It had seemed like such a splendid idea: develop a half-hour police-procedural series for American television based on The Naked City, a 1948 film noir shot entirely in the buildings and on the summer-seared streets of New York City. The original feature starred Irish actor Barry Fitzgerald as a philosophical police homicide detective with more than a modicum of leprechaun in his soul, who investigates the bathtub slaying of a blonde model. He’s helped in this undertaking by a callow subordinate (played by Don Taylor), but hindered by a sponging hunk (Howard Duff), whose adherence to the truth is negligible, at best. The motion picture ranked among that year’s top-50 box-office grossers, and picked up a couple of Academy Awards.
ABC-TV version’s of The Naked City, debuting in September 1958, resulted from a collaboration between independent producer Herbert B. Leonard and Stirling Silliphant, a prolific screenwriter who’d penned episodes of Perry Mason, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and even The Mickey Mouse Club. Like its forerunner, this small-screen variant was photographed on location in hectic Gotham. Programs broadcast in color had been popping up on America’s prime-time schedule ever since the mid-1950s, yet Leonard and Silliphant stuck with black-and-white, giving their new 30-minute, Tuesday-night drama the same stark, semi-documentary flavor that had distinguished the 96-minute movie. Middle-aged actor John McIntire took over from Fitzgerald as Lieutenant Dan Muldoon, a 35-year stalwart of the New York Police Department who raised pigeons on the roof of the 65th Precinct station house, and dispensed sage counsel to greener colleagues such as his latest partner, idealistic Detective Jim Halloran (James Franciscus, stepping into Taylor’s old Oxfords), a Korean War vet and rookie father.
Max Allan Collins, creator of the Nathan Heller and Quarry book series, describes Season 1 of The Naked City as “the strongest and my favorite. The central notion of a young detective at the beginning of his career and an older mentor cop nearing the end of his is served well by two particularly strong actors…Franciscus brings the same combination of compassion and earnestness to his portrayal that would serve him well in his career-best starring role as a high school teacher in Mr. Novak [1963–1965]. McIntire had been playing gruffly humorous character parts for years and was perfect for the mentor role Barry Fitzgerald played in the film.”
Although that pair of performers received top billing, The Naked City was really a quasi-anthology drama; Leonard termed it “a human interest series about New York told through the eyes of two law enforcement officers.” Under the guidance of Silliphant (who scripted the bulk of Season 1 installments), the show explored what it was like to be a metropolitan copper—the taxing hours, the erratic and enfeebling angst, the often heart-rending choices. But stories drew multiple dimensions, too, from the transitory characters with whom Muldoon and Halloran interacted, be they two-bit grifters, guttersnipes hungry for the community of fellow miscreants, bookmakers, sticky-fingered scrubwomen, punch-drunk boxers, or a “grate fisherman” who sustained himself by trawling sidewalk catch basins for mislaid coins. Crimes supplied entry points into each episode; however, it was the effects those crimes had on ordinary people and individual policemen that were of cardinal importance—a fact reflected in the series’ concluding line (again pinched from the earlier flick): “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.”
The Naked City scored an Emmy Award nomination in 1959 for Best Dramatic Series—Less Than One Hour. Nonetheless, its downbeat aura and paucity of happy endings made it less than universally beloved. TV Guide dinged the show for offering “dull and lifeless” supporting players, and groused (exaggeratedly) that “all the crooks are portrayed as psychopaths.” It was rocked as well by McIntire’s decision to leave the cast, his departure cemented in a shocking episode that saw Muldoon perish in a car chase. Veteran screen heavy Horace McMahon was brought in as his replacement, Lieutenant Mike Parker, but “a warm relationship between [him and Franciscus]…never developed,” notes Collins. Thirty-nine episodes in, ABC cancelled The Naked City.
A year and a half later, though, in the fall of 1960, this series—its title abridged to simply Naked City—returned to ABC, now on Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. In addition to McMahon and another holdover, Sergeant Frank Arcaro (Harry Bellaver), the reboot co-starred Paul Burke as cerebral but intense Detective Adam Flint. No less importantly, Naked City was extended from half an hour in length to a full hour, granting its enlarged stable of writers—among them future Star Trek mastermind Gene Roddenberry and Howard Rodman, who’d go on to invent the David Janssen gumshoe drama Harry O—more room in which to scrutinize big-city transgressions and the twisted mindset of offenders. The show ultimately ran until 1963, with Silliphant contributing just half a dozen more scripts (as he’d moved on to write the CBS-TV road adventure Route 66).
