I’m too young to have seen Philip Marlowe when it was originally broadcast, and I’ve never been able to watch it since. (So far, there’s been no DVD release of the show.) Nonetheless, I have long been aware of this 1959-1960 ABC-TV series, which placed New Jersey-born actor Philip Carey in the role of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles private eye. It debuted 50 years ago today, on October 6, 1959, with an episode titled “The Ugly Duckling.”
By 1959, Marlowe had a solid history of appearing in motion pictures. The character had also enjoyed a fairly long run on radio dramas, starring in 119 episodes of The Adventures of Philip Marlowe between 1947 and 1951. (Many of those episodes can be heard--free of charge--by clicking here.) Van Heflin and Gerald Mohr both played the jaded gumshoe over those years. But when game-show producers Mark Goodson and Bill Todman (What’s My Line?) decided to take on Chandler’s popular protagonist, they selected Carey for the role. A veteran of big-screen westerns, TV anthology series, and the 1956 show Tales of the 77th Bengal Lancers, Carey was already at work on other projects, but abandoned those in favor of what he hoped would be a longer lasting, more lucrative career in Goodson-Todman’s Philip Marlowe (“I was only into money,” Carey conceded in an Archive of American Television interview available online; his recollections of portraying Marlowe begin at about the 10:52 mark).
As Kevin Burton Smith of The Thrilling Detective Web Site explains, Carey’s Philip Marlowe
ran for 26 episodes from 1959-60 on ABC, and [there were] no memorable stories about it to make it stand out. Philip Carey, a big, tough and usually watchable actor, would seem to have been a decent choice to play Marlowe in 1959. Carey’s Marlowe differed from the books in at least two (and probably more) ways in that he sported a scar on one cheek and apparently had a marina apartment and his own boat. The latter two changes prompted Time magazine, in an article on the glut of TV detectives at the time, to question if Carey’s Marlowe might be on the take from some “wrongos.” ... The line producer and frequent scripter was Gene Wang, a radio/television veteran who was also the first story editor on the Perry Mason television series. Frank MacShane’s biography of Chandler indicates that E. Jack Neuman, a top-drawer radio-television writer who later developed such long-running series as Dr. Kildare and Joseph Wambaugh’s Police Story, may have written for the series. Other writers included Charles Beaumont, best known for his work on The Twilight Zone, and James E. Moser, creator of Ben Casey and Medic. Obviously, some good talent behind the camera, but the show didn’t distinguish itself ...Other than Marlowe, the only recurring character in the series seems to have been an L.A. police lieutenant named Manny Harris, played by William Schallert (later of The Patty Duke Show and The Nancy Drew Mysteries). The program’s jazzy theme music was composed by Richard Markowitz, who also created the more famous theme for The Wild Wild West. And if this series “didn’t distinguish itself” among private-eye dramas in the late 1950s/early ’60s, it was at least popular enough to inspire the creation of a board game (shown at left).
Raymond Chandler actually died six months before Philip Marlowe debuted, so he never saw even one of the series’ half-hour, black-and-white installments. However, in Creatures of Darkness: Raymond Chandler, Detective Fiction, and Film Noir (2000), author Gene D. Phillips recalls that “Chandler had for a long time shied away from authorizing a Marlowe television series, explaining, ‘To me, television is just one more facet of the considerable segment of our civilization which never had any standard but the soft buck.’ He referred to television producers as ‘lunatics’” and said, “I simply can’t afford to have the character [of Marlowe] murdered by a bunch of yucks.” Yet, when Goodson and Todman “approached him about a Marlowe series in late 1958, Chandler felt that he had held out long enough and finally relented. After all, the emolument he would regularly receive for the use of his character was too substantial to pass up.” Phillips goes on to quote Carey’s recollections of his encounters with Chandler:
Carey remembered that Chandler wanted the series set in the 1940s, the time frame of all of the Marlowe feature films that had been produced up to that time. But the producers countered that the Marlowe movies were set in the 1940s because they were made in the 1940s and held out for a contemporary setting for the series. Chandler was subsequently vindicated when the series was later criticized by television critics for not sticking to the forties time frame of the Marlowe films.Philip Marlowe’s cancellation in the spring of 1960 turned out not to be the worst thing for actor Carey’s career. He went on to guest parts in 77 Sunset Strip, Ironside, McMillan & Wife, Banacek, McCloud, and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. He broke ground in an episode of All in the Family, playing an ex-pro football player who admits to Archie Bunker (Carol O’Connor) that he’s gay. Carey spent two years starring in the NBC western series Laredo, and put in more than two decades on the ABC soap opera One Life to Live, playing Texan patriarch and self-made billionaire Asa Buchanan.
Before the series was premiered, Carey had a conference with Chandler, during which Chandler “asked me what I thought of some of the people who played Marlowe in films. ... He wasn’t very coherent, but he liked the way I looked.” Chandler agreed to help promote the series by appearing on some television talk shows with Carey; these rare appearances by the reclusive Chandler testified to his overall willingness to help the series succeed. Carey looked back on Chandler in the last year of the novelist’s life as “rather crusty, and not a very nice man to be around”--a comment often made by those who crossed Chandler’s path in Hollywood through the years. As with the radio series, Chandler did not wish to supervise the television scripts; “but as long as he felt some involvement,” he was content, Carey concluded. Chandler was no doubt pleased that each segment included a statement in the opening credits that the series was “created by Raymond Chandler.”
Carey died in February of this year at age 83. By that time, Philip Marlowe probably merited just a minor mention on his résumé. Yet, other than Powers Boothe’s 1983-1986 series, Philip Marlowe, Private Eye, Carey’s show represents television’s sole long-term attempt at translating the dark but vivid world of Chandler’s P.I. to the small screen. A commendable effort worth noting today, half a century after Carey first trod those mean streets in Marlowe’s shoes.
READ MORE: “Review and History--The 1959-60 Philip Marlowe TV Series, by Michael Shonk” (Mystery*File).