TV mysteries


THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. “The Project Strigas Affair.” NBC; 24 November 1964 (Season 1, Episode 9). Robert Vaughn (Napoleon Solo), David McCallum (Illya Kuryakin), Leo G. Carroll (Alexander Waverly). Guest Cast: William Shatner, Peggy Ann Garner, Werner Klemperer, Leonard Nimoy. Director: Joseph Sargent.

   Directed by Joseph Sargent (The Taking of Pelham One Two Three), “The Project Strigas Affair” surely deserves a special place in the annals of television history and popular culture. A lighthearted first season The Man from U.N.C.L.E. episode filmed in black and white, it features both William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy as guest stars. This would be the first and only time they appeared together in a scripted series prior to helming the Starship Enterprise.

   It also co-stars Werner Klemperer, who would go on to portray Colonel Klink on Hogan’s Heroes. Seeing all of these faces, along with Robert Vaughn and David McCallum (who is still going strong on CBS as Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard on NCIS), is a real treat for those of us who grew up watching reruns of not only this quirky spy show, but also Star Trek and aforementioned Hogan’s Heroes.

   In this episode, U.N.C.L.E. agents Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin concoct a devious plan in order to neutralize a non-Soviet Bloc Eastern European ambassador, Lalso Kurasov (Klemperer) intent on foisting the United States and the Soviet Union into an unwinnable global conflict.

   They enlist the assistance of chemist-turned-pest-exterminator, Michael Donfield (Shatner) and his wife. Solo and Kuryakin hope to employ Donfield to lure Kurasov with the promise of a chemical compound that would be highly useful to Kurasov’s country. It’s the “false secret” routine, but it works exceedingly well as a plot device.

   But things aren’t going to be so simple. First of all, Kurasov is foolish, but not quite as big a fool as Solo and Kuryakin would have hoped. More significantly, Kurasov’s deputy, Vladeck (Nimoy) has his eye on Kurasov’s job and is no pushover when it comes to dirty dealing and high stakes espionage.

   Although there are a few plot holes, “The Project Strigas Affair” is overall a successful episode and one that skillfully includes enough humor and suspense to keep you watching. Sure, it’s silly at times, but who cares. For his part, Shatner comes less like the Captain Kirk character he’d soon play on Star Trek and more like the post-Trek Shatner, the one who was more than comfortable in mocking his celebrity persona.

   It makes you wonder: how many people, upon watching the first episode of Gene Roddenberry’s legendary science fiction series, said to themselves, “wait, weren’t those two guys just on a The Man From U.N.C.L.E. episode?”

NOTE:   The episode can currently be seen online here.

THE SAINT: THE BRAZILIAN CONNECTION. Made-for-TV movie, UK, ITV/LWT, 2 September 1989; US, syndicated. One hour and forty minutes. Simon Dutton (Simon Templar), Gayle Hunnicutt, David Ryall (Inspector Teal), Simon Rouse, Jenifer Landor. Based on the character created by Leslie Charteris. Screenplay: Anthony Horowitz. Director: Ian Toynton.

   This was a disappointment, to put it mildly. That this was the first of only six made-for-TV movies featuring The Saint could have been a bit of a warning — if the series had been successful, why weren’t there more?

   There are a lot of credentials involved on the production end. Among other TV productions, screenwriter Anthony Horowitz is best known now for Foyle’s War, and director Ian Toynton has an equally long list of movie he had a final say on.

   You can’t blame the story on the lead, Simon Dutton, although he seems to have only two expressions in this film, sour and dour. No, make that three. Once in a while he has three. On occasion he has the temerity to look puzzled.

   No carefree sense of adventure in his portrayal of The Saint, no gleam in his eye when one of his capers is about to come to fruition. I imagine I was spoiled by Roger Moore in the role, although George Sanders was pretty good, too.

   Maybe it’s that the story in its basics is dull. Baby smuggling from Brazil, that’s the “connection” the title of this episode comes from. The opening setup has to do with two other cases before this one gets down to business: a stolen diamond tiara and a showing of ancient Chinese sculptures (fake) are far more interesting, but both are forgotten once two lower level bad guys steal a baby off a busy London street.

   There is a philosophy of film-making that is very common but which puzzles me quite a bit, and I’ll see if I can describe what I mean. When there are sequences in a film designed to set up the story and background, the pace of the movie is slow, unhurried and deliberate. But when the action starts, what happens on the screen flashes by so quickly, zip, zip, zip and what was it that just happened? Who knows. Maybe what happened will be explained in the next scene, and maybe it won’t.

   Some of what happened in The Brazilian Connection is still a mystery to me, including how on earth Templar and his lady friend find themselves running up and down inside the Thames Barrier to order to stop a yacht from making its way through. An interesting action sequence, to be sure, but as it turns out, the whole scene has nothing to do with how the bad guys are caught.

