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?
In my last post, I began a tour of the unbilled actors who lurked on the streets of the sixties crime drama Naked City. Many of whom later went on to become major stars, or at least busy character actors. Now, with the help of the production records on file in the archives of Naked City’s executive producer Herbert B. Leonard, we can identify most of these uncredited performers.
For some reason, Naked City’s third season yields the best crop of soon-to-be-famous bit players. Maybe Marion Dougherty, the show’s legendary casting director, honed her knack for spotting future stars as she went along.
Let’s begin with the one of the tiniest speaking parts you can possibly imagine. Squint at this scene from 1962’s “Torment Him Much and Hold Him Long,” which stars Robert Duvall (in one of four leading Naked City roles) and Barbara Loden (director of Wanda, wife of Kazan, fleetingly a sixties ingenue) as husband and wife, and you’ll see a black couple in the stairwell in the background:
The male half of that couple is one Bobby Dean Hooks, who under the more formal moniker of Robert Hooks would become a fairly important leading man a few years later; fittingly, he starred in the next major New York City police drama, N.Y.P.D. This Naked City episode precedes any other recorded television or film appearance for Hooks.
“Dust Devil on a Quiet Street” takes place in the world of young, aspiring performers. With its scrutiny of a faded acting teacher (Richard Basehart) and a disturbed young actor under his tutelage (Robert Walker), it’s one of the most detailed glimpses of the process of acting ever attempted in a television drama. The original writer of “Dust Devil,” Anthony Lawrence, told me that he struggled with the script, and welcomed the revisions undertaken by Naked City’s legendary story editor, Howard Rodman. Rodman’s wife at the time, Norma Connolly, was a character actress, and I suspect that Rodman’s observations of her work are the source of the authentic-seeming acting exercises in “Dust Devil.”
Ironically, for a text so sympathetic to the plight of the struggling actor, none of the actors we see performing in Basehart’s workshop receive screen credit. However, Dougherty got it right once again: four of the five actors playing actors went on to enjoy noteworthy careers. The first pair to try out a scene (which Basehart decimates) are Penny Fuller (All the President’s Men) and Ken Kercheval (Dallas):
Other students who have a line or two each include Stephen Brooks (front row, looking to the left), soon to co-star in The Nurses and The F.B.I., and character actress Joanna Miles (farthest right), also a Dallas alumna:
Moving on to the extraordinary “King Stanislaus and the Knights of the Round Stable” – the one with Jack Klugman, John Larch, and a meat cleaver all locked together in a butcher’s freezer – I originally thought that this young brunette nurse on the right might be Elizabeth Ashley, who did play an early role on Route 66 (another Herbert Leonard / Marion Dougherty effort) around the same time:
Wrong: it’s actually Broadway actress and director Joan Darling, later of Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law.
A week later, in the episode “Spectre of the Rose Street Gang,” we catch a single glimpse of The Waltons’ Ralph Waite, likely in his television debut, as a chauffeur:
. . . and then in “The Highest of Prizes,” only a slightly longer look at The Stepford Wives’ Peter Masterson (shown with Paul Burke), likely in his television debut, as a ferry boat crewman:
The final episode of Naked City, “Barefoot on a Bed of Coals,” is famous for Dustin Hoffman’s brief but showy role in the teaser, as a two-bit holdup man who gets blasted by a beat cop (Steven Hill). Hoffman made the closing credits – just barely, in the penultimate slot – but a lot of familiar faces around him didn’t. Here’s the great Philip Bruns (The Out of Towners; Harry and Tonto; The Great Waldo Pepper) as a paramedic who grouchily tends to Hoffman’s wound:
And Melvin Stewart (Trick Baby; Scarecrow and Mrs. King) as a witness to the crime:
Soon it’s revealed that Hill’s character isn’t really a cop. Fortunately, there are plenty of real uniformed policemen around, played by the likes of Ramon Bieri (Badlands; Sorcerer):
. . . and future biker movie star Tom Stern, also uncredited:
For the fellow TV junkies in the audience who had watched these Naked Citys before reading this post . . . how many of these actors did you spot?
