The unexpected text message arrived Oct. 24, 2015, two days after USA TODAY’s commemoration of Back to the Future Day.
“For decades now I thought I was the only one left who remembered or cared about The Time Tunnel. I never missed an episode. About 15 years ago, I saw James Darren at the luggage carousel at LAX. I could not have been more thrilled if it had been Babe Ruth. Hope u r well. Bob Costas.”
The renowned NBC sportscaster was referring to my Back to the Future Voices column, an ode to time travel in which I dated my obsession back to the 1960s television classic, The Time Tunnel. Each week, Tony Newman and Doug Phillips, played by James Darren and Robert Colbert, found themselves landing in just the right spot as a huge historic event was about to take place: the attack on Pearl Harbor, the sinking of the Titanic, the siege of the Alamo, D-Day.
Bob’s text triggered an idea: What if we two time travel nuts could track down our hero James Darren and take him to lunch or dinner?
Years earlier, during the O.J. Simpson saga, I had been on a TV show or two with Darren’s son, Jim Moret. It didn’t take long to get his cell number.
I texted Jim. He texted back with his father’s e-mail address. Before I could send a message, I received a text from Christian Darren, another of James Darren’s sons, saying they would be “delighted” to meet with us the next time we all were in Los Angeles. Amazingly, all of this was done without once clicking on Facebook.
I immediately alerted Bob. It was in the midst of the World Series.
“I am more psyched for this than for Game 2 tonite,” he texted. “This is beyond cool! Climbing into our own Time Tunnel and heading for 1966!”
And so it came to pass that on Monday, Feb. 8, in the year 2016, at precisely 6:30 p.m. California time, James and Christian Darren, Bob and Jill Costas and I converged on Craig’s in West Hollywood to have dinner and engage in our own very personal brand of time travel.
James Darren had invited Robert Colbert, but he couldn’t make it. Darren explained that it’s hard to drag Colbert out of his beloved Malibu.
Bob and I weren’t quite so sure. I wondered if perhaps Colbert was stuck in Gettysburg.
“I heard it was Plymouth Rock, but why quibble?” Bob said.
Darren, a onetime teen idol who looks fantastic at 79 and still performs in Las Vegas, was more than agreeable when Bob and I started asking him all about the TV show. Although he seemed to enjoy the reminiscing as much as we did, Bob added a crucial note of caution: “Stop us when we get too obnoxious.”
We quickly found out Darren’s favorite episode was also both of ours: “The Day The Sky Fell In,” in which Tony and Doug travel back to Pearl Harbor on Dec. 6, 1941, the eve of the attack.
As luck would have it, Darren’s character, Tony, grew up in Honolulu, where his father was stationed at the U.S. naval office.
You can probably see where this is going. Nearly two decades before Marty McFly met his parents in the first Back to the Future movie, adult Tony runs into 7-year-old Tony while he’s trying to warn his — their — father, a Navy commander, about the impending attack.
It gets better. Tony’s father died during the attack on Pearl Harbor, but Tony never knew how. He finds out in the show. After the bombs have fallen, time-traveling Tony ends up in an office with his mortally wounded father.
“You said you knew me a long time ago and that you’ve always remembered,” Tony’s father says.
“My name is Tony Newman,” Darren says.
“Tony Newman. I know you. I know you as well as I know my own son.”
Tears well in Darren’s eyes.
“I … I am your son.”
As we retold the story, we of course uttered those immortal words. To watch James Darren watch us repeat his famous line from nearly 50 years ago was almost too good to be true. Who says time travel is impossible?
The evening already was a complete success, and we hadn’t even ordered yet.
Brennan is a USA TODAY sports columnist who plans to travel ahead to 2030 to find out if she and Costas ever write a time travel sports novel.