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 31, 2012
The low-rated ensemble police drama Southland became a cause célèbre a few years ago, when it got canceled by an impatient NBC and then unexpectedly rescued by TNT (a basic cable station that typically wouldn’t shell out for such an expensive undertaking). I have rooted for it too, but its underdog victory isn’t reason enough to declare Southland the new standard-bearer for quality television.
Southland was created by Ann Biderman, a screenwriter (Primal Fear) who worked briefly on NYPD Blue, but it is produced under the umbrella of TV mogul John Wells. Southland bears a closer resemblance to bustling Wellsian professional dramas like ER and Third Watch than to squadroom ensembles like Hill Street Blues or NYPD Blue. Many of the creative staff are veterans of one or both of the Wells shows: writers Dee Johnson and Angela Amato Velez, directors Christopher Chulack, Nelson McCormick, and Felix Alcala; actress Lisa Vidal; costume designer Lyn Paolo; and so on.
(Southland also carries some of the DNA of Adam-12 and Dragnet. A storyline in “Two Gangs,” in which two squad-car partners spend their shift answering trivial “garbage calls,” plays exactly like one of the more quotidian Friday-Gannon episodes. Like the Jack Webb shows, Southland is resolutely pro-police. Its LAPD contains flawed cops – such as the spectacularly alcoholic Dewey, played with gusto by C. Thomas Howell – but no corrupt ones. Positioned on the cultural timeline after Bad Lieutenant, James Ellroy, The Wire, and Training Day, not to mention the pepper-spraying thug brigades that assaulted those unresisting OWS protesters last year, Southland comes across as somewhat naïve.)
Biderman is the showrunner, but ironically Southland’s chief holdover from NYPD Blue is not in the writing; it’s the formal device of the handheld camera, which was novel in 1993 and has become, twenty years later, one of television’s most punishing clichés. Speaking of clichés: Southland turns the shakycam up to eleven. It sounds ridiculous, but Southland actually reminds me a little of late Godard (from Eloge de l’amour on), in that many of the important beats seem to take place just outside the frame or in between cuts. Most shows that use shakycam these days are just mindlessly following the fad, but Southland is arty. Look at the shot in “Westside” where Regina King lurks totally out of focus in the background for three or four seconds, an eternity in television time, before walking forward into a woozy close-up. The immediacy, the lurching urgency, of handheld works fine in action sequences, like the exciting car and foot pursuit that concludes “Westside.” But Southland never anchors the camera, and in the intimate scenes all that unnecessary, exhausting motion becomes a daunting barrier between the actors and the audience.
The other key problem is one of length: Southland is fifty minutes of show in a forty-one minute bag. It also tops out at ten episodes per season instead of the twenty-two (or more) that a successful network show would get. Wells and company haven’t scaled their ambitions to match; they’ve crammed Southland with more characters and story than they can service in the time allotted. The result is that most of the many people who fill the world of Southland remain poorly defined even after several seasons, and instead of fixing the problem, the producers have resorted to writing out some good actors and starting over again with new faces (Lucy Liu, seriously?) who may not exactly be an improvement. I’m thirteen episodes in, and still trying to figure out what the hell is the problem between emotional detective Sammy Bryant (Shawn Hatosy) and his flaky wife (Emily Bergl), or what kind of cop Bryant is supposed to be; or why the aloof detective Russell Clarke (Tom Everett Scott) acts so sullen and passive around his protective partner (King). Too late now: Scott was gone before season three, and while Russell’s exeunt had some shadings I hadn’t seen in a cop show before, it didn’t matter much, because there was no character there in the first place. In its subject matter and its keen eye for the look and feel of Los Angeles, Southland resembles Boomtown, a fine metropolitan drama that didn’t find a cable savior to save it from a premature death, also at NBC’s hands, a decade ago. Boomtown struggled with its sprawl too – it also axed some good characters too soon – but I wish Southland would emulate the earlier show’s habit of zeroing in on a single figure for a whole episode, whenever that character’s storyline came to a head.
The three characters that do work on Southland are all iterations of familiar cop show archetypes. The actors who play them are terrific, but the archetypes give them a big advantage over the rest of the cast, a head start in connecting with the audience on a show where everyone is vying desperately for screen time. Ben Sherman (Benjamin McKenzie) is the first-day rookie. John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz) is his asshole training officer, a Sipowiczian saint whose crosses to bear include a painkiller addiction and closeted homosexuality. Chickie Brown (Arija Bareikis) is the outnumbered female beat cop, who’s alternately resigned to and resentful of her colleagues’ casual sexism.
Maybe Southland should have dumped everyone else and focused on this trio, or just on Ben Sherman. ER, if only by virtue of cast attrition, took shape as a bildungsroman that followed John Carter (Noah Wyle), a med student in the pilot and a seasoned doctor by the end, on a journey to the moral heart of the show. Sherman is a comparable figure on Southland (with Cooper analogous to Anthony Edwards’s unflappable Mark Greene, and Chickie the equivalent of Julianna Margulies’s Carol Hathaway). McKenzie, who played the two-fisted street kid adopted into the wealthy candyland of The O.C., has a wonderfully open quality, similar to Wyle’s. He’s always engaged in his environment, loose, unpredictable, wide-eyed but sharp. McKenzie is a natural star, a performer built to the intimate scale of television, like David Janssen or David Morse. But he’s wasted on Southland, a show with no stars in its universe.
