TV mysteries


DAN AUGUST “The Murder of a Small Town.” 30 September 1970. Season 1, Episode 2. Burt Reynolds, Norman Fell, Richard Anderson, Ned Romero, Ena Hartman. Guest cast: Ricardo Montalban, John Marley, Anna Navarro. Writer: Robert Dozier. Director: Harvey Hart.

   As a follow up to my review of The House on Greenapple Road, the made-for-TV movie that became the pilot film for the Dan August television series, I have now watched the first two episodes of the series itself.

   The first episode, “Murder by Proxy,” had its moments, but overall was no better than the average cop or PI series of the time. Burt Reynolds acquitted himself well, and perhaps if I hadn’t been looking for them, I might have missed the occasional screen shots in which they asked him to look pensive about the case while at the same time looking a bit like Marlon Brando. (I believe someone pointed this possibility out in the comments to the earlier review.)

   The overall gimmick to the episode and hence (I assume) to the series being that Dan August was now a cop in his own medium-sized home town, a fact which causes him some difficulty, dealing as he must with people he’s known all his life. Now of course it is under totally different circumstances. He, in fact, happens to have had a personal altercation with the murder victim the week before, suggesting to some that he might even be a suspect.

   The story in episode two is very different, and I thought even a bit daring. A strike by the Hispanic orange grove workers in town has gotten ugly, and when an accident to a school bus injures several children, with one small girl killed, all Mexician-Americans, tempers threaten to burst out of control. Anglos vs. Spics, the signs say.

   At opposite poles are John Marley, the owner of the town’s orange groves, and labor organizer Ricardo Montalban, with Dan August right in the middle, especially when it looks as though someone deliberately tampered with the bus’s brake lines. A small plot thread involving a romance between Marley’s daughter and Montalban seems forced and unnecessary, and is thankfully dropped.

   A lot of anger that’s been simmering in the town pf Santa Luisa is shown. This is definitely not your usual TV cop show. While the incident with the bus is resolved, the writers and producers of the show could not solve the larger problem, not even in the hour’s time they were given.

THE HOUSE ON GREENAPPLE ROAD. Made-for-TV movie. ABC-TV, 11 January 1970. Pilot film for the Dan August TV series. Christopher George (Lt. Dan August), Keenan Wynn, Janet Leigh, Julie Harris, Tim O’Connor, Walter Pidgeon, Barry Sullivan, [Peter] Mark Richman, William Windom. Based on the novel by Harold R. Daniels. A Quinn Martin Production. Director: Robert Day.

   I don’t know the background behind the making of this far better than average TV movie, whether it was considered a “pilot” film for a possible series from the very start, or or if after did well in the ratings, and only then, they (the people at the network) decided to see what they could do to take advantage of its success.

   Which I believe it was. For one thing, just look at that cast. Some standard TV stalwarts, to be sure, but some actors whose names were big enough to catch anyone’s attention. True, the production was TV level, not big budget movie level, but it wasn’t running in pinch-penny mode, either.

   Of course when it came time to cast the part of Dan August for the series, they chose Burt Reynolds. I have never seen any episodes of the series, but Reynolds’ usual cheeky if not cocky screen presence is to my mind quite the opposite of Christopher George’s calm and sedate portrayal of the role. (He reminded me at times of Jack Lord in that other series you may know about.)

   Lots of people will remember this one for its opening scene. A young blonde girl, maybe 10 or so, comes skipping home from school, calls out for her mother. No answer. She goes into the kitchen, sees broken dishes all over the floor, and a huge amount of blood smeared on the walls and the refrigerator. No one home, she realizes, and off she goes next door to stay with her aunt.

   Suspicion falls immediately on the woman’s husband, even though there is no body to be found. August’s leisurely investigation, in spite of hurry-up pleas from the mayor himself, turns up the fact that the lady was pretty much a tramp. Flashbacks show in detail the missing woman’s various affairs, giving August plenty of other suspects.

   There is a twist in the story, which is a good one — which includes the possibility that there is no twist, so I’m not giving anything away — and the acting is top notch all around. It’s pretty much a routine investigation, but it’s also one that builds in tension as it goes, and it’s told well.


REVIEWED BY MICHAEL SHONK:


THE HAT SQUAD. CBS / Stephen J. Cannell Productions / Columbia Pictures Television, 1992-1993. Cast: Don Michael Paul as Buddy, Nestor Serrano as Rafael, Billy Warlock as Matt, James Tolkan as Mike Ragland, Shirley Douglas as Kitty Ragland in the pilot, replaced by Janet Carroll when the show became a series, and Bruce Robbins as Darnell. Creator & Executive Producer: Stephen J. Cannell. – Executive Producer: Bill Nuss. Supervising Producers: Jo Swerling Jr. and Charles Grant Craig.

   Stephen J. Cannell is best remembered for his work on THE ROCKFORD FILES, but he is also responsible for some of the worst TV series ever to air. Remember BROKEN BADGES? I reviewed it here.

   Cannell was a popular and successful producer from 1970s-90s, specializing in over the top fantasy hero with a gimmick.

   THE HAT SQUAD was a fantasy cop drama about a detective squad of three adopted brothers who wore hats. Each of the brothers came from a different set of parents -– all victims of violence. Growing up they had been inspired by the stories of the LAPD’s Hat Squad told to them by their adopted father Police Captain Mike Ragland.

   There really was a “Hat Squad.” The four huge men (Max Herman, Clarence A. “Red” Stromwall, Harold N. Crowder and Edward F. Benson) were not related but all were best friends. They worked in the Los Angeles Police Robbery Division in the 50s-60s, and were respected and feared by criminals and remain legends in the LAPD. Each was over six feet tall and 220 pounds. They wore fedoras and expensive suits to add to their intimidating look.

