Tag: Classic Television

DVD Review: Television’s Lost Classics, Volume 2:Rare Pilots

This DVD collects four unaired pilots of 1950s television shows.

The first is a pilot for Racket Squad starring Reed Hadley as Captain Braddock. In general, if you’ve seen an episode of Racket Squad, then you have a good idea of what this episode is like as it shows how con men set up a clever scheme to rip off the mark. If there’s any difference between this episode and the series proper, it’s that Captain Braddock is a little harsher to the victim, greeting him with, “Hello, sucker.” Still, it’s an entertaining half-hour of television.

Second is Cool and Lam. After the success of Perry Mason, network officials decided to give another Erle Stanley Gardener detective a chance and so they adapted the story of detective team Bertha Cool (Benay Vanuta) and Donald Lam (Bill Pearson). I enjoyed this one. There’s good humor and a decent mystery. This a series I wish had been picked up.

A bit of an oddball in this collection featuring crime dramas is the 1948 pilot for The Life of Riley. The series had been a successful radio program starring William Bendix. However, due to Bendix’s movie contract, he wasn’t able to reprise the role over television. We get to see the first choice to play Riley over television instead–horror movie legend Lon Chaney, Jr.

The pilot is historically significant. It was a taped program back in 1948 when live Kinescopes would dominate early television for the better part of five years. However, the big problem was Lon Chaney playing Riley. He  wasn’t cut out for the part. The TV script was based on a radio script and Chaney tried to play it like Bendix did and it just doesn’t work.

His delivery is flat and uninspired. When Jackie Gleason became the first TV Riley in 1949, he gave it his own spin. I’m not a huge fan of his approach, but at least he realized he couldn’t be Bendix.

Note we get to see John Brown as Digger O’Dell, the undertaker, often heard on the radio program. I have mixed feelings on this because Digger is such a broad character. I imagine him walking around with a black mustache and black coat and being tall. However, John Brown just looks like an ordinary guy in an ordinary suit. So that was a bit jarring.

The final pilot is 1959’s Nero Wolfe starring Kurt Kazner as Wolfe and William Shatner as Archie Goodwin. Shatner is a great choice for Archie, bringing great charisma to the role. Kaszner is an interesting choice for Wolfe. Kaszner was Austrian born. Having a European play Wolfe is closer to the book than most other portrayals of Wolfe which ignore the fact that he was from the Eastern Europe country Montenegro. William Shatner brings that swagger that’s a requirement to play Archie Goodwin and is pretty fun to watch. The plot was decent. Wolfe solved this case mostly from reading the newspaper and that was clever. Though the episode wasn’t based on the Wolfe stories by Rex Stout, it captured the spirit of them nicely.

On the other hand, this was a series that would have needed to be an hour rather than the pilot’s half-hour length. The episode was a bit bare-bones and lacked the style I associate with a Wolfe story or any of Wolfe’s and Archie’s supporting cast. Kaszner wasn’t quite big enough to play Wolfe which the wardrobe seemed to try to make up for by putting him in clothes that were a bit too big, which doesn’t work. Also, Wolfe has a cold in the pilot and is stuck in bed, which is a weird thing for a pilot to do as its establishing what a normal episode is like.

The bonus feature with this set is a not-for-air blooper reel that was sent out by CBS to managers of its affiliates, featuring many bloopers and flubbed lines. The programs featured are mostly Westerns, but with the Twilight Zone and The Red Skelton Show. I will warn that this is not really for kids. The unscripted bad language is not censored, so it’s PG-13 stuff.

Overall, for those interested in classic television, this set does offer some fun rarities. While this wasn’t the best the 1950s had to offer in television, it’s a mostly entertaining look at what might have been.

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TV Series Review: The Prisoner

“I’m the new Number Two.”
“Who is Number One?”
“You are Number Six.”
“I’m not a Number, I’m a Free Man!”

Most episodes of the 1967-68 series The Prisoner begin with this meeting between the hero of the series (Patrick McGoohan, who also created the series and wrote several episodes) and his antagonist of the week.

The Prisoner is about an unnamed British secret agent who abruptly resigns and returns home to pack for a trip to Bermuda and is gassed and wakes up in the Village. On its face, the Village is a pleasant, happy community set in a gorgeous environment. In reality, it’s a police state where everyone goes by numbers instead of names.

