FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins
My July column, the longest I’ve ever written, was completely devoted to the Mike Hammer TV series of 1958-59 but there are a couple of related items that I couldn’t squeeze in last time. I trust no Hammerhead will mind if I begin with these.
Two questions surrounding the series caught my attention as I was fiddling with the column. First, was there a Hammer pilot episode and if so which was it? The order of original broadcast in New York or any other city doesn’t help because it was different in every market and completely up to the station owning the local rights. Copyright registration dates don’t help either, nor does the order in which they appear on the recently released DVD set. If the episodes had production numbers, I haven’t been able to find them.
However, I think I’ve solved the puzzle while slowly making my way through the set. Throughout the series the role of Hammer’s friendly enemy Captain Pat Chambers is played by Bart Burns. But in one early segment there’s a plainclothes cop who’s referred to only as Pat but is clearly meant to be Chambers. The actor who plays him is not Bart Burns but Ted De Corsia, who also played Sergeant Velie for much of the run of the Adventures of Ellery Queen on radio.
The episode is “Death Takes an Encore,” directed by Richard Irving and written by Frank Kane based on one of his short stories about New York PI Johnny Liddell (“Return Engagement,” Manhunt, February 1955, collected in Johnny Liddell’s Morgue, Dell pb #A117, 1956). For my money, that was the pilot.
The second question also involves Frank Kane. Back in the late Forties he wrote around 45 scripts for that classic radio series The Shadow, and for several years there have been rumors that at least one of his Hammer scripts was a rewrite of one of his Shadow scripts. But which?
I believe I’ve solved that puzzle too. Another early episode written by Kane, “Letter Edged in Blackmail,” shares a springboard with Kane’s Shadow script “Etched with Acid” (March 17, 1946): the protagonist in both tries to shut down a racket in which wealthy women with heavy gambling debts are forced to fake robberies of their own jewels. As neither Mike Hammer nor The Shadow would ever dream of saying: Q.E.D.
Death has claimed two actors who were well known for having played TV detectives. Efrem Zimbalist Jr. was the first to go. He died on May 2 at age 95, reportedly while mowing the lawn of his house in the horse-ranching community of Solvang, California.
People of my generation first got to know Zimbalist on the Warner Bros. TV series 77 Sunset Strip (1958-64), in which he starred as ultra-suave PI Stuart Bailey. No sooner had that series left the air than he started playing Federal agent Lewis Erskine on the even longer-running The FBI (1965-74).
When I met him — very briefly, at a film festival in Memphis — he was over 80 and still looked great. Judging from the photos of him I found on the Web, he still looked great in his 90s. Way to go! May we all be so lucky.
The other recently deceased tele-icon was James Garner, who at age 86 was found dead in his Los Angeles home on July 19. Like Zimbalist he was best known for two long-running TV series but his were in different genres.
His earliest claim to fame was as star of the Warner Bros. Western series Maverick (1957-63) but his interest for us stems from his years playing an un-macho PI in The Rockford Files (1974-80).
In his autobiography The Garner Files (2011) he claimed that Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford were basically the same character, but he never said and probably never knew that the character from which both were sort of spun off was an icon of U.S. detective fiction, namely that quintessential American wiseass Archie Goodwin.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if only there had been a Nero Wolfe movie with the middle-aged Orson Welles as Wolfe and the young Garner as Archie!
Both Maverick and 77 Sunset Strip were created by the same man, who was also a co-producer and, as John Thomas James, a frequent scriptwriter for The Rockford Files .
He first came to attention, however, as a mystery novelist. Roy Huggins (1914-2002) debuted in the genre with The Double Take (1946), whose protagonist, PI Stuart Bailey, was a character and first-person narrator owing a great deal to Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and very different from the suave and perhaps a bit bland Bailey of 77 Sunset Strip.
Anthony Boucher’s review for the San Francisco Chronicle (February 3, 1946) was spot on as usual: “Mr. Huggins adds nothing to the established hardboiled formula but does an unusually able job within its possibly overfamiliar frame.”
At that time, with Dashiell Hammett having written nothing since The Thin Man (1934), “the established hardboiled formula” meant Chandler. The latter may not have read The Double Take himself but he clearly found out about it and, as witness his letter to fellow pulp veteran Cleve F. Adams (September 4, 1948), he was not amused.
“I don’t know Roy Huggins and have never laid eyes on him. He sent me an autographed copy of his book … with his apologies and the dedication he says the publishers would not let him put in it. In writing to thank him I said his apologies were either unnecessary or inadequate and that I could name three or four writers who had gone as far as he had, without his frankness about it …. I personally think that a deliberate attempt to lift a writer’s personal tricks, his stock in trade, his mannerisms, his approach to his material, can be carried too far — to the point where it is a kind of plagiarism, and a nasty kind because the law gives no protection…. Somebody who read Huggins’ book told me that it was full of scenes which were modeled in detail on scenes in my books, just moved over enough to get by.”
Somebody else informed Chandler that “the publishers told Huggins, in effect, that it was bad enough for him to steal my approach and my method or whatever, but stealing my characters was going a little too far. I understand there was some rewriting, but cannot vouch for any of this.”
The letter to Adams can be found in Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, ed. Frank MacShane (1981), pp. 125-126. This is the only reference to Huggins in the index to MacShane’s book, but a careful reader will find Chandler revisiting the incident in later correspondence. Writing to spy novelist and later Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt on November 16, 1952, he says:
“As you may know, writers like Dashiell Hammett and myself have been widely and ruthlessly imitated, so closely as to amount to a moral plagiarism…. I have had stories taken scene by scene and just lightly changed here and there. I have had lines of dialogue taken intact, bits of description also word for word. I have no recourse. The law doesn’t call it plagiarism.”
Exactly nine months later, on September 16, 1953, writing to a master at his alma mater Dulwich College, he adds a bit more detail to the story.
“A few years ago a man wrote a story which was a scene by scene steal from one of mine. He changed names and incidents just enough to stay inside the law…. The publisher to whom the book was sent demanded indignantly of the agent submitting it how he dared send them a book by Chandler under a pseudonym without saying so. When he learned that I had not had anything to do with the book he demanded certain changes to tone down the blatancy of the imitation and then published it. It did very well too.”
These quotations come respectively from pp. 334 and 352 of MacShane’s collection.
Huggins’ Hollywood career began when The Double Take sold to the movies and he was hired to write the screenplay for what was released as I Love Trouble (1948), with Franchot Tone as Bailey. By the time Chandler died, in 1959, Huggins had created Maverick and 77 Sunset Strip and both series were prime-time hits, but the creator of Philip Marlowe watched very little TV and may never have known that a sardonic prophecy he had made in his letter to Cleve Adams had come true:
“More power to Mr. Huggins. If he has been traveling on borrowed gas to any extent, the time will come when he will have to spew his guts into his own tank.”
Which is precisely what Huggins did.