Monday, October 10, 2011

NBC’s “Mystery Movie” Turns 40: “McCloud”

(The second entry in a months-long succession of posts highlighting shows featured in the 1971-1977 NBC Mystery Movie “wheel series.”)

Title: McCloud

Starring: Dennis Weaver

Original Run: 1970-1977 (45 episodes, plus pilot), NBC-TV

Premise: Deputy Marshal Sam McCloud of Taos, New Mexico, is assigned on a semi-permanent basis to the New York Police Department in order to study big-city law-enforcement practices. McCloud’s outsider perspective and laid-back, sometimes seat-of-the-pants approach to bringing down malefactors often lead to his cracking cases that the regular Manhattan constabulary might have found more daunting. However, the marshal’s methods and persistently folksy manner also put him at odds with his supervisor, by-the-book Chief of Detectives Peter B. Clifford.

Background: McCloud actually debuted a year before The NBC Mystery Movie was introduced. Following a two-hour pilot film that aired on February 17, 1970, the opening episode of McCloud was broadcast on September 16, 1970, as part of Four-in-One, a one-hour “wheel series” that comprised a quartet of unconnected dramas, all sharing NBC’s 10-11 p.m. slot on Wednesdays. The three other rotating shows were Night Gallery, an anthology of horror stories hosted by Rod Serling; San Francisco International Airport, which starred ex-Sea Hunt hunk Lloyd Bridges as the manager of Northern California’s largest and most hectic landing field; and The Psychiatrist, with Roy Thinnes playing Dr. James Whitman, “not your ordinary run-of-the couch” therapist, whose often unorthodox technique “brings him into conflict with the Establishment.” Four-in-One was a no less unorthodox wheel series. Rather than its shows alternating week to week, they each ran for six weeks straight. So audiences were treated initially to half a dozen installments of McCloud, before that late-Wednesday time slot was handed off to Bridges’ San Francisco International Airport, and on down the line. (When they were all rerun in the summer of 1971, however, those four programs were interspersed with each other).

It was a novel approach to programming, but not completely successful. Only two of the four series proved sufficiently popular to win renewals: Night Gallery, which took over the 10 p.m. spot on Wednesdays in the fall of 1971; and the crime drama McCloud, which was folded into the new NBC Mystery Movie.


The 1970 TV Guide Fall Preview spread introducing McCloud as part of the “wheel series” Four-in-One. Click for an enlargement.

The “cowboy in a big city” premise of McCloud bears a remarkable similarity to the plot of director Don Siegel’s 1968 film, Coogan’s Bluff, which starred Clint Eastwood as an Arizona deputy sheriff who’s dispatched to New York City to extradite a captured fugitive wanted for murder in the Grand Canyon State. In fact, Herman Miller, who wrote the script for Coogan’s Bluff, is credited as the creator of McCloud.

Actor Fess Parker, who starred in the 1960s TV series Daniel Boone, said he was offered the role of Sam McCloud, but turned it down. Instead, the part went to former Gunsmoke and Gentle Ben co-star Dennis Weaver, whose down-home demeanor seemed a perfect match. “McCloud is not a bumbler,” wrote Richard Meyers in his book TV Detectives (1981), “he is just an affable, matchstick-chewing, cowboy-hatted and -booted Westerner who carries a walnut-handled six-gun and says ‘There ya go’ a lot. It was as if Deputy Chester Goode of Gunsmoke (who Weaver played) had lost his limp and gotten promoted.” Even Parker stated later that “Dennis Weaver did a great job with [McCloud]; I would never have pulled it off like he did.”

All of this series’ basic elements were established in the pilot (which was originally titled simply McCloud, but has been rerun variously as “Portrait of a Dead Girl” and “Who Killed Miss USA?” ). It found Deputy Marshal McCloud flying from New Mexico to Manhattan to return a runaway witness who was scheduled to give testimony in an upcoming murder trial, only to lose his charge to mysterious kidnappers. McCloud then refused to go home again until he’d recaptured the witness--much to the irritation of Chief Clifford (played by Longstreet alumnus [Peter] Mark Richman), but the delight of Chris Coughlin (Diana Muldaur), a well-off and well-connected author and writer for the New York Chronicle who helped the lawman get his man (back). Stanford Whitmore, who’d worked on Ironside and The Wild Wild West, was responsible for the pilot’s story, but the teleplay was penned by Richard Levinson and William Link,
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who would soon be better known as the creators of Columbo.

(Left) Intro to the McCloud pilot film

Strangely, when McCloud became a series, its premise was altered slightly. Rather than the lawman having been introduced to Gotham through that extradition case, the introductory episode included a voice-over in which Chris Coughlin informed viewers that she’d first met and become fond of Sam McCloud during a vacation to New Mexico, and had persuaded him to come to New York to study its policing.* (Why executive producers Glen A. Larson and Leslie Stevens thought this change was necessary is beyond my understanding.) The other modification made was in casting: Richman was out as irascible Chief Clifford, replaced by J.D. Cannon, a past stage actor with credits from Mission: Impossible, Alias Smith and Jones, and the movie Cool Hand Luke. Cannon had also won a certain acclaim for playing the witness who finally cleared Dr. Richard Kimble (David Janssen) of murder in the last episode of The Fugitive.

