By Jerry Chandler
Tuesday of this week, February 27, the news broke that Paul De Meo had passed away. I first saw the news in the form of a Facebook post by John Wesley Shipp. Through his post, I found the tweet by De Meo’s longtime creative partner Danny Bilson. I had at first hoped the news was wrong, but John Wesley Shipp was likely not going to be posting a false death report for De Meo and Bilson damned sure wasn’t. So, sadly, the news that fandom had lost someone who gave it so much over the years was true.
My first experience with the creative efforts of Bilson and De Meo came in the form of a direct to VHS movie from Charles Band’s Empire Pictures. That movie was 1984’s Trancers, and it also happened to be Bilson and De Meo’s first writing gig.
Despite its low budget nature, Trancers was a rollicking good time of a movie. While still new and a bit green, the writing talents of Bilson and De Meo were also pretty damned impressive. Their story of Jack Deth (a cop from the future) having to go back in time- down the line as it was called in the film –by having his consciousness transferred across time into his ancestor in order to chase a villain who escaped into the then present day California was interesting enough. The addition of the villain’s ability to turn people to his will, to make them crazed berserkers called Trancers who looked a bit like zombies, only made it better. Throw in Jack’s somewhat abrasive character and it was an instant favorite for many a geek back then. Indeed, Jack Deth as a character became a popular creation for Charles Band’s Empire Pictures, and continued to be one well into the Full Moon glory years and beyond.
Bilson and De Meo would continue to hone their skills doing more work for Charles Band and Empire Pictures. In between 1984 and 1989, the two of them would write Zone Troopers, Eliminators, Pulse Pounders (Trancer II V1), and Arena for Empire Pictures along with Kung Fu: The Next Generation for CBS. They also worked on a slightly misfiring comedy known as The Wrong Guys.
The work they did under Charles Band started out good, and you could see the quality of their work growing with each new project. Their Empire Pictures work had a solid following in many circles of fandom, and they were even becoming something of a buzz name with fans. Then 1990 hit and they became really popular guys with geeks everywhere.
Bilson and De Meo were tapped to develop and produce through their company Pet Fly Productions a live action television series based on DC Comics’ famous Scarlett Speedster. In September of 1990, the Bilson and De Meo produced pilot for The Flash, also written by them, landed on CBS and made a huge splash with fandom. Sadly, the John Wesley Shipp starring series lasted only a single season, but it made a lasting impression on many fans. Based on that show, Shipp’s name would come up in fan discussions as perfect casting for the oft rumored to be just around the corner Justice League movie, and, then, almost 25 years later, fans would rejoice when Shipp and series costar Amanda Pays (and later Alex Désert) were brought back for the modern series as a nod to the popularity of the 1990-1991 series. Fans would freak out even more when Shipp was then brought back again to play Jay Garrick and have as his nemesis the Trickster as played by Mark Hamill. Hamill had been the man who played the Trickster in the 1990-1991 series.
1991 may have seen the end of their stewardship of The Flash, but it also saw the two of them help bring another comic book hero to life on the big screen.
Bilson and De Meo were tasked with writing the screenplay for the (at the time) criminally underrated and underseen The Rocketeer. Their script brought the character to life on the big screen and delivered on the promise of an amazingly fun story with some joyfully thrilling action moments.
For a host of reasons (entire articles have been written about what was happening behind the scenes at Disney at the time) that included a less than stellar ad campaign, the movie failed to catch fire at the box office. Even word of mouth didn’t help it out, and it was getting strong word of mouth buzz from many in fandom. Eventually, it became a cult favorite that found an audience on home video and cable TV, and it continues to do so today. It also raised the profile of the character in fandom, making it a favorite with people who at the time had never (and in some cases still have never) read the comic.
I’ll point blank tell you it was my favorite movie from that year, and it’s still one of my favorite comic book based movies today.
1992 saw the short lived but surprisingly well remembered ABC series, The Human Target. The series continued their relationship with both comic book properties and fandom, but it seemed to have had everything against it from day one.
After the rather quick television demise of The Human Target, Bilson and De Meo’s next project didn’t see the light of day for two years. But, when it finally did, it was another genre project that had an… interesting… production history.
1994 saw the debut of Viper. The pilot movie and then short lived series that later led to a longer lived series was built around the concept of a reformed career criminal with a history of being an expert driver getting a new identity and a Dodge Viper with a sci-fi twist about it to take down a group of criminals known as The Syndicate. It took them a little bit of time to smooth out the rough edges of the show’s concept and execution, but by the time the series relaunched in 1996 it had enough of the right stuff to get a nice following for the next few years.
Still, it wasn’t Viper that gave them their biggest hit not related to an existing comic of fandom property. That came with the breakout success of their 1996 original creation through their Pet Fly Productions for the fledgling UPN television network.
The Sentinel launched on UPN and was an instant buzz success for the new network. The story centered on an Army Special Forces member who spent years in the Peruvian jungle during his last mission. Unknown to Jim Ellison, he was one of the rare people who had the ability to become what some ancient cultures called a sentinel; human beings with extremely heightened senses. The isolation in the jungle activated his abilities, and he discovered with the help of Blair Sandburg- a local expert in both anthropology and the subject of the sentinels -that he’s the rarest of the rare. In his case, all of his senses have been heightened to extreme levels. Now a police officer in Cascade City, Ellison used his senses to combat criminals of the street level variety as well as a few who posed a greater threat than an average police officer might be able to handle.
The series was well thought out, well written, and highly enjoyable. The casting of the three main characters (Jim Ellison, Blair Sandburg, and Simon Banks played by Richard Burgi, Garett Maggart, and Bruce young) was nothing short of brilliant as the three actors had amazing chemistry on screen.
The Sentinel became a solid favorite with a lot of geeks, and even for a while with people who didn’t think of themselves as geeks. By the end of the first season, it had become a solid superhero television show; just without the costumes and capes. It suffered a bit in its final season and it went off the air in 1999, but the first few seasons are still well liked by many. 1999 also saw the final season of Viper air on TV.
1999 was also something of a swansong year for the pair working in television. By 2001, they had turned their professional focus towards working on video games.
But for geeks of a certain age range, Bilson and De Meo were names that made you pay attention and start looking when their projects were announced. For a lot of geeks in a certain age range, a lot of their work was a major part of their geek viewing habits; especially Trancers, The Flash, and The Sentinel.
RIP, Paul De Meo, and thanks for all of those years of so much wonderful entertainment.
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek who, while enjoying most everything fandom has to offer, finds himself most at home in the horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction genres. When not wasting too much time on social media, he can be found writing regularly here at Needless Things, but has also written for websites like Gruesome Magazine as well as remembering to put up the occasional musings on his on blog. He’s been a guest on several podcasts from the ESO Network, Decades of Horror, and the Subject Matter. He has also recently become a regular cohost of The Assignment: Horror Podcast.