lucille ball and jack palanceTHE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH (1963-1964) – This forgotten television program was yet another attempt to transform a successful movie into a weekly series … in a way. The characters aren’t carryovers from the 1952 movie, but the whole “Circus as a Soap Opera” approach is there. Jack Palance starred as circus manager Johnny Slate, the only true regular since he was in every episode. (By contrast, Stuart Erwin as Otto King had the second most appearances at a mere 9 episodes.)

This was the first color drama produced by Desilu, the famed production company run by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, famous for television shows like Star Trek, The Untouchables, Laugh-In and many more. COLOR was the big draw for The Greatest Show on Earth in that period when most programs were still broadcast in black & white.

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The series was beaten badly in the ratings by Petticoat Junction and The Richard Boone Show, and wound up canceled after just one season of 30 episodes. Lucille Ball supposedly was not impressed with her star and was quoted as saying “Jack Palance will never work here again and you may quote me.”

Palance, who even directed an episode of this program, IS a big part of the show’s problem. There’s a reason he very seldom appeared in Good Guy roles. He had a semi-psychotic, on the verge of violence air about him that made him very effective as a villain. Having him struggle to be charming and caring is unintentionally funny. 

At any rate, Palance’s Johnny Slate interacted with a staggering number of stars, former stars and future stars during this program’s run. The Greatest Show on Earth packed as many celebrities into its lone season as shows like The Love Boat and Fantasy Island.

Plus there was the alleged appeal of on-screen recreations of circus acts. Some, like lion taming, seem like plain old animal abuse today and even harmless ones like high wire walking or the flying trapeze are barely entertaining in person, let alone in controlled, fictionalized form.

As in the movie, The Greatest Show on Earth as a television series was centered on the Barnum & Bailey Circus.

For a taste of some of the familiar faces passing through the revolving door of Palance’s circus:

EPISODE 1 – Lion on Fire, featured Harry Guardino and Joan Freeman.

EPISODE 2 – Silent Love, Secret Love, featured Tuesday Weld, Ruth Roman, Russ Tamblyn and Robert Webber.

EPISODE 3 – No Middle Ground for Harry Kyle, featured Jose Ferrer and Martha Scott.

EPISODE 4 – Don’t Look Down, Don’t Look Back, featured Gilbert Roland, Brenda Vaccaro and Bradford Dillman.

EPISODE 5 – Garve, featured Hugh O’Brian, Harold J. Stone and Maggie Pierce. 

EPISODE 6 – The Loser, featured Eddie Albert, Sal Mineo and Diane Sayer. 

EPISODE 7 – Uncaged, featured James Coburn, Fabian and Marian McCargo.

EPISODE 8 – The Circus Never Came to Town, featured Cliff Robertson and Frank Sutton.

EPISODE 9 – An Echo of Faded Velvet, featured John Astin, Tony Franciosa and Felicia Farr.   

EPISODE 10 – The Hanging Man, featured Michael Parks, Ricardo Montalban and Fay Spain. 

EPISODE 11 – Leaves in the Wind, featured Nina Foch and Paul Comi.

EPISODE 12 – The Wrecker, featured Dennis Hopper, Dean Stockwell, Luana Anders and Karl Swenson.

EPISODE 13 – Lady in Limbo, featured Lucille Ball, THE Tura Satana, Roger Carmel, Bill Mumy and Dabbs Greer.   

EPISODE 14 – A Black Dress for Gina, featured Geraldine Brooks and Michael Constantine.

EPISODE 15 – Where the Wire Ends, featured Dorothy Malone, Alejandro Rey, John Dehner and Neil Burstyn.

EPISODE 16 – Corsicans Don’t Cry, featured Billy Gray, Patricia Breslin and Frank DeKova.

EPISODE 17 – Big Man from Nairobi, featured Ellen Burstyn and Cornel Wilde.

EPISODE 18 – The Show Must Go on – To Orange City, featured Tony Dow, Ruby Keeler and Danielle De Metz.

EPISODE 19 – A Place to Belong, featured Louis Jourdan, Francine York and Jeremy Slate.

EPISODE 20- Man in a Hole, featured Jack Lord, Arte Johnson, Jennifer Billingsley, Phyllis Avery and Russell Johnson.

EPISODE 21 – Clancy, featured Marta Kristen, Larry Storch, Edmond O’Brien and Maggie McNamara.

EPISODE 22 – The Last of the Strongmen, featured Bruce Dern, Bernie Hamilton, Marianna Hill and Red Buttons.

EPISODE 23 – The Night the Monkey Died, featured Yvonne De Carlo, Barbara Bain, Martin Landau and Buck Taylor.

EPISODE 24 – Of Blood, Sawdust and a Bucket of Tears, featured Julie Newmar and Doris Dowling.

EPISODE 25 – Rosetta, featured Annette Funicello, Dwayne Hickman and William Demarist.

EPISODE 26 – The Glorious Days of the Used to Be, featured Don Ameche, Betty Hutton and Gene Roth. 

EPISODE 27 – Love the Giver, featured James Whitmore, Brandon De Wilde and Susan Silo.

EPISODE 28 – This Train Don’t Stop Till It Gets There, featured Sally Kellerman, Sheree North, Agnes Moorhead, Rory Calhoun and Deborah Walley.

EPISODE 29 – There Are No Problems, Only Opportunities, featured Joanna Moore, Barry Nelson and Edgar Bergen.

EPISODE 30- You’re All Right, Ivy, featured Buster Keaton, Ted Bessell, Lynn Loring and Joan Blondell. 



Filed under Forgotten Television


  1. 30 shows in a season! Now we’re lucky to get 15. In Britain, it’s about 5… Sigh.

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