It was 40 years ago tonight--on September 15, 1971--that one of the most memorable TV series of my youth debuted:
The NBC Mystery Movie.
As I’ve written before, my introduction to crime fiction came in high school, when I discovered the unusually compassionate private-eye novels of Ross Macdonald. However, The NBC Mystery Movie--a rotating collection of distinctive, sometimes quirky televised crime dramas, the number of which fluctuated over a six-year run--was what cemented my interest in this genre.
(Left) The 1971 TV Guide Fall Preview page introducing the original version of the Mystery Movie. Click to enlarge.
After all these decades, it’s not easy to put my finger on exactly what kept me tuning in to that “wheel series” week in and week out. Certainly I was drawn to the idiosyncratic protagonists--everyone from an unassuming police detective in a rumpled raincoat and a western marshal who rode the wild frontier of Manhattan, to a police commissioner and his ostensibly ditzy wife, a Polish-proverb-spouting insurance investigator, and a pair of elderly mystery-writing sisters who couldn’t seem to confine their crime-solving to the printed page. However, I was also attracted to the series’ storytelling blend of humor and homicide, its rather leisurely 90-minute (later two-hour) format, and of course its atmospheric main title sequence (embedded above), which was created by Wayne Fitzgerald, with music by Henry Mancini.
The Mystery Movie wasn’t NBC’s first shot at a wheel, or “umbrella” series. The broadcast network had previously experimented with a similar formula in The Name of the Game (1968-1971), a mystery/adventure drama that featured different stars on a weekly basis (among them Gene Barry), all of whose characters worked for an aggressive, empire-scale publishing company. Shortly thereafter, NBC launched The Bold Ones (1969-1973), which alternated series focusing on daring practitioners in a diversity of fields: the law, medicine, police work, and politics. And in 1970, it introduced Four-in-One, a rotation of unconnected mini-series--including the opening seasons of both McCloud and Night Gallery--that lasted only into 1971.
(Right) The 1972 TV Guide Fall Preview page showcasing the brand-new NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie
However, the Mystery Movie--originally comprising Columbo, McMillan & Wife, and the surviving McCloud--was NBC’s most successful and award-winning rendering of the wheel ideal. So successful, in fact, that in the autumn of 1972 that series was relocated on the broadcast schedule from Wednesday nights (8:30-10 p.m. ET/PT) to Sunday evenings at the same hour, and renamed The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie, in order that a second such rotation--this one presenting Banacek, Cool Million, and Madigan--could take over its prized Wednesday-night slot. Hoping to mine gold from the same formula, NBC’s then two prime competitors (remember, this was before the advent of cable TV) soon inaugurated their very own wheels: In 1972, ABC introduced The Men, encompassing Assignment: Vienna, The Delphi Bureau, and Jigsaw; and a year later CBS unveiled The New CBS Tuesday Night Movies, which brought to the boob tube Jimmy Stewart’s Hawkins and Shaft, a spin-off from the popular “blacksploitation” flicks starring Richard Roundtree. But neither of those ventures scored ratings high enough to win renewal for a second year. Neither did Search (1972-1973), another NBC wheel series, built around a trio of high-tech security specialists.
(Left) TV Guide’s 1973 Fall Preview introduced the second incarnation of The NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie
Most people today remember only the much-heralded Columbo, and perhaps also McMillan & Wife and McCloud, as components of the classic NBC Mystery Movie. Yet 14 separate series actually debuted beneath that umbrella title between 1971 and 1977. In alphabetical order, they were:
• Amy Prentiss, starring Jessica Walter
• Banacek, starring George Peppard
• Cool Million, starring James Farentino
• Faraday and Company, starring Dan Dailey and James Naughton
• Hec Ramsey, starring Richard Boone
• Lanigan’s Rabbi, starring Art Carney and Bruce Solomon
• Lanigan’s Rabbi, starring Art Carney and Bruce Solomon
• McCoy, starring Tony Curtis
• Quincy, M.E., starring Jack Klugman
• The Snoop Sisters, starring Helen Hayes and Mildred Natwick
• Tenafly, starring James MacEachin
A few of these programs deserved the accolades they received during their first broadcasts, and have escaped the decay of datedness, even after four decades. But several needed more time to develop proper audiences, and others were just downright disappointing. Still, they all contributed something to The NBC Mystery Movie, a concept that “left a legacy that would not soon be forgotten,” as David Gunzerath writes on the Museum of Broadcast Communications Web site. He notes, further, that the Mystery Movie served as “an inspiration for a future television trend: the recurring made-for-television movie, featuring regular characters and routinized plot lines, which would appear only a limited number of times each season.”
To celebrate this 40th anniversary of The NBC Mystery Movie, The Rap Sheet is readying a months-long succession of posts--one about each of the Mystery Movie shows, plus tributes from guest bloggers, interviews, and videos related to that wheel series. Look for those to begin appearing on this page next week.
This is a large, daunting project, but it should be fun too.
* * *Below is the U.S. prime-time TV schedule for the fall of 1971, when The NBC Mystery Movie was added to the Wednesday night line-up. Click to enlarge. (From Dennis McGee’s Super Seventies RockSite!)
(The 1971 TV Guide preview page was provided by Brian Sheridan. It’s part of the collection in the Communication Department at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania. It is used with permission.)