November 1, 2011
Burton Armus is a writer, story editor, and producer who worked on, among others, Bronk, Delvecchio, Vega$, Paris, Cassie & Co., Airwolf, Street Hawk, Knight Rider, Star Trek: The Next Generation, the late eighties revivals of Dragnet and Adam-12, and NYPD Blue.
The majority of credits on his resume are cop shows, and there’s a good reason for that: Armus spent twenty years as a member of the New York Police Department. His unexpected second career in show business began when he was recruited as a technical advisor for some television shows that were filmed on location. Armus tried his hand at writing and, when he retired from the force in 1976, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue it full-time.
Armus’s longest stint as a technical advisor was on Kojak, which I wrote about last month. Though he had written one script for the innovative police drama N.Y.P.D. just before that series was cancelled in 1969, Armus established his reputation as a talented writer with his unusually gritty and undeniably authentic scripts for Kojak. Earlier this month, Armus - speaking with both the gruffness I expected of an ex-cop and the economical wit I’m accustomed to among TV writers - took a few moments to recall his Kojak days.
So how exactly did your relationship with Kojak work?
On Kojak, I was still on the job. I would get the scripts sent to me in New York. I would come out here once a year, for a couple or three weeks. My vacation. They’d buy me a plane ticket. Then the last year I did it, I had retired, and I was out here. And that’s when they moved the show to New York!
As a technical advisor, were you mainly advising on the accuracy of the scripts?
Mostly the scripts, and also, when they shot it, how certain things were done. They tried to adhere to it, but naturally they took many liberties.
But there was at least some interest in technical accuracy.
At the beginning, they tried to be very accurate. But as they got greedy and as the network got more and more involved, they got less and less accurate. By the fifth year it was a fuckin’ joke. They were just doing it like any one of these silly cop shows that are on now.
Was Telly Savalas’s performance accurate, would you say?
Well, Telly was Telly. Telly – he’d fill the screen. His personality was Kojak. The accuracy was what surrounded him. But the character of Kojak was a conglomerate of many people, and mostly of Telly.
So you did work with the actors on their performances?
They would ask questions [about] what actually happened, and I’d say, “Well, this is what we did. This is what some other guy I knew did.” They would use that approach. If they were real good pros, like [Kojak guest stars] Armand Assante or Jimmy Woods, people like that, they cared. But most of them were just happy to get a day’s work, and they would do what the director said. And if the director wanted it a certain way, that’s the way it was done.
Telly would do things his way, like the lollipop and the “who loves ya, baby” bullshit. That was Telly. I would keep it as legitimate as I could get away with. There were times when he just did what he wanted. But not often. And the network went along with what he wanted to do. He was the show. If it weren’t for Telly, it would’ve been just another pretty good cop show.
I thought your own scripts were especially rich in details that feel authentic.
Well, I wrote ’em, so therefore they were as accurate as they could be. Telly couldn’t take too many liberties on them, because I would write a pretty tight script, and he didn’t have a lot of freedom to do some insanity. So the accuracy would be more than the average script. But we tried to do all the shows with a certain accuracy.
Did any of your episodes draw on your own experiences on the force?
Yeah, in the beginning they did. Then I stopped doing it, because as the network and Telly would get involved [and make changes], I didn’t like to be offended in that way. So I stopped doing [stories] based on me. But the first year or two, I did that.
Do you remember any specific examples?
There was one where some cop shot a guy, and they were looking to indict the cop. I don’t remember the cases any more. If you look back on it, the second year of the show, I think I wrote three or four scripts. Those are pretty accurate.
Was that episode you mentioned “The Best War in Town,” with Mark Shera as a cop who has a shootout with some gangsters on his first day on the job?
That was based on an actual event, but not mine. It was the Gallo Brothers – they ran Brooklyn. What happened is, the cop walked in when there was going to be an execution in a bar, when they were going to hang the guy. And he got shot at.
Do you remember the producers of Kojak?
Jim McAdams was really the muscle behind it all. He was the day-to-day line producer, and he kept it all together. The executive producer was a guy by the name of Matt Rapf. He knew story and he was very good. But Jim was a day-to-day workaholic who really did it all. He was with the show from the beginning to the end, and he was at Universal for twenty-five years. He just died in the last year or two. He was living in Connecticut, he hadn’t worked in a bunch of years, and he was very ill. I was hot at one time and I tried to get him some work, but listen, when you’re done, you’re done.
What about Jack Laird?
Jack Laird was a writer, predominantly. He had been around for many, many years, and he was a character. He would lock himself in his office. But he was a writer. He was a producer by title only, which there’s many, many of today. But Jack Laird’s strength was the typewriter. He was very talented and very crazy.
How much of Kojak was shot in New York versus on the Universal backlot in Los Angeles?
Every year they’d go to New York. But they would go for a week or two and they would pick up surrounding shots, background shots, one or two scenes, and that was it. When they shot in New York, they made sure they got production value out of New York.
How did the N.Y.P.D. feel about your moonlighting in television?
Mostly they left me alone. One didn’t interfere with the other. Any writing I did was on my own time. I always made the police department look good. So I never got any trouble, except from some guys who were always jealous. There was a lot of notoriety involved. There was some money involved. There was some old-school jealousy there.
Were you a detective during that period?
Yes. I was in Bronx Homicide at that time. I used to be in Midtown, then I went to Bronx Homicide.
