March 23, 2012
My ten-year career as a corporate office drone ended in the following manner: An instant message, sent to my computer screen by a human resources underling, summoned me to a conference room. The room was occupied only by two executives I had never met before. They introduced themselves by sliding a severance agreement across the table. “So . . . tough toimes!” was how the senior executive (a Brit) began his spiel. My boss, to whom I had reported, on and off, for the whole ten years, was not present. He learned that I’d been laid off when I told him.
That day came to mind when I revisited “The Noise of Death,” the seminal, turning-point episode of The Untouchables that blueprinted the series’ transformation from a simplistic cops-and-robbers shoot-’em-up into a richer, more character-driven melodrama. “The Noise of Death” chronicles the fall of one Joseph Bucco (J. Carrol Naish), an aging mafioso who’s being put out to pasture for no special reason, other than change for change’s sake. Nobody tells Joe Bucco that he’s done. They just start doing things around him – collecting extra from the business owners in his territory without telling him, rubbing out miscreants without his approval. Bucco has to ask around to find out what everybody else knows already – that his young rival, Little Charlie (Henry Silva), has taken over. Redundancy – the term that my former corporate overlords favored – is executed not in a hail of bullets from the window of a shiny black sedan, but with a passive backroom shrug of the sort that David Chase would later stage so brilliantly in The Sopranos. (Chase’s series is a mafia text that “The Noise of Death” resembles more closely than the thirties gangster films which inspired The Untouchables). Your final exit has nothing to do with your own record of success or failure. You don’t see it coming. You don’t get to face your executioner.
That’s not to suggest that Bucco does not eventually meet a violent fate. He does, but his final encounter with a bullet is one that is foretold, ritualized, in a manner that the author of “The Noise of Death,” a blacklisted genius named Ben Maddow, does not feel the need to fully diagram. The end of Joe Bucco is not motivated by a chain of crystalline events; it moves forward with its own momentum, a momentum that not only cannot be stopped but that also does not appear to be precipitated by any of the players, not even Little Charlie, who stands to benefit from a Bucco-less world. “The Noise of Death” is about the inevitability of fate.
It takes a triumvirate to execute a piece as fragile and strange as “The Noise of Death.” A visionary screenwriter, of course, but also a producer who understands the ideas in it and has the courage not to conventionalize them, and a director who knows how to visualize them. Of course, “The Noise of Death” hit the trifecta, or we wouldn’t be discussing it. It marked the initial collaboration of Quinn Martin and Walter Grauman, a producer and director whose sensibilities aligned perfectly; they would work together often for the next twenty years, on The Fugitive and later The Streets of San Francisco, Barnaby Jones, and a number of made-for-television movies.
Maddow’s script for “The Noise of Death,” likely written as an unproduced feature and then adapted for The Untouchables, was eighty-three pages long, an impossible length for an hour-long episode. (The Hollywood rule of thumb is a page per minute.) And yet Quinn Martin put it into production, had Maddow cut it down some and then still let Grauman overshoot during the six shooting days in August and September of 1959.
“I don’t sleep, Mr. Bucco. I dream, but I don’t sleep,” says Bucco’s imbecile henchman Abe (Mike Kellin) at one point. The line is never explained further. It is the most blatant of the many off-beat, quasi-existentalist asides that Maddow interjects in “The Noise of Death.” Grauman or Quinn Martin could have easily breezed past them or deleted them altogether, but both indulged Maddow, carefully underlining his best dialogue and his most radical ideas. Maddow’s real coup is to render Joe Bucco as a sympathetic character, a Lear figure, even as Ness correctly insists that he is a monster responsible for many deaths. There is little, qualitatively, that separates Bucco from Charlie. Towards the end, Little Charlie holds a glass of wine to the lips of a B-girl (Ruth Batchelor) who has mildly defied him, and violently forces her to drink. Charlie laughs harshly, enjoying the moment. The scene clarifies Charlie’s sadism, his inhumanity; and perhaps by this point the viewer has forgotten an earlier sequence in which Bucco casually orders Abe to hop around and imitate a monkey, as a way of demonstrating to Ness the blind loyalty his subjects have for him.
It is not an accident or a flaw that Bucco and Charlie remain nearly indistinguishable. The arbitrariness of Bucco’s removal – a more conventional script would have shown him falling down on the job, being taken advantage of due to his age, but Maddow includes no suggestion of dwindling competence – is what makes him a perversely sympathetic figure.
“I want to make something clear to you,” Walter Grauman said to the cast of “The Noise of Death.” “This is probably the best script I have ever read, and there is a rhythm to the speech. So please do not change a word.”
Grauman loved “The Noise of Death.” When Martin sent it to him in June 1959, Grauman read it three times in the same night, so excited by its possibilities that he couldn’t sleep. A relatively untested director, Grauman had done a lot of low budget live television (four years on Matinee Theater), one minor feature, and a few half-hour filmed shows, out of which only a series of Alcoa-Goodyear Theaters indicated his prodigious skill with both camera and performers. Quinn Martin, an equally green producer – a few years earlier, he had been a lowly sound editor for Ziv – saw one of the Alcoas and hired Grauman for his new series about Eliot Ness and his squad of thirties G-Men. The Untouchables would be a hit, would elevate both Martin and Grauman to the big time, although neither knew it yet; “The Noise of Death” was only the third episode on the shooting schedule. (The fact that it was the fourteenth to be broadcast suggests that someone, either Martin or the network, sought to establish the show’s gun-blazing bona fides before loosing the more cerebral entries.)
“The Noise of Death” begins with a flourish, a scene in which a woman in widow’s weeds screams at Bucco from the lawn of his nondescript suburban home. This is the stuff of darkness, and when we next see this woman (Norma Crane), it will be on a shadowy street and then a inside a matchlit meat locker where her husband’s corpse dangles from a hook. But Grauman stages this opener in blindingly bright sunlight, with Crane’s black dress contrasting harshly against the blown-out white brick of Bucco’s house. The contrast between this wraith and her surroundings signals the strangeness that will follow throughout in “The Noise of Death.”
Grauman’s signature shot was a low angle framing of a person, or, more often, a Los Angeles high rise or a Lincoln Continental; power appealed to him, as both a narrative element and a compositional strategy. In “The Noise of Death,” even though he requested that ceilings be built over two sets, Grauman uses his low angles sparingly. There is a corpse-eye view in the mordant morgue sequence, in which Bucco clings to an unforgettable litany (“I respectfully request permission to phone inta my lawyer”) as Ness tries to convince him to turn on the mob, but I prefer the pointed wit in an earlier composition that places the word “cadaver” above Bucco’s head.
Like the low-angle image of Norma Crane above, “The Noise of Death” assembles a series of unusually powerful close-ups of its players. Like almost all of the sixties episodic A-listers, Grauman was a “total package” director, one who could shape compelling images as well as encourage rich performances from their guest stars. J. Carrol Naish, who played Joe Bucco, was a limited actor, one of those dialect specialists (like Vito Scotti) who usually played ethnic caricatures, often very broadly. Grauman’s chief contribution to “The Noise of Death” may have been to anchor Naish in the realm of reality. Though Naish speaks with a thick accent, it feels authentic, and his wooden-Indian acting translates into a kind of Old World remoteness. As Little Charlie, a young Henry Silva tries out an early version of the stone-faced psychosis that would become his trademark (and grow gradually more campy). In “The Noise of Death,” he’s scary and mesmerizing, and a focal point for Grauman, who felt an instant affinity for the actor. Grauman cast Silva in an Alcoa Theater only a week later, used him as a last-minute replacement in another Untouchables (“The Mark of Cain”) after another actor was injured on set, and even wrote an outline for an unproduced sequel that would have brought back the Little Charlie character.
Even whittled down to episodic length, Maddow’s script ran long, and Grauman, working with only a six-day shooting schedule, had to pick his battles. Much of the show plays out in standard television set-ups – static long shots, over-the-shoulders. It is chiefly in the final act of “The Noise of Death” that feels one feels the confident touch of a strong director at work. The climax of Maddow’s script is a long sequence set in a mostly empty restaurant, in which Bucco finally capitulates and attempts to negotiate a retirement that will permit him to save face. Little Charlie steps into the washroom, leaving Bucco alone for a moment. Slowly, the trio of musicians who have been playing in the background through the scene edge forward, toward Bucco. Are they there to assassinate him, or are they just the band? The answer actually remains slightly ambiguous, but somehow Bucco ends up freaked out enough to duck out onto the fire escape, where a waiting gunman mows him down.
