December 21, 2007
Bernard L. Kowalski died on October 26. He was one of the most creative director-producers of the ’60s, whose passing rated more attention in the press than this sole, belated Variety obit. I guess his primary claim to fame is having directed the Mission: Impossible pilot, and later several of the good, early Columbo segments.
Mission was the culmination of a brief, productive collaboration with its creator, Bruce Geller, with also included some good episodes of The Dick Powell Show and one amazing, postmodern, ahead-of-its-time season of Rawhide. (Too ahead of its time: they got fired.) Sam Peckinpah made their partnership a trio for a time, but he was too volatile for it to last.
The year that Bernie launched Mission: Impossible, he directed or produced a total of five successful series pilots – for Mission, The Monroes, The Guns of Will Sonnett, The Rat Patrol (Kowalski produced, Tom Gries directed), and NYPD. I can’t imagine that’s not a record. The NYPD pilot would never be broadcast; Kowalski’s show featured Robert Hooks, Frank Converse, and Robert Viharo as a multiracial team of young detectives. When the show went to series a year later, Viharo was gone, replaced by Jack Warden as an older police captain.
Bernie had two flirtations with feature careers – early on, as a director of low-budget sci-fi and action films (Attack of the Giant Leeches) for Gene and Roger Corman, and for a while in the late ’60s and early ’70s after his TV career had peaked with that string of hit pilots. Those movies (Krakatoa – East of Java, Macho Callahan, SSSSS) were eclectic but not very good, and Bernie slid back into episodic TV. His credits include long stints on a raft of classics or, at least, popular hits: The Rebel, The Untouchables, Perry Mason, Banacek, Columbo, Baretta, Knight Rider, Airwolf, Jake and the Fatman. The conclusions one draws from that list, I guess, are that Bernie had a skill for handling masculine action material, and that he was a good man to call in if you had a temperamental star who liked to throw his weight around. Bernie was an easygoing guy, but he didn’t take any crap from anybody.
I met Bernie in January 2006, and we spent more than three hours at his Northridge home, just covering the pre-Krakatoa years (plus a little bit of Columbo). His memories were vivid, funny, and forthright (he admitted, for instance, that the visual style of Mission: Impossible was cribbed straight from The Ipcress File). Plus, it’s always a bonus to talk to someone in the house where they’ve lived for many decades. At one point Bernie gestured toward the front lawn as he was telling me a story about a fistfight that erupted between Sam Peckinpah and the writer James Lee Barrett, and I realized I was sitting in the same den where Peckinpah and Lee Marvin and many others had caroused with Bernie over the years.
Bernie and his wife Helen were very warm and hospitable that afternoon, and I wish I’d stayed in touch; I still don’t even know how Bernie died (he seemed in pretty good health two years ago). It’s a common occurrence for an historian, but it still makes me sad.