Today we think it natural that televised American crime yarns occupy one-hour timeslots. Yet they have not always been so lengthy. Perry Mason (1957–1966) was Hollywood’s first weekly, 60-minute, crime-based prime-time drama with a single continuing character. Prior to that, and up until the early 1970s, the nation’s public airwaves were riddled with 30-minute mystery and detective series. Naked City was a rarity, in that its format was expanded; as a rule, programs that began with half-hour durations never changed. Most of those are long forgotten. Only a handful, such as Peter Gunn, Honey West, Dragnet, M Squad, and Decoy, still enjoy significant followings, and that’s partly because they have won 21st-century DVD releases.
Revisiting the totality of those abbreviated TV productions would give new meaning to the term “bingeing.” Instead, grab some popcorn and join me for what amounts to a highlights reel decades in the making.
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Billboard brought word in May 1948 that “the first half-hour mystery series,” NBC-TV’s Barney Blake, Police Reporter—centered on an indomitable newspaperman (played by Gene O’Donnell) and his trusty secretary, who together interview suspects and solve crimes—had recently flashed onto American television sets. The magazine then proceeded to excoriate that live-action drama for employing “just about every cliché in the whodunit book.” Barney Blake hung on for 13 weeks before being axed.
By the fall of 1959, the U.S. television landscape had changed markedly. Westerns continued to ride high on the nighttime schedule, but as Time magazine explained in an October cover story, that season also dished up a whopping “62 shows (network and syndicated) devoted to some variation of Cops & Robbers”—the majority of them lasting 30 minutes and headlined by fictional private eyes. There were so many such programs, Time quipped, that “as the evenings pass, one Eye blurs inevitably into another, a TV trouble that even an honest repairman cannot cure.”
The putative paragon of half-hour shamus showcases was NBC’s Peter Gunn, which had premiered (like The Naked City) in September 1958 and climbed quickly to 17th place in the Nielsen ratings. Devised by director/screenwriter Blake Edwards (later of Pink Panther fame), and boasting a baseline-rich Henry Mancini theme so cool and exhilarating that I want it played at my funeral, the series starred Craig Stevens, a Midwesterner who had studied dentistry before turning to showbiz. “With a Cary Grant haircut, an Ivy League wardrobe, and the tight mouth of a top-notch ventriloquist,” said Time, Gunn was “a sophisticated skeptic with a heavyweight wallop and a nice, lightweight touch with the wise-guy gag,” who composedly bearded baddies and unraveled cases in a never-identified river town. Gunn possessed a fashionable apartment, a convertible with built-in phone, and an evidently endless stock of cigarettes. Like so many picture-tube private dicks, he claimed a friend on the local police force, the dyspeptic Lieutenant Jacoby (Herschel Bernardi); departing from hard-boiled convention, he had a steady girlfriend, too: Edie Hart (Lola Albright), the sultry blonde songbird at a waterfront cabaret called Mother’s.
Kevin Burton Smith, editor of The Thrilling Detective Web Site, says American couch potatoes responded enthusiastically to Gunn’s “likable and interesting characters,” especially its P.I. hero and his ever-patient paramour. “One can’t deny just how appealing Craig Stevens and Lola Albright were as Peter and Edie—there was a mutual respect and affection between the two that even now seems rare on television,” Smith recalls. “They may have been in love, but they also liked each other. And viewers liked that.”
Previous confidential operatives—some derived manifestly from pulp-fiction tradition—had angled for audience attention, 30 minutes at a shot. But few made as much of an impact on TV history as Peter Gunn did.
