Series Title: Crime Story | Years: 1986-1988, NBC | Starring: Dennis Farina, Anthony Denison, Bill Smitrovich, Steve Ryan, Paul Butler, Bill Campbell, Stephen Lang, John Santucci | Theme Music: Del Shannon
In the mid-1980s, with two successful years behind him as the executive producer of ratings winner Miami Vice, screenwriter and director Michael Mann decided that his next TV series would take him from the pastel hues, string bikinis, and glass cliffs of Florida’s largest city back to the place of his birth: Chicago, Illinois. On September 18, 1986, NBC debuted Crime Story, his underworld saga that substituted a grim, malevolent verisimilitude for Vice’s stylishness and more distant violence, and wound up being touted by Time magazine as one of the decade’s best small-screen treats.
The series’ two-hour pilot movie, which like the rest of the early episodes was set in 1963, established this program’s tone and pace. As The New York Times’ John J. O’Connor wrote after seeing it:
During a robbery in progress at a flashy Chicago club, a customer is killed by a vicious thug, who then starts taking hostages. Rushing to the scene, a police lieutenant, Mike Torello, warns the murderer that if anyone else is hurt, “I’m gonna kill whoever you love most--your mother, your father, your dog.”To play the lead in Crime Story, Mann and the show’s creators, Miami Vice veteran (and ex-Windy City cop) Chuck Adamson and former Wall Street international investment banker Gustave Reininger, enlisted a relative newcomer to Hollywood, Dennis Farina. With a dark mustache broad enough to sweep streets and a pockmarked face that looked like it had been reclaimed from the scrap heap at Mount Rushmore, Farina made a most convincing Mike Torello--and why not, since he had actually served 18 years with Chicago’s police force before moving into film consulting and then acting. There was impatience, cynicism, and perpetual disgust in Farina’s heavy-lidded gaze. Viewers had little trouble accepting him as the head of the Chicago Police Department’s Major Crime Unit (MCU), “an elite cop squad that goes after big scores and high-ticket crooks,” to quote from TV Guide’s 1986 Fall Preview edition write-up on the series. Other notable MCU members included Torello’s second-in-command, Sergeant Danny Krychek (played with volcanic authority by Bill Smitrovich) and cigar-chomping Detective Walter Clemmons (Paul Butler), who kept his thoughts--and his guns--close to his chest.
Then comes the inevitable highway chase, complete with a thumping rock score, during which one of [the] screaming hostages, a gorgeous blonde, is shoved through the bullet-shattered back window to hang onto the trunk of the speeding car. Finally, trapping his quarry in a quiet residential neighborhood, Torello puts a bullet through the killer’s head as two children in pajamas watch silently from a nearby window. It is a bit like Steven Spielberg gone gory. And we haven’t even got to the opening credits yet.
With a story arc that followed Torello and his ever-underpaid law-enforcement colleagues from America’s Rust Belt to its spit-shined buckle at Las Vegas, Crime Story reveled in period details. The automobiles sported whitewalls, bat-wing tail-fins, and front grilles as broad as shark grins. Furnishings bore sleek lines and often exaggerated, futuristic configurations. The cops seemed to have been issued fedoras and baggy overcoats along with their badges, and white socks peeked out beneath their black shoes, while the crooks--the climbers and the jamokes both--favored pricey sharkskin suits and hair slicked back with Brylcreem. The women either dressed demurely, like June Cleaver, or--if they were riding the high times with some punk--like exaggerations of whatever Vogue had most recently declared chic. It was an era when boys pitched pennies on street corners, gasoline cost a whopping 25 cents per gallon, and cigarette smoking was still considered stylish. Into the neon-lit nights, hi-fi players carried the rhythms of Sam Cooke’s “Twistin’ the Night Away” and Johnny Mathis’ “Chances Are.”