   Will I watch another. as long as I have a complete set of the first three of these movies? Well, I did like the gentleman who plays Inspector Teal (David Ryall), whose quasi-friendship simply chafes the sensibilities of his superior at New Scotland Yard (Simon Rouse).

   There were a lot of Simon’s involved in the whole production, weren’t there?

HARDBALL “Till Death Do Us Part.” NBC, 21 September 1989 (Season 1, Episode 1), 90 minutes. John Ashton (Charlie Battles), Richard Tyson (Joe ‘Kaz’ Kaczierowski). Guest Cast: Kay Lenz. Director: David Hemmings.

   The way I heard it, and I don’t remember where, the pair of Beverly Hills police detectives in Beverly Hills Cop played by John Aston and Judge Reinhold made such a big hit that they (someone) decided to make a TV series along the same lines: an older, streetwise and supposedly wiser cop (Aston) is paired up with a more freewheeling and a lot younger partner (Tyson, in the series). Basic themes: Culture clash, hair vs no hair, and a lot of humorous bickering, but at the end the day, a solid friendship (and partnership) is made.

   But “buddy cop” shows have come and gone for quite a while, and this one doesn’t add a lot to the genre. Wikipedia says the series was based on a couple of characters in the “Lethal Weapon” series of movies. I like my version better, even if I’m wrong.

   The series lasted for only one season, 18 episodes in all. It started in September of 1989, with a long break between December and April before ending in June. I think the people who spend their time reading up on old obscure TV shows on blogs like this one are the only ones who might remember it at all. Based on this pilot episode, I kind of wonder how it lasted a full season, more or less, but on the other hand, it could have been a lot worse.

   The story itself isn’t all that new, either. Ashton’s character is about to be forced into a desk job, but when a female witness (Kay Lenz) is about to testify against her gangster husband and needs protection, Ashton and his new partner are it. We’ve all heard that one before, but luckily there is more to the story. Ashton and Lenz’s characters have some history together, and there’s a little boy who bonds with Tyson’s, and if you don’t know he’s going to be kidnapped before the show is over, I apologize for coming right out and telling you.

   One remarkable thing about this show is Tyson’s hair. When he wears it in an unruly ponytail, it’s fine, but when he lets it flow unfettered and free, his head looks three times its usual size. Well, OK, there is one other thing. When Ashton gets desperate for information, I’ll just say he doesn’t mind who he smacks around and leave it at that.

   I have a collector-to-collector set of DVDs of most if not all the series, but with the first episode not really better than average, and a picture quality to match, I may or may not rush into watching more of them. On the other hand, I paid for them, so why not. But unless something happens in one of the later episodes I really want to tell you about, I’m not likely to say anything more than I have here.

by Michael Shonk

   It is that time of year when children of all ages experience what collectors feel all year round. The thrill of the possibilities, the excitement of the search and finding your prey, the joy of possession – and we don’t have to wait for Santa.

   Every collector has his Holy Grails, his or her list of those that have escaped their grasp for too long and may not even still exist. I decided this season to ask Santa for some help, and I decided to share it here.

   The first is always of interest to the collector. So I have long sought the series most accept as TV network’s first weekly mystery series with a regular cast – BARNEY BLAKE, POLICE REPORTER. The series aired live on NBC from April 22, 1948 to July 8, 1948 and starred Gene O’Donnell as Barney.

   One of my favorite characters in fiction is Craig Rice’s John J. Malone of books, films, radio, and TV. I have reviewed the radio series here (and discussed the TV series in the comments)

   The TV version of Malone aired on ABC between September 24, 1951 and March 10, 1952 and starred Lee Tracy as Malone. The series aired live and alternated with MR. DISTRICT ATTORNEY on Monday at 8-8:30pm. While MR. DISTRICT ATTORNEY has been released on DVD, I have yet to find one episode or even clip of AMAZING MR. MALONE.

   It was common in the fifties for radio series to become a TV series and that was the fate of George Harmon Coxe’s Jack Casey. The TV series CRIME PHOTOGRAPHER aired on CBS from April 19, 1951 to June 5, 1952. In Season One Casey was played by Richard Carlyle who was replaced in Season Two by Darren McGavin. Today few remember the once popular Casey who got his start in pulps and in addition to radio and TV made it in novels and films.

   THE MASK aired on ABC from January 10, 1954 to May 16, 1954. It featured two brothers, Walter and Peter Guilfoyle (played by Gary Merrill and William Prince) as lawyers who fought crime. It was also TV’s first hour-long mystery series with a continuing cast of characters.