Martin Kane, Private Eye started out, like some other early TV entertainments, as a radio serial, introduced in August 1949 and starring William Gargan. Not quite four weeks later, Gargan brought his nattily attired, pipe-smoking New York City sleuth to NBC-TV in live broadcasts. That telly edition carried on till 1954, though by then Gargan had handed off his part to a succession of actors, including Lloyd Nolan, who’d personated Brett Halliday’s Miami P.I., Michael Shayne, in seven 1940s movies. Man Against Crime (1949–1954, originally on CBS) cast Ralph Bellamy as Mike Barnett, a Manhattan-based hawkshaw who was also a proficient brawler—a good thing, as the program’s writers were ostensibly told that “somebody must be murdered, preferably early [in each episode], with the threat of more violence to come…Bellamy must be menaced early and often.” Quondam newspaper hack Jack Boyle was in custody at California’s San Quentin prison (for check kiting) when, in 1914, he acquainted readers with Boston Blackie, describing the man as a hardened San Francisco jewel thief and cracksman. By the time Kent Taylor took on the role in the boob tube’s syndicated Boston Blackie (1951–1953), however, the protagonist had been transformed into a freelance Los Angeles detective with a loyal canine consort. More faithful to its source material was Sherlock Holmes (syndicated, 1954–1955), the first—and, until 2012’s Elementary, only—American-made series inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic tales of detection. Starring Ronald Howard, the son of English thespian Leslie Howard (Gone with the Wind), as Holmes, and H. Marion-Crawford as Doctor John H. Watson, this drama offered predominately fresh escapades, and was more satisfying to Holmes enthusiasts than its brief longevity might imply.
Amazingly, episodes from Sherlock Holmes—and from the majority of U.S.-concocted TV series covered in this piece—can still be unearthed and savored online.
Fourteen months before Peter Gunn hung out his shingle, another Blake Edwards creation appeared, this one on CBS. Richard Diamond, Private Detective (1957–1960) traced its roots back to a rather lighthearted postwar radio mystery starring actor/producer Dick Powell. But the TV adaptation adopted a darker tenor, with David Janssen substituting as Diamond, an NYPD bluecoat turned peeper. For its third season, this program—influenced by the hipper-than-thou stylings of ABC’s 77 Sunset Strip—relocated Diamond to L.A. and gave him a swimming-pool-embellished abode in the Hollywood Hills, an impressively befinned ragtop DeSoto, and a flirtatious answering-service operator (Mary Tyler Moore, in her earliest recurring TV role) of whom little was ever seen, save for her comely legs. When Richard Diamond moved to NBC for its fourth and final season (such switches weren’t uncommon back then), its male-fantasy elements were largely expunged, yet it preserved its Southern California milieu.
The syndicated Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (1958–1959) countenanced no such shifts of setting; although its episodes were shot in and around Tinseltown studios, location footage firmly established the show’s connection to the Big Apple, the place from which author Spillane’s best-selling but controversial Hammer novels drew their vigor and brutality. Darren McGavin (earlier featured in another half-hour series, Casey, Crime Photographer) sought to embody the tough, libidinous, and occasionally sentimental Hammer—complete with an abundance of spontaneous punch-outs. Those efforts were subverted somewhat by hackneyed plots and a campy, sardonically humorous tang; even so, Mike Hammer was fairly hard-edged for its era. Spillane reportedly thought McGavin’s rendering of his P.I. was “terrific.”
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Half-hour crime dramas of the mid-20th century were made on short schedules—sometimes filmed at a pace of one episode every two days, with a commitment to supply more than 30 installments annually. Maintaining a show’s vitality, and holding the audience’s interest, demanded considerable tightness in the scripting. Which may be why crime and mystery fictionists well-schooled in short-story writing—among them Bill S. Ballinger, Helen Nielsen, Richard Deming, and Jonathan Latimer—found their talents in demand by TV producers. There was scant room for subplots, and screenwriters habitually fell back on voice-over narration to plug storytelling gaps. What made a series such as Peter Gunn stand out was that it succeeded, amid such challenges, in delivering tales that were consistently captivating, as well as complete and coherent.
“One of the great mysteries of Peter Gunn,” observes Smith, “has to be how it managed to tell a wholly satisfying (both emotionally and narratively) story in just 30 minutes, minus commercials. That’s something most private eye shows twice as long would die for….I think it boiled down to the writing—that’s what really brought Edwards’ vision home. There was an economy and focus to the writing that assumed viewers would be intelligent enough and adult enough to follow along without endless prompts and recaps, and yet allowed its characters enough room to breathe. The writers never wrote down to their viewers.”
