Category: Golden Age Article

Bill Cosby’s Detective Show

One of the Google searches that hit the site recently was for “Bill Cosby Detective Show.” People remember Bill Cosby for his Comedy, particularly the ratings sensation, The Cosby Show. But, Bill Cosby did try his hand as a TV detective.

 

It was 1994 and Cosby’s first project after the end of the Cosby Show and his choice was the Cosby Mysteries which followed recently retired police officer, Guy Hanks as he found himself retired after a heart attack and winning the lottery on the same day, but still drawn back to serve as criminologist solving cases for the NYPD or occasionally private clients.

The mysteries were well-written with surprising twist and turns, and plenty of tension. The character of Guy Hanks was typical Cosby. There was always the light touches that are in most Cosby Characters (going back to Kelly Robinson in I Spy.)  He and Police Detective Adam Sully (played by James Naughton) had good chemistry. He also had a good sidekick in aspiring young criminologist, Dante (Mos Def.) Cosby as an elder mentor always make for good entertainment.

The show had some fantastic episodes. My favorite featured Douglas Adams (writer of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) as a husband who runs into Hanks at the Party and has a discussion about the art of murder because he’s about to murder his own wife, and Hanks has to stop him without leaving the party.  In another, his Cosby show wife, Phylicia Rashad played an old flame and competing criminologist.

It was a fun show that sadly lasted only for 19 episodes. There are a number of reasons why. Cosby pointed to the timeslot quipping that with the Cosby Mysteries, “The biggest mystery was when it was on.”

The show may simply have come too late. Cosby chose to make the show a character-driven detective story rather than using violence and sensationalism to gain ratings.  The PG Detective shows that had been popular through much of the 1970s and 1980s with TV shows like the Rockford Files, Quincy, and Magnum PI, were passing from the scene.

Matlock had been forced to jump networks from NBC to ABC in 1992. The 1990s saw CBS fail with a revival of Burke’s Law and later in the 1990s drew a blank with Buddy Faro. Angela Lansbury continued to have success with Murder She Wrote, though that would also disappear in 1996.

The TV mystery and cop series that would take to the air in the 1990s and since have tended to be more lurid and violent, and to really sell the show based on that. Of course, there are exceptions, but the PG detective show may be the hardest one to make today.

The Cosby Mysteries’ biggest problem may not have been that there was something wrong with the series but not enough right. Two truly sucessful PG Detective shows that each managed eight seasons on the air were Diagnosis Murder. (1993-2001) and Monk (2001-2009). Both shows succeeded by being more than detective shows. The quirky Mark Sloan and the Neurotic Adrian Monk made for shows that you didn’t have to be a mystery fan to enjoy, with plenty of comedy. In Diagnosis Murder’s case, they also made use of guest stars, bringing several old TV detectives back to television such as Mannix, Adam 12 co-stars Martin Milner and Kent McCord, and Andy Griffith as Matlock, after Matlock was cancelled by a second network.

The biggest problem with the Cosby Mysteries was that its creators didn’t understand that a good mystery wasn’t enough to hold an audience. Still, fans of good mysteries would do well to give the Cosby Mysteries a look if they see it on reruns. Unfortunately, the show has not been released on DVD.

These are a Few of My Favorite Shows…

Daniel over in the Dragnet Facebook page asked where I got my shows and what some of my favorites were. That was going to be a long answer, so I thought I’d make it a blog post.

First as to where to get the shows, here are four sites to try:

Archive.org Old Time Radio Collection

Calfkiller Old Time Radio

Radio Mick Danger

Tennessee Bill’s Old Time Radio Library

As to favorite shows, that’ll take a while. Let me go by categories:

Comedy:

If I want a good laugh, there are usually three shows I go for right away. Abbott and Costello are hilarious on the radio, even though they keep losing their place in their script they roll with the punches beautifully, their neo-Vaudeville jokes are hilarious and Lou Costello’s timing is dead on, plus they have fantastic guest stars including Bugs Bunny!

