Nixon’s Visit to China Buried a Big Budget TV Movie For Years

TV URBAN LEGEND: A TV movie was shelved for nearly three years because of its anti-Chinese plot due to President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972.

The history of movies on television is a fascinating one (well, to me, at least, but I guess it is fair to say that my interests aren’t necessarily universal). When television debuted, it was treated as basically the lowest of the lowbrow form of entertainment. One of the few areas where television WAS considered to be “worthy” was in its ability to, in effect, stage a play before the world. These stage plays were often quite a big deal, and were treated much differently from the rest of the output of television from the critics. These stage plays were typically shown in anthology series like Studio One, Kraft Television Theatre, Producers’ Showcase and Playhouse 90. Some early standout examples include “Twelve Angry Men” in 1954 (airing on Studio One), the first Broadway musical aired on television, Mary Martin’s Peter Pan (on Producers’ Showcase in 1955, seen by 65 million viewers) and “Patterns” and “Requiem for a Heavyweight” by Rod Serling, his first two major television writing successes that led to the Twilight Zone’s creation (they aired on Kraft Television Theatre in 1955 and Playhouse 90 in 1956, respectively, which were both adapted into motion pictures). Perhaps the most notable success in those early years was Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s made-for-television musical, Cinderellastarring Julie Andrews, which was seen by over 100 million people in 1957 (over half the United States’ population at the time).

What television did NOT have was ACTUAL motion pictures, because the film studios saw television as competition and did not want to help fuel it by giving them films to air. The general gentlemen’s agreement between the studios was that no film after 1948 would be allowed to air on television and even beyond that, typically only lesser fare would be allowed to air on television. Thus, outside a few major Walt Disney films and, say, The Wizard of Oz, very few notable films aired on television in the 1950s. Things changed in 1961 when NBC Saturday Night at the Movies debuted. NBC had cut a deal with 20th Century Fox to air 31 post-1950 movies in the series. Once the dam was broken, soon, the studios began cutting deals all over the place, with newer and newer films, and networks starting to air movies on multiple days a week. NBC Saturday Night at the Movies eventually became such a sensation that it almost drove gunsmoke to cancel in 1967, as it was crushing the acclaimed western in the ratings.

Here was the NEW problem, though, there were now so many movies in the early 1960s being licensed to television that the networks were running out of films! This, then, led to the novel idea to just make their OWN films. See How They Run, on NBC in 1964, was the first made-for-TV movies. These early movies were treated often like actual movies, with large budgets, big name stars and high production values.By the end of the 1970s, though, made-for-TV movies were so common that the budgets started to dry up, and TV movies started to develop a reputation for being schlocky. When cable channels became popular, suddenly, cable became the province for both made-for-TV movies (with even cheaper production values, outside of premium channels like HBO) and actual films. Network TV movies went from common to rare, and motion pictures rarely get aired on the broadcast channels, either.

In the early 1970s, though, television movies were still a big deal, and one of the bigger budget ones was an adaptation of a best-selling novel by none other than Robert J. Serling, the brother of Rod Serling, called The President’s Plane is Missing. However, while initially planned for release in 1971, the movie did not come out until the end of 1973. Why was that?

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When the Communist Part of China took control of China in 1949, the United States insisted on only recognizing the former leaders of China, the Republic of China, as the sole government in China. This, of course, was not well received by the People’s Republic of China, and the United States and China really just didn’t have diplomatic relations throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Obviously, that period was also the height of the so-called “Cold War” between the United States and the Soviet Union. With China being the other dominant Communist-led country in the world outside the Soviet Union, relations with China would be a major boon for the United States and after being elected President in 1968, Richard Nixon began to try to establish a connection with China.

Eventually, through a number of secret meetings by Nixon’s National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, in Beijing in 1971, Nixon was able to announce in 1971 that he was going to visit China for a week in 1972, the first United States President to ever do so. That 1972 visit began a road to establishing permanent diplomatic relations, which finally came to fruition in 1979 with the United States accepting the People’s Republic of China as the sole government of China.

So…what does this have to with some TV movie?

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The plot behind The President’s Plane is Missing is that Air Force One has disappeared, and the President is possibly dead. His weak-minded Vice President is thrust into the national spotlight (pushed along by his Lady MacBeth-esque wife), right into the middle of a major international dispute with (you guessed it) China. The Vice President has different advice from the National Security Advisor (who says that the President was about to declare war) and the Secretary of State (who says that the President was definitely NOT about to go to war). The Vice President is about to declare a nuclear strike on China when – surprise! – the President shows up. The missing Air Force One was a ruse designed to give him time to work out a secretive peace deal with China.

The film was produced in 1970-71, and was going to air in 1971, but after Nixon’s trip was announced, plans were squelched, and it didn’t air until the end of October 1973. Peter Graves, who plays the guy investigating the missing plane, explained the delay in simple terms in a Box Office magazine interview, “In it, the Chinese turn out to be the bad guys, so we had to wait three years to see it.”.

The legend is…


Be sure to check out my archive of TV Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the world of TV.

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