Sixty-minute sensations on the order of 77 Sunset Strip, Bourbon Street Beat, and Hawaiian Eye all proposed to steal a bit of Gunn’s suave thunder, but the rival treading hardest upon Gunn’s coattails was NBC’s 30-minute Staccato (1959–1960, subsequently retitled Johnny Staccato). Film and theater performer John Cassavetes held center stage as a jazz pianist gigging at a basement joint called Waldo’s, in New York’s Greenwich Village, who moonlighted as a sharp-knuckled gumshoe. As described on the cover of a linked 1960 paperback (credited to “Frank Boyd,” aka Frank Kane, the inventor of another Gotham snoop, Johnny Liddell), Johnny Staccato was “a smooth man on the ivories, hot on the trigger, and cool in a jam.” Cassavetes viewed him as something more—“an artist-seeker whose innate humanism serves as his compass through a precarious noir landscape,” according to Allen Glover, author of TV Noir: Dark Drama on the Small Screen (2019). The serious-minded thespian strove for balance between his man’s valorous and cerebral qualities, and to give him cockiness leavened with self-doubt. Cassavetes also “saw to it that Staccato tackled the sorts of hefty themes—payola, dope addiction, McCarthyism—that generally made advertisers squeamish,” wrote Glover. The result was a stylish, if uneven program that depicted, perhaps better than Peter Gunn, the sporadically minacious world of nightclubs. Alas, its very unconventionality likely spelled Staccato’s demise, after just 25 episodes. Cassavetes later said he’d hated the series.
Other half-hour P.I. dramas tried different hooks. ABC’s Philip Marlowe (1959–1960) hoped to capitalize on the renown of Raymond Chandler’s literary sleuth. However, aside from giving star Philip Carey a conspicuous scar on his cheek, it provided paltry novelty. Another Stirling Silliphant project, CBS’s Markham (1959–1960), imagined big-screen regular Ray Milland as a charming expatriate Brit, Roy Markham, who forsook his prosperous but tedious legal career to become a confidential investigator, operating from his posh New York tower apartment. Markham traveled the world to solve crimes—though, as savvy watchers recognized, his adventures didn’t in fact take Milland far from film studio backlots. Like the 1980s’ Simon & Simon, The Brothers Brannagan (syndicated, 1960–1961) concentrated on a couple of sibling Sherlocks, Mike and Bob Brannagan (played by Stephen Dunne and Mark Roberts), who worked out of the real-life Mountain Shadows Resort Inn in Arizona’s Paradise Valley, near Phoenix. When those handsome bachelors weren’t cracking wise or chasing skirts, they undertook cases involving theft, extortion, murder, insurance fraud, and even the safeguarding of a French poodle with a rhinestone-studded collar. NBC brought Halliday’s popular South Florida shamus to television in Michael Shayne (1960–1961), assigning the lead to Richard Denning, familiar from science-fiction and horror talkies, but rather too pleasant and modest of build to fit readers’ expectations of the hard-fisted, hard-drinking, and hard-thinking Shayne.
And then, of course, there was Honey West (1965–1966). Debuting in the 1957 novel This Girl for Hire, by “G.G. Fickling”—a nom de plume shared by Forrest E. “Skip” Fickling and his wife, Gloria—the flaxen-haired, blue-eyed, and sexually emancipated Honey fashioned herself as “the nerviest, curviest P.I. in Los Angeles.” ABC brought her to the Friday-night airwaves in the fetching form of Anne Francis (best known at that time for her role in the 1956 sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet), placing Honey behind the wheel of a zippy little Shelby Cobra and giving her a pet ocelot named Bruce, plus martial-arts prowess, a black bodystocking, and a “cantankerous sidekick,” Sam Bolt (John Ericson), who made a habit of rescuing her. In addition, this being the apogee of the TV espionage craze (think The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), Honey was outfitted with high-tech gadgetry: an exploding compact, a lipstick microphone, and my personal favorite, a garter-belt gas mask. She was the first small-screen action heroine in the U.S. market—smart, classy, glamorous, and kick-ass in equal measure. Unfortunately, too many of the show’s storylines were shopworn or silly, costing it support. The ultimate insult? Honey West lasted but a single season, succumbing to its CBS competitor, the situation comedy Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.