Bob Hope is fantastic as well. I didn’t watch too much of Hope’s older stuff growing up, but now that I’m older I’ve got a stronger appreciation of his style. Hope doesn’t give all the funny lines himself, but his guest’s material was written very well, so whether its Basil Rathbone, Jack Webb, or Chico Marx as his guest star, it’s a fanastic show.

I also like Life with Luigi. I actually heard about the show during a commercial break on Yours Truly Johnny Dollar and then listened to the show as a curiosity. It’s a very sweet comedy focusing on the little immigrant, Luigi and his struggles with life in America. A wonderful cast of characters and a beautiful show.

I also appreciate Fibber McGee and Molly and the Great Gildersleeve.

Detective Shows:

I have a list of all the Detective Shows I like and want to do. It’s pretty exhaustive. Picking favorites is hard, but here goes.

Dragnet was unique because it really combined the police procedural with real detective stories. It was truly a mystery show where we followed the law and solved the case with them. S.S. Van Dine once couselled detective story writers,  “No lesser crime than murder will suffice.” Webb managed to create human drama out of burglaries and passing bad checks, a tough feat to accomplish.

Let George Do It is truly an underrated prorgram. It managed to really create a unique character and story that defies people’s usual hard-boiled/soft-boiled division of detectives. Clearly George Valentine had elements of both. The mysteries were ususally cleverly written and the acting by Bob Bailey was superb.

Pat Novak for Hire with Jack Webb was truly one of the most unique shows on radio. Pretty edgy for its time, but they delivered more great lines than a Shakespearean Actor in a one man play. Had Jack Webb not done Dragnet, he may have seen some more limited stardom on this show.

 I also have to say I’ve become a fan of Yours Truly Johnny Dollar with its exotic locales, and its unique perspective of an insurance investigator as the protagonist make for a compelling story. Johnny Dollar is the ultimate troubleshooter and with over 700+ adventures in circulation, there seems to be an almost never-ending supply of action, adventure, and mystery. I really like the Russell, O’Brien, and Bailey versions of the character. I haven’t heard enough of Mandel Kramer and Bob Readick to make a judgment, and John Lund either (though Lund seems to be everyone’s least favorite Johnny Dollar.)

I didn’t linitially like Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigatorbecause of his identifying his job as a confidential policeman who could make arrests, but then I realized that was Gargan tweaking a genre that didn’t exactly treat things realistically. He’s the easiest going, sweetest private detective around who always believes his clients. Conversely, if you cross him, he’ll set you down quick. The show plays with the genre in a fun way.

Philip Marlowe with Gerald Mohr may just be the most perfect detective show ever made. Marlowe is a good man dealing in a world full of rough and dishonest ones with an impeccable sense of integrity. Mohr delivers Marlowe’s lines with a real sense of authority. More than any other adaptor of Marlowe, Mohr brings Marlowe to life. The beginnings of the show are iconic, “Get this and get it straight. Crime is a sucker’s road and those who travel it wind up in the gutter, the prison or the grave. There’s no other way, but they never learn.” And then Marlowe would tease the episode in a way that would intrigue so much you wouldn’t dare change the dial, “When it started, a girl’s wedding and New Year’s Eve were only six hours away. And I didn’t think the bride-to-be would make either one of them. But that was before I ran up against a slot machine operator, the escaped convict, and above all, the old acquaintance.”

Boston Blackie. There are nearly 200 episodes of this show in circulation, and it’s no wonder why. Blackie is a clever former crook turned ameature detective. He’s hunted by Inspector Farraday of Homicide who always blames crimes on Boston Blackie at first. One of the most unique things about the Ziv Transcription run of Boston Blackie was that the relationship between Farraday and Blackie changed over time into an actual friendship.

Broadway is My Beat: “from Times Square to Columbus Circle, the gaudiest, most violent, and lonesomest mile in the world.”  A great story about New York Police Lieutenant Danny Clover as he solves murders for the NYPD. There’s a great sense of poetry to the show that’s remarkable.

Drama

Family Theater is a huge favorite with great stories that truly touch the heart. Their uplifting and inspirational with great stars such as Bing Crosby, Jimmy Stewart, and Don Ameche coming on to do plays like “God and the Red Scooter” and “I Give You Maggie.” 