The art department for this show was frequently compelled to run newspaper advertisements in search of just the right atmosphere-producing accouterments, but the extra effort (while expensive) paid off in terms of transporting viewers backward through the decades. If it didn’t “slavishly re-create the early ’60s ...,” Dick Fiddy, a TV historian and consultant to the British Film Institute, told The Daily Telegraph in 2004, “it always had a tang of authenticity.” The fact that Crime Story was filmed in Chicago, at least until the action moved west partway through Season One, also gave it gritty credibility.
The series’ plots turned primarily on three characters, as the Times’ O’Connor explained: “Torello ..., the tough cop who can be as sadistic as the criminals he stalks; Ray Luca (Anthony Denison), the young and completely amoral mobster on the rise; and David Abrams (Stephen Lang), a liberal lawyer who, through his own criminal father, is keenly aware of all the justice that money can buy.”
Most of Crime Story’s tension was born from the rivalry between Torello and the pompadour-topped Luca, a good-versus-evil relationship that claimed victims on both sides, physically as well as emotionally. Torello’s dick-swinging pursuit of the flashier but equally hot-tempered thug-on-the-rise consumed him entirely, and was a contributing factor in the failure of this cop’s “beauty and the best” marriage. Torello’s brainy wife, Julie (Darlanne Fluegel), whose role early in the series was to tease out his post-Neanderthal humanness, remarked to him in the pilot that “They haven’t invented the hard time we can’t handle.” Yet she eventually grew tired of playing second-fiddle to Torello’s 24-hour job and putting up with his growing detachment and jealousy. Complaining that she wanted “attention and affection,” she first had an affair on him, and then abandoned Torello entirely, leaving our hero to become, I think, a less-dimensional figure, a blunt instrument to be wielded against the wiseguys of the world.
Meanwhile, Lang’s bespectacled courtroom advocate played a more nuanced and evolving part in this crime drama. For all of his self-doubts about what he was doing, whether he was really making a difference in terms of upholding the law and helping people, David Abrams was in many respects a reflection of Torello’s conscience--at least in the beginning, before he, like the lieutenant, was changed by the very corruption he’d sworn to overcome. Abrams also helped to illuminate some of the social and justice issues that confronted Americans during the 1960s. For instance, in one particularly good first-season episode, “Abrams for the Defense,” the lawyer defends a poor black apartment dweller on trial for assaulting his Polish slumlord. The case looks like a loser from the opening gate, but Abrams is too idealistic to bow to the odds against him; instead, he goes about the business of gathering evidence to demonstrate how the living conditions his client and that man’s family have had to endure provoked his aggression. And over the course of it, Abrams becomes enamored of an African-American investigative journalist, portrayed by former blaxploitation actress Pam Grier (later the star of Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 film, Jackie Brown). In those days, inter-racial relationships were frowned upon--often by both sides--and even Abrams isn’t blind to his violating cultural taboos in the name of love.
Mann told reporters that the concept of Crime Story had been influenced by scripts he’d worked on for Police Story, an acclaimed 1973-1978 NBC anthology drama created by cop-turned-novelist Joseph Wambaugh. He wanted his new series to contain long story- and character-development arcs, rather than depend on standalone episodes, and he predicted it would have a five-year lifespan. According to the movie blog Radiator Heaven:
Mann said that the first season of the show would go from Chicago in 1963 to Las Vegas in 1980 where the characters would have “very different occupations, in a different city and in a different time.” He said, “It’s a serial in the sense that we have continuing stories, and in that sense the show is one big novel.” Mann and Reininger’s inspiration for the 1963-1980 arc came from their mutual admiration of the epic 15+ hour film, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), by German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Mann said, “The pace of our story is like the speed of light compared to that, but that’s the idea--if you put it all together at the end you’ve got one hell of a 22-hour movie.”Things didn’t go quite as Mann had planned. Yes, Torello and company made it to Vegas, becoming federal agents--shades of The Untouchables!--still in hot pursuit of Ray Luca, who’d been sent by godfather Manny Wisebord (Joseph Wiseman) to establish mob operations in the casino capital. But all of that transpired with unbelievable speed--the series never did move forward through the 1970s, but instead remained in the “hip” ’60s. And yes, Crime Story offered some outstanding episodes, including the aforementioned “Abrams for the Defense” and a cliffhanger ending to Season One, in which Luca and his loyal but dimwitted henchman, Pauli Taglia (John Santucci), tried to escape by driving across Nevada’s Yucca Flats--just as an atomic bomb was being tested! (The story goes that the producers didn’t think this series would be renewed, so wanted it to go out with a bang.) However, Season Two was rather a disappointment, despite interesting twists such as the launching of a high-profile investigation into American organized crime (modeled on Estes Kefauver’s 1950 hearings, but with Kevin Spacey playing a more John F. Kennedy-like U.S. senator).