At least Peter Gunn notched up three years (the final one on ABC), before being cancelled in 1961 to make room for Ben Casey, part of an incipient wave of TV medical dramas.
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During the heyday of these half-hour crime series, in the 1950s and ’60s, American public attitudes toward police were by and large less ambivalent than they are today: cops were seen as the good guys. Never mind that in some quarters their history included racist attacks, blunt-force responses to anti-Vietnam War protests, and a willingness to act as muscle for companies intent on quashing labor strikes. Police were the bright-badged paladins who stepped between common citizens and uncommon trouble. Sure, not all of them could be virtuous; there might be bent and conniving officers among the lot. But those were deemed to be in the minority, and it was assumed that upstanding members of the constabulary would eventually expose such bad apples and bring them down—a reliable TV trope.
Rocky King, Detective (1950–1954)—filmed live in black-and-white for the now-defunct DuMont Television Network, with soap-opera-style organ music to signal mood changes—was a classic early police procedural. Sexagenarian movie veteran Roscoe Karns filled the shoes of NYPD chief of homicide King, who cleared up crimes with dogged determination rather than brilliant deductions. The audience seemed to delight in his fallibility, as well as King’s frequent (and helpfully case-summarizing) phone exchanges with his never-seen wife, and to appreciate what it understood was the program’s bona fide delineation of law enforcement practices. Supposedly still more realistic (some say brutally so) was The Lineup, (1954–1960), a CBS production—based on a previous radio serial—that took its stories from the files of the San Francisco Police Department, and was even shot on that California burg’s hilly streets. (A semi-documentary atmosphere was certainly in vogue among 1950s crime series.) Warner Anderson held the part of Detective Lieutenant Ben Guthrie, with Tom Tully playing Inspector Matt Grebb…until the closing season, that is, when the half-hour telecast was extended to 60 minutes and Tully was pink-slipped. The syndicated N.O.P.D. (1955–1957), too, aspired to a definably gritty dramatization of police work, this time in New Orleans, Louisiana. Stacy Harris—known in Hollywood for his “quiet authority”—portrayed Detective Victor Beaujac, backed up by his associate, Detective John “John-O” Conroy (Louis J. Sirgo). Alas, despite the show’s locale being pretty unusual for that era, its storytelling was not, and the acting was persistently wooden.
The granddaddy of mid-century half-hour cop dramas, however, was Jack Webb’s Dragnet, which at its height drew more than 30 million viewers each week. That NBC show (again derived from a successful “wireless” broadcast) actually had two boob-tube incarnations. The first ran from 1951 to 1959, and starred actor/writer/director Webb as Sergeant Joe Friday of the L.A. Police Department, backed up primarily by Ben Alexander as Officer Frank Smith. Smith was chunky and avuncular, while Friday can best be described as sourly intense, his stance stiff as a drill instructor’s, his facial expressions almost too few to register, and his approach to crime solving strictly workaday (“Just the facts, ma’am”). All the same, it was authenticity Webb was striving for, not charisma. Compared with modern’s police procedurals, Webb’s Dragnet offered little gunplay and minimal emotional profundity, and its moralizing lacked subtlety. Yet it deftly spotlighted the mundane reality of a cop’s existence and the extraordinary patience and attention to detail it can take to resolve an inquiry. “The genius of this series,” opines the blog Cult TV Lounge, “is that it makes this thoroughly routine police work absolutely fascinating.”
After disappearing from prime time in the summer of ’59, amid humorists’ lampooning, Webb revived Dragnet in 1967, this time in color and with ex-Pete and Gladys sitcom star Harry Morgan as Friday’s new partner, Officer Bill Gannon. That second, lesser version survived until the spring of 1970, with the year of each season’s conclusion being incorporated into the show’s title (Dragnet 1967, for instance) to differentiate it from the Eisenhower-era original.