Naked City, the cop show of the early sixties that nearly every classic TV buff adores, is famous for three things: (1) the beautifully wrought dialogue and wonderfully strange characters created by its chief writers, Stirling Silliphant and Howard Rodman; (2) the extensive location shooting, which makes the show an ever more valuable etching of Manhattan at a specific moment in time; and (3) the roster of extraordinary character actors and future stars who received, in many cases, their first exposure on Naked City, after eagle-eyed casting executive Marion Dougherty spotted them on the Off-Broadway stages that had begun to flourish in the city.
Today’s post will address only the last of those elements of Naked City, one which has always been a source of both joy and frustration for me. Joy, because Naked City frequently offers the thrill of spotting a favorite actor in one of his very first parts. Like Bruce Dern, for instance, who hovers around the margins of “The Fault in Our Stars,” a 1961 episode in which he plays an aspiring theater actor:
(The man standing next to Dern is Alvin Epstein, whom New York magazine recently called “one of the most important classical actors of his generation.” Another facet of Naked City’s historical value is that Dougherty often hired theater actors and acting teachers – including Sanford Meisner and Peggy Feury – who ended up making few, if any, other substantial appearances on film.)
Dern, in “The Fault of Our Stars,” does not receive credit on screen – and therein lies the frustration I mentioned above. Because while Naked City scripts tended to include more speaking parts than your average one-hour drama – the show’s detectives canvassed the city in most episodes, talking to a cross-section of New York types as they sought each week’s wrongdoer – the large, ornate font of the credits left room for only a few of them to be acknowledged.
That stands in stark contrast to the other important New York-based dramas of the early sixties – The Defenders, East Side/West Side, The Nurses – which rigorously credited every bit player in the crawl at the end of the show. (This is just a guess, but I’ll bet that union rules required New York-produced shows to credit every actor with a speaking part; certainly, they had to make room for some crew members, like scenic artists and electricians, whose positions were never credited on Hollywood-based programs of that era. Because Naked City was technically produced in Los Angeles by Screen Gems, it may have been able to evade those rules.)
Let’s take another early episode as an example of how hard it was to snag a screen credit on Naked City. “Button in a Haystack” has ten credited guest stars, beginning with Albert Salmi (a star character actor then) and ending with Mitch Ryan (an unknown then, but a star character actor a decade later). But “Button” also features twenty-one unbilled actors in small speaking roles. One of them (center) is the very recognizable William Duell, who played Sefelt, one of the asylum residents in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest:
Here are the rest of the uncredited cast members of “Button in a Haystack,” and the roles they played: Paul Alberts (Luna), Griff Evans (Man with shovel), Mike Dana (Man in pit), Charles Roy Pritchard (Ballistics Expert), Herbert Ratner (Seymour), Stephen Hart (Beatnik), Vern Stough (Pretty Girl), Bernard Reed (Candy Store Owner), Pete Gumeny (Benevento), Tom Ahearne (Patrolman), Howard Morton (Ivy Leaguer), Jerome Raphel (Man with bucket), Edd Simon (Cop), Ricky Sloane (Martin), Joey Kennedy (Little Boy), Susan Melvin (Little Girl), Mac Munroe (Police Stenographer), Frank Tweddell (Mr. Jassey), Bo Enivel (Truck Driver), and Louis Guss (Counterman).
Recognize any of those names? Neither did I, except for Susan Melvin (briefly a popular child actress, she appeared in the movie Ladybug, Ladybug and starred in an unsold pilot for Naked City’s executive producer, Herbert B. Leonard) and Louis Guss, who enjoyed a long career as a character actor, specializing in surly, swarthy Noo-Yawk types.
But many of the uncredited actors on Naked City do look quite familiar – either because they appeared in a million other TV episodes and movies in small parts, like Louis Guss, or occasionally because they went on to become major stars, like Bruce Dern. When I watched Naked City for the first time, I recognized most of the embryonic stars (but not all of them, as I recently discovered) and some of the character actors. But many of those unnamed faces drove me bonkers. I knew they were somebody, but I couldn’t place the faces. I wanted to identify them, and that information simply hadn’t been published anywhere.
Fortunately, many of the production records for Naked City survive among Herbert B. Leonard’s papers, which now reside in the Special Collections Department of UCLA’s Charles E. Young Library. Recently I had a reason to peruse those papers, and while I was doing so I kept an eye out for the names of some of those uncredited actors that I couldn’t identify on sight. Let’s take a look at some of them. (For the purposes of this post, I’m excluding the earlier, half-hour incarnation of Naked City, because a) there are no DVDs from which to take frame grabs and b) its casting director, Jess Kimmel, didn’t possess the same skill in finding talented unknowns that Marion Dougherty had.)