The organization that runs the Village wants to break Number Six and obtain the valuable information stored inside his head, beginning with an explanation for why he resigned. The Village is administered by Number Two, who also directs the Village’s campaign of psychological warfare against the Agent, designated by the Village as Number 6. Each week, there’s a different Number Two to serve as a foil for Number 6, although some Number Twos repeated.

Patrick McGoohan turns in a stunning performance at every turn, capturing the character’s default defiant mode, but also the reactions to all of the Village’s attempts to break him really make them believable.

The rest of the cast is generally solid, including the rotating Number 2. Each actor brings something different to the role, but my favorite is Leo McKern (who would star in Rumpole of the Bailey.) The penultimate episode, “Once Upon a Time” becomes a two-hander between McKern and McGoohan for almost the entire run time and it’s an acting tour de force.

The series has solid writing, but not all stories are episodes are created equal. McGoohan said  he only wanted to do seven episodes of the Prisoner but the network (ITV) wanted more than that in the series. Thus, seven episodes would be considered essential and the rest merely filler. McGoohan didn’t specify which episodes were the essential ones. The popular fan theory is  the first six episodes to be filmed plus the finale were all McGoohan wanted. However,there are other theories including the idea McGoohan didn’t want hour-long episodes at all, but seven ninety minute episodes, with each containing elements of two of our existing episodes.

Regardless, there are episodes rife with social commentary and deeper meanings and there are episodes that are little more than superb 1960s Spy programs littered with sci-fi content. The only episode I  didn’t care for is, “Do Not Forsake Me All My Darling” which features Number 6 swapping minds with a man known as the Colonel and then being taken back to his life in London as the Colonel and is having to try and convince someone that he really is himself. The reason the story was written this way was so  McGoohan could appear in just the opening and final scenes and therefore be able to take off from filming to go  film the movie Ice Station Zebra. Creative decisions made for reasons like this rarely go well.  The story isn’t horrible, it’s just a bit middling for a great series.

The production values on this series are superb.  Visually, the series stands up better than anything I’ve seen from the 1960s. Portmeirion in North Wales was an absolutely fantastic location for most of the Prisoner’s location work.  However,  there’s a lot of real workmanship involved with every episode. In an age when many TV dramas were just point and shoot, there’s some deliberate choices made to frame shots to communicate the mood and add layers to the story.

The Western episode  of The Prisoner, “Living in Harmony” was well-filmed and felt authentic in the setting, costuming, and most of the characters.

The Prisoner has other weird and wonderful touches such as inventing a new sport named Kosho in which Number 6 and his opponent bounced around on trampolines wearing kimonos, helmets, and boxing gloves while trying to knock each other into a pool. Then there’s the episode where the Prisoner showed that week’s Number Two doing some great martial arts moves…for no apparent reason.

Not everything weird that the Prisoner tries works. The ending, for example, was so controversial  McGoohan had to go into hiding for several day after its airing. To this day, lots of people  think it was a horrible way to end the series. However, its oddness and the questions it raises does fit the rest of the series, and fans overall give the episode an 8.1 out of 10 on IMDB.

The Prisoner is a television experience.  It’s incredibly rewatchable, and not just because there are only seventeen episodes, but three alternate viewing orders have been recommended by various fans over the years to better enjoy the series. Overall, this is an unforgettable classic.

Rating: 4.75 out of 5

Currently, the series is available to watch for free for Amazing Prime subscribers.

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TV Episode Review: The Rockford Files: There’s One in Every Port

In this Season 3 episode of the Rockford Files, Rockford is begged to take part in an illegal high stakes poker game by the daughter of Eddie Marks (Howard Duff, best known as radio’s Sam Spade), an old friend from prison after Rockford visits an apparently ailing Eddie in the hospital. However, the poker game is robbed and the organizers pin the blame on Rockford.When Rockford finds Eddie gone from the hospital, he realizes he’s been had. Rockford had been used to lead the gang to the poker game so Eddie could take the pot in order to pull off a scam.

In order to avoid being killed by the gamblers, Rockford has to concoct a con of his own to foil Eddie’s scam and to reclaim the stolen money before he finds himself killed by the gamblers. To do this, his pal Angel recruits a group of conmen to help pull off the job.

As a story, the plot is intricate, and it’s different from a typical Rockford Files episode. It’s much more of heist/sting story with the big question being not who done it, but what is Rockford’s scheme to defeat the conman. It’s graced by great writing and a super guest cast including John Doehner (who played Paladin in Radio’s Have Gun Will Travel.)

