While four television shows bore the name of Ellery Queen, one incarnation is the undisputed best. The series starred Jim Hutton as Ellery Queen with David Wayne as Inspector Richard Queen.
Hutton first played the master detective in the 1975 Telefilm, “Too Many Suspects” which then led to a 22 episode run in the 1975-76 series.
The series was set in Post-War New York City with Ellery as a mystery writer often called in by his father on various cases. Only one suspect ever cried foul on this odd process.
The mysteries are well-written and well-crafted and very traditional, trying to provide a sense of fair play and usually succeeding. Though in one case, “The Adventure of Auld Lang Syne,” I don’t think anyone could have come up with a proper solution based on what was shown on TV. Still, following the tradition of the book and the golden age radio series, before the solution was revealed, Ellery issued his challenge to the viewers to see if they could solve the case.
There was great chemistry between Hutton and Wayne who made a solid and believable team, and played off each other beautifully.
In the majority of episodes, Queen wasn’t the only one trying to solve the case. He had a rival who was also collecting clues, sharing some findings with Ellery and hoping to come to a conclusion. Several times he faced off with the Suave and sophisticated Simon Brenner (John Hillerman) who was a criminologist who played himself on the radio but also tried to solve real life mysteries. He’d come up with very clever and well thought out solutions that always turned out to be wrong. When Brenner wasn’t around, resourceful newshound Frank Flannigan (Ken Swofford) would often try to solve the case from right under the police’s nose.
The program featured an embarassment of riches when it came to its guest stars. Adding to the 1940s atmosphere, many great stars of the Golden Age radio appeared in the series including George Burns, Dana Andrews, Don Ameche, Lloyd Nolan, Rudy Vallee, Vincent Price, and Arthur Godfrey. In one episode, Eve Arden (best known for Our Miss Brooks) played the star of a radio soap who was murdered. Beyond the radio stars, such classic TV and film stars such as Ken Berry, Eva Gabor, Tom Bosley, and Bob Crane featured.
The series did a good job capturing its era with the vehicles, the cultural references, and the overall feel although it did occasionally deal with issues that were emphasized less during the era itself such as payola. Some of the portrayals of how radio drama worked were more played for comedic value than for realism. Still, this was a very wonderful period series.
Unfortunately, the series was cancelled after a single season, losing its time slot consistently to ABC’s Streets of San Francisco. Despite how well beloved by fans, it faced two challenges.
The 1970s was a great era for the TV detective, similar to the late 1940s for radio detectives. Ellery Queen began airing in the era of Columbo, McCloud, Mcmillan and Wife, Rockford, Kojak, Canon, and Barnaby Jones. However, its period feel and strict puzzle story format made it different from its competitors but perhaps they were too different.
As a postscript, the creators of 1970s Ellery Queen TV Series, Richard Levinson and William Link, waited eight years and then did another program featuring a Mystery writer as the main character and found great success with Murder She Wrote. Star Jim Hutton died at a young age, but his son, Tim would go on to star in a Nero Wolfe mystery as Archie Goodwin. Suggesting that the attraction to doing well-made but short-lived, great period detective television shows ran in the family.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0
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