It is an authentically surreal moment, one that Grauman stages and extends for maximum effect. The musicians all have unusual, unreadable faces – the selection of a less interesting set of extras would have ruined the scene. There’s a topper, too: when Bucco stumbles back in through the window after he has been shot, doing a grotesque dance of death, a burlap sack is tied around his head. (Why and exactly how Bucco’s killer has done this is another thing that Maddow and Grauman do not attempt to explain.) Grauman echoes the startling image a moment later, when we see Bucco lying in a hospital bed, his head completely swathed in bandages. In death, he is a faceless man. “The Noise of Death” concludes with a series of cross-generic ideas – the weird forward creep of the musicians; the off-screen murder, indicated only with the violent sound effect of a tommy-gun burst; the out-of-place scarecrow/mummy imagery – which hint that Grauman, whose first feature (1957’s The Disembodied) was a low-budget horror film, may have been under the influence of Val Lewton. Certainly, it’s appropriate that Maddow’s horror over the nature of mafia violence – divorced, much like my corporate severance, from normal human feeling by ruthless procedure or collective psychosis – should bubble up, finally, in the form of images associated more closely with horror movies than with gangster films.
Grauman directed eighteen more Untouchables before moving on to other projects (including Martin’s next series, The New Breed), and some of them contain even more dazzling work, especially “The Underground Railway” (an action-packed noir with a heavily made-up Cliff Robertson doing a Lon Chaney-esque tour-de-force) and “Head of Fire – Feet of Clay” (also from a Maddow script). His selection of “The Noise of Death” as a career high point implies a certain professional modesty. Some of the cult directors of early episodic television – Sutton Roley, Walter Doniger, John Peyser – were willing to smother a script in technique, but Grauman always protected the writing. Abe’s murder in “The Noise of Death,” for instance, is an abrupt, brutal act, and afterwards Grauman quickly cuts to Bucco, who is seated nearby on a shoeshine stand. The shoeshine boy starts to run away in fear, but Bucco grabs him and delivers another astounding Maddow line: “Go on, boy, finish. Ya start something, ya finish.” Grauman holds on this tableau of man and boy for an extra second, giving us time to register the awful non sequitir of Bucco’s reaction, and to contemplate the boy’s future, the extent to which the witnessing of this bloody act may damage him as he grows to manhood.
Apart from a well-placed close-up of a skipping record, Grauman does very little with the episode’s twist ending, a gag that is transgressive in both its sheer corniness and in the way it emphasizes how ineffectual Ness, the putative hero, has been throughout the story. Grauman so enjoyed Maddow’s punchline that he retold it with relish when I interviewed him more than fifty years later:
Ness has been told a message: go to my vault. He and the guys go to the bank, and they come out with a recording. They go back to their office and the recording’s put on an old-fashioned turntable. Ness puts the needle down on it and it goes scratch, scratch, scratch. “My name’s Giueseppe Bucco, and like I tole you, Ness, I’m a-gonna sing.” Scratch, scratch, scratch. “O sole mio . . .” Ness turns to his cohorts, and they don’t say anything, they just look at each other. He takes the record off and he drops it into the wastebasket, and that’s the end of the picture.
Walter Grauman hears still the noise of life; he turned ninety last week. Tonight Walter will speak in person at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, which will screen “The Noise of Death” and – perhaps more significantly – a print of an unaired version of “Fear in a Desert City,” the 1963 pilot for The Fugitive. The opportunity to see a television segment from that era projected on 35 millimeter occurs infrequently, and Walter himself is a master raconteur. Not to be missed.
March 15, 2012
Albert and David Maysles’ direct cinema documentary Salesman follows the exhausting professional lives of four door-to-door bible salesmen. It’s an acute, funny, and ultimately depressing movie, and an anomaly in the Maysles filmography in that it deals with working class people rather than celebrity or society figures.
Early in the film, for just a few frames, there is a glimpse of a television set in the salesmen’s motel room, a set that’s tuned in to a identifiable program. Although the Maysles’ work has been written about extensively, I can’t find any literature that mentions the salesmen’s taste in television. But the show they’re watching is Run For Your Life.
The Maysles photographed Salesman in the winter of 1965-66, during Run For Your Life’s first season. By the time the documentary received a proper release, in 1969, the show was off the air.
Maybe it’s foolish to place any significance in Run For Your Life’s little cameo in Salesman. I wonder if even the Maysles Brothers paid much attention to what was on television in that scene. But, for what it’s worth, that there could hardly have been a more appropriate show for these faith peddlers to follow. In different ways, both texts were about men on the run.
Run For Your Life starred Ben Gazzara as a lawyer who, after contracting a terminal illness, decides to spend his remaining days travelling the globe in search of adventure. Maysles’ bible salesmen lead a peripatetic existence, taking long trips out of town and then schlepping from house to house by car and on foot as they search for fresh prey. Even the names are consonant. Gazzara’s character is named Paul Bryan. The salesman who comes to occupy the center of the Maysles’ film is a man named Paul Brennan.
The similarity pretty much ends there. Paul Bryan doesn’t have long to live, but he has all his free time to live it up. His disease is painless and symptom-free. He has enough money to party with the jet set, to visit exotic places, to experience the adrenaline rush of extreme sports. His hell is existential – he’s burdened with the knowledge of when he’ll die – while the Maysles’ bible salesmen are trapped in a more mundane kind of purgatory. Tasked with selling tacky fifty-dollar bibles to people who can’t afford them, they need all their wits to eke out a stressful, uncertain living with no end in sight.
By the movie’s conclusion, Paul Brennan seems to be on the verge of some kind of breakdown, or at least a change of occupation. I imagine that Run For Your Life would have seemed like an escapist fantasy to him. If Brennan and his co-workers had wanted a TV hero with whom to empathize, they might have switched over to ABC to watch David Janssen as The Fugitive. Richard Kimble’s hardscrabble existence had a bit more in common with theirs.
One other idea that occurred to me as I watched Salesman is how much its images of Florida, where most of the second half of the film takes place, remind me of the Route 66 episodes set in the same state.
In her audio commentary for the DVD, Salesman’s editor, the late Charlotte Zwerin, points out how “barren” the Florida landscape looks. Zwerin is right: you’d imagine that Florida could not help but look cheerful on film, all sun-spackled and pastel-colored, but the Maysles’ grainy sixteen-millimeter black-and-white makes the sunshine seem harsh and oppressive. The subtropical landscape is scrubby and dotted with wilted palm trees, a dreary, anonymous place.
The Florida of Route 66 looks the same way – so flat, spread out, sun-blasted, and hot that might as well be Mars. The screen-doored houses are quaint but bland. It was a great, unique location for the show, so distinctive that Tod and Linc toured Florida twice, late in both the third and fourth seasons. Their Corvette looked pretty cool tooling down those long, straight freeways, surrounded only by sand and sky. At least, that’s what I remember of “Who Will Cheer My Bonnie Bride?,” the Cape Coral kidnapping-and-pursuit episode that has Gene Hackman in a cameo as a doofus “motorist,” as they used to put it in the credits.
There’s a wonderful website that documents, photographically, some of the Route 66 locations. Take a look at the then-and-now images from “Shadows of an Afternoon” (filmed in Punta Gorda) and “The Cruelest Sea of All” (filmed in Crystal River, Florida, and featuring the famous Mermaids of Weeki Wachee Springs, who saved a remarkable scrapbook of snapshots documenting Route 66’s visit), and you’ll see what I’m getting at, as well as the visual correlation to Salesman.
The four protagonists of Salesman are led to expect to find easy pickings in Florida, but their targets there are culturally and ethnically far removed from these Boston Irishmen, and they prove to be tough sells. The Miami outskirts where the salesmen flail about, getting lost in monotonous suburban streets with nonsensical names, provide an objective correlative to Paul Brennan’s mounting frustration.
Florida was the end of the road in Route 66, too. It was in Tampa, in the two-part series finale, that Tod (Martin Milner) decided to get married (to Barbara Eden!), and decided to part ways with Linc (Glenn Corbett), who kept the Corvette and drove off towards a more ambiguous future. Just what is it about Florida, anyway? My other favorite television-related association with Florida is from one of Michael Moore’s TV shows, from right after the 2000 election in which Floridians enabled the theft of the presidency. Moore’s advice: “Snip it off.”
