Can I Get a Banacek on Aisle 5?

April 23, 2008

More days off and more TV episodes logged in.  Detective shows were the lingua franca of’70s television, so I’ve gradually been sampling them all, dropping the ones that bore me (McMillan and Wife, Quincy) and sticking with those that managed to achieve something creative within the limitations of the genre.  Often that seems to have been an insurmountable task.  Harry O, for example, slid almost immediately into a rote action/mystery formula that had bore little resemblance to the quirky, off-tempo character drama launched by its brilliant creator, Howard Rodman.  Kojak is almost completely ordinary, despite having been managed by a succession of writer-producers of impeccable reputation (Abby Mann, Matthew Rapf, Jack Laird).  Maybe it was because Telly Savalas (one of television’s unlikeliest stars) was so intent on looking cool that he didn’t want anything but the most generic cop-show cliches cluttering up his periphery. 

(I’m pretty sure I’ve added Kojak to the reject list, but I will offer a parting, backhanded recommendation for the tenth episode, “Cop in a Cage,” which pits Savalas against cult movie villain John P. Ryan as an ex-con out to get Kojak for putting him away.  It’s one of the most over-the-top showdowns between narcissistic ham actors that I’ve ever seen.  Great fun.)

The only series I tackled this weekend that was completely new to me was Banacek, one of the NBC Mystery Movie franchise shows produced by Universal.  When the NBC mystery wheel moved the three hits of its first season – Columbo, McCloud, and McMillan and Wife – to Sunday, the network launched three completely new properties in the original Wednesday time slot.  Banacek was the only one of those to limp along to a second season.  (The flops were Cool Million and Madigan, replaced the following year by Faraday and Company, The Snoop Sisters, and Tenafly – also duds.  Although I’d love to see the latter, which starred the wonderfully acerbic James McEachin as a deglamorized African American private eye.). 

I was curious about Banacek mainly because it was build around George Peppard, a downsliding sixties movie star I’d always enjoyed for the naked arrogance he radiated during his brief screen career.  Peppard was perfect for roles like the Howard Hughes figure in The Carpetbaggers or the proto-nazi World War I ace in The Blue Max, since he seemed to luxuriate in a blatant anti-social quality, an I-don’t-care-if-you-like-me-because-I’m-a-big-star ‘tude that most of his peers held in check until the cameras were turned off.  I was hoping Peppard would project his full-wattage movie star id as Banacek too, but in that sense the show was a bit of a disappointment.  He’s still pretty aloof and superior, as befits the character, but he also turns on an unctuous charm whenever an attractive woman is around.  Somebody must have taken Peppard aside and explained to him about Q ratings.

If Columbo, the template for all the ninety-minute Universal detective series, was a howdunit that revealed the identity of the bad guy from the start, then Banacek tried to top it by being both a how- and a whodunit.  Each episode depicts a daring theft before the opening titles, without showing the culprit, and leaves Banacek to ferret out the crook and piece together the details of his or her tricky scheme (usually in an extended reconstruction sequence in the last act). 

Like Columbo, it was a format that demanded a lot of its writers.  The first couple of episodes revolve around dazzling, seemingly impossible crimes – a football player who’s kidnapped in the middle of a flying tackle (in Del Reisman’s “Let’s Hear It For a Living Legend”) or a freight car that disappears from a moving train (David Moessinger’s “Project Phoenix”).  As the first season progressed, the crimes got more and more pedestrian.  The show had a strong writing pedigree – it was created by Emmy nominee Anthony Wilson (the son of MGM producer/writer Carey Wilson, he died of a brain tumor a few years after Banacek) and produced by George Eckstein, a graduate of The Untouchables and The Fugitive – but it’s a daunting task to come up with eight perfect heists a year.  If you could, you wouldn’t be a TV producer, you’d be, well, a master criminal.

One aspect of Banacek that I like, though, is that (except in the pilot TV movie that launched the series) nobody dies.  Banacek is a “freelance insurance investigator” who solves big-ticket robberies and gleefully pockets a big fee from the insurance execs.  That meant the show could strike a breezy tone – sending Banacek to bed, for instance, with each week’s female guest star – without having to find some way to desensitize us against a rising body count.  Giving Banacek corporate underwriters to work for also spared us the scene of the private eye agreeing to help some impoverished sad sack solve his grandma’s or old army buddy’s or pet schnauser’s murder out of the goodness of his heart.  That’s a cliche I’m really getting tired of as I see it used over and over again, even in dark-hearted shows that should know better, like Harry O

