In honor of the recently departed Clarence Gilyard, I decided to check out his first appearance on Matlock as Conrad McMasters.
“The Hunting Party” was a two-part episode that originally aired as a TV movie. In the series, a veteran journeys to Manteo, North Carolina to confront a member of a hunting party who killed his brother. They get into an altercation that’s broken up by Deputy Tyler McMasters. When the other man is killed, the veteran is charged with murder, and Matlock (Andy Griffith) heads to North Carolina to find the real killer and clear his client.
There’s a lot to like about this episode. The mystery is fun, even if a bit convoluted. As often happened with longer-form Matlock stories, there was an entirely different mystery that had to be solved before they could get to actually solving the murder. There are some good surprises along the way and it’s always fun to watch Griffith playing detective.
The guest cast is solid, with a few standouts. In addition to Gilyard, the “The Hunting Party” also features former Watergate Committee lawyer-turne-actor and later U.S Senator and later failed Presidential Candidate Fred Thompson really flexing his acting muscles … by playing a local politician and lawyer. Gilyard is a delight. He plays very well off Griffith and there’s genuine warmth between them. Because Griffith was involved in Matlock, it was one of the last shows that would frequently have guest characters show off musical talent for reasons totally unrelated to the plot. While entertaining Matlock in his apartment, Conrad plays country music on his guitar and even adds some yodeling, talents that I wasn’t aware that Mr. Gilyard possessed.
I also have to say the setting is an added bonus, as several scenes are filmed near the “Lost Colony of Roanoke.”
The story has some pretty typical flaws for Matlock. The villains, despite their elaborate plans, are none too bright. At one point, they decide to try and make it look like Matlock is a cocaine dealer, a ludicrous idea that does yield a hilarious scene where Matlock loses his cool in court during his arraignment after repeatedly admonishing his client for his outbursts of temper. The courtroom scenes are more ridiculous than I remember. It’s best to turn off your brain and watch as Matlock tries to make up for ignoring every rule of criminal procedure by employing pure unadulterated charm and folksiness.
While I love Conrad McMasters, it has to be said that his role in the story doesn’t make sense. Why is a County Deputy sheriff operating as a private operative for the defense counsel? His decision to move to Atlanta and become a private investigator is not given any plot justification. I think it probably makes more sense in real life where the actor who played Matlock’s original investigator was fired due to substance abuse issues. It seems likely that Conrad was a one-off character but became full-time with the need to replace the departed actor, which would explain why the end scene with Conrad arriving at Matlock’s office felt tacked on.
Despite these minor issues, this was still a fun mystery movie with a lot to commend it.
Rating: 3.75 out of 5
“The Hunting Party” can be watched for free on demand on PlutoTV.