Telefilm Review: Friday, the Rabbi Slept Late

We continue our reviews that focus on Batman actors in other detective and mystery programs as part of our Amazing World of Radio Summer Series, focusing on their old-time radio work. This week, we take a look at Art Carney’s performance in one of two leads in a 1976 TV movie that was a pilot for a short-lived TV series called Lanigan’s Rabbi. The film was based on the first of Harry Kemelman’s Rabbi Small novels.

In a small California town, the local rabbi, David Small (Stuart Margolin, The Rockford Files), is facing problems from within his own congregation, from board members who want the synagogue to build a bowling alley, rather than actually doing the sort of youth work Rabbi Small thinks is important. Things get far worse for the already besieged rabbi when the body of a secretly pregnant maid who worked for a woman in his congregation is found murdered in his car after a rainstorm. He ends up getting drawn into the mystery despite Chief of Police Paul Lanigan (Carney) trying to get him to leave the case alone.

Rabbi Small is a likable character who is very well realized by Margolin. If you, like me, are most familiar with his work playing Jim Rockford’s Shady friend, Angel, this character is a huge change of pace. Rabbi Small has a cunning intellect that makes him a great amateur sleuth, but he also has the right mix of eccentricity, constantly losing his keys, even forgetting that he’s on his way to a wedding when he stops in to visit Chief Lanigan. It’s reminiscent of Columbo with Margolin’s own unique spin.

Carney’s Chief Lanigan strikes a really neat balance. The police foils for amateur detectives are usually belligerent idiots, arrogant know it-alls, or bumbling fools. Lanigan is a good cop and nobody’s fool. He initially tries to dissuade Rabbi Small from his investigation for sensible reasons; normal cops don’t usually want local clergymen going out and trying to solve crimes. However, Lanigan relents as he comes to like and respect Rabbi Small. He has his own eccentricities, as illustrated by his comic battle against his wife’s desire to buy a new suit. The rabbi and the chief bond throughout the episode and the great chemistry between Margolin and Carney helps to sell the relationship.

There are some really strong guest performers, including Lorraine Gary (Jaws) and Robert Reed (The Brady Bunch). Janet Margolin (no relation to Stuart) has some very strong performances as Miriam Small and delivers a key clue that helps lead to the solution.

One thing I really liked was the open credits sequence that tied into the motif of the murder happening during a rainstorm. It was really a great way to add atmosphere.

The mystery itself offers a lot of twists and clues, and just the right number of suspects, all of whom have surprisingly sordid interrelated motives. Given the way, the movie plays out, the solution is a bit of a surprise. However, it borrows from one of the great classic clerical detectives, Father Brown.

Overall, this is a very good production with two likable leads and an engaging storyline. And if you like TV mystery films, this is worth checking out. Currently, it is only available on YouTube, as a 1980s replay of the TV film as a late movie (complete with 80s commercials).

Rating: 4 out of 5

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