In describing the nuances of one-season wonder “Life on Mars,” executive producer Josh Appelbaum coined a term: “It was exce-silly — excellent and silly.”
None of the 5 million people who originally watched the ABC series finale would likely disagree. Tracking the mystery behind why modern-day detective Sam Tyler (Jason O’Mara) finds himself transported back to the year 1973, the cop/sci-fi hybrid based on the UK series of the same name failed to secure a second season, but thanks to the forethought of Appelbaum and his fellow showrunners, the series did manage to deliver an ending.
And oh, what a series finale it was. The episode “Life Is a Rock,” which aired on April 1, 2009, features one of modern television’s most bonkers final twists, and was actually 100 percent the ending planned by the creators from the beginning.
Yes, it came a little sooner than they would have liked, but the creators remain grateful for the chance to put that ending on screen. How that ending came to be, in all its insane glory, is a story best told by those involved: Appelbaum, fellow executive producer Scott Rosenberg, director Michael Katleman, and series star Jason O’Mara. Despite the years of distance, all of them had the deepest affection for this epic “exce-silly” episode.
Rosenberg: Steve McPherson at ABC was obsessed with [“Life on Mars”]. They had shot a pilot with as good an auspice as you can get in television: David E. Kelley wrote it, Tommy Schlamme directed it, and Jason O’Mara starred in it. We were vaguely aware of the BBC original. McPherson brought us in, he’s like, “You guys want to take this over?” So we looked at it and it was honestly, I can happily say this on the record, it was terrible.
So we said, “Oh, it’s full of really good actors, but just kind of not gelling in a particularly good way.” And, we said, “We’ll do it, but you have to let us re-cast everything and set it in New York City.” And, he was like, “You can re-cast everybody except Jason O’Mara.”
O’Mara: I spoke to Steve, and I said, “What’s going on, are you picking up the show?” And he said, “I’m getting rid of everything except you and the title.” I said, “What?” He said, “Yeah. I’m changing everything.” I didn’t have a choice, because I had a holding deal with the network at the time.
Rosenberg: [McPherson] was such a believer in Jason O’Mara. And I wasn’t. So then, we rewrote the pilot, which was wildly intimidating because again, it was David E. Kelley, and, that BBC version was so amazing.
O’Mara: I had a meeting with [Rosenberg and Appelbaum], and I don’t think they were convinced that I was their guy. In fact, I know they weren’t. They felt like I had been imposed on them by the network. They weren’t thrilled about it, but they went about their business.
Appelbaum: We thought of [O’Mara] as this handsome leading man, and Sam is kind of an oddball character. But that was the revelation for us with Jason: how damn funny he is and how weird he is, in a good way. He was always along for the ride and pushing us to kind of make Sam more idiosyncratic and make the situations he was in more and more bizarre. He just loved that. He’s just a genuinely funny guy and a good comedic actor.
O’Mara: They put this amazing supporting cast together — you know, Harvey [Keitel], and Michael [Imperioli], and Gretchen [Mol], and Jonathan McDuff — and wrote a great pilot, which I thought was terrific, and were really enthused about it, but they were still skeptical [of me]. I didn’t know this at the time, but they were skeptical until we shot the pilot. Apparently, I had redeemed myself in their eyes then, and all was well.
Rosenberg: The most mission-critical moment was in the beginning. Because, we’d all heard about “Lost” [but] they had no idea that it was going to become a cultural phenomenon. So, they hadn’t really figured out everything, which, of course, is why some people remain dissatisfied with the finale, because it didn’t answer all the questions. And, we were like very, very cognizant of that and also cognizant of the fact that in with the age of the Internet, anybody can go and look up the Wikipedia of the BBC version and know exactly how it ended. He was in a coma, that’s what it was.
So, literally, the first week when the writers were assembled […] we had to figure out what the ending was. Then everything would be driving to that, so we wouldn’t have polar bears and not be able to explain polar bears, you know? Everything that we did was once we figured out what the ending was. And this writer of ours, Bryan Oh, who’s been on all of our shows, came up with it.