Kojak worked out of the “Manhattan South” division. Was that a real designation?
I worked Manhattan South for six years. We based it in Manhattan South because it gave us license to midtown. People, the general public, understood Manhattan and they understood midtown. That gave us a chance to use the downtown area to our advantage.
One thing that struck me as funny about the show is how Kojak is always ordering his boss around.
Yeah, Dan Frazer. Very much a gentleman, and he was a very strong actor. Well, that was Telly. Telly took over the scene.
But I’m guessing a real N.Y.P.D. lieutenant couldn’t get away with that kind of insubordination.
Oh, no. First of all, you’d never see the captain. He was in some other building somewhere. But it worked.
Was the show’s main set, in all its dingy squalor, accurate?
The set was accurate. The set was designed after the Four-Two Squad. There were pictures of the squad, and then they built it.
And a lieutenant like Kojak would have had his own office?
What did you think of the character played by Telly’s brother, George – Detective Stavros?
We had to get him a job. All right? And he was harmless, just harmless. He’s dead, so I can tell the truth. Nah, that was a joke. But the audience liked him, so they’d give him more lines. But he was just what he was.
During the first season, another technical advisor was credited along with you – Sonny Grosso, who was then famous as one of the detectives in the real-life case that was dramatized in The French Connection.
Sonny was involved with the original writer, Abby Mann. He knew Abby Mann, so when Abby Mann wrote The Marcus-Nelson Murders, which was the pilot that Kojak was based on, he laid Sonny on it. But Sonny’s personality was abrasive to most humans. So they had to give him a credit for a while, but he had nothing to do with it.
How did you get connected with Kojak in the first place?
I had done N.Y.P.D., Madigan, a couple of movies, and they were looking for a T.A. I got a call and I made a deal, and that’s how I got it. I did the job. I knew how to keep my head down.
So how did you happen to get that first technical advisor position on N.Y.P.D. in 1967?
I worked Midtown at the time, and I was semi-famous. Mid-sixties. And there was [executive producer] Danny Melnick, needed publicity for his show, and they linked it together. I think I got a hundred dollars a week or something, which was a lot of money in those days.
For comparison, how much were you making as a police officer?
About a hundred and fifty a week. So that couple of grand a year was a lot of money. I think I was making six or seven thousand dollars a year as a detective, and to pick up two thousand dollars like that was like a blessing. Then they gave me two thousand for that script. I bought my wife a new washing machine, and a car.
How about N.Y.P.D.? Was it factually accurate?
They tried to be also. All of them tried in those days, because they were going against [the reputation of] Naked City, and Naked City was a very good show. So they tried. And it was a half-hour show, shot only in the streets. It was new at the time, shooting on location. It was on sixteen-millimeter; they could get around with it. So they tried to be accurate, and the first script that I wrote for them was a very accurate script. And it did well, so I got a little rep out of it.
How did you become “semi-famous” as a police officer?
I worked Midtown, on the wiseguys. Organized crime. So, you know, you get a little publicity out of that. Somebody falls down with a bullet, you get famous.
Okay. Was there any particular case of yours that made the papers?
I don’t remember. I don’t remember any of that shit!
I’ll bet that when you were a police detective, you had no idea that you’d end up as a writer and producer in Hollywood.
Absolutely not. It was Disneyland!
Armus, above right in the episode “The Chinatown Murders” (1974), also made several cameos as N.Y.P.D. plainclothesman on Kojak.
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.
October 3, 2011
Okay, loyal readers, it’s time to fire up the television set . . . .
. . . . slam a fresh U-matic cassette into your VTR machine . . . .
. . . . and settle back into your most comfortable plastic-covered recliner.
Because, for no special reason other than that I finally carved out a couple of weeks for some binge-viewing and a lot of them were on top of the pile, much my output for the rest of this year will be focused on an array of crime dramas from the seventies.
(So if you don’t like those, it’s going to be a long, cold winter. Sorry!)
This excursion into retrograde crime-fighting will take the form of criticism, DVD reviews, interviews and other sidebars, goofy throwaways, and anything else I can come up with to provide a little variety.
Taken as a whole, the glut of police and private eye shows that cluttered the airwaves in the seventies aren’t as good as many of the older dramas that I’ve often written about here. They challenge or transcend the limitations of genre less frequently than the best crime shows of the sixties or of this century. But many of them are a lot of fun and, more to the point, many of them are new to me. So I hope you’ll join me on my bell-bottomed journey through through Watergate-era violence, mayhem, and skullduggery.
Stay, as they say, tuned.
September 22, 2010
The pilot of Hawk produced itself. At least, that’s what you’d think if you read the screen credits closely, and believed what you read. They list an executive producer (Hubbell Robinson), a production consultant (Renee Valente), and a production supervisor (Hal Schaffel). But no producer. Maybe that’s all you need to create a pilot; if the show sells, then you can find someone to put the show together every week. That’s what I thought, when I first transcribed those credits. But I was wrong.
Recently, I pulled the string on that missing producer credit. What unraveled was a story, in microcosm, of the corporatization of the television industry during the mid-sixties. Of how the last holdouts of the rough-and-tumble, just-do-it veterans of New York live television succumbed to the studio politics that emanated from the West Coast.
Let’s back up a minute. Maybe you’ve never heard of Hawk. If you weren’t around during the last seventeen weeks of 1966, or if you haven’t spend any of the years since surfing local New York-area reruns during the late-night hours, that’s understandable.
