive at ABC seems neither naïveté nor hubris, but strategic savvy. Though a sharp exec on a lower rung than Martin Starger would have seen the potential in touting the first film of its kind, an album tie-in and other potential angles, it still has a very “underground” feel for 90 minutes of 1971 network time (Yellow Submarine would not premiere on CBS until October 1972, thanks for asking). Having a champion as the top assured support of an eyebrow-raising project.
Throughout the production, with Fred Wolf in a constant flurry to get it done, mostly working at night and sleeping days. Beers, who helped develop the story and characters with Nilsson for the treatment, was steering the narrative into science fiction. Nilsson, protective of his concept, was not pleased, so Wolf brought in scriptwriter Norm Lenzer. Interviewed on the Blu-ray, Lenzer explains Wolf had already started production before there was a script. Lenzer’s task was to give the characters their quirky personalities, in collaboration with Wolf and under the approval of Nilsson. Not only had Lenzer worked with Wolf, but both had done many projects with legendary voice actors Paul Frees, Joan Gerber and Lennie Weinrib. The Point now had a collective voice that was wry, quirky and unconventional for longform TV animation .
In the early ‘70s context of Saturday morning TV, the voices of these three actors were ubiquitous, but their acting approaches in The Point were markedly different than what was usually heard in video animation, more akin to the understated manner in which Wes Anderson directed his cast in Fantastic Mr. Fox. Fred Wolf asked Lenzer to direct the actors, and those familiar with regional radio advertising of the late ‘60s will recognize the modulated, mellow comic tone of the direction.
The film voices were recorded at Bell Sound in Hollywood, while Nilsson sang and narrated his album at RCA and A&M Studios (coincidentally the first Hanna-Barbera studio). The voice actors never made their way to a dialogue soundtrack album and only exist within the film.
Dustin Hoffman agreed to a very small fee to narrate the first ABC broadcast, His asking price was too high for the ABC rerun so his track was replaced with that of actor Alan Barzman (this may have been the original scratch track, according to Lenzer, who prefers this version). Nilsson’s longtime friend Ringo Starr narrated it for home video (which is the way it is heard on the Blu-ray). Alan Thicke recorded it for cable.
The music and the film were produced, more or less, on parallel roads with each other, though of course the audio had to be done first. One of the ways Wolf saves time was to skip the pencil test process and go directly to ink-and-paint, another risk that resulted in an even more loose, unique-looking finished product. According to Lenzer, Jimmy Murakami had already gone mostly into a live-action film, Chuck Swenson was just beginning to be part of the company and so, in his observation, the entire film was done very rapidly by Wolf and his small staff.
The resulting film was extremely well received and the song “Me and My Arrow” was released as a hit single. It made the bizarre leap so many surreal, avant-garde things did in those strange, contradictory days—it ended up in a rather ordinary, conventional TV commercial.
Besides writers like Carole Beers and Norm Lenzer, who made significant contributions worth much more note than history usually affords them, The Point album marks the last vinyl collaboration between Harry Nilsson and the brilliant arranger/conductor George Tipton, who performed a similar role in giving distinctive musical support to Nilsson’s late ‘60s work as George Martin did for The Beatles. Tipton also composed the themes for numerous TV series including Soap and Benson, and background music for shows like The Golden Girls and the aforementioned Courtship of Eddie’s Father.
RCA Victor’s Point LP was originally sold in a gatefold cover with a full-color book inside illustrated by the film’s production designer, Gary Lund (the book was not attached to the cover as in the style of Disneyland Storyteller albums). The art had a free-flowing underground comic style, more extreme than the film itself. The album art director was one of Nilsson’s many prominent friends in the music industry, Dean Torrance of Jan and Dean (“Surf City,” “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena”).
The album design was to have points but no circles, per Nilsson’s instructions. The sales sticker on the shrink-wrap was a triangle. The illustration was hand-stitched in needle “point” by Torrance’s wife, Kathy. Even an exclamation “point” was stitched into the front cover title, though it was seldom punctuated anywhere else, including in the film.