Salesman or Route 66? The image is from “Shadows of an Afternoon” (1963), and swiped from the Ohio66 website.
February 15, 2012
Ambling through the concrete canyons of New York in boots, cowboy hat, and string tie, Sam McCloud looked more than ridiculous. “What are you supposed to be, Midnight Cowboy?” somebody asks him in one episode. McCloud had a fish-out-of-water premise that might generously be called thin: a U.S. marshal from Taos, New Mexico, is reassigned to patrol the streets of Manhattan under some ill-defined information-exchange program, to the bemusement of Marshal McCloud and the perpetual aggravation of his bosses on the N.Y.P.D. It was a one-joke show – a joke that had, in fact, already been told once, in the movies – and probably the irresistible aw-shucks grin of Dennis Weaver, the affable actor who played McCloud, was the only thing that kept it from being a one-season show.
Weaver had been a character man for some two decades, in movies (he was the perverted motel clerk in Touch of Evil) but then famous as the jangly, limping deputy Chester Goode on Gunsmoke. Weaver won an Emmy as Chester and left the show in 1964, but evidently no one told him how inescapably Chester had typecast him as a sidekick and a hillbilly. In the movies he played supporting roles, and although they let him topline his own television shows now – Kentucky Jones and Gentle Ben – Weaver played second banana to children and/or animals in both of them.
The biographical details are important, because it leads one to wonder just whose idea it was to cast Weaver, that sexless not-quite-a-wimp gimp from Gunsmoke, in a quasi-official remake of the 1968 theatrical hit Coogan’s Bluff. Coogan’s Bluff is the movie in which Clint Eastwood captures a bad guy and leaves him handcuffed him to a porch rail while he goes inside to bathe in the nude with a pulchritudinous blonde. It’s built around Clint’s squint and delights in having the sexist pig Coogan be mean to everyone for no special reason. Even in the watered-down world of television, it’s a leap of logic from all of that to Chester “Muster Dillon!” Goode.
McCloud is watered down, but not as much as you might expect. It was designed not just to make a leading man out of Dennis Weaver, but also a ladies’ man. More lounge lizard than gila monster, Sam McCloud gets a lot of action: the show not only gives him a high-society girlfriend (Diana Muldaur) who appears and disappears, without much explanation, at the convenience of each week’s plot (or leading lady), but also parades in front of him an array of smitten policewomen (among them, in the first sex-, excuse me, six-episode season alone, Susan Saint James, Ann Prentiss, and an unbilled Teri Garr), upon each of whom McCloud hit with a semi-skeezy relentlessness.
Tall, slim, aggressive but better-mannered than the bluff Coogan, boasting a mischievous grin and a proto-Sam Elliott ’stache, Weaver was dead-on shrewd in his appoach to the part. Look at the early McCloud episodes, and you can tell that even though “romantic lead” was not in long supply on the nearly fifty year-old actor’s resume, Weaver understood exactly how to fashion himself into one. Crimes were committed on McCloud, and eventually Marshal Sam got around to solving them and eventually we shall examine a few here, but McCloud was a personality piece more than a genre exercise. I’ll bet that the audience for Weaver’s show, an audience that kept it on the air for seven seasons, was mostly female. For most of its run, McCloud alternated as the NBC Mystery Movie with Columbo and McMillan and Wife, the show that brought Rock Hudson to television; and if my guess about its audience demographic is correct, then one might see Columbo less as a tentpole holding up two lesser shows and more as the brainy outlier in a franchise built out of mustachioed man-candy.
Everything about McCloud apart from the character is unremarkable. The marshal has an NYPD sidekick/friend/babysitter, played by the handsome but dull Terry Carter. There’s an authority figure, Chief of Detectives Peter B. Clifford (J. D. Cannon), who gets bent out of shape by McCloud’s minor celebrity status and his intrusive, unorthodox policing methods. Their relationship is an echo of the establishment/maverick conflict that structured the first season of Mannix, in which the hero (Mike Connors) was an employee of a large corporate investigation firm, rather than the free agent he later became. Just as it did in Mannix, the idea fails because the McCloud-Clifford conflict remains static and unresolvable.
There was also a casting problem. In Coogan’s Bluff, the equivalent character (more plausibly, a lieutenant in charge of a single precinct) was played by Lee J. Cobb, whose world-weariness clashed effectively with Eastwood’s taciturn stubbornness. In the television series, J. D. Cannon played Chief Clifford, taking over for Peter Mark Richman, who played the character in the pilot telefilm. Cannon was a better actor than the humorless Richman, but he was all wrong to play against Weaver. An Idaho native, Cannon spoke in a harsh, raspy drawl. He had a rangy, western flavor, and a wolfish smirk that suggested he was up to something – just like Dennis Weaver. Weaver and Cannon were two Matt Dillons and no Chester. Imagine a stereotypical New Yorker type facing off against McCloud – someone like Cobb or Jack Warden or Val Avery – and you can picture how this tiring dead-weight grind could have come alive as an enjoyable weekly sparring match.
McCloud went on the air under the stewardship of two Universal contractees: executive producer Leslie Stevens, on the downhill slide after losing the indie company that produced his creation, The Outer Limits; and Glen A. Larson, just beginning his ascendancy toward a peak as TV’s ultimate dreck magnate. The pair had launched It Takes a Thief two years earlier. The pilot telefilm (broadcast just as McCloud, but variously retitled for syndication) was credited to some talented paycheck-collectors, Stanford Whitmore (author of The Fugitive’s pilot) and Columbo creators Richard Levinson & William Link, but it was in fact a wholly uncredited rewrite of Coogan’s Bluff. A few key plot turns were inverted, but the feature film’s basic story – of a transported prisoner lost and then recaptured – was left intact.
The name of Herman Miller appears nowhere in the telefilm’s credits, but by the first season he is listed as the show’s creator. Miller was the original writer on Coogan’s Bluff and the restoration of his credit probably represented a heroic victory on the part of either the WGA or a good lawyer against Universal’s laissez-faire intellectual-property pickpocketing. So cheers to Miller, a relatively minor writer who presumably drafted the key elements of the character; but I’ll bet the talented writers who polished the Coogan’s Bluff script – Eastwood favorite Dean Riesner, Naked City guru Howard Rodman, and (uncredited) Ben Casey/Night Gallery producer Jack Laird – were a bit miffed at being left out of the McCloud bonanza.
Those are some big behind-the-scenes names, and I’ll throw around a few more. Douglas Heyes (Maverick, The Twilight Zone, The Bold Ones) wrote and directed the first episode broadcast. For the second season, Stevens and Larson were out, replaced by producer Dean Hargrove and associate producer Peter Allan Fields (both key Man From U.N.C.L.E. veterans), who wrote about half of the scripts. For the third year (which I haven’t watched yet), Larson was back, with Michael Gleason (Peyton Place, Remington Steele) in tow as his story editor. The paradox is, none of the staff changes mattered much. McCloud kept it in his pants more successfully the second year, Weaver got to sing (a corny, pro-ecology tune in “Give My Regrets to Broadway”), and that’s about it. McCloud remained a light show, without much grit or any kind of authorial touch.
I enjoy McCloud, even as I’m not quite ready to contest its rep as a placeholder in between outings of Columbo. Columbo as Mozart, McCloud as Salieri, then. But even middling shows can turn out exceptional or off-beat episodes. That’s the fun of television; every week is a new chance, and compulsive viewing is rewarded with pleasant surprises.
The two early standouts are “A Little Plot at Tranquil Valley” and “Top of the World, Ma!” Fields’s “Tranquil Valley” is a black comedy that’s never very funny, but it has a better guest cast than a lot of the more celebrated cult movies from that era: Vic Morrow, Moses Gunn, Burgess Meredith, Allen Garfield, Joyce Van Patten, Lonny Chapman, Alfred Ryder, Arlene Martel, Bruce Kirby. Morrow and Gunn play an interracial, eccentric pair of kidnappers who shanghai McCloud to Liberty Island (the real thing; McCloud, like Kojak, intercut between the Universal backlot and some fabulous New York locations). I’m not the first person to perceive a possible influence of this episode on the central characters in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, the existential hit men Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson).
