More than a decade prior to becoming universally associated with the character of Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith, George Peppard played Thomas Banacek, a Boston-based Polish proverb-spouting insurance investigator who made a comfortable living solving cases the insurance company couldn’t crack and collecting ten percent of the insurance company’s savings.
The series aired from 1972-74 and it focused on classic impossible mysteries. How does a football player on the field disappear in front of thousands of fans? How does a million dollars in cash vanish from behind a locked display case? And how does $23 million in paintings vanish from a truck transporting it? These are just a few of the stories that occupied Banacek’s time and how he made his money. Banacek takes no case where the missing item is less than a million dollars in value. While a murder usually happens in the course of the investigation, it’s not guaranteed. The focus is on the big property crime, not on violence.
Banacek was part of NBC’s Mystery wheel, so its original running time with commercials was 90 minutes, with the shows themselves running a shade over 70 minutes in length. This allows for plenty of development, particularly in the early episodes, without a lot of fluff. A grand total of 13 films were recorded.
Throughout the series Peppard was supported by Ralph Manza who provided the comic relief as Banacek’s chauffeur and erstwhile sidekick who would occasionally take a crack at the solution that would be invariably offbase. Murray Mattheson played Felix Mulholland, a book store owner that seemed to know everything about everything.
In addition to the mystery, Banacek was portrayed as God’s gift to women, at least those who weren’t looking for a serious relationship. Among the Banacek women was future Lois Lane Margo Kidder. However, actual scenes in bed were avoided throughout the series, as mere verbal hints were all that would be allowed.
The second season did see some changes. In the first season, the insurance company was more than happy to hand over six digit checks in order to avoid seven digit losses. However, in the second season, an insurance company exec tried to thwart Banacek with the help one of his own investigator Carlie Kirkland (Christine Belford) who tried to maintain an on-again, off-again romance with Banacek while trying to beat him out of his exorbitant fees.
This was a bad move, as it tampered with the show’s dynamic, slowed down the stories and didn’t add anything to the plot. Kirkland wasn’t particularly likable. In one story, she wormed her way into an investigation asking to learn from Banacek while on a leave of absence from the company and then tried to sell him out to her insurance company. The character didn’t appear in the last two episodes of the second season which were set outside of Boston.
The second season disc for Banacek contains the original pilot which shows a bit of the original conception. The insurance company executive who began using Carlie as a foil for Banacek in the second season was played as respecting Banacek to an uptight investigator who hated Banacek horning in on their cases even though Banacek managed to solve them. In the original conception, Banacek only worked cold cases that hadn’t been solved in sixty days and the executive commented on how much money the insurance company has squandered on investigators’ pay and expenses searching for millions of dollars in gold. Perhaps this is why the producers went with a format where Banacek came on with a promise of reward soon after the items were stolen. It made more economic sense. In the case in the pilot, they ended up out all the money they paid the investigators plus the reward.
Peppard played Banacek differently in the pilot. He was quieter, less flip character. He spent a good fifteen minutes straight on screen at one point saying nothing. He spoke with conviction explaining why he didn’t change his last name to something less obviously Polish.
Jay and Carlie were also in the pilot. Jay was quite different. He owned a limo rental business based in Dallas rather than being Banacek’s employee and simply drove him around. He also pulled a classic doublecross when he bribed the operator to listen in to Banacek’s phone call and overheard a key clue which he used in hopes of collecting the reward. Definitely a different conception than the loyal, albeit dimwitted character who’d appear in the rest of the series.
Carlie was staying in Banacek’s hotel room and was pretending to be asleep. She’d wormed her way into the room with use of feminine wiles and then tried to pounce on the lead just ahead of Jay. At the scene of the dig, Banacek (prematurely) congratulated Jay. She asked why Banaceck didn’t congratulate her. Banacek replied that all he and Jay had shared was a limo.
At least, the Carlie character was consistent.
Banacek is certainly not an essential mystery series. Unlike Columbo or Monk, Banacek is one of those shows you can take or leave.
Peppard is at his best as the wise-cracking detective who stays one step ahead of cops and official insurance investigators while hunting down items of unbelievable value.
The first season is a solidly performed series with great mysteries, solid plots, and great solutions. The second season has too much airtime taken up by Carlie Kirkland and that drags down the stories. Still, even that season has the great entry, “If Max Is So Smart, Why Doesn’t He Tell Us Where He Is?” as well as the fairly good, “Rocket to Oblivion.”
Overall, I’d give the series three 3.5 stars out of 5.0 with Season 1 getting 4 stars and season 2 getting a 3.
In terms of availability, the Banacek series has gone out of print, so the DVDs are absurdly over-priced. The best way to view the series is through a Netflix subscription.
If you don’t subscribe to Netflix, the best bargin as of this writing is the Best of Banacek DVD which is selling on Amazon for $6.05 plus shipping with a very limited supply remaining. The DVD comes with 4 episodes from the first season. Given that the complete 17 episode series is selling for $150 + shipping on Amazon, it’s a decent deal-while it lasts.
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