WHEN ‘MOONLIGHTING’ PAID TRIBUTE TO ‘THE TAMING OF THE SHREW,’ THE HIT COMEDY TOOK HOME EMMY AWARDS FOR COSTUME DESIGN AND EDITING, BUT THE VIEWERS WERE THE REAL WINNERS
By Robert Wilonsky
It has been six months since Glenn Gordon Caron hopped on Twitter to announce that “the business of getting all 5 seasons of Moonlighting starring Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd ready for streaming has begun!” Which was excellent news: The 1985-1989 ABC hourlong comedy that resurrected Shepherd’s career and introduced Willis – at least to viewers who missed his 1984 star turn as abusive arms dealer Tony Amato on Miami Vice – has essentially gone into witness protection. Moonlighting, a screwball throwback less about the cases and more about the cast, was barely made available on DVD, has yet to get a Blu-ray makeover and is only widely available as grainy, poorly cropped YouTube flashbacks that look uploaded from a Sony Watchman in 1989.
This might explain why most people in 2023 have no idea that Willis performed Archie Bell and the Drells’ “Tighten Up” while dressed as a priest long before he dropped Hans Gruber out of a Nakatomi Plaza window. Yet, still, we wait: Caron, the show’s creator, said in October that it “could take quite a while” before the sun rose again on Moonlighting. We were warned, which doesn’t make it any easier.
Getting Moonlighting on a streamer should not be hard. There were but 67 episodes of the series over four years following its March 1985 debut as a midseason replacement, making its ratings-topping run startlingly short for a network series. And for most of the fourth season (eight out of 14 episodes!), Willis’ David Addison and Shepherd’s Maddie Hayes were seldom onscreen together. Reasons for its abbreviated run are myriad, ranging from tension between the two leads to the time it took to write the densely dialogued scripts to the fact it took weeks to shoot episodes that should have wrapped in days. All of it, and more, was true; Moonlighting was masterpiece and mess in equal measure.
It boasts among those relatively scant episodes some of television’s finest hours: the black-and-white film-noir send-up “The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice,” introduced by Orson Welles; “Big Man on Mulberry Street,” which contained a Billy Joel-scored dream sequence directed by Singin’ in the Rain’s Stanley Donen; “The Lady in the Iron Mask,” less a Hitchcock parody than a De Palma homage; and “The Straight Poop,” essentially a meta time-killer about the show’s frequent delays in which Pierce Brosnan pops up as Remington Steele – for which Caron used to write.
And then there was “Atomic Shakespeare.”
That episode essentially paid tribute to Caron’s inspiration for the entire series: The Taming of the Shrew. Willis, of course, would play the fortune-seeking Petruchio; Shepherd, the titular “shrew,” Katherina. The rest of the regulars rounded out the cast, among them Allyce Beasley and Revenge of the Nerds’ Curtis Armstrong, which was transported from the Blue Moon Detective Agency in Los Angeles to Padua, Italy, in 1593 (“or just an incredible facsimile,” per the title card, which was the Universal backlot).
The episode starts as a Moonlighting episode about a kid wanting to watch a Moonlighting episode; no series winked at itself in the funhouse mirror more. But the boy’s mother banishes him to his room to do his homework – in this case, read Shakespeare. He cracks open the play, and the episode quickly morphs into a rather sincere retelling of The Taming of the Shrew, down to the iambic pentameter and its occasional use of actual dialogue, combined with some anachronistic winks (Willis’ Ray-Bans, his saddle bearing the BMW insignia, the performance of The Rascals’ “Good Lovin’”).
It received numerous Emmy nominations, including for writing (amazingly, Jeff Reno and Ron Osborn’s first draft was the only draft!) and directing (Will Mackenzie’s mother was the Shakespeare professor at Wheaton College). It also won a few, among them statues for editing and costuming. “Atomic Shakespeare” is also known as “The Most Expensive TV Episode of Its Time,” as Vanity Fair called it in 2021 when excerpting Scott Ryan’s delightful oral history about the series.
In that piece, Caron recounts the numerous versions he attended: Franco Zeffirelli’s film with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor while in high school; in college, his wife’s performance in Taming some 10 times; after college, a Central Park performance with Meryl Streep and Raul Julia.
“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,” he said, “I thought that’s really interesting, and you don’t see that very often.”
Initially, Reno wanted to restage Hamlet, as it was a murder mystery of sorts – perfect for the will-they-won’t-they tandem from the L.A. detective agency. Osborn suggested changing it to The Taming of the Shrew, he says in the oral history: “It just hit our sensibilities right.”
It took 16 days to film the episode – more than twice the time needed for any network television show. The show’s makers would later tell Ryan they believed it cost somewhere between $2 million and $4 million to make (in 1986 dollars), in part because of the costumes used on the episode – elaborate Elizabethan garb designed by Robert Turturice, who won the costume-design Emmy Award for this very episode. Little wonder they found themselves among the costumes acquired and preserved by James Comisar, who offers them in Heritage’s June 2-4 auction of historic television props, sets and costumes.
“Those costumes must have weighed 30 pounds, and they itched,” Shepherd told Ryan for his book. “I pretty much faced every challenge in that episode. I’ve always loved a challenge.”
“That was one of our delays, that she hated the costume,” said director Will Mackenzie. “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.”
The episode debuted on November 25, 1986 – the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving. Accordingly, it fared poorly for a Moonlighting episode during its hit run; history remembers it as a bomb, though it still placed 16th in the week’s ratings. “People see those funny costumes and hear that funny way of talking,” Caron told Yahoo Entertainment in 2015, “and they [went] right for the remote.”
Yet it’s remembered now as the series’ “greatest triumph,” as Daniel Kurland wrote for Vulture in 2016.
“While the real magic trick of ‘Atomic Shakespeare’ is the impossibly clever script, this thing is also a real force visually,” Kurland wrote. “Extensive period costumes and wardrobes are in full effect to further sell the Shakespearean atmosphere. … [It’s] effectively the most expensive hour of TV that had ever been made at the time, but it absolutely shows.”
And though the series may have vanished, for the time being, the episode certainly has not: The Paley Center for Media counts “Atomic Shakespeare” among the entries in its permanent media collection of television and radio shows.
“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,” Curtis Armstrong said later. “A lot of people can remember the Shakespeare show probably as an individual show more than any of the others.”
Because “Atomic Shakespeare” was an absolute blast.
ROBERT WILONSKY is a staff writer at Intelligent Collector.