“Tranquil Valley” is an oddity, but “Top of the World, Ma!” (also by Fields, from a story by actor Ray Danton) falls not too short of masterpiece territory. It’s the story of a violent country bumpkin (Bo Svenson) who comes to New York to avenge himself against some underworld types who have cheated him. Before it cops out completely in the last few minutes, “Top of the World, Ma!” has a real neon-noir tinge; the sweaty, skimpily dressed photographer’s model played by Stefanie Powers is a frankly coded prostitute and a formidable femme fatale. The episode maintains a genuine ambiguity as to who the real villain is; at a certain point, the hillbilly earns McCloud’s sympathy, but Svenson is so authentically terrifying that for once the cornpone crimefighter seems to have lost his mind. Pity the mob guys (more bountiful casting: Robert Webber, Val Avery, Vincent Gardenia) in Svenson’s sights; pity that McCloud couldn’t come up against this kind of opposition in every episode.
This is part of a
fall winter spring series looking at some of the many crime shows of the seventies. Next week: McCloud stars in a real-life detective story!
January 8, 2012
Mike Hammer, perhaps the trashiest of the film noir-era literary detectives, came to television in 1958, in seventy-eight gloriously lurid assemblages of fast-paced fisticuffs, threadbare sets, and stock plots. Video’s first Hammer, incarnated by Darren McGavin, was a reasonably faithful and always lively continuation of the popular series of novels by Mickey Spillane. A&E’s unexpected DVD release of the show, which contains every episode, was one of my favorite home video events of last year.
Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer was produced by MCA, the talent agency-cum-TV factory that churned out oceans of half-hour genre series in the late fifties. The shows were pumped out in backbreaking lots of thirty-nine, shot in three or even two days, for no money (the budgets were often well under $50,000 per episode), on the old, cramped Republic Studios backlot in the San Fernando Valley. MCA had sweetheart deals with the networks, especially NBC, but since there was only so much prime time to be colonized, the up-and-coming mini-major also sold shows into first-run syndication. Mike Hammer was one of those – perhaps the only syndicated MCA offering that’s remembered at all today, and a surprising network reject, given the fame that both Hammer and his shrewd, self-mythologizing creator had accrued since their 1947 debut. The first episode, “The High Cost of Dying,” premiered in New York City on January 28, 1958 (but, as with any syndicated show, any airdates listed on the internet are bogus; local stations that bought the series had discretion over when to schedule it).
The difference between a bearable MCA show and an unbearable one, at least for a modern viewer, is often one of personality – that is, whether or not the series’ star had one. The studio had tried to make TV stars out of stiffs like Dale Robertson (Tales of Wells Fargo), John Smith and Robert Fuller (Laramie), and Rod Cameron (City Detective, State Trooper, and Coronado 9), but it had also corralled an electrifying young Lee Marvin, clearly on the cusp of major stardom, into a television commitment with M Squad in 1957.
In the late fifties, Darren McGavin had a lot in common with Marvin. Both had done showy supporting turns in major films, Marvin in The Big Heat and The Wild One and McGavin in a pair of 1955 releases, David Lean’s Summertime (as an unfaithful husband) and Otto Preminger’s The Man With the Golden Arm (as a vicious drug dealer). The small screen had less prestige than the movies, especially those made by A-list directors, but it offered these youngish actors the opportunity to transition from incipient typecasting as flamboyant villains into potential stardom as leading men. Television proved a wise career move for both actors and, a half-century later, they have repaid the favor by keeping their old series out of history’s dustbin. The boundless energy of Marvin and McGavin – the way they dance around iffy dialogue and prop up dull guest actors and just revel in being the center of attention – is the indispensible quality that overwhelms the many elements that now appear cheap or rushed or dated.
By 1958, there had already been three films, a radio drama, and at least one busted television pilot spun off from the Spillane novels. That pilot was written and directed by future Peter Gunn creator Blake Edwards and starring Brian Keith, who would’ve made a fine Mike Hammer. But the only one of those properties that retains any currency today is Kiss Me Deadly, the 1955 Robert Aldrich masterpiece whose notes of cynicism, futurism, and paranoia were decades ahead of their time.
Armed with a richly ironic A. I. Bezzerides script, which depicted the thuggish, dim-witted Hammer as the agent of his own destruction, Aldrich recast Spillane’s two-fisted, commie-hating hero as something that crawled out from under a rock. Aldrich put Ralph Meeker, the actor who replaced Brando as Stanley Kowalski on Broadway, in the part, and Meeker sneered, sweated, and fondled his way toward the creation of one of film noir’s nastiest protagonists.
Television’s toned-down Hammer isn’t quite as disreputable or disgusting as Kiss Me Deadly’s. But McGavin captures enough of Meeker’s scuzziness to make the series more than a standard, square-jawed (and square) round-up-the-bad guys outing. McGavin’s persona fits Hammer like a glove. He’s fast-talking, gruff, growly, scowling, a girl-chaser and an ass-kicker. He can take lines like “I’m gonna find out about this character Lewis, and when I do, I’m gonna take him apart like a four bit watch!” and spit them out with a palpable sense of menace.
Gun, Hammer, shithole: Darren McGavin as Mike Hammer in his seedy office
I’ve always looked at McGavin as a curmudgeon, television’s great loquacious crank, but my friend Stuart Galbraith IV, who thinks McGavin is cast against type (albeit effectively) in Mike Hammer, calls him “one of the breeziest, most likable of character actors ever.” I have difficulty reconciling that McGavin with my McGavin, but it’s true that the actor plays sincere pretty well in the scenes where Hammer has to comfort grieving widows and orphaned daughters. McGavin himself had contempt for the material, and insisted on affecting what he called a “satirical” approach; he claimed to have won a showdown on the matter with MCA chief Lew Wasserman, who wanted Mike Hammer played straight.
In practice, what McGavin described as “treating it in a lighter manner” meant camping it up whenever he could get away with it (he was a hammer indeed). This was a habit that could make the actor overbearing in some of his later work, like Kolchak: The Night Stalker and A Christmas Story. (The producers of both Kolchak and another McGavin private eye series, The Outsider – respectively, Cy Chermak and Roy Huggins – also clashed with the star over the same issue.) But in Mike Hammer, McGavin doesn’t go overboard. He knows just how much spoofery he can get away with, and his Hammer isn’t clowning so much as he’s blustering enthusiastically through each week’s mystery, the same way a dime-novel private eye would charge through a slim, plot-choked Dell paperback. When McGavin does play it goofy, it’s often genuinely funny; see, for instance, “Requiem For a Sucker,” in which Len Lesser plays a gun thug with an exaggerated Brooklyn accent, and McGavin then mocks it throughout their scenes together.
Since I only made it through about three pages of I, the Jury before giving up on Spillane’s ugly, turgid prose, I can’t really grade the extent to which the Mike Hammer series mimicked the novels. For television, MCA kept Hammer’s pal on the police force, Captain Pat Chambers, but dropped the other regular character of his sexy secretary Velda – a somewhat surprising move, given that a video Velda would’ve been both another leggy dame on display and an efficient conduit for some of the inevitable reams of exposition. (Velda is mentioned in a few early episodes, but after a while it became clear that McGavin’s Hammer was a one-man operation.)
As for Chambers, he was played by Bart Burns, a busy bit player and live television veteran, whose chief claim to recognizability was his pronounced Noo Yawk accent. Burns bears a close resemblance to Mickey Spillane, and I wonder if perhaps he was Spillane’s choice to play the character and ended up with the secondary role as a consolation prize after MCA hired a bigger star. Certainly, Spillane had a history of trying to make over screen Hammers in his own image. He went on to star as his own creation in the weird but worthwhile 1963 movie The Girl Hunters, and he had tried unsuccessfully to install Jack Stang, an ex-cop pal on whom the character was purportedly based, as Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly (and did succeed in getting Stang small acting roles in I, the Jury and another Spillane film project, Ring of Fear).
Bart Burns as Captain Pat Chambers
If you only know the Hammer character via Kiss Me Deadly, which transplants him to a very location-specific Los Angeles, the emphasis that the television series places on his identity as a New Yorker will come as a surprise. Television’s Hammer often sings the praises of the great city, except when he’s going back to his rough old neighborhood (Greenwich Village, now even more perilous following its colonization by hipsters) to help out or hunt down an old crony. The implication is always that Hammer has come a long way since those hardscrabble days, but the visual evidence is unpersuasive. Hammer operates out of a grungy one-room office (see the image above), and lives a transient existence in the dubious-looking Parkmore Hotel. The heroes of 77 Sunset Strip and Peter Gunn were upright, respectable professionals, and part of the fun of Mike Hammer is that no one made any effort to reform Hammer into any kind of respectability. He drives a huge honking convertible; that’s something, at least.