Thanks in part to Mann’s clout, Crime Story drew scores of distinguished guest performers, among them David Caruso (who did an excellent turn in the pilot as a mob boss wannabe), Julia Roberts (in her first TV appearance), Ving Rhames, Laura San Giacomo, Stanley Tucci, and even jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.
It also boasted one of television’s coolest opening sequences. Singer Del Shannon provided the theme song--a reworking of his 1961 hit, “Runaway”--while the visuals leaned toward period imagery. The original version, shown below, combined historical film footage from Chicago (cops on motorcycles, airplanes landing at Midway Airport, commercial neon, etc.) with cuts of the flashing lights and chrome embellishments on vintage gas guzzlers.
After Crime Story’s action moved out west, its main title sequence--embedded at the top of this post--shed what had been dark and moody elements in favor of bursting, effervescent neon from the Las Vegas Strip, combined with appreciative sweeps over gambling tables. Mike Torello and his squad were literally outshone by all the flash and dazzle of Sin City at its glamorous height. (It may be no coincidence that this second opening sequence for Crime Story is reminiscent of the main titles to Robert Urich’s first private eye drama, Vega$, which Michael Mann created.)
Despite these and other strengths, Crime Story failed to live up to NBC’s inflated expectations. As Radiator Heaven recalls:
When the show debuted on September 18, 1986, following Miami Vice, the two-hour pilot had a 20.1 national Nielsen rating and a 32 percent audience share. The ratings dipped when it was counter-programmed against ABC’s Moonlighting. By October, the show dropped below a 22 Nielsen share, where a series is deemed a “failure.” Despite low ratings, Crime Story was picked up by NBC to finish the 1986-87 season. This prompted the network to move the show to Friday nights after Miami Vice on December 5, 1986, where its ratings improved but it still lost to Falcon Crest. NBC temporarily pulled Crime Story off the schedule on March 13, 1987. In order to get more people to watch, Farina and other cast members promoted the show in five U.S. cities.It was a noble effort, to be sure--enough to win the show a second season. But the optimism didn’t last. The final episode of Crime Story--another cliffhanger, in which most of the regular cast appeared to have been killed when their plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean--was broadcast on May 10, 1988.
So, was that the end of Mike Torello, Ray Luca, and the rest? Viewers will never know. Executive producer Mann went on to make one more TV series, the police procedural Robbery Homicide Division (2002-2003), but was also responsible for such films as Heat (1995), Miami Vice (2006), and this year’s Public Enemies. Dennis Farina continued doing television, starring in the short-lived comedy-detective series Buddy Faro and then a not-half-bad sitcom called In-Laws before joining the cast of Law & Order for a two-year stint. Shaking off the psychotic killer-rapist mantle he’d worn as Luca, Anthony Denison portrayed an undercover agent in Wiseguy and now plays a cop on Kyra Sedgwick’s TNT-TV crime drama, The Closer. Stephen Lang is currently the co-artistic director of the Actor’s Studio in New York City, and can be seen in the new comedy film, The Men Who Stare at Goats.
Despite periodic calls for a full-length theatrical film that would answer the questions left dangling after Crime Story signed off for the last time 21 years ago, no such production appears to be in the offing. We’re left to watch, and rewatch, the DVD releases of Season One and Season Two and wonder, What happened next?
READ MORE: “What a Crime (Story)!,” by Robert Lewis