As a fan of old time radio, I love seeing Duff and Doehner on screen.  Also, the appearance of Duff in The Rockford Files is interesting as Rockford’s work was compared to Sam Spade’s earlier in the series. However, even if that’s not a highlight for you, the episode’s clever plotting and strong acting make this story a winner.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

This episode is available for free streaming through Hulu.
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TV Series Review: Ellery Queen


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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Telefilm Review: Columbo: A Stitch in Crime

Peter Falk and Leonard Nimoy
Originally, this week was slated to feature a review of the radio series, I Was a Communist for the FBI.  However due to the passing of Leonard Nimoy, I’ve opted for something a little different my radio of the radio version of I Was a Communist for the FBI appears next week. 

Leonard Nimoy recently passed away. He’s best known for playing the role of Mr. Spock. He played the character in Eighty Episodes of the original 1960s TV series, eight movies, a guest appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and he voiced the character in twenty-two episodes of the animated series.

Yet, Nimoy’s sixty year career was more than sixty year as actor, director, producer, and writer went far beyond a single role. As an actor, he was among the best of his time.

This is well-illustrated in the 1973 Telefilm, A Stitch in Crime in which Nimoy plays Doctor  Barry Mayfield, an ambitious heart surgeons who is partnered with an older doctor (Will Geer) in a research project. He performs surgery on his partner but Nurse Sharon Martin (Anne Francis) becomes suspicious and makes some calls and plans to discuss her concern. Before she can, Doctor Mayfield murders her in the Hospital parking lot.

There’s so much that makes the film work. The music is great and at no time is it better than in the murder scene, as it adds to the suspense. Hy Averback’s directing is flawless with him taking advantage of every minute of the 70+ minute screen time.

The supporting cast is among the best Columbo ever had. Golden Globe actress Anne Francis was a great  choice to play Sharon Martin, as the character was someone we really sympathized with which isn’t always the case with Columbo victims.  And to add to our sense of sympathy, Doctor Mayfield’s partner Doctor Hidemann is played by none other than the actor who played Grandpa Walton.

The story also had a bit of mystery as to what Mayfield’s endgame was. We had a sense early on based on Nurse Martin’s reaction that it was something sinister involving Doctor Hidemann but we don’t learn what until the final fifteen minutes.

However, the key strength of Columbo is the interaction between the detective and the murderer.  There’s a rhythm to it much like a dance and that dance was never more perfectly executed than in A Stitch in Crime. 

Columbo begins as usual with friendliness and a bit of a comic and sloppy presence, perhaps even more so as he’s eating at the crime scene and has a cold. Doctor Mayfield is similarly polite and helpful, at one point helping Columbo with his cold and writing him a prescription for medicine. I once thought this was a goof as what Doctor writes a prescription to someone they didn’t formally examine and whose history they don’t know? Now, I tend to think of it as a sign of arrogance.

And arrogance defines Mayfield as a character. Nimoy’s portrayal combines that with the cool headedness of a surgeon and Mayfield easily becomes one of Columbo’s most sinister opponents.  Only one Columbo killer looked more sinister than Nimoy did in the moment before Sharon Martin was killed. (Rip Torn in “Death Hits the Jackpot”) and his coolness throughout makes him more intimidating.

Mayfield’s arrogance leads him to taunt Columbo. When Columbo is barely hinting that Mayfield may have planted evidence that points to Martin’s death being drug-related, Mayfield demands to know what motivate he would have. Columbo responds, “You ask tough questions, sir.” Mayfield flashed a grin. “So do juries.”

Ultimately, when Columbo learns Doctor Hidemann’s life is at risk, he confronts Mayfield and when Mayfield begins laughing at him, Columbo has one of his few bursts of anger as he slams a carafe of water down and accuses Mayfield of murder.

The only thing that surpasses that moment is the end of the episode. It’s more typical for Columbo to spend several minutes exposing the murderer in grand style.   However in A Stitch in Crime,  Columbo nearly failed. Columbo’s final gambit appears to fail and he concedes to Mayfield and walks away. The surgeon showing signs of relief. It appears the murderer has won until the final minute when Columbo returns and we find that Mayfield’s calm demeanor proved to be his undoing.

The ending is a great payoff for what I think is Columbo’s greatest episode. It was an episode that knew when to follow the formula the series was already becoming famous for and when to diverge. It featured two fine actors who were used to their full potential to create an episode that stands out even in a series that was full of great episodes.

Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0

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