Appelbaum: We put it to the staff, “Everyone come in tomorrow and pitch the ending — pitch what this is all about that’s different than the BBC version.” And, Bryan said, “I just keep having this whole thing in my head, it’s like, you know life on Mars, ground control to Major Tom.” He’s like, you know, “If it’s life on Mars, how about that this is all about the first manned mission to Mars and that the final image of the show is there being life — a human foot stepping down on the red planet and there will be life on Mars.” And all this stuff has been kind of while they’re in stasis; their memories getting scrambled.
We’re like, “That’s fucking insane, that’s fucking awesome. Five years from now, let’s say that that’s what’s happening and bake stuff in.”
Rosenberg: Sam is walking through New York, he realizes he’s trapped in time. It’s night time, and he walks out to the Brooklyn Bridge, and he’s standing there and he’s thinking about throwing himself off, because maybe that will wake himself up and he can wake up in his hospital bed — because he thinks he’s in a coma. And, he’s standing there, and there’s a chubby guy standing next to him on the Brooklyn Bridge reading “Catcher in the Rye.” The “Catcher in the Rye” thing was actually kind of the reveal.
Appelbaum: He’s depressed, he’s talking about John Lennon — he’s reading “Catcher in the Rye,” and [Sam] realizes that it’s Mark David Chapman. And, he’s standing there talking to Mark David Chapman, who’s saying something about like, “I’m thinking of going up to the Dakota,” and Sam looks at him, and he takes Mark David Chapman and he throws him off the Brooklyn Bridge.
As his body hits the fucking water, Sam turns and is like, “This isn’t so bad, maybe I’m going to stay here.” And as he walks off into the fucking night and the music starts to rise and he kind of grins, [that] was the end of the pilot. We were so obsessed with it, and ABC so wouldn’t let us do it. They’re like, “We can’t have our lead kill somebody in cold blood in the pilot.” We’re like, “He’s killing the man that killed John Lennon. Like, he’s the biggest hero–“
Rosenberg: He just saved John Lennon.
Appelbaum: “He just saved John Lennon’s life.” “We can’t have our hero kill.” It would’ve been so good.
Rosenberg: It would’ve been amazing.
Appelbaum: We’ll reboot. Reboot the remake. We’ll create our own time travel.
Rosenberg: We’re going to kill Mark David Chapman one way or the other.
Appelbaum: [ABC] thought it premiered very well. They were happy with it, but they would have been very happy I think, if it were more of a 1970s cop show — if it was “NYPD Blue” set in the ’70s, if the case of the week thing took over a little bit more. They were ultimately supportive of all of it, but that was the only tug and pull. But, as the season went along, the ratings declined.
Rosenberg: It was a thousand percent the wrong network at the wrong time. Because, aside from “Lost,” it was “Grey’s Anatomy,” it was “Brothers and Sisters,” it was “Private Practice,” it was all that stuff. With us, Kate Walsh is doing her thing–
Appelbaum: Then, we throw Harvey Keitel right after.
Rosenberg: So, [the year before] we had done “October Road.” And, “October Road,” which is a very different show, had had one central question, which was the paternity of this 10-year-old kid who got cancer. You couldn’t watch that whole thing on DVD and have it be a complete meal because that thing was hanging out there. Eventually, we wound up shooting like a 10-minute thing for the DVD.
So, this time, when we saw that the hangman was knocking on the door, Josh and Andre and myself, we made this conscious decision we would go to Steve. He hadn’t canceled us yet, but we said, “If you’re gonna cancel us, can you let us know?” Production was on like Episode 14 or something — we could wrap it up. So we nudged him…
Appelbaum: …and we got an answer we didn’t want. He didn’t decide because we asked but, yeah. It was kind of like, if you’re gonna cancel us, just let us know so we can wrap it up and he said, “You’re canceled.” It was like, “Oh, shit.” And then, we went into a depression for a week.
It became a huge rallying cry for the crew because these crews — you know how many shows these people work on that they don’t get to see brought to conclusion? And, it was a really close-knit group, everyone loved each other, they loved the show. So, being able to say, “Guys, we’re gonna scramble to finish this. Oh, and by the way, we got to build a spaceship. And, it’s gonna be insane.”