Banacek’s DNA seems to come partly from Amos Burke, the preposterous millionaire homicide lieutenant who solved murders from the backseat of his Rolls in Aaron Spelling’s trash classic Burke’s Law.  The most obvious nod to the earlier series is the presence here of the generally insufferable Ralph Manza as Banacek’s chauffeur, Jay Drury, a comic Italian stereotype; Amos Burke also had an ethnic driver, a Chinese man named Henry (Leon Lontoc), as part of his entourage.  Manza’s comic relief is rarely funny, and his character makes no sense, given that Banacek travels around the country to solve his cases and would logically hire a local driver in each city rather than pay an annoying sidekick’s travel expenses.  But it just goes to show that even a smart series like this one struggled to get across all its necessary exposition without building in some characters for the loner-protagonist to talk to.  (Banacek’s other interlocutor was the arch, very gay rare-book dealer Felix Mulholland, played by Murray Matheson.  Banacek wore a lot of turtlenecks and the car phone in his Packard was in an unbelievable shade of pastel blue, so I suppose there’s a bisexual subtext to be unpacked if anyone cares to.)

One thing that puzzles me about Banacek is why everyone keeps harping on the title character’s Polish ancestry.  Herb Edelman refers to him as “Super Pole” in one episode and (my favorite) Broderick Crawford calls him Bananacek.  I mean, it’s not like everybody in Columbo went around pointing out to Peter Falk that he was a greasy little wop – even though Columbo (a blue-collar guy schlumping around among blue-blooded villains) might’ve expected some class snobbery, whereas Banacek is awfully well assimilated into the world of generic rich white folks.  I guess it was an attempt to give a pretty bland character a little color in an era of proliferating crime shows where every hero had a gimmick.  Cannon was the fat detective, Longstreet the blind detective, Barnaby Jones the old detective.  But it comes across as totally forced, sort of like Ironside’s bizarre fetish for chili in the early episodes of that series.

And finally a bit of pedantry: Something that frustrates me, as a historian, about these ninety-minute shows is that while the stories had room for more speaking parts than a typical hour-long series, the credits did not.  So you tend to see a lot of fairly prominent supporting players who didn’t receive billing, and whose names have thus been lost to history.  Just in these eight Banacek episodes, I spotted a few familiar actors who, back in the day, were probably pretty apoplectic about being left off the credit roll.  In “Project Phoenix,” for instance, there’s Stuart Nisbet as the head train guard, and Owen Bush as an engineer.  “A Million the Hard Way” (perhaps the strongest first season segment, a casino robbery piece by Batman scribe Stanley Ralph Ross) features the reliable Irish fireplug Judson Platt, a late member of the John Ford stock company, in a sizeable speaking part as the guard in front of whose eyes the million bucks gets boosted.  Lewis Charles appears in “The Greatest Collection of Them All” as Reilly, a waiter in Banacek’s favorite restaurant, a part that might’ve been a recurring one if the show had amassed more than a handful of episodes.  And it was a surprise and a pleasure to discover my old acquaintance Lonny Chapman, atypically sporting a mustache, turn up in a little unbilled cameo in the pilot TV movie, in a funny turn as a philosophical redneck bartender.  Here he is:

So there are a few folks you won’t find mentioned in the credits, or on the IMDb or anywhere else on the internet.  But I’d sure love to dig around in Universal’s production records and learn the names of the dozens of other actors who didn’t make the cut.

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9 Responses to “Can I Get a Banacek on Aisle 5?”

  1. Brian Cuddy Says:

    I think writer Anthony Wilson was inspired by “The Thomas Crown Affair” in creating Banacek. In that 1968 movie, rich executive Steve McQueen believes he has commited the perfect crime but insurance investigator Faye Dunnaway may prove it imperfect. Wilson kept the Boston setting of the movie and the focus on a brilliant insurance investigator trying to undo the perfect crime. Wilson changed the investigator’s sex but kept the name “Thomas” for his protagonist. And George Peppard somewhat resembled McQueen in looks and attitude. Maybe its all just a coincidence. The Banacek premise was viable, but the resulting series was only a little better than average. Its too bad because Peppard could have been a great series lead with the right role. He was very good as Dr. Sam Shepherd in a TV movie.

  2. Griff Says:

    As regards Banacek’s Polish ancestry, the show and its network promotion always treated this with somewhat forced humor, as though it was altogether arcane that a character with any trace of ethnicity should reach a position of some importance. [q.v., Dennis Weaver as the southwestern McCloud; even in 1972, this kind of thing was growing old.] They did try to keep this a bit light (Crawford’s impertinent “Bananacek” line is somewhat akin to Isaac Hayes’ later constant reference to Jim Rockford as “Rockfish”). The network’s oft-aired promo for the show concluded with an action shot of Peppard running while the NBC announcer reminded us to watch “Banasek”! An annoyed Peppard turned to the camera, barely missing a step, and said “That’s _Banacek_.”