According to one historian, Mike Hammer slaughtered thirty-four people in the first five Spillane books. There’s no way a television hero, even one operating just prior to the 1961 Congressional hearings on televised violence, could match that body count; McGavin got to blow away one or two bad guys per episode, tops. But the show occasionally delivers some hint of the sex and sadism in which Spillane traded, especially in the earliest episodes. In “Just Around the Coroner,” a murder victim leaves a good-sized arc of blood spatter on a wall, and Hammer observes that “somebody had worked her over with a pistol butt or a hatchet, you couldn’t really tell which.” In the standout “I Ain’t Talkin,’” Hammer roughs up a woman, kicking in a moll’s door, then shoving her up against a wall and screaming into her face. (Then, of course, he kisses her.) “Hot Hands, Cold Dice” has a scene in which Hammer invites a villain to step outside, then throws his coat over the oaf’s face and kicks him in the ass. In “Just Around the Coroner,” as in Kiss Me Deadly, Hammer’s meddling gets an innocent person killed. None of this comes anywhere close to the demythologized, revisionist private eye cycle of the seventies, but Mike Hammer does occasionally – and unexpectedly, for a fifties TV show – call to mind The Rockford Files or Altman’s devastating riposte to Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye.
Darren McGavin and Joan Tabor in “I Ain’t Talkin'”
If the violence was necessarily diluted, other aspects of Spillane’s fifties-pulp style are not. Like M Squad, the show is patched together with verbose first-person narration, a necessity for conveying all the plot points that a low-budget show could not afford to stage. Mike Hammer turns a weak device into something enormously entertaining: the narration is often witty and lurid, and McGavin’s delivery of it is varied, surprising, and often priceless. The episode titles, which do appear on screen, also convey the show’s grim but wry attitude: “Lead Ache”; “Baubles, Bangles, and Blood”; “For Sale: Deathbed – Used.”
So do the stories themselves, when the series is at its best. In “Just Around the Coroner,” Hammer tells a clerk to keep the hotel doctor on call for the next ten minutes. Then he barges in on a counterfeiter, breaks the guy’s money-printing machine over his head, throws him into the hallway, and helpfully informs him that first aid awaits in Room 210. The funny “To Bury a Friend” features James Westerfield as a smirking cop (with a great name, Lieutenant Dan Checkers) who uses Hammer as a punching-bag bird-dog to ferret out a murderer while he himself remains parked on his fat ass. At the end of “Dead Men Don’t Dream,” the gallant Hammer allows the moll to slip away (with a parting admonition to “change your brand of men”) and then pounds the shit out of a roomful of thugs. His pal Captain Chambers is outside with the cops, but he hangs back to give Hammer time to finish his beatdown. “Mike Hammer doesn’t kill easy,” Chambers tells the anxious ingenue confidently. Hammer is the Paul Bunyan of pulp, parading through downmarket crime stories writ large as noirish tall tales.
MCA in the late fifties was already famous as a menacing corporate octopus, a sort of entertainment-industry F.B.I. that clothed its agents (many of whom later became television producers or executives after MCA’s TV arm, Revue Productions, consumed the agency business) in dark suits and ordered them to avoid personal publicity. That ethos may explain why some early Revue shows, including Mike Hammer, carry no producer credit. So if there was a guiding intelligence behind Mike Hammer – and the series was sharp enough that it must have had one – that person’s identity will remain cloaked until someone undertakes a bit of detective work. (Alas, of the archival, not the beating up people, kind.)
We do, however, know who wrote and directed the seventy-eight Mike Hammer segments. The future A-lister among the regular directors was Boris Sagal (Dr. Kildare, Mr. Novak, The Omega Man), then a recent graduate of the live Matinee Theater doing his low-budget apprenticeship in filmed television. It’s almost impossible to see any kind of directorial signature in these two-day wonders, but I did think it fitting that the few forceful compositions I spotted occurred not in Sagal’s episodes but in those helmed by Earl Bellamy, a journeyman who stuck with Universal for a long time as a directorial fix-it man on troubled productions.
It’s more relevant to look at Mike Hammer’s writers, since this was a show that thrived more on words than images. Spillane had nothing to do with the television Hammer, but the series’ most prolific writer (and possibly its uncredited rewrite man) was another pulp writer of some note, Frank Kane. Kane’s series character, New York investigator Johnny Liddell, predated Mike Hammer but flourished in a series of novels that emerged after Spillane hit it big. Supposedly Kane repurposed some of the plots from the Liddell books into Mike Hammer mysteries, and it was an easy transposition: Liddell had a brother on the police force who could turn into Captain Chambers with just a dash of Wite-Out. Kane, who died young in 1968, did not make substantive contributions to many television series, but he had done quite a bit of writing for radio, on The Shadow and also an array of private eye series. His involvement may explain why Mike Hammer’s voiceovers were so much more flavorful than those heard in other contemporaneous series (M Squad, for instance).
Mike Hammer also adapted stories by a young Evan Hunter (under the pen name “Curt Cannon”) and Henry Kane, a prolific crime novelist who still has a small cult following. There was also the talented Bill S. Ballinger, whose books formed the basis of the films noir Pushover and Wicked as They Come. His script for “Requiem For a Sucker” introduces characters named Zyg Zygmunt, Buckets Marburg, and Chinchilla Jones, and it’s as bouncy and Runyonesque as those monikers would imply. Ballinger signed all his Mike Hammers as “B. X. Sanborn,” and the pseudonym mania didn’t stop there. “Steven Thornley,” who wrote more than a dozen scripts, was in fact Ken Pettus, a young writer who later contributed extensively to The Big Valley, The Green Hornet, Bonanza, and Hawaii Five-O under his own name.
Len Lesser and McGavin in “Requiem For a Sucker”
It’s too bad that the television rights to the Hammer character didn’t go to some outfit other than MCA. Ideally, the series would have been produced on the streets of Hammer’s home turf, New York City, and with more than a few pennies’ worth of production value. The Republic lot’s New York street was so inadequate that Mike Hammer relied mainly on interiors and rear projection. (McGavin, or more often his double, did swing through New York for pickup shots a few times: “Dead Men Don’t Dream” shows McGavin outside a Houston Street subway station, and “Letter Edged in Blackmail” has him entering the Daily News/WPIX building on 42nd Street, not too many blocks away from where I’m writing this.)
But the low-rent approach works; it fits the material. The narration drowns out much of the toneless stock music that was MCA’s unfortunate aural trademark. The threadbare sets evince Mike Hammer’s threadbare world. And McGavin’s mugging takes your attention away from the holes in the overused plots. There were four great half-hour hard-boiled private eye shows on the air during the late fifties: Peter Gunn, Richard Diamond Private Detective, Johnny Staccato, and Mike Hammer. Each of the first three enjoyed the participation of a figure who retains a significant cult following today – respectively, Blake Edwards, David Janssen, and John Cassavetes – and I think that because Mike Hammer has no comparable cinephile lightning-rod name, it may sometimes be excluded from their company. Hopefully the new DVD release, which has given the show its first significant exposure in about fifteen years, will put some fresh ammo in Hammer’s gun.
Postscript: A&E doesn’t release a lot of vintage television, but Mike Hammer brings the label full circle: fans will recall its issue, over a decade ago, of another fifties private eye classic, Peter Gunn, which was doomed by atrocious image quality and aborted before even the first (of three) seasons was completed. The DVDs of Mike Hammer, which sport slightly soft but still very watchable transfers, represent a kind of redeption for the label. While researching this piece, I noticed that, amazingly, the 1954 Brian Keith pilot is also available on DVD, and there’s still more good news: I’ve heard a solid rumor that Peter Gunn will be continued on DVD next year, by a different label, and hopefully from better elements.
October 18, 2011
My favorite Kojak is still the first season’s “Cop in a Cage.” It’s not even one of the best episodes but it’s an astounding artifact, especially for viewers (like me) who tend to delight in performance above all else. In “Cop in a Cage,” the cult actor John P. Ryan plays a mad bomber who gets out of prison and vows revenge against Telly Savalas’s Lieutenant Theo Kojak, because (groan) Kojak was the cop who put him away.
