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!
April 23, 2008
More days off and more TV episodes logged in. Detective shows were the lingua franca of’70s television, so I’ve gradually been sampling them all, dropping the ones that bore me (McMillan and Wife, Quincy) and sticking with those that managed to achieve something creative within the limitations of the genre. Often that seems to have been an insurmountable task. Harry O, for example, slid almost immediately into a rote action/mystery formula that had bore little resemblance to the quirky, off-tempo character drama launched by its brilliant creator, Howard Rodman. Kojak is almost completely ordinary, despite having been managed by a succession of writer-producers of impeccable reputation (Abby Mann, Matthew Rapf, Jack Laird). Maybe it was because Telly Savalas (one of television’s unlikeliest stars) was so intent on looking cool that he didn’t want anything but the most generic cop-show cliches cluttering up his periphery.
(I’m pretty sure I’ve added Kojak to the reject list, but I will offer a parting, backhanded recommendation for the tenth episode, “Cop in a Cage,” which pits Savalas against cult movie villain John P. Ryan as an ex-con out to get Kojak for putting him away. It’s one of the most over-the-top showdowns between narcissistic ham actors that I’ve ever seen. Great fun.)
The only series I tackled this weekend that was completely new to me was Banacek, one of the NBC Mystery Movie franchise shows produced by Universal. When the NBC mystery wheel moved the three hits of its first season – Columbo, McCloud, and McMillan and Wife – to Sunday, the network launched three completely new properties in the original Wednesday time slot. Banacek was the only one of those to limp along to a second season. (The flops were Cool Million and Madigan, replaced the following year by Faraday and Company, The Snoop Sisters, and Tenafly – also duds. Although I’d love to see the latter, which starred the wonderfully acerbic James McEachin as a deglamorized African American private eye.).
I was curious about Banacek mainly because it was build around George Peppard, a downsliding sixties movie star I’d always enjoyed for the naked arrogance he radiated during his brief screen career. Peppard was perfect for roles like the Howard Hughes figure in The Carpetbaggers or the proto-nazi World War I ace in The Blue Max, since he seemed to luxuriate in a blatant anti-social quality, an I-don’t-care-if-you-like-me-because-I’m-a-big-star ‘tude that most of his peers held in check until the cameras were turned off. I was hoping Peppard would project his full-wattage movie star id as Banacek too, but in that sense the show was a bit of a disappointment. He’s still pretty aloof and superior, as befits the character, but he also turns on an unctuous charm whenever an attractive woman is around. Somebody must have taken Peppard aside and explained to him about Q ratings.
If Columbo, the template for all the ninety-minute Universal detective series, was a howdunit that revealed the identity of the bad guy from the start, then Banacek tried to top it by being both a how- and a whodunit. Each episode depicts a daring theft before the opening titles, without showing the culprit, and leaves Banacek to ferret out the crook and piece together the details of his or her tricky scheme (usually in an extended reconstruction sequence in the last act).
Like Columbo, it was a format that demanded a lot of its writers. The first couple of episodes revolve around dazzling, seemingly impossible crimes – a football player who’s kidnapped in the middle of a flying tackle (in Del Reisman’s “Let’s Hear It For a Living Legend”) or a freight car that disappears from a moving train (David Moessinger’s “Project Phoenix”). As the first season progressed, the crimes got more and more pedestrian. The show had a strong writing pedigree – it was created by Emmy nominee Anthony Wilson (the son of MGM producer/writer Carey Wilson, he died of a brain tumor a few years after Banacek) and produced by George Eckstein, a graduate of The Untouchables and The Fugitive – but it’s a daunting task to come up with eight perfect heists a year. If you could, you wouldn’t be a TV producer, you’d be, well, a master criminal.