Hawk was a cop show that debuted on ABC on September 8, 1966. It had a simple premise. John Hawk (Burt Reynolds) was a tough young plainclothes detective who caught killers, thieves, and other felons. There were two gimmicks. One, Hawk was a full-blooded Native American. Two, he worked the night shift. Hawk never saw daylight, and neither did the viewer.
Let’s look again at the credits of the Hawk pilot, which was titled “Do Not Spindle or Mutilate.” Hubbell Robinson was one of television’s most respected independent producers, a former CBS executive whose championing of Playhouse 90 (which he created) and other quality television had damned him as, perhaps, too cerebral for the mainstream. The writer was Allan Sloane, a recent Emmy nominee for an episode of Breaking Point. Sam Wanamaker, who had spent his years on the blacklist as a distinguished Shakespearean actor in England, directed. Kenyon Hopkins, composer of East Side / West Side’s brilliant, Emmy-nominated jazz score, wrote the music, and The Monkees impresario Don Kirshner is in there as a “music consultant,” whatever that means. Oh, and the guest villain, the guy who bundles up a bomb in a brown paper wrapper before the opening titles? Gene Hackman.
And what about that missing name? He had some Emmys on his shelf, too. The producer of “Do Not Spindle or Mutilate,” the one who’s not mentioned in any reference books or internet sites, was Bob Markell, fresh off a stint producing all four seasons of The Defenders. The Defenders won multiple Emmy Awards every year it was on the air, including the statue for Best Drama (which Markell took home) during the first two seasons. Hawk was only Markell’s second job following The Defenders. So why was his name expunged?
“There are a lot of well-kept secrets about me,” said Markell in an interview last month.
It was Hubbell Robinson who hired Markell for Hawk (which may have originally been titled The Hawk). Markell had just produced a terrific one-off John D. MacDonald adaptation called “The Trap of Solid Gold” for Robinson. Ironically, “The Trap of Solid Gold” did not air on ABC Stage 67 until seven days after Hawk left the network’s schedule for good.
“Do Not Spindle or Mutilate” was already written by the time Markell came on, but the new producer liked Allan Sloane and his script. Markell hired Sam Wanamaker, who had guest starred on The Defenders every year and directed one of the final episodes. Markell wanted David Carradine to play John Hawk, but Carradine was already committed to Shane, a TV adaptation of the famous western that would, also ironically, depart from ABC’s schedule two days after the final broadcast of Hawk. It was a tough time for the old New York guard: the producers of Shane were Herbert Brodkin and David Shaw, respectively Markell’s old boss and story editor on The Defenders. Burt Reynolds was the second choice for the starring role. He came to the show via Renee Valente, a close friend who would work with Reynolds as a producer, on and off, for the next thirty years.
For the production crew, Markell reteamed almost the entire below-the-line staff from his old show. J. Burgi Contner, the director of photography; Arline Garson, the editor; Ben Kasazkow, the art director; future director Nick Sgarro, the script supervisor; Al Gramaglia, the sound editor: all came over from The Defenders. Markell and Alixe Gordin, the casting director, had used Gene Hackman more than once on The Defenders, and elevated him to a leading role for “Do Not Spindle.”
The physical production was difficult. Nighttime exteriors were extensive. “We didn’t have the budget to even get any lights to put up at night, and I still had to do the show,” said Markell.
Then came the real problems.
“We finished it and I thought we had done a super pilot. I really did,” said Markell,
and I delivered it to Hubbell. I got this call, and Hubbell said, “You’ve got to get on a plane. We’re taking the movie to Los Angeles.”
I said, “Why?”
“I can’t tell you,” he said. It was a big secret.
Allan Sloane asked, “Why are you going out there?”
I said, “Because they asked me to.”
When we landed, we were all going to the Beverly Hills Hotel, and Hubbell turned to me and he said, “Where’s the film?”
I said, “I gave it to Renee.”
He said, “You shouldn’t have given it to her. She’s now going to bring it to Jackie Cooper.” And then the politics began, you know.
At the time, Jackie Cooper – the former child actor and adult TV star – was the head of Screen Gems, the television unit of Columbia Pictures. It was Columbia that backed the Hawk pilot. Up to this point, Robinson had shielded Markell from studio interference. That was about to change.
On his second day in Los Angeles, Markell learned the reason for his secret visit:
They brought me to this black building with no name on it or anything. I said, “Why are we here?” I discovered it was for testing purposes. That was one of the first shows that were tested before an audience. This was highly secret. Nobody knew about these things.
They’d invite people from the street. The audience had these little buttons: yes, no, yes, no. Then they’d subsequently invite maybe eight or nine people to sit around a table. We’d be at a two-way mirror, and we’d listen to them discuss what they liked or didn’t like about the movie.
I sat with the guys with the dials, and I thought they might have a sense of humor, and I said, “You know, why don’t you take their pulse, and maybe their perspiration rate and things like that also to find out how they’re reacting?”
And they said to me, “We’re working on it.”
Joking aside, Markell felt that violence was being done to his work:
I was furious. I mean, I was really indignant. I was under the impression that the artist – and we considered ourselves artists – showed the public a new way to look at things, a new way to see things, a new way to hear things. We didn’t want their opinion, we wanted our own. We were the creative people. And I still believe that, by the way.