Ryan’s mushy delivery and smirky “who, me?” expression made him a familiar villain in the seventies. But, like Timothy Carey, Ryan exuded a sense that the craziness extended beyond camera range; and so, also like Carey, he tended to turn up in small roles and marginal efforts. It’s a semi-rare pleasure to find him center stage in “Cop in a Cage,” and, as the title promises, the show quickly turns into a cage match, as Ryan and fellow hambone Savalas try to top one another in scene after scene. The pair don’t just chew up the scenery; they regurgitate it, drop to all fours, lick the puddles of bilious sawdust off the floor, and spitball the remnants back and forth in unholy congress. The premise is a cliché and “Cop in a Cage” is even a semi-betrayal of the semi-serious character drama that Kojak was trying to pull off. But it’s brilliant camp and on a series as generic as Kojak initially was, one must admire whatever sticks.
The thing about Kojak, its genius and its curse, is that the show was television’s ultimate star vehicle. It started with Telly Savalas, he of the overwhelming personality and the deep metallic voice and the startling afro-era chrome-dome, and very little else. The showrunners of Kojak were first-rate, veterans of Ben Casey (executive producer Matthew Rapf and supervising producer Jack Laird) and Night Gallery (Laird and story editor Gene Kearney). But nobody was asking them for a new spin on the television police drama and, at first, none of them tried to come up with one.
“I’m a super cop. I’m only out for big busts,” Kojak says in the episode “Two-Four-Six For Two Hundred,” and he’s not expressing his love for Russ Meyer films. The concept, I think, was to make Kojak not just a hard-assed cop but also a showboating, larger-than-life king of the streets. That idea may seem more far-fetched now than it did in the early seventies, when a number of self-styled N.Y.P.D. cops became minor celebrities as much on the strength of their swaggering personas as their actual, er, busts. Remember Eddie Egan, Sonny Grosso, “Batman and Robin,” Frank Serpico, and Robert Leuci? The pilot telefilm that launched the series, The Marcus-Nelson Murders, fictionalized a real case and a book about it by Selwyn Raab, and its writer, the celebrated live TV dramatist Abby Mann, based the character of Kojak in part on a real detective, Thomas Cavanagh, a skilled interrogator known as “the Velvet Whip.”
Kojak makes his entrance in the second season with siren blaring and the line, “If I have to get up at six o’clock in the morning, so can the rest of Manhattan.” He orders around not only his underlings at the Manhattan South station house, but also his milquetoast boss (played by Dan Frazer); in one episode he even eats food off poor, droopy Captain McNeil’s plate.
Savalas eats this up, of course, barking every line of dialogue and affecting a seemingly endless catalog of mannered schtick: the lollipops, the hat, the shades, the black-pencil cigarettes, the neon pink-and-orange paper coffee cups, the effetely high-pocketed, bathrobe-sized suit jackets, the Nelson Muntz-ish mocking chortle, and of course the hipster slang (“That’s the way the crook-ies crumble, bayyyyby!”).
(Like “Play it again, Sam,” which nobody ever says in Casablanca, Kojak’s catchphrase “Who loves ya, baby,” is maddeningly hard to actually catch in the show, although Savalas does utter variations on it often enough to have permanently removed the words “love” and “baby” from the seventies hippie lexicon.)
The problem is that Theo Kojak was that guy who thought he was cool but was actually a big square. Watching the early episodes, I imagine the other cops laughing behind his back, not quaking in fear, every time Kojak walks out of the room. At least at first, there’s a buffoonish edge and an element of petty cruelty in Savalas’s performance. That cruelty becomes especially pointed with the increased prominence of Detective Stavros, a fat, slow-witted slob upon whom Kojak heaps both verbal and physical abuse. Savalas installed his own non-lookalike and very un-cop-like brother, George (billed ridiculously as “Demosthenes”) in this role, which says a lot about the control the star wielded over his series and perhaps also about how much of his own personality he transferred into his character.
Botany 500, which designed Telly Savalas’s wardrobe for Kojak, also outfitted the titular star of The Dick Van Dyke Show. I like to imagine that all of Rob Petrie’s suits were maroon and pink.
When the first season of Kojak came out on DVD in 2005, I binned it after ten episodes. Now, six years later – more time than the whole network run of the series – Shout Factory has sublicensed the property from Universal and released a good-looking second season set. (And yes, I do know that that particular label spells its name with a superfluous exclamation point, but I refuse to enable cute punctuation.) I almost didn’t ask for a screener but it’s a good thing I’m a whore for freebies, because a funny thing happened on the way to the center of that lollipop: Kojak got better.
A lot of great series needed a season to find the right tone, the right balance – shows as diverse as The Andy Griffith Show, The Defenders, M*A*S*H. Kojak took almost two full years to hit its stride. If you watch the second season in sequence, you can track this process as it takes place. You can see the writers figuring out which kinds of stories worked best for their characters, and then refine those into repeatable storytelling strategies.
The early episodes in the second season comprise a catalog of ideas that don’t work, at least within the constraints of Savalas’s persona and Universal’s resources. The feature-length opener, “The Chinatown Murders” (which, incidentally, ran in a full two-hour slot and is not a ninety-minute episode, as the DVD copy and various internet sources suggest), pits Kojak against warring factions of mafiosi. It has a huge cast and real epic sweep, but a tired story and amateur-hour production mistakes sink the show into melodrama that no one who has seen The Godfather (and in 1974, that was everybody) would tolerate. As the sickly mafia don Michael Constantine (a dull actor who worked constantly and never gave a subtle performance) wheezes and spasms through every line, as if he’s Jimmy Durante kicking the bucket in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. It doesn’t help that his age make-up, and that of another key character, are marred by the most obvious join-lines I’ve ever seen. (And is it really too hard to put some fake wrinkles on the actors’ hands as well as their faces?)
“You Can’t Tell a Hurt Man How to Holler” requires Kojak to spend the whole show trying to un-arrest a black ex-con (Harrison Page) whom he, and only he, believes is innocent of murder. The script is not atrocious (even though it requires the ex-con to be deceived very obviously by a conniving pal), but it’s all wrong for Kojak. In the post-French Connection, post-Serpico era, the Naked City paradigm of the TV cop who helped out the down-and-out was no longer tenable. Kojak and his crew were there to put away the bad guys, not bend over backward to prove their liberal bona fides. The author of “Hurt Man,” Albert Ruben, was a committed lefty and a writer of good scripts for The Defenders and N.Y.P.D., and it’s sad to see how badly his New Frontier-era point of view founders in the cynical seventies.
Gradually, though, the producers found their way. By the end of 1974, most episodes conformed to one of three distinct patterns: character-driven stories in the Quinn Martin mode (think The F.B.I. or The Streets of San Francisco), in which the cops played second fiddle to an often sympathetic antagonist; crime capers that pitted Kojak, Columbo-style, against some con perpetrating a clever robbery or murder; and streetwise police procedurals rich in French Connection-style detail.
Most of the character shows were the work of Kearney, a talented writer (and a tragic one; he died of leukemia before he turned fifty). But his episodes, sensitive as most of them are, live or die on the basis of casting. If the guest star couldn’t hold his or her own against Savalas’s all-consuming ego, then the show collapsed. John Randolph, a fine supporting actor, doesn’t have the presence to make the crooked magistrate of “The Best Judge Money Can Buy” a formidable enough adversary for Kojak. But Martin Balsam, the consummate underplayer, ducks and weaves all around Savalas as a noir-worthy private eye on the take in the bleak “A Killing in the Second House”; and Zohra Lampert is extraordinary as an embittered con artist who stumbles into a chance to mastermind a bank robbery in “Queen of the Gypsies.” Lampert’s intricate shadings of bravado and vulnerability divide the viewer’s loyalty, leading one to root for her even against our man Kojak.
