Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Jury Has Reached a Verdict

“Who’s the best TV/movie criminal attorney in history?” That was the question posed in The Rap Sheet’s third and latest survey, and over the last two weeks readers responded in fairly great numbers. In fact, more people participated in this poll than made their opinions known in our previous blog surveys about favorite TV cops and private eyes and long-missing crime novelists. With 329 votes cast, the top five picks are:

1. Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird (Gregory Peck)--63 votes
2. Perry Mason, Perry Mason (Raymond Burr)--54 votes
3. Horace Rumpole, Rumpole of the Bailey (Leo McKern)--39 votes
4. Alexandra Cabot, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (Stephanie March)--19 votes
5. Jack McCoy, Law & Order (Sam Waterston)--18 votes

To be frank, I had expected Erle Stanley Gardner’s renowned trial advocate, Mason, to lead this pack. However, Finch’s win might have been predicted. After all, as Wikipedia reminds us, in 2003 the American Film Institute named Atticus Finch as “the #1 Greatest Hero of American film”; and in 2002, “a panel of 55 authors, literary agents, editors, and actors” assembled by the now-defunct Book Magazine, rated Finch #7 on its rundown of the “100 Best Characters in Fiction Since 1900” (right behind Sherlock Holmes). Obviously, Rap Sheet readers have good taste. That’s proven true, as well, by the fact that the late McKern’s Rumpole, an eccentric British barrister who would probably not appeal to today’s younger audience of action-movie junkies, scored so high.

That New York Assistant District Attorney Cabot (who actually bowed out of Law & Order: SVU back in 2003, only to reappear in the short-lived Conviction three years later) and newly promoted District Attorney McCoy occupy the fourth and fifth positions in this poll probably owes both to the brilliance of the actors portraying them and to the general, continuing popularity of creator-executive producer Dick Wolf’s ratings-grabbling series franchise.

More surprising are the characters--all of them TV figures--who fill the next four spots on this survey. Coming in at #6 is Tony Petrocelli, the Harvard-educated lawyer (portrayed by Barry Newman) who, in Petrocelli, left the higher-paying playing field of Manhattan to take up a very different sort of practice in the fictional cow town of San Remo, Arizona. Petrocelli held a place on NBC’s TV schedule for only two years (1974-1976), but, as evidenced by our poll, its protagonist is still fondly remembered. (Petrocelli received 17 votes.) The same goes for #7 on our list: Los Angeles District Attorney Hamilton Burger (William Tallman), who was Perry Mason’s customary adversary on the 1957-1966 CBS TV series. He walked away with 16 votes in our poll. Which, it should be noted, is just one more than was received by Billy Jim Hawkins, the deceptively bright West Virginia criminal attorney portrayed by Jimmy Stewart in the CBS-TV series Hawkins (1973-1974). At #8, Hawkins barely squeaked ahead of Owen Marshall (Arthur Hill), the avuncular counselor from Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law (1971-1974); he scored 14 votes.

Capturing the last spot on our top 10: Paul Biegler, the better-than-able defense attorney (also played by Stewart) in the 1959 movie Anatomy of a Murder. He won 12 votes.

A full table of the results from this poll can be found here.

As our readers pointed out, we forgot at least two criminal attorneys who might have made good showings in this survey: Alan Shore (James Spader), the offbeat, womanizing, but still somehow endearing go-to lawyer lead from ABC-TV’s very popular series Boston Legal; and the fondly remembered--if not quite so broadly recalled--Lawrence Preston (E.G. Marshall) from The Defenders (1961-1965), a CBS series about a father-son team of attorneys who took on definably hopeless cases. (Robert Reed, later of The Brady Bunch, played the junior Preston.) There’s one other character, as well, who I can hardly believe I forgot to include in this poll’s choices: Theodore “Ted” Hoffman (Daniel Benzali) from the 1995-1996 first season of Steven Bochco’s unconventional Murder One. Quietly powerful and resolutely ethical, if not brimming with human warmth, Hoffman was exactly the sort of advocate one wanted on his or her side, when there seemed no hope in sight of a favorable verdict. So terrific was Benzali in that first season, that I was astounded to see him replaced by Anthony LaPaglia in season two.

There’s no way of knowing whether any of these additional candidates might have swayed the voting in The Rap Sheet’s recent poll. But I suspect they, too, would have found many admirers among our readers. Maybe next time.

1 comment:

Graham Powell said...

Gregory Peck benefits because MOCKINGBIRD was such a great film. I still remember the poor black man crying on the stand as he told what happened, knowing this would probably lead to his death.

You know what happened to that actor? He ended up playing a Starfleet admiral.