   I recommend you click and read the LA Times article (March 29, 1987) interviewing two of the surviving members. It is a little thick on the hype but it is more entertaining than any of the TV episodes linked below.

   The movies took the characters of The Hat Squad and made MULHOLLAND FALLS. TV writer/producer Stephen Cannell made them perfect heroes. Then in typical 90’s Cannell style, he created a cheesy fantasy where the boys grow up and create their own Hat Squad with their adopted Dad as their supervisor.


PILOT. September 16, 1992. Written by Stephen J. Cannell/ Directed by Rob Bowman. GUEST CAST: Sam J. Jones, Stacy Edwards and Darlene Vogel. *** The Hat Squad goes up against a super villain Victory Smith who is visiting Los Angeles to rob a bank. While he makes his plans, he terrorizes the public and escapes the attempts of the Hat Squad to catch him.

   The pilot made several unwise choices in setting up the TV series premise and characters. The most damaging was making the villain more intimidating than the Hat Squad. Having the bad guy kick the Hat Squad butt repeatedly might have followed proper heroic drama format rules (hero loses until all hope is lost then defeats evil), but it was not how the real Hat Squad got famous. When a bad guy showed fear to Buddy when he put on his hat I laughed out loud, and even the actors looked embarrassed by how stupid the moment was.

   Looking back at Cannell’s work it is sadly disappointing how cartoonish and absurd his writing could get. The way Cannell has the Hats capture the villain in the pilot was more appropriate for a bad movie serial of the forties than network prime-time TV of the nineties.

   LA Times Howard Rosenberg was one disgusted TV critic. You can read the entire review of the pilot here.

   Rosenberg’s first line was right on the mark. “THE HAT SQUAD is prime time’s new propeller beanie, an example of just how comically infantile and moronic television can get.”

   The pilot episode aired September 16, 1992, Wednesday at 8pm to 9:30pm (Eastern). According to “Broadcasting” (September 28, 1992) THE HAT SQUAD finished in 43rd place in the Nielsen ratings. NBC’s UNSOLVED MYSTERIES was 12th, and SEINFELD was 30th, ABC’s FULL HOUSE was 44th and HOME IMPROVEMENT aired two episodes, the first finished 27th and the second episode (opposite SEINFELD) finished 3rd, and FOX’s MELROSE PLACE finished 74th.


FAMILY BUSINESS. October 28, 1992. Written by Stephen J. Cannell. Directed by Kim Manners. GUEST CAST: Ron Ely and Mark Pellegrino. *** Darnell’s encounter with a bully at school leads the Hat Squad to a family gang that specializes in violent crime.

   This episode aired on Wednesday at 8-9pm. Nielsen ratings (“Broadcasting” November 9, 1992) had NBC UNSOLVED MYSTERY at 11th place, ABC WONDER YEARS at 33rd and DOOGIE HOUSER at 37th, FOX BEVERLY HILLS 90201 at 59th, and THE HAT SQUAD at 74th.

   According to “Broadcasting” (August 9, 1993) Cannell blamed the failure of the series to CBS programming it at 8pm rather than 9pm or 10pm. The cause of the series failure was more due to Cannell, but CBS did not do THE HAT SQUAD any favors with its scheduling. The series had three different time periods. From the pilot airing September 16 until November 11 the series aired on Wednesday at 8-9pm.


REST IN PEACE. December 9, 1992. Written by Charles Grant Craig & Bill Nuss. Directed by Bruce Kessler. GUEST CAST: Rebecca Staab, Pat Bermel and Gianni Russo. *** Buddy heads to Vegas to get the proof a local mobster killed his father.

   TV series with multiple leads usually have episodes featuring one of the leads while the others stay in the background. This episode belong to Buddy as we got his back-story and he got to “meet cute” a gorgeous blonde by having their cars bang into each other.

   This episode was the only one of the series to air at 9pm on Wednesday. Ratings were better, finishing 51st (“Billboard” December 21, 1992). ABC’s HOME IMPROVEMENT finished 5th and COACH was 15th. NBC’s SEINFELD was 38th and MAD ABOUT YOU ended up 56th. FOX with BILLBOARD MUSIC AWARDS finished 61st.


   The next episode would not air until January 2. 1993, when THE HAT SQUAD moved to Saturday at 10pm and back to last place in its time-period. ABC had THE COMMISH and the better Cannell series out-rated HAT SQUAD every week. With few exceptions THE COMMISH would win the timeslot and NBC’s SISTERS finished a close second. Fox did not (and still doesn’t) program for the 10pm time period.

   Production values and directors aided and abetted the series over the top style. They loved their fog machine, or since this was Los Angeles, their smog machine. The music was by Mike Post, who was admired for his work then, but today is more a source of earworms than music. This is the 90s so there were silent scenes illustrated by some awful pop song.

   The cast gave forgettable performances burdened by stereotypical characters defined by role rather than any real human characteristics, such as Kitty the boys’ adopted Mother, a character who only existed as the old fashioned Mom who would tell her grown son to get a hair cut (he does) and give them hugs when they were sad.

   The exception was James Tolkan who played the father Mike, a man devoted to family and a strong set of values. Tolkan is best known for his many roles as an authority figure that is a jerk. It was a nice to see him give a strong performance as a softer nicer character.

   The three members of the Hat Squad were miscast as badly as their characters were written. The real Hat Squad was made up of gentle giants that terrified people by just walking into the room. The three adopted brothers were more average looking guys that looked silly rather than threatening wearing fedoras.