As cop shows gained in the ratings, studios and scripters searched for any innovations they might wring from the genre. Highway Patrol (1955–1959) was another syndicated presentation, recruiting gravelly voiced Broderick Crawford as Dan Mathews, the boss of a highway police agency in an unnamed western state (though California provided the backdrop). Episodes were fast-paced, packed with shootouts, hijackings, hostage situations, and ample opportunities for the fedora-sporting Crawford to bark into his radio microphone (“21-50 to headquarters!”). Due to the show’s low budget, high-speed vehicle pursuits were scarce (no one wanted to risk a wreck), and scenes were typically shot on backroads, both to save dough and because Crawford had had his driver’s license suspended for intoxicated motoring. Meanwhile, Beverly Garland played undercover NYPD Officer Patricia “Casey” Jones in Decoy (syndicated, 1957–1958)—the first U.S. cop show with a female lead. Assigned to various squads requiring a covert infiltrator, Jones might impersonate a nurse one week, a prisoner the next, and then make herself out to be a nightclub shutterbug, a model, or an exotic dancer—all in the cause of amassing evidence or acting as bait to draw out malefactors. What Decoy lacked in life-or-death dramatics, it made up for in human emotion, with Garland bringing bravery, empathy, and remarkable depth to her role.
In contrast to Dragnet’s representation of cops as ordinary joes laboring methodically within the rules to keep illegalities in check, NBC’s M Squad (1957–1960) was a hard-boiled, pulpy, distinctly noirish police drama with a jumpin’ jazz theme (courtesy of none other than Count Basie) that reflected the edgy dynamism of its setting: Chicago. Lee Marvin—in his only outing as a TV-series leading man—appeared as Detective Lieutenant Frank Ballinger of the “M Squad,” a special Windy City police detail that helped other divisions quash organized crime, homicide, and corruption. Ballinger was tough but not cynical (he genuinely believed his efforts could make a difference), a no-nonsense flatfoot in a smoky suit, shiny black tie, fedora, and snub-nosed revolver. As another writer said, Ballinger took nefarious behavior in his town as a personal affront, and wasn’t afraid to meet its challenge with flying lead. The Chicago of M Squad could be squalid, seamy, and callous, but its police force was mainly depicted as righteous. When it once strayed from that standard, in an episode that showed a cop taking backhanders and slaying a colleague, the result was then-Mayor Richard Daley banning TV and film production from his city. Further location shooting had to be done on the sly.
Hour-long police programs were becoming the norm by the early ’60s, but there continued to be a few running half that length. For example, CBS’s Tightrope! (1959–1960) imagined a pre-Mannix Mike Connors as a clandestine operative adept at worming his way into leagues of lawbreakers. Robert Taylor headlined ABC’s The Detectives (1959–1962), about a hard-bitten police captain and his small team of plainclothes coppers. (The show stretched to 60 minutes and moved to NBC for its third and final season.) In the syndicated Tallahassee 7000 (1961), Walter Matthau—exercising an execrable Southern accent—did a 26-episode turn as Lex Rogers, a special agent of the Florida Sheriff’s Bureau. Howard Duff was cast as Sergeant Sam Stone opposite Dennis Cole, playing Detective Jim Briggs, in ABC’s Felony Squad (1966–1969), which found the pair investigating major crimes in an officially unidentified municipality (that looked suspiciously like L.A.). And on that same network’s N.Y.P.D. (1967–1969), Jack Warden starred as Lieutenant Mike Haines, a by-the-book officer probing assorted misdeeds with the assistance of two younger cops, Detectives Jeff Ward (Robert Hooks).and Johnny Corso (Frank Converse). N.Y.P.D. is remembered for basing stories on real New York City police cases, and for purportedly being the earliest U.S. TV series to include an episode that sympathetically addressed anti-gay prejudice. (This in an era when other crime shows were still trying to shed an inclination toward sexism and racial stereotyping.)