“If I knew how cool my childhood was going to be, I would have paid more attention,” says eternal Brady Bunch kid Mike Lookinland, who also has the distinction of being part of two iconic “points” of popular culture. On the new Blu-ray, TV’s “Bobby Brady” and voice of “Oblio” recalls a memorable chance meeting.
“There was a time in the reception area—it’s sort of like a waiting room in a dentist’s office, you know, you wait in the front to go back to the studio down the hall to record—and my mom and I were waiting for our turn. And I’m making noises. I have a car or something, and I’m going ‘REEERRRR!’ CRRRRRRSSSSH!’ And train noises or whatever. My mom said, ‘Michael, shhh! Stop it! Be quiet! And this man stood up, walked over to my mom and said, ‘Lady, don’t ever tell your kid to be quiet. I make my living on sound. I’ve made a good living making noises. Let him make noises.’ She said it was Paul Frees.”
Harry Nilsson’s THE POINT
MCA Records (England) MCD-2826 (12” 33 1/3 RPM LP / Stereo)
U.S. CD Debut – Varese Sarabande 302 067 409 8 (2016)
Performers: Davy Jones (Oblio); Micky Dolenz (The Counts Kid, The Leafman); Veronica Clifford (Oblio’s Mom, Balloon Lady); Noel Howlett (The King); Colin Bennett (The Count); Clovissa Newcombe (The Count’s Lady, Pointed Man); Felix Rice (The Rockman); David Claridge (Arrow); Julia Lewis (Oblio’s Girlfriend); Mark Penfold (Pointed Man); Chrissy Roberts (Balloon Lady); Denny Ryder (Pointed Man); Roy Sampson (Oblio’s Dad); Gary Taylor (Balloon Man, New Bird).
“The Point” Songs: “Everything’s Got ‘Em,” “Me and My Arrow,” “Poli High,” “Think About Your Troubles,” “Life Line,” “P.O.V. Waltz,” “Are You Sleeping?” “To Be a King” by Harry Nilsson.
Other Nilsson Songs: “Remember?” (from Son of Schmilsson, 1972); “He’s Leaving Here This Morning (Bath)” (from Aerial Ballet, 1968); “Blanket for a Sail” (from Knnillsson, 1968); “It’s a Jungle Out There” (from Duit on Mon Dei, 1975); “Gotta Get Up” (from Nilsson Schmilsson, 1971) by Harry Nilsson; “Thursday (Here’s Why I Did Not Go to Work Today),” by Harry Nilsson, Dan Kortchmar (from Sandman, 1976).
“Wow! That guy had an enormous amount of influence on a lot of people!” says Micky Dolenz who was along with his fellow Monkees bandmates, a close friend and collaborator (so were The Beatles and numerous other artists of the late ‘60s).
Nilsson’s “Cuddly Toy,” was often seen on NBC’s Monkees series during its peak (then in reruns on CBS Saturday mornings, later syndication, MTV and now on MeTV). He contributed “Daddy’s Song” to the 1968 Monkees feature Head, a tune which was originally inspired by his own father. The exposure of his music, especially on The Monkees’ TV show and records, helped give Nilsson the financial boost to enter music full time.
Before Davy and Micky got The Point, the stage version began in Boston, and the first actor to play Oblio was David Morse (St. Elsewhere) at the age of 18. Several songs were added from various Nilsson albums, including the lilting “Blanket for a Sail.” Nilsson’s version was later included in a Walt Disney Records collection of children’s songs, as well as a televised concert, performed by celebrity artists to benefit the Elisabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.
The London stage version with Davy and Micky was staged at the famed Mermaid Theatre, where it was co-adapted by the theater’s founder, Bernard Miles. Miles played the role of Honest Jonathan in George Pal’s 1948 film fantasy, tom thumb, which we explored in my previous Animation Spin. Everything has a point, though sometimes it might take a while to get to it.