   The oldest son, Italian-American Buddym was overprotective and bossy of his younger members of the Hat Squad. The middle son, Puerto Rican Rafael, behaved like Pepe LePew around women. The youngest of the Hat Squad, Matt, was the cute one who was studying to be a lawyer. There was a fourth adopted brother Darnell, a black teenager who kept this angelic family rainbow approved.

   The last episode of THE HAT SQUAD aired January 24, 1993. That left two of the filmed thirteen episodes unaired. One of those episodes was “FRANKIE STEIN.”

   This episode has an ironic twist the writer probably did not intend. Of the real Hat Squad, three were lawyers while they were cops. Max Herman quit the force before he had earned his pension to become a defense attorney. Reportedly, Herman handled over thirty murder cases and none were convicted of the original (more serious) charge. The other two (Stromwall and Crowder) that had become lawyers would end up as judges.



FRANKIE STEIN. Never Aired. Written by David Greenwalt. Directed by Kim Manners. GUEST CAST: David Morse, Sondra Nelson and Linda Darlow. Matt questions his desire to become a lawyer. The Hat Squad has to deal with a violent criminal who was let out of prison early after he had agreed to be a test subject for some government experiments.


   This was a fantasy cop drama, the good guys are pure at heart and obey their Mother and Father, and bad guys are pure evil who would steal a little boy’s baseball card. The fantasy plots could only happen in the make believe land of Stephen Cannell, where everything is simple including the stereotypical characters, cliché motives, hokey dialogue, over the top action, and the bad guys who get all the breaks until a happy ending where comic book justice prevails.

   As a former professional TV critic in the late 70s and 80s who admired Cannell’s work in such shows as TOMA, CITY OF ANGELS (my review here ) and TENSPEED AND BROWNSHOE, I am finding myself embarrassed as I re-watch Cannell’s old series now. It is like looking at a picture of you in the past, seeing yourself in the stylish clothes and hair of the day and wondering, “What was I thinking?”

RICHARD GALLAGHER – Cannon: Murder by Gemini. Cannon #1. Lancer 74783, paperback original; 1st printing, 1971.

   As I imagine everyone reading this already knows, Cannon was a TV series that lasted for five years on CBS, from 1971 to 1976. Playing Frank Cannon was a decidedly rotund movie, radio and TV actor by the name of William Conrad, and it’s my opinion that much of the success the series had was due to his down-to-earth but still somehow debonair personality. It wasn’t his good looks, that’s for sure.

   It’s difficult to describe on screen charisma, and the preceding sentence is the best I’ve been able to do. Richard Gallagher seems to have had the same problem in writing this book, an early novelization of the series. Forced to use only words on the page to flesh out Frank Cannon, author Richard Gallagher makes an occasional reference to his weight, but little more. The Frank Cannon of the book could be any fictional ex-cop turned PI, of which there are hundreds.

   I also found it a bit curious that instead of L.A., Cannon’s usual place of business, almost all of the book takes place in Wyoming, in Grand Teton territory.

   The puzzle presented by the story itself is based on an interesting question. If a murder is committed by one of two identical twins, but an eye witness can’t identify in a lineup which one it is, the police have no choice to let both of them go free, including the one who is actually guilty. What else can they do?

   Cannon is called on to investigate, but he quickly finds himself stumped as well. Most of the book is filled with local lore and three increasingly narrow escapes from attempts on his life.

   It might have made for good television — though I don’t believe this is based on an actual episode — but in terms of a book to read, there’s not a lot of meat in this particular sandwich.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


KRAFT SUSPENSE THEATRE. NBC, 1963-1965, 60 minutes:

      “One Tiger to a Hill.” Season 2, Episode 8. 03 Dec 1964. Barry Nelson, Diane McBain, James Gregory, Peter Brown, Warren Stevens. Teleplay: Robert Hamner. Directed by Jack Arnold.

      “Four Into Zero.” Season 2, Episode 15. 18 Feb 1965. Jack Kelly, Martha Hyer, Robert Conrad, Sue Randall, Joe Mantell, Jessie White, Bill Quinn. Teleplay: Don Brinkley. Story: Milt Rosen. Directed by Don Weiss.

   What these two episodes of Kraft Suspense Theatre (syndicated under the title Crisis) have in common is the fact that both are caper stories, and in both cases ones with happy endings. Not that the anthology series didn’t have its fair share of crime does not pay tales like any other series from the sixties, but at least these two episodes are different.

   “One Tiger to a Hill” opens with a jewel thief breaking into a safe and relieving it of close to half a million in goodies. That draws the attention of the head of the Burglary division. James Gregory who is enjoying a bit of fine dining and a good cognac when he receives the call — only to find that sharing the restaurant with him is jewel thief extraordinare Colin Neal (Barry Nelson) and his girl Diane McBain, making Gregory Neal’s alibi.

   Neal and Gregory are friendly adversaries, Gregory the only cop to ever catch Neal and Neal the only thief to ever elude Gregory. Not so much Gregory’s subordinate Lt. Hadley (Warren Stevens) who wants nothing so much as to put away all thieves — in any condition he can catch them in.

   The secret to Neal’s latest success is bartender Peter Brown who is his apprentice and pulled the latest caper in Neal’s style. There are complications though. Aside from Hadley and the much smarter and more dangerous Gregory, Brown is ambitious. He not only wants Neal’s career, he wants his woman, and he isn’t above framing Neal for a crime he never committed. Even worse he shoots a policeman while committing it.

   Now Neal has to stop Brown, recover the stolen gems, and get the increasingly driven Hadley off his neck while not getting caught by Gregory.

