Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession
Credit Listing | The Production | Press Release | Jerry Harvey | Z Channel History | Poster
Background: Z Channel’s Chief Programmer, Jerry Harvey
“Think of Z Channel,” Jerry Harvey loved to say, “as the Museum of Modern Art, but with a sense of humor.”
Jerry Harvey was only 32 years old in 1981, when he suddenly found himself head of programming at Z Channel -- a small, pioneering Pay TV station (founded in 1974), devoted to movies and based in Los Angeles. Within six meteoric years, he transformed “Z”(as its fans knew it) into a major force in the film industry. He created a highly public showcase for films in their original forms -- badgering studios and enlisting the help of the filmmakers themselves to restore buried or butchered works to the lengths they intended. Among the films he rescued were Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, and Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid -- to name but a few. Before he took over Z, “the director’s cut” was unheard of as a commercial idea. After Jerry, it became the basis of a revitalized afterlife for classic films.
Even now, 16 years after Jerry’s death in 1988, his vision and methodology continue to influence, for the better, the ways in which movies are loved and cherished throughout the United States.
Born in 1949 in Bakersfield, California, descended from the early settlers who came west in covered wagons, Jerry developed from early life a hard, American westerner’s manner of speaking his mind, leavened with laconic humor. Even so, his was a childhood afflicted by demons. There was a strong trait of violent, mental instability in his family, passed down through his father, a local judge who prided himself on the high number of men he’d sent to the electric chair. As adults, Jerry’s two devoted elder sisters committed suicide.
Cinema had long been his best weapon, for surviving such sorrow. He had a long, deep emotional relationship with the healing force all good movies can have, every kind of good movie, be it a Hollywood blockbuster or the most refined and independent work of art. Jerry was so energetically open-minded that his freewheeling tastes won Z Channel a broad audience. Mainstream audiences who had tuned in to simply see a popular hit would often stay to catch an obscure rarity that, to their surprise, they would enjoy even more. Jerry knew firsthand what great pleasures were to be had in discovering movies -- and so he consciously appealed to this sense of curiosity in others. Z Channel provoked such fierce loyalty among its subscribers that it became legend within the television industry. Once people paid their monthly fee to receive Z, they never, ever canceled the arrangement. Executives at such rival companies (corporate giants for whom cancellations are routine) expressed envy and amazement at these statistics. Clearly, something other than brute commerce was at work. Jerry was able to make his love and curiosity about movies contagious -- and this is a phenomenon upon which no one can put a price.
He also inspired a profound gratitude in the creative community. To reveal Z Channel’s impact on the lives of individual artists, Xan Cassavetes interviews Quentin Tarantino, who as a teenager tried to take a petition door-to-door for Z Channel to be brought to his community; director Paul Verhoeven, whose Dutch films (Turkish Delight, The Fourth Man, etc.) showed so often on Z that they launched his American career; actress Theresa Russell, whose performance in Nicolas Roeg’s otherwise neglected Bad Timing was given a second life on Z, where it won her a continued cult; and actor James Woods, who says frankly, “I wouldn’t have a career if it wasn’t for Z.” Woods directly attributes his Oscar nomination for Salvador to Z Channel, which loudly championed that film, himself, and director Oliver Stone. Alexander Payne, the future director of Election and About Schmidt, was a Z subscriber given to writing letters to the station with requests. Director Jim Jarmusch (Stranger Than Paradise, Dead Man) was based in New York and couldn’t subscribe, but asked friends to send him copies of cinema rarities they’d taped from Z broadcasts. Actress Jacqueline Bisset, directors Robert Altman and Stewart Cooper, producer James B. Harris and filmmaker Henry Jaglom all knew Jerry personally, and share their insights. According to Jaglom, Orson Welles watched Z with him several days before his own death in 1985, marveling at the pains Jerry had taken with “A Touch of Welles,” a Z tribute which presented the great director’s films as nearly as possible in their optimal condition. “We’re becoming collectible,”- Welles observed, tickled. Most of his work was nowhere to be found on video in 1985, but after Z made everything available, a “Welles Revival” was sparked, which continues to this day.
In the end, Jerry’s demons overwhelmed him. His first wife, Vera Anderson, and longtime girlfriend, Doreen Ringer-Ross, both give painful accounts of what it took to live with him when the tragedies of his life (especially the suicides of his sisters) backed up and blackened his moods. Male friends, such as writer Douglas Venturelli, colleagues Tim Ryerson, Jeff Schwager, and film critics Charles Champlin, Kevin Thomas and F.X. Feeney illuminate what they knew of Jerry’s heart, and sufferings. And they recall Jerry’s angelic, dynamic second wife Deri (1949 --1988), who loved him and tried to save him from himself, but to no avail. That final Saturday in April, 1988, a week after Z Channel had transformed into a compromised version of itself (“Z plus Sports”), Jerry suffered the catastrophic breakdown he had fought off for most of his life, shot Deri to death and then turned the gun on himself.
The shocking, shameful nature of Jerry Harvey’s death has eclipsed for over 16 years the great honors that might have been accorded his passing, had he been hit by lightning, or died in a car crash. And yet -- 16 years later -- those who loved him still love him, those for whom love either burnt out or capsized can’t forget him, and those who owe him for their increased bounty as artists are all still deeply grateful.
Xan Cassavetes traces these complexities with tremendous truth, wit, energy and compassion.