Kearney’s basic empathy for his outlaws made his scripts the deepest Kojaks, and as they departed from the show’s usual tight procedural focus they allowed for welcome variations in tone. The dreamy, murky “I Want to Report a Dream” casts Ruth Gordon as a medium who has premonitions of a serial killer’s escapades, which may or may not be genuine, and who may or may not have a concealed personal relationship with said killer. “Cross Your Heart and Hope to Die” is as fragile and sensitive as its two ill-starred young lovers (Andrea Marcovicci and Next Stop Greenwich Village star Lenny Baker, both terrific), a cloistered girl who hides in her retro-decorated room and the mama’s boy across the courtyard who loves her. Kearney’s twist is that the boy happens to be a homicidal maniac, and his triumph is that the show feels more like a lost Curtis Harrington film than an episode of a weekly cop show.
Sultry Zohra Lampert may have been Kojak’s greatest adversary.
The category I labeled as “crime capers” in my formulation above is a bit of a cheat, a loose grouping of varied but superlative Kojaks that pit Kojak against clever criminals and their complex schemes. “Night of the Piraeus” is one of these, a duel between two rival collector-smugglers (Norman Lloyd and Ivor Francis) over a rare stamp whose value is too abstract for any of the cops to understand. Ray Brenner’s “The Goodluck Bomber” obscures the true intentions of an expert bombmaker (a mesmerizing Richard Bradford), who could be villain or tragic hero, for far longer than one would think possible. Beginning with the seemingly pointless theft of a paint truck, James M. Miller’s ticking-clock puzzle “Two-Four-Six For Two Hundred” sets Kojak on the trail of a bigger heist that’s happening right now. Robert Loggia plays a supercriminal cocky enough to insert himself into Kojak’s investigation (a bad idea), and Miller hides the details of his good-enough-to-work-in-real-life plot in plain sight, saving a great twist for the very end.
The police-procedural episodes are the rarest orchids in Detective Stavros’s desktop garden. (If you don’t get that, watch the show.) There are only three in the second season, two of them written by Burton Armus (a real N.Y.P.D. detective who served as the show’s technical advisor) and one by the aptly-named Joseph Polizzi. Armus’s episodes are choked with such dense insider lingo that, at times, it’s hard to follow what’s going on. That’s not a complaint; for a show like Kojak, authenticity has more value than clarity. In Armus’s scripts, the police do not behave like television heroes; they are smart, bold, and unpredictable, but also very careful and plausibly self-interested. In Armus’s first script, “The Best War in Town,” Kojak disarms an internecine mafia war Yojimbo-style, by isolating the rival gangsters and playing upon their vanity and their paranoia, getting them all to squeal on each others’ past misdeeds. It’s hilarious in a just-crazy-enough-to-work kind of way, and it anticipates The Sopranos’ depiction of mobsters as vicious, dull-witted, and unintentionally funny.
Polizzi’s “The Betrayal” examines the relationship between an ambitious detective (Richard Romanus) and his weaselly informant (Paul Anka). Polizzi probes the gray area in which cops allow or even facilitate petty crimes in order to catch major felons in the act; in a key scene, Kojak and McNeil disagree over whether Romanus’s character has gone too far. In Armus’s “Unwanted Partners,” Detective Crocker (Kevin Dobson) gradually realizes that an old acquaintance from the neighborhood has become a violent gangster. When it comes time to bust the guy, Crocker wants to go in alone to try to prevent a shootout. Kojak immediately shuts down that cop-show cliché. He insists that Crocker confront his old friend from behind a makeshift bulletproof barrier (a hotel room mattress, ingeniously rigged) and stations the rest of his squad outside in the hallway. Essentially, Kojak turns Crocker’s non-violent gesture into an ambush rigged in favor of the police.
It’s a shame that Kojak couldn’t achieve this kind of naturalism every week. Of course, to do that, it would have needed a writing staff of all cops. Not until The Wire, which was written mostly by ex-police beat reporters, did television offer a crime series that was entirely suffused with such street authenticity.
It wasn’t just the writing that improved over time on Kojak. The series was an instant hit in its first season, and I suspect that made Universal generous enough with the budget for the producers to fix some crucial production problems. The most significant of those was the location issue. During the first year, a second unit picked up a library of establishing shots on the streets of Manhattan, but nearly all of the principal photography was done on Universal’s cramped, inauthentic backlot. The clash between real and fake New York was jarring, and it happened over and over again in each episode. For the second season, the New York lensing was more extensive, and the producers allocated their resources more shrewdly. Some episodes (like “Close Cover Before Killing”) were mostly backlot and others (like “Wall Street Gunslinger”) were were mostly location, but the whipsawing back and forth came to a halt.
Kojak also gained a gifted composer in John Cacavas, who joined the series early in the first season and by the second was contributing rich, diverse scores to every episode. Cacavas hasn’t gotten as much attention he deserves (Jon Burlingame’s definitive TV’s Biggest Hits mentions him only in passing), but I think the variety and unpredictability of his music adds a great deal to the series, especially relative to Billy Goldenberg’s middling opening title. (Was there a seventies crime show that didn’t have sirens, or at least a blaring rock-music approximation thereof, running through its opening theme? See also: Ironside; Mod Squad; The Streets of San Francisco.)
Then there was Kojak himself. Even Savalas modulated his performance during the second season, saving the worst abuse for the bad guys who deserved it. Just as you can sense the writers finding their groove, you can watch Savalas relax into his role in the second season, diluting the meanness with humor and the occasional glimmer of warmth. In “Unwanted Partners,” which brings the implied father-son relationship between Kojak and Crocker to the fore, Crocker asks his boss to stop calling him “kid.” The lieutenant’s response is a reluctant grunt of assent. For Theo Kojak, that was quite a concession.
A clever script, real New York locations, great character actors (pictured, David Doyle and Normann Burton), and exciting compositions (by director Richard Donner): “The Best War in Town” was one of the first Kojaks to assemble all the elements into near perfection.
July 7, 2011
Ed McBain’s popular police-procedural detective novels, collectively known as the “87th Precinct” series, spanned almost fifty years and had some indirect influence on the structure of the professional/personal cop serials Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue. 87th Precinct was, itself, made into a TV series – an unsuccessful, uneven actioner that lasted for only one year in the early sixties.
87th Precinct was brought to television by Hubbell Robinson, a former CBS executive who was shown the door when the network veered away from the dramatic anthologies that he had championed. Robinson landed at Revue, the bustling television company run by MCA, where he produced segments for the prestigious Sunday Showcase. In 1960, the cult classic Thriller went out under Robinson’s banner, and he sold 87th Precinct the following year. Robinson’s 87th Precinct reduced McBain’s panoply of police heroes down to four detectives: squad leader Steve Carella (Robert Lansing, who had played the same character in The Pusher, one of three low-budget films derived from the McBain novels), kvetching Meyer Meyer (Norman Fell), and two basically interchangeable pretty-boy plainclothesmen (Ron Harper and Gregory Walcott). The production was troubled – for reasons we’ll come back to in a moment – and the series died after thirty episodes.
That version of 87th has been all but forgotten, except by the species of pop-culture diehard that frequent this blog. What is even less well known, and perhaps more interesting, is the fact that during the five years between the publication of the first novel, Cop Hater, in 1956, and the launch of the 1961 show, at least two other noteworthy attempts were made to televise the 87th Precinct franchise.
The first came by way of David Susskind, the self-promoting impresario and quality-TV maven behind dozens of dramatic specials and, later, East Side/West Side.
In 1958, NBC’s venerable Kraft Theatre inserted a Mystery into its title and staged a summer’s worth of live suspense and crime stories. The Kraft dramatic anthology was already a lame duck: the cheese company’s ad agency, J. Walter Thompson, had made the decision to turn the hour into a variety show, the Kraft Music Hall, headlining Milton Berle. Susskind had produced a run of Krafts right before its Mystery phase, in a short-lived attempt to shore up the flagging series with name writers and stars. Now his company, Talent Associates, handled the final batch of Kraft Mysterys, too (although Susskind dropped his own executive producer credit). There was less fanfare now, but the talent was pretty hip: George C. Scott and William Shatner each starred in one, a twenty-one year-old Larry Cohen wrote a couple, and stories by pulpmeisters Henry Kane and Charlotte Armstrong were adapted. Alex March, one of the most acclaimed anthology directors, produced the series.
In June, Kraft staged live adaptations of two of McBain’s novels, two weeks apart. The first, “Killer’s Choice,” starred Michael Higgins as Carella; the second, just called “87th Precinct,” replaced him with Robert Bray. In both, Martin Rudy played Meyer Meyer and Joan Copeland (Arthur Miller’s sister) appeared as Teddy (renamed Louise). (Coincidentally, the social security death index indicates that Rudy died in March, at the age of 95.)