   This could all be done darkly and in a noirish mood, but it is much more a low budget TO CATCH A THIEF, and thanks largely to good players and a light script, it doesn’t pause long enough to let you question the obvious gaps in the story, and it works for what it is.

   Next up is a somewhat more serious caper. “Four Into Zero.” Jack Kelly is the husband of wealthy Martha Hyer, tired of feeling as if he has been bought by his beautiful wife and determined to do something on his own. The something is a heist, and on a moving train across country from Chicago to Los Angles.

   The train will be carrying the currency plates for a new banana republic in South America, and the plot is lift the plates being shipped from Chicago from the baggage car, use a printing press built by failed artist and engraver Jessie White to print a million dollars in the new currency, and return the plates unsuspected for delivery. Also mixed in the job is Robert Conrad, whose fiance has been working for the South American dictator and unwittingly providing all the details needed for the job.

   Joe Mantell is the final part of the scheme, an alcoholic circus performer Kelly rescued from the gutter and dried out for a vital part of the caper, crossing the top of the train while it is moving with the plates.

   And complications ensue as you might expect. Kelly’s wife and Conrad’s girl (Sue Randell) are suspicious, and when they meet decide to fly to Los Angles to meet the boys. Meanwhile railroad cop Bill Quinn is taking the same train on vacation, and there is this annoying little boy who keeps seeing men climbing outside on the train …

   For once the caper goes fairly smoothly, until Mantell breaks his wrist, ironically on a crate of whiskey, and Kelly has to replace him on the final leg of the heist. It ends fairly happily with Kelly and Conrad rejecting their part of the spoils for love, and a nice ironic touch (actually foreshadowed in the script for once) ends the episode.

   Everyone gets at least one good scene, and what more could television actors ask?

   Neither the best or the worst of the series, this is your parents comfortable sixties television done with professionalism and style. Both episodes could easily have been expanded to features and both make for a tightly packed forty-eight minutes.

   I can’t say either generates much actual suspense, but both are fairly handsomely done and the dialogue is intelligent and revealing in both, making you wish they had been more interested in the suspense end of the thing.

   Of the two “One Tiger to a Hill” is the standout, but I recall seeing “Four Into Zero” when it first aired and surprisingly remembered almost every detail when I watched it again for the first time, so there is more here than may meet the eye

REVIEWED BY MICHAEL SHONK:


THE GREAT MERLINI “The Transparent Man.” Syndicated by United Artist Television, 1951. G&W Television Production Inc. Cast: Jerome Thor as the Great Merlini, Barbara Cook as Julie, Robert Noe as Inspector Gavigan, Howard Smith as Belmont, E.G. Marshall as Comell and Michaele Myers as Josephine. Original Story and Adapted by Clayton Rawson. Produced by Felix Greenfield and Robert Whiteman. Filmed at Fletcher Smith Studio, New York. Directed by Ted Post.

   Question, who was the first Fictional Magician Detective to appear on television? Really, if you know tell me.

   It may be the Great Merlini who made his TV debut in the episode “The Great Merlini” for the NBC-TV series CAMEO THEATRE (May 23, 1950). The thirty-minute anthology series featured plays performed live in the round. Chester Morris (film’s Boston Blackie) was the Great Merlini. From the plot as described and with author Clayton Rawson credited as one of the writers, the episode was probably an adaption of Rawson’s book FOOTPRINTS ON THE CEILING.

   As far as I know, no copy of this episode of CAMEO THEATRE exists. However the second and maybe the last TV appearance of the Great Merlini is available to watch. A pilot film for a proposed TV series THE GREAT MERLINI, the episode was entitled “The Transparent Man” and was written by Clayton Rawson.

   Created by Rawson for a series of books and short stories, the first, DEATH FROM A TOP HAT, was published in 1938. Two movies were adapted from the books, MIRACLES FOR SALE (1939; directed by Tod Browning, based on DEATH FROM A TOP HAT) and Michael Shayne film THE MAN WHO WOULDN’T DIE (1942) starring Lloyd Nolan based on the book NO COFFIN FOR THE CORPSE.

   Clayton Rawson is considered one of the greatest writers of locked room mysteries and includes John Dickson Carr and Fred Dannay among his greatest fans. He would help found the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) and served for many year as managing editor for the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (1963-71).


“The Transparent Man.” When a famous thief announces his plans to steal a priceless necklace, it is a crime for the police, but when the thief has been dead since 1798 it becomes a job for The Great Merlini. He must solve how an invisible thief opened a locked door and stole the necklace from a room full of people.


   For TV viewers “The Transparent Man” is an entertaining but flawed TV show, however fans of the books may find this TV episode disappointing. It is more an “impossible crime” story than a locked room mystery.

   Rawson’s books and short stories even today are considered among the best of the locked mystery genre. Arguably the greatest flaw in Rawson’s books is the slow pace and the enormous amount of pages it takes to develop the locked room mystery. With time limited the TV version settled on a weak solution, faster pace, and more attention to the character Great Merlini.

   Jerome Thor (FOREIGN INTRIGUE) played the Great Merlini with the confident flare one expects from a stage magician. The eccentric Merlini enjoys the challenge of solving impossible mysteries, and he is amused that his talent to deal with crime is in more demand than his stage act as a magician. There is no mention of owning a magic store.

   Ross Harte, the Watson to the Great Merlini, was not in the TV pilot. Replacing him was Julie, Merlini’s talented Magician’s Assistant girlfriend with a wry wit. Barbara Cook played the role well, so it is a surprise that the IMDb claim this was her only role in television or film.