Markell called New York and reported this latest development to Allan Sloane. Sloane had been a worrier during production, calling Markell all the time to ask whether his intentions were being realized on the set. As Markell described it:
Allan and I would sit, and I would agree with [him], because I loved writers: “Yeah, don’t worry about it, they’re doing it the way you would like them to do it.” I was kind of consoling him. Actually, often I didn’t tell him the truth, but that was all right.
With Screen Gems now threatening to tamper with the pilot, Markell had to calm his writer down all over again:
Allan Sloane was hysterical. He was in New York, and he said, “I’m going to blow it. I’m going to blow this story. I’m going to tell Jack Gould [the powerful New York Times television columnist].”
I said, “Allan, wait, see what happens.”
We came back the next morning. Jackie Cooper – I swear to you this is a true story – rolled out what was the equivalent of a cardiogram of the show. Horizontal line, up, down, up, down, up, down. He said, “Now, look at it. If we can get rid of those downs, we’re going to have a great show!”
I said to him, “If you get rid of the downs, you don’t have any ups. You’re going to have just a straight line. You’re not going to have ups without downs.”
And as another joke, I said, “How did the credits do?”
“Oh, no, don’t touch those. Those were great.”
Markell had had enough:
We had booked a flight for that afternoon. I turned to Hubbell and I said, “I’ve got to make that plane, Hubbell. My wife, the kids, I’ve got young children. I’ve got to leave. I’m sorry to leave this meeting, but I’m going.” And I left the meeting.
Renee ran after me and says, “You’re killing your career.”
I said, “Renee, I can’t handle this. I cannot be a part of this.”
I mean, if I’m going to have to sit and listen to what some guy off the street thinks, and then have to defend myself . . . . So I went home.
Allan Sloane could not contain himself. “Allan called Jack Gould, and Jack Gould had a huge thing about how we were secretly testing all of these shows, and it’s no longer the artist’s creative thing,” said Markell. “Everybody was furious because Allan blew the story.”
Back in New York, Markell realized that he had no one in his corner. Renee Valente sided with power. Allan Sloane, like all writers, had no power. (He retained a “created by” credit on Hawk, although after his tip to the press he was not invited back to write other scripts for the series). On The Defenders Markell had both broken the blacklist for Sam Wanamaker, and given him his first shot at directing American television. “But I suddenly found I didn’t have a friend in Sam,” Markell revealed. “I have no reason why, but he was not about to do a show with me producing it. I was a fan of his, but there was a certain hostility.”
And at the top there was Hubbell Robinson. “Hubbell was getting older, and not as tough as he used to be,” Markell said. He wasn’t really surprised by what happened next:
I came back to New York and discovered that the show was picked up. And I was walking down 57th Street one day and Paul Bogart passed me. Paul said to me, “I’m producing the show.”
I said, “Oh. Obviously, I’m not.”
Paul said, “You know, I really had nothing to do with it.” Because we were also very close friends. There was a good spirit among the New York people. Paul said, “Is there anything I can do?”
I said, “How about you hiring me to direct them, then?” I didn’t really mean it, because I never really wanted to direct. And so the show started.
When “Do Not Spindle or Mutilate” was broadcast on September 19 as the debut episode of Hawk, Screen Gems had removed Markell’s name from it. Markell was not aware of that fact until I told him of it last month. “It’s too late to get angry,” he mused.
Bogart was a surprising choice to produce Hawk. At the time he was one of television’s most sought-after directors, another Emmy winner for The Defenders, but he had produced next to nothing. It’s possible Bogart was a political pawn, set up to fail. Renee Valente brought him in; still just a “production consultant,” she was technically hiring her boss.
Immediately, Bogart found himself right in the middle of the power struggle between Cooper and Robinson:
The producer was Jackie Cooper, and the top producer was Hubbell Robinson. Hubbell was a very distinguished old-timer. I met Jackie for lunch one day at the Oak Room at the Plaza. We were going to talk about the show, and he sat down and he said to me, “We don’t need Hubbell, do we?”
I didn’t know what to say to that. He got rid of Hubbell Robinson, just got rid of him. There was something really nasty going on there. I never knew all the facts.
Bogart enjoyed his new job at first. “It was fun, because it was a nighttime shoot,” he recalled. “I had an office on Fifth Avenue, at Columbia Studios, right across the street from some jewelry place that was wonderful to look at.” But he clashed with Burt Reynolds, and with his bosses at Screen Gems. Bogart initiated a story idea he liked, a “Maltese Falcon script” that pitted Hawk against a femme fatale character modeled on Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor in the film). The executives didn’t like it. Then he approved a scene containing a strong implication that Hawk and the villainess (Ann Williams) had slept together. The executives really didn’t like that. Bogart wasn’t surprised that his head was the next to roll.
“They fired me eventually,” Bogart said. “I knew it was going to happen, but I didn’t want to just leave because I thought I would have some money coming if I just sat there until they made me go. I don’t think I got anything from them, but eventually I left.”
Bogart received a producer credit on exactly half of the Hawk segments made after the pilot. The remaining eight, like “Do Not Spindle or Mutilate,” do not list a producer on-screen. It is possible that Cooper and Valente produced the final episodes themselves. By then Hawk had acquired a story editor (Earl Booth), an associate producer (Kenneth Utt), and a “production executive” (a Screen Gems man named Stan Schwimmer), so maybe at that point it really could produce itself.