Cavalcade of America is a wonderful show about American history and values. They bring great stories to life. It’s truly educational. You could plug your kid into the 700 + episodes of Cavalcade of America circulating out there and they’d learn more about American history than is taught in schools these days.

The Shadow: I love the Shadow particularly the Orson Welles version. I think those early Orson Welles versions really are templates for everything that Superhero fiction became in its golden age. The later shows were okay, but not as good. Some of them got into too much horror, and we could be 20 minutes into the Episode sometimes before The Shadow made his appearance or disapperance, I guess. But, it’s still a classic.

Mayor of the Town is a classic show of small town life and public service starring Lionel Barrymore and Agnes Moorhead. I wrote about it in some detail here.

I Was a Communist for the FBI is gripping cold war spy drama done by Dana Andrews, and again a little bit of a tone of lament in it. “I’m a Communist for the FBI. I walk alone.”

You Are There: Another great show from CBS. This one was a news show that provided news-style coverage of historical events such as the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Assassination of Lincoln. I actually was in tears listening to the Lincoln drama. It was so affecting, that I felt strangely like it were happening live. My wife asked me what was wrong. I said, “The President’s been shot.” I clarified. “Not Obama, Lincoln.”  Dennis at the Digital Deli has a nice definitive log that arranges the episodes in historical order.

Horatio Hornblower: I like this show, though I don’t quite know why. The narratives are narrated by Horatio as an old man retirement who is remembering all of his adventures out of chronological order. Horatio himself is filled with self-doubts and insecurities. And he does some dreadful things.  Still, once you get to the actual action, it’s a remarkable show with some great adventures.

Ava Maria Hour’s Life of Christ: While I’m not Catholic, I do truly appreciate the Ava Maria Hour’s treatment of the life of Christ. First of all, it was a 44-part series which shows they took the time to really tell the story in depth. The dialogue was clearly written by scholars, but scholars with a good sense of story. To understand the story of Christ, you have to understand the times and the places in which he lived, and they worked a lot of background into the story in ways that were interesting and non-intrusive.

I also have a special place in my heart for Lux Radio Theater, Screen Director’s Playhouse,  and The Screen Guild Theater, three shows that brought movies to the radio. It’s a challenge, and I think that Lux usually rose to the challenge quite well, as they had about an hour, as did Screen Director’s Playhouse towards the end. With Screen Guild Theater, we tended to get more a selection of scenes from the story rather than a complete story. Still, if the scenes include Bogart as Sam Spade or Rick in Casablanca, I’d say its a pretty special show.

These are just a few of my favorities. The wonderful thing about radio is that it seems like there always more shows to discover, always more stories to hear, and I’m certain I’ll find more favorites as time goes by.

The Gold Standard for Radio Research

I’ve added a new link to the sidebar, for the RadioGoldIndex.

The Radio Gold Index is an incredibly helpful radio research tool. It provides information on an exhaustive collection of golden age radio. The two most helpful functions in the site are the ability to search by program and to search by artist. With either search, you pull up a list of shows that usually include a synopsis of the plot and the known cast of the show. Thus, for most of old radio shows, the Radio Gold Index is the closest thing to episode guide, they’ve got.

The story of the proprietor, Mr.  J. David Goldin, his involvement in radio preservation, and how he accumulated his extensive collection is also a fascinating story in itself. One of my favorite parts of the story is where Goldin finds himself a victim of some journalistic mythmaking:

A former reporter for the Boston Globe did a story about me once in a trade publication. Describing me as “a young man (who) worked weekends at an important New York radio station,” he quoted me as saying that I “showed up at the rear of the radio station…loaded (transcriptions of) old shows into the back of a truck” and made a small fortune by “pilfering” those great old shows. Before calling my lawyers, I tracked the writer to his retirement home in Florida and gave him a call. We had a pleasant chat and he later admitted (in writing) that his “facts” were based on an interview he did with me “20 or 25 years ago” and that “I was relying on my memory (of that interview). There may have been some minor errors.”

Minor errors would be an understatement. Goldin describes the actual way he accumulated his collection and the truth makes for less journalistic fodder, but is still a fascinating read that I enjoyed for the pure value of understanding where these shows come.  You can read the rest of the story here.