   Director Ted Post would go on to a long successful career directing a variety of TV series including PERRY MASON, GUNSMOKE, TWILIGHT ZONE, and COLUMBO. He also directed films such as BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES and MAGNUM FORCE.

   But this was one of his first attempts at directing television and it shows. The direction here is awkward, a clumsy mix of close-ups and medium shots with a missed shot or so. But much of the awkwardness could have been covered with a background soundtrack.

   Robert Noe captured the essence of Inspector Gavigan. The suspects included two actors still remembered today. Howard Smith, who had a successful career from vaudeville to films and may be best remembered for his TV work (HAZEL), looked uncomfortable and lost. E. G. Marshall, a successful actor on Broadway and film (12 ANGRY MEN) is also best remembered for his work in TV (THE DEFENDERS), did only an adequate job with his small role.

   Felix Greenfield and Robert Whiteman produced this pilot for a GREAT MERLINI TV series. I can find nothing about Robert Whiteman, but Felix Greenfield was best remembered as a publicist for Warner Brothers for over 30 years.

   Greenfield was also a stage magician (mentalist) who starred in his own radio shows in New York during the 40s. His only other TV producer credit in IMDb was for the “Great Merlini” episode of CAMEO THEATRE, but according to his obit in the New York Times, he also was a technical consultant on magic for several TV series including THE DEFENDERS.

   This show was filmed in 1951 and near the end of the wild days of television. The networks were still young. NBC and DuMont began in 1946 and CBS and ABC would join in 1948. Independent TV stations many doing their own programming were growing all over the country and everyone needed programs to fill the time.

   How crazy and forgotten was that time for television? Wikipedia does not even mention United Artist Television existed between 1948 and 1952 instead claiming it began in 1958.

   From Broadcast (March 19, 1951) UA’s TV Director John Mitchell announced, “United Artist Television, New York has been appointed national distributer of the GREAT MERLINI, new half-hour TV film series produced by G&W Productions and filmed at Fletcher Smith Studios, New York. Ted Post of CBS is director of the show. The program is to be distributed on the basis of local and regional sponsorships.”

   John Mitchell was an early pioneer of television in how companies marketed TV programs to early television stations and networks. In 1952 he became one of the first three employees of Screen Gems.

   Among the joys of watching old television shows are the many stories and questions behind the making of the program. Is the Great Merlini TV’s first Magician/Detective? Where did this attempt for a GREAT MERLINI TV series air? Why couldn’t I find an American TV series to feature a Magician/Detective before THE MAGICIAN (CBS, 1973-74)? And was “Transparent Man” the last TV appearance of the Great Merlini?


BONUS FROM YOUTUBE:

Clayton Rawson as the Great Merlini performing the “Floating Lady” trick with family and friends.

FOUR MORE FAILED TV PILOTS
by Michael Shonk


   As the fate of next season’s pilots are currently being decided, lets take a look at four more failed pilots of the past: PISTOL PETE, ZERO EFFECT, MR. & MRS. SMITH, and ROADBLOCK.

PISTOL PETE. Fox / Castle Rock, 1996, never aired. Writed and Executive Producer: John Swartzwelder. Directed by John Rich. Cast: Steve Kearney as Pistol Pete, Brian Doyle-Murray as the Mayor, Mark Derwin as Deputy Langley.

   The Old West town Abilene is tired of the bad guys killing their sheriffs so the Mayor writes back East and offers the job to Dime Novel hero Pistol Pete. Pistol Pete may be a true crackshot and a fast draw with the gun, but he also is no real Western hero. He is working as the star of a second-rate Wild West Show in New York. Blaming a faulty memory for not remembering his adventures, Pete believes the books stories about him are true. Pete accepts the job as the latest Sheriff in Abilene. The citizens of his new home share Pistol Pete’s belief that his adventures are all true, only the Mayor and Deputy know Pete is a clueless fraud.

   The pilot is funny if you enjoy absurdist comedy. It has never aired and was desperately sought out by comedy writers and fans until the Internet and YouTube rode to the rescue. The reason for PISTOL PETE’s status as cult comedy classic is the creator and executive producer John Swartzwelder.

   Swartzwelder is considered by many comedy writers and fans to be a comedic genius. Among his strongest fans are the writers and producers of THE SIMPSONS. Swartzwelder began writing for THE SIMPSONS in the first season (1990) and would continue until the fifteenth (2003). He would write more SIMPSONS episodes than any other writer (59 plus returning in 2007 to help write the SIMPSON MOVIE). Adding to his legendary status, Swartzwelder is an eccentric who shuns all publicity giving his fellow writers plenty of material to share with the rest of us.

   Here is a great article about the pilot and Swartzwelder. (Antenna Free TV, June 27, 2013, written by Will Harris).

   One of the reported stranger demands by Swartzwelder for the 1996 pilot (for the fall 96-97 season) was that the film crew be from the TV series GUNSMOKE (CBS, 1955-75). There was a serious attempt to honor that request. The director John Rich is remembered today as one of the greatest TV comedy directors of the 60s-70s era (DICK VAN DYKE and ALL IN THE FAMILY), but he also directed several episodes of GUNSMOKE and BONANZA. Producer Kent McCray worked on BONANZA.

   Swartzwelder wanted the feel of old TV and movie Westerns. The plan was for him and his writing friends from THE SIMPSONS to parody Westerns each week.

   Currently Swartzwelder is writing a series of absurdist comedy PI novels and short stories featuring time traveling PI Frank Burly. The self-published books began in 2004 with THE TIME MACHINE DID IT. The tenth in the series and most recent is BURLY GO HOME (2017).