   21 BEACON STREET aired on NBC from July 2 to September 10 1959. PI Dennis Chase (Dennis Morgan) worked with a group of specialists to solve crime. Reportedly the series producers sued MISSION IMPOSSIBLE for stealing its idea (or one of its characters). It also may be the first TV series with a female license PI (Joanna Barnes as Lola).

   ADVENTURE SHOWCASE aired on CBS on Tuesday during the summer of 1959. The series featured four failed pilots, one airing each week. IMDb gives details of three of the four titles – BROCK CALLAHAN (episode title “Silent Kill” and starred Ken Clark, written by Stirling Silliphant and directed by Don Siegel), JOHNNY NIGHTHAWK, a lover of adventure and professional pilot with his own plane (starred Scott Brady, written by Tony Barrett and directed by Oscar Rudolph), WAR CORRESPONDENT (starring Gene Barry as Sgt Pike, written by Otis Carney and directed by Christian Nyby).

   All sound interesting, but I am a fan of writer Sam Rolfe, and he apparently wrote the second week’s failed pilot of which almost nothing is known – not plot, characters, cast, nor title — and that is what I am searching for. Santa knows all — including collectors never pick the easy ones.

   Speaking of challenges, number one on my wish list (and bucket list … I did say I was a collector) is THE LONG HUNT OF APRIL SAVAGE. The TV Movie pilot was written by Sam Rolfe, and may have had the episode title of “Home is an Empty Grave.” Everything about this show is intriguing. The pilot sold and the series was on the proposed ABC’s 1966-67 schedule. The premise was ahead of its time. Robert Lansing starred in the Western as April Savage. Savage’s family had been killed by eight men and during the series he would search for each to kill them.

   Similar to today’s arc stories Savage would find the killers one at a time over the period of the series, or so it was planned. But there were behind the scenes problems, and reportedly Rolfe quit and the show fell apart, so ABC quickly turned to another pilot also with Lansing called THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS. (A review of a made-for-TV movie cobbled together from edited episodes of THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS can be found here.)

   Sometimes you wonder how a TV series with such great talent involved could disappear, an example of this is ABC’s STONE. The series aired January 14, 1980 to March 17, 1980. It was created by Stephen Cannell (ROCKFORD FILES), Richard Levinson and William Link (COLUMBO) and produced by Cannell for Universal Television. It starred Dennis Weaver (McCLOUD) a cop who writes a best seller that affects his work on the police force.

   DETECTIVE IN THE HOUSE aired on CBS between March 15 and April 19, 1985, and starred Judd Hirsch as a successful engineer who quits to become a PI and is tutored by a retired PI played by Jack Elam. This hour-long drama may have had Howard Duff in an episode or two. I wanna see Elam as a PI in a “drama.”

   LEAVING L.A. aired on ABC from April 12, 1997 to June 14, 1997. The series was about an odd group of people working at the Los Angeles morgue. The cast included Christopher Meloni, Ron Rifkin, Allison Bertolino and Hilary Swank (pre-Oscar). Someday this one will pop up somewhere and since Santa is always watching, maybe he will tell me if I’ve been good.

   Sometimes just a clip from a forgotten/lost series can add it to the wish list. Here are a few series that made Santa’s list with only a clip or theme song.

   MONTY NASH was a syndicated TV series based on a series of books by Richard Telfair. Harry Guardino played government investigator Monty Nash in this half hour series that aired in 1971.

   KINGSTON: CONFIDENTIAL starred Raymond Burr as a rich communication mogul who liked to fight crime. This NBC series aired first as a successful TV Movie called KINGSTON in 1976. The series lasted 13 episodes from March 23, 1977 to August 10, 1977.

   VERONICA CLARE was on Lifetime network from July 23 1991 to September 17, 1991. Veronica was an owner of a jazz club in L.A.’s Chinatown and doubled as a PI with a 40’s style. While the clip’s audio is near unlistenable, the video shows the series neo-noir style.

   BLACK TIE AFFAIR was originally called SMOLDERING LUST until NBC changed it over creator/producer Jay Tarses objections. Tarses is known for his comedy work (THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, BUFFALO BILL). In this series Tarses created his version of the PI mystery. The series aired from May 29 to June 19, 1993, and starred Bradley Whitford and Kate Capshaw. Once the series changed its name to BLACK TIE AFFAIR the theme would lose its lyrics but here is the original theme with its lyrics.

   Now comes the horrible moment I remember as a kid. I am only half way into the Sears Christmas catalog, and I realize my list is too long. I could make Santa mad by asking for too much — aka all I really really need. But I am an adult now, and I no longer have to depend on the kindness of others. I can continue to shop until it is time to give Santa yet one more try next year. Ho ho ho everyone.

