It’s altogether possible that the majority of people reading this post have no memory at all of Search, the 1972-1973 NBC-TV series that featured a trio of field operatives working for a high-tech private investigations company. And that’s not really surprising.
The Leslie Stevens-created show (with theme music by Dominic Frontiere) seemed well positioned to succeed. It followed the then new NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie at 10 p.m. and starred a rotating roster of some of the era’s most recognizable TV actors: Hugh O’Brian (formerly of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp), Tony Franciosa (onetime co-star of The Name of the Game, later to play the lead in Matt Helm), and ever-boyish Doug McClure (once of Checkmate, later of Barbary Coast). Though all three of their characters were supposed to be skilled and resourceful operatives, they also had plenty of backup in the form of a NASA-like control room, the Probe Division of World Securities Corp., where technicians kept track of their movements and health via miniature telemetry units and cameras that the globe-trotting sleuths wore alternately on rings and as medallions around their necks. (Hey, this was the ’70s, remember?) Directing Probe was V.C.R. Cameron, played by Burgess Meredith, another Hollywood star with plenty of admirers (even though many of the younger ones knew him only as one of Batman’s more notorious nemeses, the Penguin). Oh, and in case viewers needed additional distractions in the control room, beyond the perpetually anxious Meredith and multiple millions of blinking computer lights, a curvaceous young blond actress named Angel Tompkins served as Gloria Harding, Probe’s medical expert (at least in the early episodes).
So what went wrong? According to an article published recently at the Web site TV Obscurities (a must-watch site for boob-tube nostalgics), part of the problem was too much “way-out stuff like two-way radio implants in the noggin.” New showrunners were brought in to peel some of the science-fiction elements away from Search and change the “heroes from Supermen to more believable human beings.” Another article, this one written by Don Harden and appearing at the site TVParty!, recalls that “The new producers apparently decided to compete with Cannon [the William Conrad private-eye series, which ran opposite it on CBS] by becoming more similar, instead of offering a contrast. Search became less fun, more dramatic, focusing on grittier crime stories being solved by the agent himself with less reliance on Probe Control. The ultimate effect of this made the later episodes dull by comparison to the earlier episodes.”
Viewers and the network were unsatisfied with the results. Search’s final new episode (of 23 total, not counting the pilot film, titled Probe) was shown on Wednesday, April 11, 1973.
Despite its short run, Search has since become something of a cult favorite. And though it hasn’t yet made the transfer to DVD format (or even been broadcast in the United States for many years), you can sometimes pick up sets of the series’ episodes from online sales sites such as iOffer and Sell.com Classifieds.
I’m afraid that the whole concept might seem a bit cheesy in our era of cell phones and Twitter. But I’m willing to give it a shot, if only some company will release Search in a DVD set. Heck, if other unlikely one-season wonders such as Planet of the Apes and Kolchak: The Night Stalker can find audiences on disc, then why not Search?
(UPDATE: Warner Bros. Home Video finally released a DVD version of Probe, the 1972 pilot film for Search, in May 2011.)
* * *While we’re on the subject of long-forgotten TV programs, how about the 1979-1980 Robert Conrad secret agent series A Man Called Sloane? Christopher Mills has taken on the challenge of recapping its full run of episodes in his excellent new blog, Spy-Fi Channel.
READ MORE: “The Latest in 1972 High-Tech,” by Tim Rose
(Friday @ 8/7 Central); “1972--The TV Guide Fall Preview,” by Brent McKee (I Am a Child of Television); and Michael Shonk of Mystery*File wrote three posts about Search, one looking back at the pilot film and the others about the specific episodes in which this series’ three stars appeared--Hugh O’Brian, Tony Franciosa, and Doug McClure.