ZERO EFFECT. NBC / Castle Rock / Warner Brothers, 2002, never aired. Writers and Executive Producers: Jake Kasdan and Walon Green. Directed by Jake Kasdan. Cast: Alan Cumming as Daryl Zero, David Julian Hirsh as Jeff Winslow

   The 1998 film is a cult favorite, but I preferred the TV pilot. The movie’s writer and director Jake Kasdan (FREAKS AND GEEKS) also directed and co-wrote the TV pilot. Walon Green (WILD BUNCH) helped Kasdan write and produce the TV pilot.

   The two versions are much alike in style and tone. Both make good use of Daryl Zero writing his memoirs to narrate the action. Zero calls the case in the pilot “The Case of the Billionaire Pervert With a Parking Problem.”

   My central problem with the film was the pace was too slow and at almost two hours the film was too long leaving me often bored. The pilot, seen in this YouTube thirty-eight minute version, forced Kasdan to speed things up.

   A good example is the opening scene where the genius and character of the unseen Daryl Zero is introduced. Both versions reveal exposition by telling the story of one of Zero’s most awe-inspiring cases. The movie had Zero’s assistant and anti-Watson Steve Alto (Ben Stiller) tell the story to a possible client. The scene was long, static and boring. The TV version had people of various types and locations tell excited crowds about the now World famous as well as Greatest Detective Daryl Zero. The camera rarely stopped as the story jumped from one storyteller to the next. This gave the TV version a faster pace from almost the beginning.

   Both versions focused less on the mystery of the crime and more on the mysteries of the characters. In the TV pilot the case revolves around a billionaire’s missing mistress, but the key to the mystery is not where she is but who she and the other characters are.

   Zero is basically the same in the film and TV pilot. Meant as a satire of Sherlock Holmes, Daryl Zero is a brilliant, self-centered, social inept, recluse with a fondness for disguises and music.

   Bill Pullman’s performance in the film as Zero is generally praised, but I prefer Alan Cumming’s Zero. The many faces and behavior of Zero as done by Pullman was too random. He failed to connect it all to Zero. Cumming was hyper sometimes on the edge of hysteria behavior showed Zero inability to deal with people personally. The music producer character Zero plays as he searches for the missing mistress illustrates his understanding of people but the method and over the top producer character is more an extension of Zero than a music producer.

   Zero realizing he needs an assistant, a “face man,” some one to deal with people (there is no Steve Alto in the pilot). He finds a candidate in Chicago. Jeff Winslow is an unhappy defense attorney with a strong sense of justice.

   Jeff’s girlfriend dumps him on the phone while he is in the middle of a frustrating argument with his boss. Jeff gets a phone call from a mysterious voice (Zero) convincing him to quit and go to Los Angeles for a new job.

   Jeff arrives in Los Angeles without even knowing who is hiring him. Zero then puts him through a bizarre series of job interview tests such as the lost luggage test where Zero steals Jeff’s luggage to see how Jeff would respond.

   Jeff is an idealist, with a conscience and a belief in justice. Zero is none of these and tries to teach Jeff the Zero Method, the “obs” – objectivity and observation. Zero solves the case, but it is Jeff that makes sure justice is served.


MR. AND MRS SMITH. ABC / Regency Television Dutch Oven Production, 2007, never aired. Creator and Executive Producer: Simon Kinberg. Executive Producer: David Bartis. Directer and Executive Producer: Doug Liman. Cast: Jordana Brewster as Mrs. Jane Smith, Martin Henderson as Mr. John Smith, Bridgette Wilson-Sampras as Ann, and Rebecca Mader as Jordan * There were no credits on film. The above credits are from thefutoncritic.com http://www.thefutoncritic.com/devwatch/mr-and-mrs-smith/.

   This TV pilot was based on the movie MR. & MRS. SMITH (2005) that starred Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as a married couple who work as assassins for different spy agencies. Both the film director (Doug Liman) and writer (Simon Kinberg) returned to do this TV pilot.

   Jane and John are married and living in the suburbs of Washington D.C. while they continue their careers as spies/ assassins. Both characters are one dimensional modern day clichés. She is smart, sexy, able to handle herself in a fight, and successful career woman – you know, perfect. He is an idiot, self-centered, uses excessive force and has been fired, you know, clueless.

   Now that he is unemployed John wants Jane to join him as partners in their own spy/killer agency. She is highly respected and employed at the all-woman spy agency Executive Cleaners and resists the idea of a Mr. & Mrs. Smith Spy agency.

   He is worried about their marriage and wants to have a date night. She agrees to the date night to humor him but then has to cancel twice due to work. Her assignment is to stop a terrorist who has a nuclear device. After listening to too much Dr. Phil and the neighborhood ladies gossip, John begins to suspect Jane is cheating on him. This bad sitcom plot causes problems with Jane’s plan to save the world.

   The idea of exploring the challenges of marriage through a marriage of two spies is not bad if it was not done so heavy-handedly. Women are brilliant and men are idiots belong in another type of comedy, not one about marriage that needs both characters to be admirable and both to have flaws.

   The script has its moments and some nice dialog but little action. The direction offers no help to make this pilot exciting or visually interesting. The cast was nice to look at but failed to bring their characters to life.

   The pilot hinted at a future where Mr. and Mrs. Smith are partners as spies and in marriage as they try to keep their secrets and live the normal life among their suburban neighbors. While that sounds like a bad sitcom, it would be better than to suffer through these cardboard characters with trust issues every week.


ROADBLOCK. March 29, 1958. An episode of STUDIO 57 (Dumont 1954-55; syndicate, 1955-58.