(Although his name does not appear in the credits of any episode, some internet sources list William Sackheim as a producer of Hawk. This contention is within the realm of possibility, since Sackheim was producing sitcoms for Screen Gems at the time, but I can find no evidence to support it. According to Markell, Sackheim had nothing to do with the pilot for Hawk up to the point of Markell’s departure.)
At the same time Paul Bogart was falling out with the top brass at Screen Gems, Bob Markell landed his next gig:
Now come along David Susskind and Danny Melnick. They say, “We’re doing a show called N.Y.P.D., and we’d like you to produce it.” I said, “Okay.” This was simultaneously while the other show was shooting.
This time, Markell was the replacement. ABC had sent back the original hour-long pilot for N.Y.P.D., written by Arnold Perl and directed by Bernard L. Kowalski, for retooling. Everyone was out except for a few of the original cast. Kowalski told me that Robert Hooks and Frank Converse were the holdovers, with Jack Warden (as their lieutenant) coming in to replace a third young detective, played by Robert Viharo. Markell remembered it differently:
Danny said to me, “I want you to do a trailer for the new series, and we’ll probably get on the air.” I went to look at the pilot, and discovered that most of the people in the pilot weren’t in the show. Bobby Hooks wasn’t in the show, Frank Converse wasn’t in the show. I had to make a trailer around Jack Warden and do whatever I could.
Markell’s highlight reel sold the stripped-down N.Y.P.D. pilot to the network. Superficially, the new show was similar to Hawk. Both spilled out into the streets of Manhattan, updating the grimy, teeming urban imagery of Naked City and East Side / West Side with a burst of color. But Hawk courted a film noir sensibility – John Hawk was the lone wolf, hunting at night – and N.Y.P.D. was about the institution, the process. It followed three detectives of varying seniority as they plowed methodically through the drudgery of police work: legwork, surveillance, interrogation.
Markell was working for another tough boss, but loved his new cop show as much as the old one:
I loved doing N.Y.P.D. I was allowed to do all kinds of experimentation. We shot it in sixteen-millimeter, which nobody else ever did. When I went to ABC to ask permission to shoot it in sixteen, it was like James Bond going to the CIA. They said, “If you get caught, we don’t know you. But go ahead.”
David Susskind would sometimes, rightly, say, “This is a terrible [episode]. You guys, you Emmy winners, you Defenders guys, this is an awful show.” And he was right, most – some – of the time. He was a tough judge of the shows, and he kind of whipped us into shape, because we all sometimes had a tendency to get a little lazy. You know: “let’s get the shot.”
Every three days, or three and a half days, we shot a new show. The scripts would keep coming in. Did Eddie Adler ever tell you the story of how he stood in the middle of the road here on Long Island, and I went by and got his half of the script while Al Ruben wrote the other half of the script? It was like a spy drop. Eddie was standing in the road with an envelope. I would pick it up and I would go into the city.
But anyway, to finish the story about N.Y.P.D. N.Y.P.D. was picked up, and Hawk was dropped. And I was put into that timeslot. Which is my revenge.
That’s not quite accurate: Hawk ran on Thursdays at 10PM, N.Y.P.D. on Tuesdays at 9:30. But it seems likely that ABC had only one “slot” for a stylish Manhattan police drama on its schedule, and that N.Y.P.D.’s pickup had been contingent upon Hawk’s cancellation. And the network probably told Markell as much.
Sometime during the production of N.Y.P.D., Markell added,
I went to the theatre one night to see another version of The Front Page. I was sitting at one end of the aisle, and there was Burt Reynolds at the other end of the aisle. Now, I hadn’t worked with Burt except for the pilot, and we got along really great. Somebody passed his program along to me. I have it upstairs someplace. Written on the program was, “If you ever need to do a show about an Indian at night, please call me. I’m available.” That was really very sweet. I felt good about that. But we did replace Hawk, and lasted two years.
And this time, Markell got his credit.
Thanks to Bob Markell (interviewed in July 2010), Paul Bogart (interviewed in February 2009), and the late Bernard L. Kowalski (interviewed in January 2006).
October 17, 2009
Recently, as you may have read or heard somewhere, the film director Roman Polanski was recently arrested in Switzerland and may soon find himself back in the United States to face sentencing on a statutory rape charge to which he pled guilty thirty-one years ago. This development reminded me that I still hadn’t seen Marina Zenovich’s Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, a fascinating, well-researched documentary about the Polanski rape case that was released last year.
I have no editorial comment whatsoever to make on the subject of Polanski’s crime. However, the Polanski case does contain one intriguing connection to the subject of this blog. Susan Gailey, the mother of the thirteen year-old girl with whom Polanski had sex in 1977, was an actress. Gailey played bit parts in episodes of Police Woman, Starsky and Hutch, and (according to some internet sources) L.A. Law. I’d bet that she can be found in other shows from the mid-seventies, too. The credits of many small-part actors, especially in obscure series, have not found their way into any on-line resource yet.
Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired includes a brief clip from Gailey’s appearance in a 1976 segment of Police Woman. The image above is taken from the documentary. Note that, instead of pillarboxing the clip to preserve its correct 4:3 aspect ratio, the filmmakers have cropped the footage to shoehorn it into the 16:9 frame of their film. This is a deplorable practice that’s all too common in documentaries these days.
That episode of Police Woman is not commercially available on DVD, but Gailey’s Starsky and Hutch episode is. Here she is, billed as Suzan Gailey, in the first season’s “The Deadly Impostor,” from 1975.