First let’s go back to “The Fault in Our Stars,” which cast Roddy McDowall as one of several variations on Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov that he played around this time (“Journey Into Darkness,” for Arrest and Trial, was another one). It turns out that the cab driver who fares poorly at the hands of McDowall’s Nietzchean fantasies was played by our old friend Chris Gampel. I never would’ve recognized Gampel without help, since the top half of his face is cut off for the entirety of his only scene:
Later, in a beatnik joint where McDowall and friends applaud the performing poets by snapping their fingers, we catch a quick glimpse of an emcee (on stage, at left):
That’s Harvey Jason, the British-born character actor who appeared in Oklahoma Crude and The Gumball Rally, as well as dozens of TV shows in the seventies and eighties.
Later, we meet another struggling actor:
He’s played by Teno Pollick, who committed suicide in 1991. Pollick had a very minor career as a television actor in the sixties, but he had another claim to fame – as one of Anthony Perkins’s boyfriends during the mid-sixties.
One of the earliest hour-long episodes, “Debt of Honor,” opens on a poker game, in which the dealer is played, without credit, by the familiar character actor Howard Smith:
Later, in one of the series’ most elaborate action sequences, the cops pursue a pair of gunmen who show up just long enough to engage in a fatal shoot-out with Detectives Flint (Paul Burke), Arcaro (Harry Bellaver), and Parker (Horace McMahon). This is the about the best look you get at the faces of the two hoods:
The man on the left is Charles Dierkop, later a familiar face in movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (on which Marion Dougherty consulted, without credit) and a regular on Police Woman, as one of the Mutt-and-Jeff detectives who supported glamorous Pepper Anderson (Angie Dickinson). After his “Debt of Honor” bit part, associate producer Sam Manners sent a memo to Dougherty, praising Dierkop for his helpfulness during the shoot and encouraging her to hire him again. Dougherty must have seen merit in Dierkop as well, because the diminutive character actor turns up in bit parts in about a dozen Naked Citys.
And the fellow on the right in the image above? His name is Jerry Ragni, and as far as I can tell, he is indeed the same Gerome Ragni who went on to co-write Hair.
Moving into the second season, Ernest Kinoy’s delightful, semi-comedic 1961 caper “The Hot Minerva” features Eugene Roche as a plainclothesman:
Someone at the Internet Movie Database noticed Roche’s unbilled appearance here, even though he’s squinting into the sun for all of his twenty seconds of screen time. But Sharon Farrell’s blink-and-you-miss-it bit, as an actress who doesn’t seem to mind bumping into Detective Flint (series star Paul Burke), hasn’t been recorded on the internet until now:
Farrell soon skipped town and was playing leading roles on Hollywood TV shows less than a year later.
“A Case Study of Two Savages,” featuring Rip Torn and Tuesday Weld as a pair of hillbilly psychopaths on a bloody rampage across midtown, earned some notoriety in 1962 for its brutal and unexpected violence. Torn has a scene where he buys a pistol from a cheerful young gun store clerk and then proceeds to wipe the smile off his face:
The clerk has several they’re-grooming-me-as-a-star close-ups and even a name – “Fred!” – so I expected him to turn up in the credits, but no dice. If you’ve been keeping up with recent posts, you’ll recognize Fred’s real name – he is Tom Simcox, a star of Joseph Stefano’s The Haunted pilot. Like Farrell, Simcox played his last bit part on Naked City before heading west and becoming one of TV’s minor leading men of the sixties. (The Internet Movie Database may have scooped me on Simcox, but it also claims that Ned Glass appears in this episode as a bartender. Wrong: the bartender is played by a less familiar character actor named Ken Konopka.)
“Today the Man Who Kills the Ants Is Coming” – perhaps the best of Howard Rodman’s wonderfully opaque episode titles – takes place mostly in the police squadroom. Among the assembled cops there, we can catch quick glimpses of the Tony-nominated Broadway actor Rex Everhart (at right, with Milt Kamen):
. . . and the great African American actor Godfrey Cambridge (Watermelon Man), in the center of this crowd (wearing plainclothes):
Next time, we’ll continue our bit-player tour through the Naked City’s third and final season, which yields an ever more bountiful crop of uncredited young actors.