Additional Notes: Dennis Weaver said at least once that McCloudallowed me to do what I got into the business to do: to play the leading man.” In a 1973 interview with TV Guide, he described what he saw as his character’s attractions:
He keeps on caring about people in a callous town that doesn’t, and he’s kept his nice, dry, rural sense of humor. And I think his popularity has grown because he’s kept right on cutting through all the red tape, not playing by the rules, even though, in New York, that gets him into all kinds of trouble. We’ve managed to keep him an underdog--a rural man in a very sophisticated situation--and, at the same time, he keeps winning. He’s emerged a hero, and, of course, he’s grown to be something of a romantic ...
Women viewers, presuming that Marshal McCloud’s country charms were shared by the man portraying him on the small screen, wrote Weaver “mash notes.” But it wasn’t exclusively the feminine set who appreciated McCloud. Nielsen audience ratings from the early ’70s (see examples here, here, and here) show the series helping to lead Sunday’s NBC Mystery Movie into the weekly top 10.

McCloud, with his sheepskin coat, bolo tie, and cowboy hat was a classic sort of unflappable western hero transplanted to the modern mean streets. He was a skilled shot, a self-effacing guy seemingly impervious to cynical insults, and--despite exhibiting a bit of sexism at times--he was also a gentleman (which, even back in the early 1970s, was a trait sadly going out of style). Furthermore, the marshal proved himself over and over again to be a sharp investigator--“a sagebrush Sherlock Holmes,” as Chief Clifford once cracked.

Television audiences enjoyed the repartee between McCloud and Clifford, who was constantly trying to saddle his rambunctious “trainee” with boring, out-of-the-way assignments--only to have the New Mexican discover criminality where no one expected it. Viewers also liked McCloud’s evolving friendship with Sergeant Joe Broadhurst (Terry Carter), his usual partner at the 27th Precinct--a more cautious cop who was supposed to keep McCloud out of trouble, but somehow allowed himself to be roped into one unsanctioned investigation after another. And every time Sam McCloud hopped a horse and galloped off after some bad guys--especially when he rode down crowded Manhattan thoroughfares--the show’s ratings spiked. (One such scene became part of the series opening--see below). McCloud even got to lasso some cattle thieves in “The Colorado Cattle Caper” and go up against Jesse James-style train robbers in “Butch Cassidy Rides Again.” Other episodes found the deputy marshal trying to stop a hit man from taking out a tycoon, hunting a killer in Central Park, facing off against rings of auto thieves and female cat burglars, and going undercover into a prison to expose drug traffickers.

Although most of McCloud’s cases kept him in New York City, which in those days suffered from financial declines and escalating crime, he managed to get away to Hawaii, Mexico City, Sydney, and even Paris on occasion. The character’s aw-shucks schtick seemed to work wherever he hung his Stetson, and the program’s writers learned to exploit it to maximum humorous effect. In a 1971 episode titled “Somebody’s Out to Get Jennie,” for instance, there’s a brilliant moment in which a woman says to the marshal, referring to an orchestral composition by Ferde Grofé, “I just love anything Western. The Grand Canyon Suite is one of my favorites.” To which McCloud innocently replies: “Never could afford much more than a room and a bath, m’self.”

Along with Columbo and McMillan & Wife, McCloud remained part of The NBC Mystery Movie throughout its six-year run, winning Dennis Weaver four Emmy Award nominations. Following its cancellation, Weaver joined three other TV series: Stone (1979-1980), which had him playing “a Joseph Wambaugh-esque police sergeant turned crime novelist”; the soap-opera-ish Emerald Point N.A.S. (1983-1984), in which he portrayed the patriarch of a family mired in military traditions and prone to scandals; and a hospital drama called Buck James (1987-1988). None of those, though, caught fire with viewers, not in the way McCloud once had. So in 1989, Weaver was willing to reprise his best-known role in The Return of Sam McCloud. According to the Web site TV Acres, in that teleflick McCloud--now a U.S. senator from New Mexico--“investigates the murder of his niece, who was gathering facts on Chemtel, a nefarious chemical manufacturer” that was “also responsible for a car bomb and a sniper’s bullet that targeted him for assassination.” The movie brought back the series’ old cast, and had part of its action in London. It certainly didn’t measure up to the original, but then who really expected it could?

In 2003, the USA Network announced plans to “reimagine” McCloud for a new generation, casting comedienne Brett Butler (Grace Under Fire) as the marshal who goes to Manhattan. Fortunately, the idea went nowhere. Sam McCloud was allowed to maintain his dignity. And when Dennis Weaver finally passed away from complications of cancer in 2006, at age 81, it was McCloud for which he was best remembered.

Next up: McMillan & Wife

Below is the introduction (with plot teasers) to the March 21, 1976, episode of McCloud, titled “Night of the Shark.”

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* Chris Coughlin’s voice-over introduction to “Man from Taos”: “Two years ago, my cousin the police commissioner of New York City and I decided to spend our vacation in the ancient Indian town of Taos. Naturally, the first place my cousin wanted to visit was the sheriff’s office. That’s how we met Sheriff Sam McCloud. It was the happiest holiday I ever had. Sam and I spent wonderful hours together on the mesa, and through his eyes I learned the beauty of nature. With Sam on my mind, I returned to Taos the next year. This time, I was able to convince Sam that an orientation with New York police modern methods and equipment, under its trainee program, would be of great benefit to his office. In this way, I was able to entice Sam to New York.”

(The 1970 TV Guide preview spread 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.)

READ MORE:McCloud,” by Stephen Bowie (The Classic TV History Blog); “There Ye Go,” by Marty McKee (Johnny LaRue’s Crane Shot); “Marshal Sam McCloud,” by Steven Thompson (Booksteve’s Library).

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