Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Scaring Up Other Reasons to Celebrate

The first time I remember coming across actress Lee Grant, who is celebrating her 80th birthday today, was in the 1971 TV movie Ransom for a Dead Man, the second pilot for Peter Falk’s Columbo series. She played an overconfident (as it turned out) lawyer who does away with her husband and then tries to make it look like a kidnapping gone disastrously wrong. Of course, Lieutenant Columbo--who was not nearly so dense as he acted at times--ultimately managed to figure out Grant’s plan and corner her, but not before the pair had jousted on-screen to rave reviews.

Of course, this was not her first small-screen performance. Grant had previously guest-starred in a rather wide variety of crime dramas, including The Defenders, Ironside, Judd for the Defense, The Mod Squad, and The Name of the Game; she’d also been featured in cinematic roles, such as those of a shoplifter in the 1951 film Detective Story and a neurotic mother in The Landlord (1970), for the latter of which she won an Academy Award nomination. Later, I would watch as Grant tried--painfully, it seemed--to fit into a TV sitcom lead (in Fay, 1975-1976). And, in Partners in Crime, she stole the show as a retired judge who opens a private detective agency with an ex-con associate (Lou Antonio). That 1973 teleflick was actually the second attempt by Columbo creators William Link and Richard Levinson to develop a weekly series around a female magistrate; an earlier effort, The Judge and Jake Wyler, had starred Bette Davis and Doug McClure. Regrettably, Partners in Crime didn’t make it onto the fall ’73 television schedule.

During the 1970s and early ’80s, Lee Grant was in high demand, both on the boob tube and in movies, though her contributions to crime-fiction works appear to have petered out slowly. (Her last role I recognize as belonging within this genre was as a member of the cast in Peter Ustinov’s 1981 flick, Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen.) She has since popped up less frequently, as she did in David Lynch’s 2001 “cult classic,” Mulholland Dr. Yet my memories of her performances will always be weighted toward her standout work in those late-20th-century TV crime dramas.

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Celebrating a birthday on this Halloween, too, is another TV staple, Charles Cioffi. I remember him best for the role he played as Robert Conrad’s U.S. intelligence contact, Major Bernard Caldwell, in the sadly short-lived ABC series Assignment: Vienna (1972-1973). But he also made appearances in Madigan, Faraday and Company, Get Christie Love!, The Streets of San Francisco, Kojak, Hawaii Five-O, a Columbo teleflick from 2000, and ... well, the list goes on. And on.

Charles Cioffi turns 72 today.

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Finally, lest we forget, this date also marks the birthdays of three--count ’em, three--crime-fiction stalwarts: British jockey-turned-novelist Dick Francis, whose latest book is Dead Heat, written in company with his son Francis, is 87 today; H.R.F. Keating, creator of the Inspector Ghote series, turns 81; and Richard S. “Kinky” Friedman--novelist, singer, songwriter, and would-be Texas governor--is going to find a fire hazard of 63 candles decorating his birthday cake today.


Keith Raffel said...

Jeff, I know it's far from crime fiction, but I remember Lee Grant best from the movie Shampoo with Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn, and Warren Beatty. If memory serves a teenaged and very precocious Carrie Fisher played her daughter. How can she be 80 already?

wstroby said...

For me, Charles Cioffi will always be NYPD Lt. Vic Anderozzi in the original SHAFT. He only appeared in the first film, but he's a recurring character in all the novels. To add to his crime fiction creds, Cioffi followed it up with a great TV movie, MONGO'S BACK IN TOWN, based on E. Richard Johnson's novel.

Vince said...

Three more Charles Cioffi credits that matter to crime fiction buffs: his key role in the pilot episode of The X-Files, playing the villain in the Remo Williams movie based on the Destroyer novels, and Klute.