Does anyone out there know of any more Susan Gailey appearances? Gailey declined to be interviewed for the Polanski documentary. Zenovich claims that Gailey changed her mind after seeing the film, but Zenovich opted not to record an interview and add it to the film for its DVD release. I’d love to hear what Gailey – who has been accused by some of essentially pimping her daughter to Polanski – has to say. But for now, we’ll have to settle for her fleeting appearances in a few bad old cop shows.
UPDATE: Susan Gailey was also a fixture in some long-running TV ad campaigns in the seventies – the kind of television history that’s often lost to those of us who weren’t around to witness it firsthand. For more on Gailey’s post-Hollywood years, see the Washington Post and the Virginian-Pilot (which gallantly omits any mention of l’affaire Polanski).
July 8, 2008
Last month one of the more fascinating forgotten shows of the fifties made its home video debut. Timeless Media’s new box set of fifteen episodes of Brenner marks the first opportunity that TV fans, and even veteran collectors, have had to sample this series since its original network run nearly fifty years ago. I’ve written about a few figures connected tangentially to Brenner – Frank Lewin, the composer who supervised the music and probably composed the terrific, minimalist jazz theme, and Sydney Pollack, a bit player visible on the periphery of several episodes as young plainclothes cop – but even I had never been able to take a close look at the show until this DVD collection went into production.
Brenner‘s historical significance derives mainly from its pedigree. Its executive producer was Herbert Brodkin, a former set designer who became perhaps the last of the important producers of quality dramas in the waning days of live television. Taking the reigns of NBC’s Alcoa Hour/Goodyear Playhouse and then CBS’s Studio One and Playhouse 90 during their later seasons, Brodkin produced key live dramas including Horton Foote’s “The Traveling Lady” and “Tomorrow,” Rod Serling’s autobiographical “The Velvet Alley,” and the original “Judgment at Nuremberg” – the one during which the sponsor, the American Gas Company, insisted that all references to the gas chambers be deleted. Brodkin’s second act came in 1961, when he launched The Defenders, a Reginald Rose creation that raked in a roomful of Emmys and became the most important TV drama of the early sixties. Brodkin’s other sixties shows – The Nurses, For the People, Espionage, and the cult failure Coronet Blue – were less successful but helped to define his reputation as a standard-bearer of uncompromising quality as television became more and more controversial. It was a reputation that continued into the seventies as Brodkin, like most of the talented people in television, shifted his attention to movies of the week and miniseries. Pueblo, The Missiles of October, and Holocaust (also recently arrived on DVD) were all Brodkin efforts.
Brenner, made in 1959, was a transitional project for Brodkin. It was his first independent production, his first series to be shot on film, and (aside from his first producing assignment, NBC’s live Charlie Wild, Private Detective) his initial concession to the reality that programs with running characters were quickly supplanting the anthology drama. Like The Defenders and The Nurses, Brenner was based on a one-shot anthology show from Brodkin’s catalog, a January 1959 Playhouse 90 entitled “The Blue Men.” Intriguingly, Alvin Boretz, who wrote “The Blue Men,” is not credited as the creator of Brenner, although he did contribute scripts to the series.
So just what is the show about, exactly? It’s a modest police drama that centers on not one but two characters who give their names to the series’ title: Roy Brenner (Edward Binns), a no-nonsense, seen-it-all plainclothes NYPD lieutenant, and his son Ernie (James Broderick), a rookie beat cop. Viewers familiar with the first season of the better-known Naked City and the underappreciated Decoy (a syndicated show with the sexy Beverly Garland as a tough, beautiful pre-feminist policewoman) will find that Brenner shares much of its flavor, its taut little stories that blend character drama with action (and not always smoothly), with those shows. The primary difference is that, while Brenner too was shot on location in New York City, it takes little advantage of the panorama of awesome cityscapes that give Naked City and Decoy their visual richness. Like The Defenders and The Nurses, Brenner plays out mainly on interior sets.
That may be disappointing to some who hope to get a time-capsule snapshot of Manhattan circa 1959; certainly I had to adjust my expectations a bit when I began studying the Brodkin shows after considerable exposure to the location-rich East Side/West Side and Naked City. But Brenner has other virtues, in particular some conceptual subtleties that you won’t find in Decoy or the half-hour Naked Citys.
For one thing, although Brenner never quite develops into a serialized story, it is a bildungsroman of sorts that places a great deal of emphasis on Ernie’s growth as a cop. The episode “Departmental Trial” makes a point of telling us that Ernie is in his first year on the force, and others chart the lessons he learns from his mistakes, and his acceptance or rejection of the examples set by various older cops.
And the emphasis there is on rejection, because of another unusual element of Brenner. Roy Brenner’s assignment within the police department is on the Confidential Squad, or what we’d now call “internal affairs”: he investigates allegations of corruption among other cops. Fully half the episodes in this DVD set focus on some allegation of police malfeasance. “Small Take” and “Thin Ice” are about beat cops accused of taking bribes or turning a blind eye to a gambling racket. “Monopoly on Fear” stars Milton Selzer as a plainclothesman charged with cowardice – he’s six months away from retirement and starting to lose his nerve – and “Laney’s Boy” deals with cops who cover up a punk teenager’s petty crimes because his father is a beloved police sergeant.