Katleman: The spaceship was the very, very, very last thing we did for many reasons. One is, again, we could, so we wanted to end the show that way. Also, the paint was drying, I think, when we went and shot it. I’m not kidding. I remember rehearsing and going, “Oh my god, this stuff’s not even done yet.” So we’d be rehearsing off the set while they’re putting stuff in. We couldn’t put the pods in or anything until we were ready to shoot. We really didn’t want anyone knowing.
Appelbaum: I do remember being scared and excited to give everybody the pages.
Rosenberg: We kept the last scene. We distributed the script, and it ended and I literally typed in, “There’s more to come, but we’re not gonna tell you now.”
Katleman: We kept it a really good secret. We kept it such a secret that when we were building the spaceship at the end, no one knew what we were building. We literally tried to hold out, and we then had to go in kind of eleventh hour and move forward with this last episode and commit to it.
Appelbaum: Because we didn’t want to spoil it, we went just to the department heads. And then you got the initial reaction which was people saying, “This is insane, and that’s impossible.” But then, because people had been going back in time for a whole year, this crazy idea of lurching into the future — everybody got super excited. I remember Jason loving it, which excited us. I remember being the most nervous about Harvey. But, we got Harvey’s approval for it, he genuinely loved it. He thought it was batshit in all the best ways possible.
Katleman: I think we were calling it “the hotel.” So the production designer obviously knew what it was, and I thought we were just calling it a hotel. We just had some version of some codeword just so it wouldn’t leak out and people would go, “Oh, that’s it.”
Appelbaum: [Production designer] Steven Hendrickson, I believe, was excited by it. Everybody really rallied behind it. They said, “How much time do we have, how much money do we have?” All of which was limited, but they kind of just wrapped their arms around it and went all out.
I think the last thing we shot was, properly, Harvey putting his foot on Mars. Literally, this whole journey came down to watching Harvey Keitel put his foot down on red sand, you know? And, the whole crew was gathered around and applauded, and it was a fun thing.
Rosenberg: [The white slipper] was always a way to have our cake and eat it, too. It was so silly when you think about it. Whether that was real or not, it was more just a nod to the two time periods–
Appelbaum: The merge of it all, you know. [The finale] was driven by images and emotion first, and then having to tie the logic together somehow. The important part was telling the father-son story and paying off the love story. But then, that was part of the writers’ room — “so, can somebody explain how this all makes sense?” And, this is the best version we could come up with.
O’Mara: I love that the last image is a white loafer on the Mars surface. Because I think the fact that we never took any of this very seriously is lovely. You know? The whole thing is done with sort of a raised eyebrow, and a sense of humor, which I think is probably what gives it a sense of longevity.
Appelbaum: I think if we didn’t have an ending, [“Life on Mars”] would’ve been forgotten. We got more press about the finale than we ever got as the show was running.
O’Mara: All of us, including Harvey, thought it was a really creative and fun ending to the series. So we were all on board with that, which might be hard to believe to some fans, because some fans really hate that ending.
Katleman: We work so hard to tell these stories, and it’s always so disappointing when there’s no choice; that all the sudden it comes to this end with no fanfare. Whatever show it is and you’re trying to tell a story and you really want as a filmmaker to have a beginning, middle, and end and I think fans, if they’re going to put their time into a show, and they’re going to watch it every week, they want a beginning, middle, and end, too. So it meant the world to me.
O’Mara: It meant a lot to me that we shot a series finale, because when you have a deeply mythological show like that, you have to deliver for the fans. There has to be some closure. Even if it’s not perfect, there has to be some closure. And even if it’s not what they want, there has to be something given to them to reward them.
Rosenberg: What I love is that you could literally hand every girlfriend I ever dated since then the 17 episodes, and you could watch it as a 17-hour movie. You get the beginning, the middle, and the end, and that’s it. And, that to me is so much better than even running like four seasons and then ending on this open-ended cliffhanger.
O’Mara: We had to really commit to finding our own brand of weird and wonderful, and I think we did. It might have taken us a few episodes, but I think we did.