One aspect of Banacek that I like, though, is that (except in the pilot TV movie that launched the series) nobody dies. Banacek is a “freelance insurance investigator” who solves big-ticket robberies and gleefully pockets a big fee from the insurance execs. That meant the show could strike a breezy tone – sending Banacek to bed, for instance, with each week’s female guest star – without having to find some way to desensitize us against a rising body count. Giving Banacek corporate underwriters to work for also spared us the scene of the private eye agreeing to help some impoverished sad sack solve his grandma’s or old army buddy’s or pet schnauser’s murder out of the goodness of his heart. That’s a cliche I’m really getting tired of as I see it used over and over again, even in dark-hearted shows that should know better, like Harry O.
Banacek’s DNA seems to come partly from Amos Burke, the preposterous millionaire homicide lieutenant who solved murders from the backseat of his Rolls in Aaron Spelling’s trash classic Burke’s Law. The most obvious nod to the earlier series is the presence here of the generally insufferable Ralph Manza as Banacek’s chauffeur, Jay Drury, a comic Italian stereotype; Amos Burke also had an ethnic driver, a Chinese man named Henry (Leon Lontoc), as part of his entourage. Manza’s comic relief is rarely funny, and his character makes no sense, given that Banacek travels around the country to solve his cases and would logically hire a local driver in each city rather than pay an annoying sidekick’s travel expenses. But it just goes to show that even a smart series like this one struggled to get across all its necessary exposition without building in some characters for the loner-protagonist to talk to. (Banacek’s other interlocutor was the arch, very gay rare-book dealer Felix Mulholland, played by Murray Matheson. Banacek wore a lot of turtlenecks and the car phone in his Packard was in an unbelievable shade of pastel blue, so I suppose there’s a bisexual subtext to be unpacked if anyone cares to.)
One thing that puzzles me about Banacek is why everyone keeps harping on the title character’s Polish ancestry. Herb Edelman refers to him as “Super Pole” in one episode and (my favorite) Broderick Crawford calls him Bananacek. I mean, it’s not like everybody in Columbo went around pointing out to Peter Falk that he was a greasy little wop – even though Columbo (a blue-collar guy schlumping around among blue-blooded villains) might’ve expected some class snobbery, whereas Banacek is awfully well assimilated into the world of generic rich white folks. I guess it was an attempt to give a pretty bland character a little color in an era of proliferating crime shows where every hero had a gimmick. Cannon was the fat detective, Longstreet the blind detective, Barnaby Jones the old detective. But it comes across as totally forced, sort of like Ironside’s bizarre fetish for chili in the early episodes of that series.
And finally a bit of pedantry: Something that frustrates me, as a historian, about these ninety-minute shows is that while the stories had room for more speaking parts than a typical hour-long series, the credits did not. So you tend to see a lot of fairly prominent supporting players who didn’t receive billing, and whose names have thus been lost to history. Just in these eight Banacek episodes, I spotted a few familiar actors who, back in the day, were probably pretty apoplectic about being left off the credit roll. In “Project Phoenix,” for instance, there’s Stuart Nisbet as the head train guard, and Owen Bush as an engineer. “A Million the Hard Way” (perhaps the strongest first season segment, a casino robbery piece by Batman scribe Stanley Ralph Ross) features the reliable Irish fireplug Judson Platt, a late member of the John Ford stock company, in a sizeable speaking part as the guard in front of whose eyes the million bucks gets boosted. Lewis Charles appears in “The Greatest Collection of Them All” as Reilly, a waiter in Banacek’s favorite restaurant, a part that might’ve been a recurring one if the show had amassed more than a handful of episodes. And it was a surprise and a pleasure to discover my old acquaintance Lonny Chapman, atypically sporting a mustache, turn up in a little unbilled cameo in the pilot TV movie, in a funny turn as a philosophical redneck bartender. Here he is:
So there are a few folks you won’t find mentioned in the credits, or on the IMDb or anywhere else on the internet. But I’d sure love to dig around in Universal’s production records and learn the names of the dozens of other actors who didn’t make the cut.