Roy Brenner ends up exonerating as many police officers as he takes down. But viewed in total, Brenner projects an attitude that’s almost perversely anti-police, even by the modern standards of something like the cynical The Shield. Though the execution is less forceful, it’s this element that links Brenner most closely to the crusading social criticism undertaken in The Defenders and The Nurses. I have no idea if Brenner enjoyed police cooperation in its filming or not, but you have to imagine that if anyone from the NYPD ever paid attention to the scripts, they’d have gotten mightily steamed.
Brenner was produced by Arthur Lewis, a Broadway veteran who died two years ago. (Brodkin, essentially an impresario and still working simultaneously on Playhouse 90, received credit as executive producer.) Lewis went on to produce the first season of The Nurses, and so many of the same key talents behind that show were also the most prolific contributors to Brenner: the directors Gerald Mayer and Herman Hoffman, and writers like Boretz, George Bellak, and Art Wallace. You might call them Brodkin’s “B team” – solid mid-level craftsmen from the pool of New York, live TV-trained talent, but not the superstars who would form the more exclusive creative staff of The Defenders.
A few big names did pass behind the cameras of Brenner. The great Ernest Kinoy wrote one episode (“Crime Wave,” sadly not in the DVD set), and Peter Stone, a journeyman TV scribe before Charade made him famous, contributed several. Steven Gethers, later Emmy-nominated for his work on The Farmer’s Daughter, wrote perhaps the most compelling episode in the DVD collection, “Crisis.” It’s a sensitive, almost entirely personal story in which Roy Brenner falls in love with a woman (Hildy Parks) who cannot come to terms with the element of danger in his job.
Then, of course, there are the actors. As with any New York-based show of this era, one can have an enormous amount of fun trying to spot all the soon-to-be-famous young performers just launching their careers. George Maharis, Jerry Stiller, Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis, Mitchell Ryan, and Clifton James all turn up in the episodes on the DVDs. The X-Files‘ Jerry Hardin has a role with no lines in “Departmental Trial,” and Bruce Kirby appears without credit in “The Vigilantes.” Brenner somehow had a special knack in casting the roster of patrolmen who have recurring roles in various episodes. Along with Sydney Pollack, Gene Hackman and Dick O’Neill were among this group. Oh, and there’s one episode in which sixties leading lady Carol Rossen is visible as an uncredited, non-speaking featured extra. Can anyone spot her?
I’ve filed this piece in the “Corrections Department” section because Brenner has languished in such obscurity over the years that virtually nothing has been written about it – and much of what’s out there is inaccurate. Most reference books describe Brenner as a father-and-son cop show – a reduction that makes it sound like some hoary Pat O’Brien melodrama from the thirties – without mentioning more substantive aspects of the premise (Ernie’s inexperience; the “rat squad” angle). Every source I’ve come across, in print and on-line, contends that Brenner filmed an initial batch of episodes in 1959 and then briefly resumed production again in 1964 to create ten more episodes.
That’s a highly unusual production history of which I’d always been skeptical – why would CBS choose to revive a failed, forgotten show, and why would Brodkin and the two stars participate, five years further on in their careers? The copyright dates on these episodes finally confirm my suspicion – that the entire Brenner series was created in 1959, and that the show’s summer replacement run on CBS in 1964 was simply a burn-off of unaired segments.
Any reference you consult, apart from an exhaustive catalog compiled by the Museum of Broadcasting (now the Paley Center) for its 1985 Brodkin retrospective, will tell you that there are 25 Brenner episodes. Actually there are 26 – sort of. As was common at the time, Brodkin used the series’ final production slot to film a “backdoor pilot” for a proposed spinoff called Charlie Paradise. (The episode itself is called “The Tragic Flute.”) Just as Brenner emulated Naked City, Charlie Paradise was a pretty blatant attempt to join in on the wave of cool private eye actioners that followed upon the success of Peter Gunn and Richard Diamond, Private Detective. Charlie (Ron Randell) is the proprietor of an ultra-hip coffee house, a sort of godfather of Greenwich Village to whom Roy Brenner turns for help in navigating the wacky world of beatniks.
Presumably, had the series sold, Charlie would’ve been an amateur sleuth along the lines of John Cassavetes’ Johnny Staccato, and one imagines that the New York location shooting might have offered an authenticity exceeding that of any of the other “jazz-eye” shows. But “The Tragic Flute” is undistinguished; it tries for a light-hearted flavor that trades too heavily on the supposed exoticism of the beat world. (The writers were James Yaffe and Peter Stone, working here more than on his other Brenners in the comic mode that won him the Oscar). Broderick doesn’t appear in the segment at all, and Edward Binns looks exquisitely uncomfortable as he plays straight man to all the kooks (which include Roberts Blossom as a beat poet, and Fred Gwynne as a character named Frances X. Fish). Taken out of context Charlie Paradise is simply baffling, and it might have been wiser for Timeless to segregate it as a bonus feature on the DVDs.
As for those DVDs, the image quality is exceptional – far superior to the often battered, sixteen-millimeter derived copies of the early Universal shows (Arrest and Trial, Checkmate) that Timeless has been releasing lately. Unfortunately, I’m told that unless another print source is found, this will be a standalone “best-of” release. It would be wonderful to have the other eleven Brenners on DVD someday. It would be even more wonderful if CBS/Paramount would open up its vaults and give us The Defenders, The Nurses, and Coronet Blue.