Adam-12 (NBC, 1968–1975) was among the last 30-minute procedurals to grace American prime-time. Created by Robert A. Cinader and Dragnet’s Jack Webb, it followed Los Angeles police officers Pete Malloy (Martin Milner) and Jim Reed (Kent McCord) as they spun all over the City of Angels in their black-and-white cruiser, dealing with everything from armed robberies and neighbor contretemps to attempted suicides and cats trapped in trees. “It was an eclectic show, jumping from the mundane to the maniacal in the space of a radio call,” remarks critic Richard Meyers in his amazingly comprehensive book, TV Detectives (1981). Adam-12’s death knell was sounded both by Milner’s departure from the program, and by changing U.S. attitudes toward crime and policing.
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For purposes of concision, I’ve restricted my commentary here to U.S.-made series, and—up to this point, anyway—focused on private eye shows and cop tales. Half-hour legal dramas and espionage thrillers, which were likewise once profuse, will have to await future review. As will westerns (Have Gun—Will Travel, The Man from Blackhawk, etc.) claiming central players who acted as troubleshooters or investigators.
But I would be remiss were I not to mention a smattering of noteworthy shows constructed around amateur or part-time gumshoes.
Whodunit author-cum-detective Ellery Queen, conceived in 1929 by cousins Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay—who used “Ellery Queen” as their joint pseudonym, too—made the leap from printed page to radio 10 years later, and then, in 1950, to a 30-minute TV slot on the DuMont Network (before migrating to ABC). The Adventures of Ellery Queen originally starred mustachioed Richard Hart as the young fictional ferret. But he died of a heart attack several months into filming, and was replaced by Lee Bowman. Ex-vaudevillian Florenz Ames secured the role of Ellery’s father, NYPD Inspector Richard Queen, who benefited greatly from his son’s crime-solving aptitude. While this show tried hard to craft and crack novel puzzles (including the strangling of a big-top trapeze artist), it suffered from melodramatic excess and a fairly flat interpretation of its eponymous principal. After Adventures’ cancellation in 1952, the Queens reappeared in a second—this time syndicated—half-hour iteration of the show (1954–1956), starring Hugh Marlowe, who’d formerly done duty as Ellery on the radio.
The two-season CBS (later NBC) comedy-drama Mr. and Mrs. North (1952–1954) starred a pre-Michael Shayne Richard Denning as publisher Jerry North and Barbara Britton as his ebullient wife, Pamela. That couple—already well known from a succession of novels by Frances and Richard Lockridge—led champagne- and party-filled lives in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, yet were frequently in the right spot at the right time to aid New York’s finest in making sense of baffling murders. That the Norths’ snooping repeatedly led to their being assaulted failed to daunt them—especially Pam, whose plucky determination time and again proved decisive in pinpointing wrongdoers. Similar was NBC’s The Thin Man (1957–1959), inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s 1934 novel of that same name as well as by the William Powell/Myrna Loy Thin Man flicks of the 1930s and ’40s. English celebrity Peter Lawford portrayed retired P.I. Nick Charles, with Phyllis Kirk as his socialite spouse, Nora. The two stars exhibited glimmers of an insouciant chemistry, and their life in a Big Apple apartment—with dog Asta—was envied by many. Sadly, the show’s plots were themselves pretty thin. In one, Nora employed a safecracker to help her pen a manuscript, only to fall victim to his flimflammery; in another, the couple sought to determine whether a scientist was killed by his robotic creation (Forbidden Planet’s iconic Robby the Robot).
Future action-movie star Charles Bronson got his initial big break as the protagonist in Man with a Camera (1958–1960), playing Mike Kovac, a Korean War vet and freelance photographer in New York City. His assignments for newspapers, insurance companies, and private clients routinely embroiled him in con jobs, disappearances, and other potentially dangerous circumstances, and led him to behave as much like a shamus as a lensman. This ABC show made intriguing use of the latest photographic technology (cameras secreted in radios and on neckties!), and Bronson gave the firm impression of being able to handle adversity as dexterously as he did his equipment. Man with a Camera held more promise than it was given time to demonstrate.