   Syndicated pilot for proposed series MOTORCYCLE COP. Teleplay by Frederic Brady. Story by John D. MacDonald. Directed by Earl Bellamy. Cast: Mike Connors as Patrolman Jeff Saunders, John McIntire as Sheriff Sternweister, and Wallace Ford as Sheriff Thomas

   Mike Connors played a special enforcement agent for the California Highway Patrol who was sent on a variety of assignments. This story finds him helping out local sheriffs investigating a deadly bank robbery where one of the robbers’ cars turns out to be the cop’s best witness.

   Based on a short story by John D. MacDonald (“The Homesick Buick” (ELLERY QUEEN MYSTERY magazine, September 1950) ROADBLOCK was turned into just another typical TV crime drama of the 50s. Everything is in black and white, including the characters. The story is slow moving with no surprises. The cast walked through their roles in the simple slow-moving story unburdened by too many twists or much action until a dull car chase at the end.

   IMDb claims the episode (titled “Getaway Car”) originally aired as episode 19 during the fourth season of STUDIO 57 (aka HEINZ STUDIO 57) on March 29, 1958. According to Vincent Terrace “Encyclopedia of Television Pilots” (McFarland), it was meant to be a pilot for a proposed syndicated TV series to be called MOTORCYCLE COP.

   STUDIO 57 was a low budget anthology series that aired on the DuMont network from 1954 through 1955 when the series turned to syndication and lasted until 1958.


   Why pilots sell or fail has always been a mystery. Jake Kasdan (ZERO EFFECT) even did a movie called THE TV SET (2006) about the process.

CBS SUMMER PLAYHOUSE “The Saint in Manhattan.” CBS, 12 June 1987. Season 1, Episode 1. Andrew Clarke (Simon Templar), George Rose, Kevin Tighe (Insp John Fernack), Liliana Komorowska, Holland Taylor, Caitlin Clarke, Michael Lombard. Based on the character created by Lesllie Charteris. Director: James Frawley.

   One way that CBS found to get some mileage out of pilots for TV shows that failed to find a home there was to play them as an anthology series over the summer when they assumed that no one was watching anyway. The Playhouse lasted for three years, but the basis of watching only this one, I’m going to say that it may have been one of the better ones.

   I hadn’t heard of its star, Andrew Clarke, before watching, and in fact this may be one of the few times this Australian actor may have appeared on US TV. He may also have been the only actor with a mustache (a bushy one) to have played the Saint, but I could easily be wrong about that. He also had a wide brash smile with lots of teeth.

   As the title indicated, the would-be series was to have taken place in New York City, with the Saint constantly bedeviling Inspector Fernack as they clash heads while solving murder cases together (in a matter of speaking). In this one, though, it is the theft of a valuable tiara from the head of the lead ballerina during a dance recital that brings the old foes together. Someone has framed Simon Templar for the job!

   The production values are very good, and Clarke, although initially far from my idea of what the Saint looks like, gradually became easier to watch in the role.

Much of the story line is played for light comedy — to the detriment of any fair play detective work, which is hinted at but never quite delivered upon. If I’d known about it at the time, however, I’d definitely have watched this pilot. — and the series as well, if there had been one.

FOUR FAILED PILOTS
by Michael Shonk


   It’s pilot season at the major TV networks as the networks look for new shows for the 2018-19 season. Here is a link to Deadline’s “Primetime pilot panic” where you can read what each network is looking at for next season:

         http://deadline.com/category/primetime-pilot-panic/

   The creation of the pilot dates back to radio days when audition shows were used to find a sponsor or stations to support the show as a regularly appearing series. While radio used the word “audition” for the first example of the possible series, TV uses pilot from “pilot project.”

   In the summer of 1940 CBS aired FORECAST, a series of radio episodes with the hope the audience would help them become a network series. Of these auditions two would become hits and continue to be remembered today, SUSPENSE and DUFFY’S TAVERN.

   Below is DEDUCTION DELUXE, an episode from FORECAST second and final season. Despite its pleas to the radio audience DEDUCTION DELUXE did not survive for a second episode.

DEDUCTION DELUXE “Problem of the Painted Poodle.” CBS Radio, July 28, 1941, Monday at 9pm (Eastern). Cast: Adolphe Menjou as Roger Boone, Verree Teasdale as Twyla Boone. Other Voices include: Arthur Q. Bryan, Verna Telton, and Gerald Mohr. Written by Keith Fowler and Frank Galen.

   The episode sounded like a vaudeville sketch with its simple character types and non-stop patter of gags, many still funny. The mystery of who painted a rich lady’s poodle green was better than average as the writers for the most part played fair with the clues.

   Real life married couple Adolphe Menjou and Verree Teasdale certainly had the right chemistry as PI Roger Boone and his wife Twyla Boone. The fatal flaw for the show was in the character of husband Roger Boone, a man who handled “clues, blondes and horses with equal enthusiasm.” Twyla seemed resigned to her husband sleeping with other women but I doubt the 1941 radio audience was as forgiving.


RUSSELL. Paramount Television – CBS Films Production; date unknown. Fess Parker as Charles Russell, Beverly Garland as Bonnie, Jay C. Flippen as Windy, and Paul Carr as Tracey. Created and written by Borden Chase. Directed by Arthur Hiller. Executive Producer: Gordon Kay. Produced by Frank O’Connor.

   I can find nothing about this pilot beyond the on screen credits and the copyright is unreadable. The pilot was done by Paramount. Fess Parker worked for Paramount between 1958 and 1962. The credit for CBS Films and the sales pitch epilogue probably makes this a pilot for a possible syndicated series. Since Fess Parker was starring in MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON in 1962 we can narrow the time for this show even further to 1958-61.