  3. tim rogers Says:

    Great post, glad to see something written on this series, which despite its faults still holds some real interest. One thing that has occurred to me lately is that the series generates a lot of character tension on the distinction between being an employee and therefore subject to the constraints and rewards imposed by the employer, and being a consultant (Banacek) who uses his expertise to flip the power relationship. Every episode plays on this to one degree or another, usually in the form of a disgruntled insurance company employee who resents Banacek’s freedom (and his income). This appears to be a very deliberate cultural antinomy reinforced by various background clues sprinkled throughout the series, e.g.: Banacek’s father was an insurance company employee who was unceremoniously replaced with a computer and given a gold watch as severance (which Banacek keeps on display as a reminder); Banacek himself, of course, used to be an insurance company employee; when asked who he works for, Banacek says: “Does a man have to work for another man?”

    These days everyone is a consultant, but back then it was relatively rare: a ‘class’ on the rise. This p.o.v. reminds me very much of Will Wright’s great sociological analysis of the Western genre (Sixguns and Society) that linked the evolving narratives and protagonists of the Western to the evolution of the class make up of American society. In this way I see the series as quite clever, and the character as somewhat different to the Thomas Crown and Amos Burke characters.

    I do have some different takes on issues discussed above. With regard to the Polish issue, Banacek was from an underprivileged neighbourhood, presumably with a mixed ethnic populace. In the sixties and seventies anti-polish sentiment was still rife in the US, take the following quote from the well-referenced wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Polish_sentiment:
    “Since the late 1960s, Polish American organizations have made continuous effort to challenge the negative stereotyping of the Polish people once prevalent in American media. 1960s and 70s TV shows like All in the Family, The Tonight Show, and Laugh-In constantly demeaned Poles with hateful jokes.”

    Felix Mulholland as “very gay”? If anything he looks like a prototype, or perhaps a mentor, to Banacek’s predacious womanizing. In many episodes he appears to be grooming a much younger woman for an amorous encounter. He has an effeminate air, much as Banacek might be seen to when wearing a cravat. But it’s all part of their style. They’re dandies and metrosexuals, and hetero (and probably chauvinist) to the core.

  4. Stephen Bowie Says:

    Thanks, Tim, that’s a very thoughtful post. I can’t add much, except that you remind me that MANNIX also tried a similar Independent Contractor vs. The Man theme in its first season. Probably neither show went deep enough with that idea, but it’s a tad more nuanced in BANACEK, I guess.

  5. Steve Z. Says:

    Stephen,

    Universal seems to not give some actors and actresses credit on their shows. Many episodes of Kojak in the first, second, and third seasons seem to leave out half of the guest cast. When they shot the 19 episodes in New York during the fourth season though, just about every part in an episode someone was credited. Then, when they shot the fifth season in Hollywood, it went back to not crediting some of the guest stars.

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      Intriguing. It’s probably a union thing — most NYC-lensed shows were scrupulous about crediting every actor with a speaking part, as well as many crew positions that were never credited in LA-based shows. If Kojak went back and forth on this policy based on where it was filming, that’s better proof for this theory than I’ve come across until now.

      I haven’t gone back to Kojak since writing this piece, but I’m looking forward to carving out some time for it soon.

  6. Steve Z. Says:

    Stephen,

    The fourth season New York based episodes of Kojak had casting directors Alixe Gordin and Joan d’Incecco credited as artistic consultants. The Question of Answers episode which was mostly filmed in New York during the third seaon credited Cis Corman as an artistic consultant.The Hollywood based episodes never credited their casting directors. Milt Hamerman and Geri Windsor among others did the Hollywood casting.

  7. Steve Z. Says:

    Stephen,

    With Kojak’s credits in Hollywood and New York, the same basic crew positions were credited with the exception of casting. Maybe Universal was saving money by cutting down on crediting additional people. Another series that was like Kojak in not crediting cast or crew members was the One Step Beyond series. When they filmed 13 episodes in Great Britain in 1961, the ending credits had a fuller crew slate and more actors and actresses with bit parts credited. When the show was filmed in Hollywood, some episodes did not credit all the guest stars and the crew slate had only a handful of people credited. Since One Step Beyond was a lower budgeted series maybe the credits was the thing they cut down on to save money.

  8. richard durbano Says:

    It bothers me to see George Peppard smoke those nasty long thin cigars knowing he died on lung cancer.


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