The same could be said of Mr. Lucky (1959–1960). Adapted loosely from a 1943 Cary Grant romantic picture of the same title, this CBS offering featured John Vivyan as a glib, debonair, and chiefly honest career gambler, who—backed up by his Latin American confederate, Andamo (Ross Martin)—runs a casino on board a luxury yacht anchored three miles off the shore of an unnamed U.S. coastal city, in international waters. A continuous parade of smugglers, mobsters, counterfeiters, and other scoundrels wind up tangling with Lucky and Andamo, the consequences often being comical. (Note one episode in which Yvonne Craig—soon to become television’s Batgirl—plays a young heiress demanding that this pair show her some “wild” local nightlife…only to be inveigled away by bungling kidnappers.) Mr. Lucky enjoyed strong ratings, but sparked ire among moralistic viewers, who objected to all the illicit betting. A mid-season retooling saw Lucky’s floating gambling den transformed into a private supper club, but it came too late to prevent fretful advertisers from yanking their sponsorship of the show, deep-sixing it with 34 episodes in the can.
If you’re surprised to learn that Mr. Lucky’s theme, like Peter Gunn’s, was composed by Henry Mancini, don’t be: both programs were spearheaded by Blake Edwards. Edwards, too, gave us Willie Dante, a restaurant proprietor with sleuthing skills, personified by Dick Powell in irregular installments of the CBS anthology series Four Star Playhouse. When NBC picked up the character in Dante (1960–1961), though, Howard Duff—yes, him again!—was enlisted to star as the owner of an upscale nightclub called Dante’s Inferno in San Francisco (which was familiar turf for Duff, who’d spent years voicing Hammett’s Sam Spade for radio). Unlike Powell’s Dante, known to keep a casino tucked away in the back of his place, Duff’s counterpart tried to operate a wholly legitimate business—even if doubters of his sincerity in that matter were rife, among them the city’s district attorney and the crooks who kept bringing their troubles to his doorstep.
Finally, let us consider T.H.E. Cat (1966–1967). Premiering two years before the better-recollected It Takes a Thief, this NBC show likewise revolved around a “reformed” cat burglar—and in this case, also a trained circus acrobat—who now applies his peculiar abilities to meritorious causes. T. (Thomas) Hewitt Edward Cat, played by Robert Loggia, was “a cool, intelligent, fearless man of action,” explains Mystery*File critic Michael D. Shonk, a freelance bodyguard and laconic inquiry agent whose closest thing to an office was a jazz club in San Francisco called Casa Del Gato (House of the Cat), and whose tools of the trade were throwing knives, grappling hooks, lock picks, martial-arts takedowns, and perspicacious defenses against femmes fatales. “The series focused on crime over mystery, action over clues, and style over realism,” says Shonk. Lalo Schifrin supplied an opening theme that dripped with intrigue, while producer/director Boris Sagal cloaked the perpetually black-clad Tom Cat in shadows and sent him to scale buildings like Batman. All the ingredients were there for a huge hit. Instead, NBC dropped it after 26 episodes, perhaps because T.H.E. Cat appealed more to adventure-hungry children than their parents.
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Yes, I know: I haven’t mentioned such forgotten short-timers as Charlie Wild, Private Detective, The Cases of Eddie Drake, The D.A.’s Man (another Webb contribution), Johnny Midnight, or Coronado 9. Nor have I sung the praises of Dick Tracy, The Lawless Years, and This Man Dawson, or examined such idiot-box curiosities as Miami Undercover (a 1961 P.I. series that co-starred middleweight boxing champ Rocky Graziano). To do full justice to this subject would demand my penning a book, well, like Meyers’ TV Detectives.
America’s once well-stocked pool of scripted, 30-minute detective and police shows pretty much evaporated by the mid-’70s, as broadcast execs accepted the wisdom that probing murders and other enthralling offenses credibly, while simultaneously fleshing out main series players, demanded longer runtimes. There have been scattered dalliances with the shortened format since, but they’ve generally resulted in comedic entertainments. Remember Barney Miller or Police Squad!? How about the Hill Street Blues spin-off Beverly Hills Buntz, or Black Tie Affair, or Andy Barker, P.I.? (More recently, Amazon’s Homecoming—which initially starred Julia Roberts—was roughly half an hour in length, but it was more psychological thriller than crime drama.)
As with novels and fast-food meals, we have been conditioned to believe that bigger is better when it comes to televised crime and mystery fiction. There may be “eight million stories in the Naked City,” but telling them one half hour at a time seems decidedly a practice of the past.