   While the story and characters were overly simple the show had a certain charm helped by a talented cast and a script that kept things moving.

   Fess Parker played Charles Russell one of the greatest artists of the Old West, and a man of many talents and experiences. He was a good man who was as good with the gun as he was with a brush. Russell wrote about his times and travels through the Old West in books such as TRAILS PLOWED UNDER. Link from Project Gutenberg Australia: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks07/0700941h.html.

   In an interesting twist, the premise of the series was not to be just a loosely based biography but instead the stories were to be based on Charlie Russell’s artwork. The pilot episode featured the famous painting “Innocent Allies.”

   The story had Charlie partnering with a man called Windy to run a cattle drive. When Charlie and a young hothead cowboy witness a stage robbery, the young cowboy overreacts and runs off to stop the robbery. His gunfire starts a stampede. Charlie warns others of the approaching stampede and rescues the beautiful and feisty Bonnie, the new owner of the saloon. Charlie tries to help the young man grow up while he paints for Bonnie “Innocent Allies” – his eyewitness account of the stage holdup.

   RUSSELL had the makings for a successful series but Westerns were fading during the years 1958-1961 as the PI and modern detective was growing in its popularity.


GLOBAL FREQUENCY . WB, 2005 Cast: Michelle Forbes as Miranda Zero, Aimee Garcia as Aleph, Josh Hopkins as Sean Flynn and Jenni Baird as Dr. Katrina Finch. * The on-air credits were clipped from this YouTube copy of the 45-minute pilot. The series was created by Warren Ellis based on the popular award winning graphic novel series. John Rogers wrote the script, or at least he was the main writer for the pilot that was directed by Nelson McCormick. (Sources: IMdb and Wikipedia.)

   Before WB had made its decision about the fate of GLOBAL FREQUENCY the episode was leaked to the Internet. According to an email by creator Warren Ellis sent out to fans he claimed WB was so unhappy over the leak they rejected the pilot (CBR.com, July 29, 2005). It would not be the first time or the last Hollywood egos destroyed a quality program.

   Here is a YouTube clip explaining the premise.

   Global Frequency is a secret independent organization created to do the dirty jobs that threaten the world. Run by Miranda Zero, a former top spy, with the aid of Aleph, a young female computer expert who from a high tech base assists and contacts field agents.

   Global Frequency’s agents are a group of people with various talents and connections from all over the world waiting for that call that they are needed to save the world, or at least part of it. This is one of my favorite plot devices and the way it is handled would have hooked me on the series.

   The story began when disgraced ex-cop Sean finds the dead body of a Global Frequency agent. It seems San Francisco will be destroyed in 55 minutes. Sean joins in to help find the man who killed the agent and now is a threat to destroy San Francisco.

   Everything works here. The writing based on an award winning graphic novel series, the cast, the direction, the production, all are excellent. The characters are likable and developed. This even has the most elusive of all qualities, excellent chemistry between the actors.

   Every time I watch a TV thriller like GLOBAL FREQUENCY that blends technology and the human hero so entertainingly, I remember the objections that Hugh O’Brian had during SEARCH (NBC 1972) that the technology not upstage him and again I realize how better SEARCH could have been.


CALLAHAN. ABC – Carsey/Werner Company Production in association with Finnegan Associates, September 9, 1982. Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis as Rachel Bartlett, Hart Bocher as Callahan, John Harkins as Marcus Vox, and Peter Maloney as Mustaf. Created by Ken Finkleman. Developed and Written by David Misch and Ken Finkleman. Directed by Harry Winer

   This funny pilot spoof of the Indiana Jones movie unfairly faced some challenges that had nothing to do with the quality of the episode entitled “Appointment In Rangoon.”

   Plucky innocent Rachel Bartlett applies for the job of assistant to the Director of Research (Callahan) at the Regis Foundation. The job interview quickly expands from Callahan’s academic office into a dangerous thrill-filled chase across the world.

   Overly focused on his work, Callahan is clueless to how unaccustomed Miss Bartlett (as Callahan calls her) is to the action. But Rachel does not let the constant dangers to her life or her torn and increasingly disappearing dress stop her from helping Callahan to recover the object, stop the villain and save the world.

   However quality writing and acting does not always lead a pilot to series. CALLAHAN wanted to become an ABC series for the 1982-83 season. But TV cop spoof POLICE SQUAD had just bombed on ABC during the 1981-82 season. ABC’s pilots for the 1982-83 season had contained more than one Indiana Jones inspired pilot. ABC chose the action drama TALES OF THE GOLDEN MONKEY.


   YouTube continues to be a great place to find failed pilots, so coming soon I will look at four more failed pilots from the past.

INQUIRY from Matthew Bradley:
The Case of the Missing PI’s.


   As I mentioned in my recent post about writing Richard Matheson on Screen, several of the more obscure Matheson-related television episodes continue to elude me to this day. They include “Iron Mike Benedict” (The D.A.’s Man, 2/14/59), “Act of Faith” (Buckskin, 3/23/59), “Time of Flight” (Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, 9/21/66), “No Such Thing as a Vampire” (Late Night Horror, 4/19/68), and “L’Esame” (The Test; Racconti di Fantascienza [Tales of Fantasy], 1/31/79).

   But even more frustratingly, while he recalled contributing to them in some capacity, I’ve never turned up any information regarding his involvement with two P.I. series, Richard Diamond, Private Detective and Philip Marlowe.

   So how’s about it, Mystery*File readers/writers? Anybody knowledgeable enough about them to shed some light on this real-life mystery or, by some miracle, able to provide me with copies of any of these mini-Grails? You never know, there may be a second edition!

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