Describing the two Kraft segments as a “pre-test” of the material, Susskind pitched a running series based on the 87th Precinct novels. A memo from Talent Associates to NBC pointed out that the two Krafts were “well-reviewed, as ‘an adult’ Dragnet, with legitimate psychological overtones.” Susskind got as far as drafting a budget and casting the two principals: character actors Simon Oakland as Carella and Fred J. Scollay as Meyer Meyer. (Coincidentally, or not, Oakland and Scollay had starred together in another, non-McBain Kraft Mystery Theatre, “Web of Guilt,” during the summer of 1958.)
It’s unclear whether this 87th would have been staged live, or if it would have been an early foray into filmed or taped television for Susskind. In the fall of 1958, NBC brought Ellery Queen back to television as a live weekly mystery (one of the very few live dramatic hours that was not an anthology). It’s possible that one pulp-derived crime series was enough for NBC that season, or that Ellery Queen’s difficulties (the lead actor was replaced mid-season, and cancellation came at the end of the first year) soured them on the McBain property. In any event, NBC passed on the Susskind proposal.
Then, in 1960, Norman Lloyd tried to bring the McBain books to television.
Lloyd was the associate producer of Alfred Hitchcock Presents since its third season, and had proven invaluable to producer Joan Harrison as a finder story material for the suspense anthology. As the series exhausted its supply of British ghost stories and whodunits, Lloyd was instrumental in mining the pulp magazines for stories that were more American, more modern, and more generically diverse than the material adapted for the early seasons. Lloyd also began to direct episodes during the fourth season, and proved himself a more gifted handler of both actors and camera than any regular Hitchcock director other than Robert Stevens (who won an Emmy for the episode “The Glass Eye”) or Hitchcock himself.
When Lloyd’s contract came up at the end of Hitchcock’s fifth season, Lloyd entered into a bitter negotiation over renewal terms with MCA, which footed the bill for the show. Lloyd wanted a raise and, more importantly, a chance to develop series of his own for MCA. Although the deal was not tied to a specific property, Lloyd had his eye on the 87th Precinct novels, which by then numbered close to a dozen. Lloyd already knew Evan Hunter, the writer behind the “Ed McBain” pen name, because Alfred Hitchcock Presents had bought two of his short stories and hired Hunter himself to write the teleplay for a third episode.
(Hunter, who wrote The Birds, declined my interview request on this subject in 1996 because he was working on a book about his relationship with Hitchcock. That slim volume, Me and Hitch, emerged a year later and answered few of my questions. Hunter does not mention Lloyd at all in his book, and confuses the chronology of the 87th Precinct television series, placing it in the 1959 rather than the 1961 season. Hunter died in 2005.)
Manning O’Connor, the studio executive who handled the Hitchcock series, was prepared to green-light 87th Precinct with Lloyd in charge. But someone higher up the food chain killed the deal. Either MCA, which owned the rights, allowed Hubbell Robinson to poach the series because he had more clout; or Hitchcock quietly shot it down because he didn’t want to lose a trusted lieutenant. Or both.
Furious, Norman Lloyd threatened to quit. O’Connor calmed him down, and eventually studio head Lew Wasserman himself stepped in to arbitrate the matter. Lloyd ended up with a bigger raise but no production deal of his own, and he remained with Hitchcock (eventually becoming its executive producer) until it went off the air in 1965.
On the whole, I think I might rather have have seen Susskind’s or Norman Lloyd’s 87th Precinct than Hubbell Robinson’s. I don’t know how creative involvement Robinson actually had, but I’m guessing not much. His other Revue property from that period, Thriller, has been well documented, and most of the creative decisions on that show are generally attributed to others (mainly the final producer, William Frye). Like his former Playhouse 90 lieutenant, Martin Manulis, who went independent around the same time and promptly launched the escapist bauble Adventures in Paradise, Robinson struggled with the new realities of Hollywood television.
In 1962, it was speculated that 87th got 86’ed because Robinson returned (briefly) to CBS, from whence he had been unceremoniously ousted in 1959. NBC, the rumor went, choked on the idea of paying the weekly $5,000 royalty that Robinson was due to a man who was now an executive at a competing network.
Whether that’s true or not, I doubt that 87th Precinct could or should have sustained for a second season. Robinson’s producers, screenwriter Winston Miller (whose one noteworthy credit was My Darling Clementine) and Revue staffer Boris Kaplan, were competent but hardly auteurs. 87th adapted nearly all of McBain’s extant novels at the time, and those episodes were generally quite good. McBain’s spare prose boiled down into taut, violent, nasty little pulp outings.
(In fact, 87th Precinct was dinged in the Congressional anti-violence crusade that sent the television industry into a brief tizzy during the early sixties. Robinson ate shit for the press, nonsensically parsing how a scene in 87th’s pilot crossed the line because a bad guy twitched after the cops gunned him down. It would’ve been alright, Robinson apologized, if the actor had only keeled over and stayed still. I wonder how Robinson would have explained the exuberantly tawdry “Give the Boys a Great Big Hand,” a midseason episode in which the boys of the precinct do indeed receive a hand . . . in a box.)
But once the series exhausted the novels, most of the original teleplays that followed were dull or far-fetched. None of the writers Miller and Kaplan recruited could capture the flavor of the books. The show, stranded on the generic Universal backlot, lacked any of the authentic New York atmosphere upon which Susskind, at least, would have insisted. Fatally, the producers began to shift the series’ focus away from the brooding Lansing and toward one of the secondary detectives, Roger Havilland, played by the bland and incongrously Southern-accented Gregory Walcott. Was Lansing difficult, or perceived as aloof on-screen, qualities that got him fired from his next numerically-titled series, 12 O’Clock High? Originally Gena Rowlands was a featured player in 87th as Teddy Carella; but she departed after only a few episodes. Rowlands’s ouster hurt the show, and received some coverage in the press. I suspect that the goings-on behind the scenes were more compelling than what was on the screen in 87th Precinct. That, as they say, is show biz.
In my last two posts, I pointed out some of the many uncredited actors in the classic drama Naked City (1960-1963). There’s also a special case worth pointing out: that of Richard Castellano, the swarthy, rotund actor who was Oscar-nominated for Lovers and Other Strangers and played Clemenza in The Godfather.
Sometime in 1962, Castellano began working regularly as an extra on Naked City. Once you’ve learned to recognize his unmistakable features, you can spot Castellano in practically every third-season episode. Here are a few of his many guises:
Bartender (“Hold For Gloria Christmas,” with Herschel Bernardi in the foreground).
Waiter (“Idylls of a Running Back”).
Man in a subway station (“Go Fight City Hall”). Once you’ve keyed on Castellano, you’ll notice that he goes through the same ticket line twice in this scene.
Man on street (“Dust Devil on a Quiet Street”). Like any ambitious extra, he’s the only one looking up toward the camera.
Man with clipboard (“One, Two, Three, Rita Rakahowski”)
Bartender again (“Robin Hood and Clarence Darrow, They Went Out With the Bow and Arrow”) . . . .
. . . and finally, in that episode, rewarded with a close-up and a line (“Hey, what’s goin’ on? Take it easy!”)!
Finally, here’s an unexpected bonus. While I was capturing those screen shots, I stumbled by accident actross another well-known character actor, working as an uncredited extra in the background of the 1963 episode “The S.S. American Dream,” at least a year before his first official screen credit. See if you recognize the man standing on the stairs at left:
Unless I’m mistaken, that’s Joe Santos, better known as Jim Rockford’s long-suffering pal Detective Dennis Becker on The Rockford Files!
Here they are in the same shot, Castellano on the far left and Santos on the far right, two background players angling to get noticed behind the principals – and, against the odds, succeeding at it.
Makes you wonder how many other famous faces are lurking in the background of the Naked City . . . .
Postscript: Loyal reader David Moninger believes that the old lady in this shot (between Robert Duvall at left and an uncredited Audra Lindley, Three’s Company’s Mrs. Roper, at right) is Judith Lowry, better known as Phyllis‘s Mother Dexter. Judging from her credits, Lowry was New York-based during the sixties, so it’s certainly plausible. But since the elderly extra had no lines, her name doesn’t appear in the paperwork alongside the unbilled actors with speaking parts. Can anyone weigh in on whether or not this is Lowry?