SILVERFOX. ABC, 6 July 1991. 60min. James Coburn (Robert Fox), Julia Nickson-Soul, M. Emmet Walsh, Jillie Mack, Leigh Taylor-Young. Story: Chris Abbott, Tom Selleck & Chas. Floyd Johnson. Director: Rod Holcomb.

   This is one busted TV series pilot that had some potential, or at least the basis for some. The idea and the leading player were fine. In terms of what made it onto the air, one time only, it’s the story and the execution that misfires, and badly. It was billed as The ABC Saturday Night Movie, but according to the review in Variety, it ran only from 10 to 11 pm, which matches the length of the copy I have.

   Which was long enough to tell that the series wasn’t going to be going anywhere. James Coburn is the star, obviously, and he’s definitely not the problem. The concept is not bad, either. He plays a spy who’s been number one in the game all his life, but now that he’s getting older, does he want the comfort of a desk job, or does he want to put off retirement for just one more job?

   And frankly, I didn’t really understand what the job was. Something to do with a murdered gangster and some plates for counterfeiting Japanese yen, but other than the young Asian agent named Shimoi Chen he teams up with (Julia Nickson-Soul), I really didn’t put any other names and faces together. A story that’s strictly by the numbers tends to do that to you.

   As a younger actor, James Coburn I often found a little too smug and cocky to enjoy his performances, although to be honest, I may have changed too. As Silverfox in this film and at the age of 63, he had mellowed a lot, and I found him relaxed and easy-going and playing a role he was meant to play, at least at that time of his career.

“Sunken Treasure.” An episode of Miami Undercover, Ziv, syndicated, 24 April 1961 (Season 1, Episode 14). Lee Bowman (Jeff Thompson), Rocky Graziano (Rocky). Guest cast: George N. Neise, Adrienne Bourbeau, Gene Damian, Nora Hayden. Music: Johnny Green. Writer: Gerald Drayson Adams. Director: Howard W. Koch.

   The gimmick here is that posing as a man-about-town playboy, detective Jeff Thompson is actually working undercover for a Miami Beach hotel association. Rocky Graziano is his live-in assistant who also prepares his breakfast.

   There are a couple of other episodes still in existence out of run of 38 — and if you go searching, you may find them online. It’s not likely, but even if someone came up with a complete set on DVD, I wouldn’t pay a lot of money for copies. Based on my sample of size one, I’d say the series was competently done, but where it counts, it was little more than mediocre.

   A couple of Jeff’s friends, a young married couple who run a small boating operation, are taken in by a pair of con-artists who want some stolen diamonds to be brought up from the ocean as salvage from a sunken Spanish galleon. (I may have the details wrong — there’s a lot of plot that’s stuffed into a mere 25 minute episode — but it’s close enough.)

   Lee Bowman’s was 47 when he made this series, his movie career far in the past, and while still spry, he looks older. Rocky Graziano’s only contribution is to be enthusiastic, which he does just fine. Adrienne Bourbeau is not the Adrienne Barbeau, but the statuesque Nora Hayden makes a very fine substitute for Jane Russell, who probably was not available.

   Nothing is made of Jeff’s undercover status. Perhaps the married couple know him only as a playboy (an aging one), but the two con-artists know who he is from the get-go. There is a bomb involved toward the end of this episode, but it’s easily disposed of, and the whole affair is laughed off as a lark, just another day at the beach. Miami Beach, that is.

by Michael Shonk

Some notes of interest for the Mystery*File TV viewer.

CW – Since all programs are made by the studios that own the network (CBS and Warner Brothers) CW is slow to cancel. Only REIGN is in any trouble.

ABC – BLOOD AND OIL will end after 10th episode. QUANTICO has been picked up for a full season. NASHVILLE is in trouble as usual, but CASTLE is in danger due to its age and having its butt kicked by NBC’s BLINDSPOT. WICKED CITY, a series about a serial killer in 1982 Los Angeles, premieres Tuesday the 27th.

CBS – LIMITLESS has been picked up for a full season. CSI: CYBER is doomed. NCIS:LA is in trouble for the same reason as CASTLE (NBC’s BLINDSPOT).

FOX – MINORITY REPORT is gone after its tenth episode. ROSEWOOD has been picked up for a full season. SLEEPY HOLLOW, BONES and any sitcom are in trouble.

NBC – BLINDSPOT has been picked up for the season. THE PLAYER ends in mid-November. The network’s biggest problems are its sitcoms and its suicidal handling of THE BLACKLIST.

PBS – BBC’s SHERLOCK returns with a one episode special. “The Abominable Bride” will air January 1st.

Starz – DA VINCI’S DEMONS has just began it last season.

Midseason will be here before you know it.

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