Of course,  Goldin’s database isn’t perfect and he concedes as much on the front page. There are a few errors to be found such as Goldin listing a Sam Spade Episode from 1949 as guest starring Jack Webb when Webb’s show Johnny Madero was mentioned but Webb himself never made an appearance.  The problem is that The Radio Gold Index is so respected that its errors are copied by other sites.

However, even with the occasional hiccup, it is still a fascinating, mostly accurate tool that gives you a window into the history of the golden ages greatest shows.

How a Movie Becomes Public Domain

You see them in the video stores. Movies that always seem to be available from a wide variety of different companies, TV shows in cheap packaging such as Burns and Allen and Sherlock Holmes. Most of these productions are in the public domain, but how did they get there?

This is a topic I’ve studied up on as we’ve added public domain movies to the Podcast. I’ve learned just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s in the public domain. There are two ways that movies enter the public domain:

1) The Copyright has expired

Prior to the passage of the Copyright Act of 1976, movies and TV shows had a copyright term of 28 years, which was renewable for another 28 years. The Copyright Act of 1976 extended the term of all works that had been renewed and were not already in the public domain for an additional 19 years. In 1992, Congress gave all works that were made before 1978 and had not entered the public domain an automatic renewal for 47 more years. In  1998, Congress approved the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension act which further extended copyrights already in existence for 20 more years.

So, what does this mean? There are several classes of films.

Films made before 1923 are almost certainly in the public domain. If a film was made in 1922 and renewed its copyright in 1950, and then been given a 19 year extension of copyright by the Copyright of 1978, the film would have entered the public domain in 1997.

For films made between 1923-1964, it’s a bit more tricky. It depends on if the film’s copyright was renewed or not. If a film was made in 1923, the copyright was renewed in 1951 and given a 19 year extension by the ’78 Copyright Act, it would have come into the public domain in 1998, except for Congress’ extension which means it won’t come into the public domain until 2018.

If on the other hand, a TV episode was made in 1963 and never renewed, it would have fallen into the public domain in 1991.

A copyrighted movie or TV show made after 1964 would have had its term extended from 28 years to 95 years through acts of Congress even if the owners had long since abandoned the work.

This doesn’t mean all works made after 1964 aren’t in the public domain. There’s another a class of works that includes more recent films.

2) The Homer Simpson Class of Works

Okay, this isn’t a term of law. However, the explanation of how the work ended up in the public domain would have earned an appropriate, “Doh!”

Before March 1, 1989, all works were required to have a copyright notice included. If you didn’t have a valid notice, the work wasn’t under copyright protection. This is really a small class of films. The most famous was the horror classic, Night of the Living Dead.  Those films that were made after 1964 that are in the DVD bin are mostly made for TV movies. Made for TV films with few exceptions have rarely had big resale values, and many of the films didn’t bother to take time to copyright something that would be watched today and forgotten tomorrow.

Of course, this doesn’t mean all films without a copyright notice made prior to 1989 are in the public domain. (No, that would be too simple.) After the passage of the Copyright Act of 1976, copyright owners had five years to correct the problem.

And of course, this doesn’t even begin to touch on the issues of foreign films, which is actually making its way through the courts. Or other little exceptions that some clever lawyers for multinational corporations can find if they put their minds to it, but this gives you the general idea of how it happens.

RIP Robert Culp

Robert Culp has passed away. As with other older actors whose work I shouldn’t be familiar with, I’m a big fan of Culp’s and Bill Cosby’s I Spy. I have it on my Netflix Instant watch queue. It was truly cool and showed forth wonderfulness. Even 40 years later it stands up pretty darn well. And Culp will definitely be missed

Bill Cosby paid tribute to his friend :

“The first-born in every family is always dreaming for an imaginary older brother or sister who will look out for them,” Cosby said. “Bob was the answer to my dreams.”

If you haven’t seen I Spy, I’ll give you a fair chance to avail yourself if you’ve got 51 minutes to spare. (yes, in the 1960s, you actually could get 51 minutes of show in an hour.) And if you’ve got another fifty minutes check out Greatest American Hero, a 1980s show featuring Culp.