Monday, October 10, 2011

NBC’s “Mystery Movie” Turns 40:
“There Ya Go!”

(Editor’s note: This contribution to our Mystery Movie tribute comes from Georgia’s Ivan G. Shreve Jr. Due to his almost-lifetime obsession with classic films, vintage television, and old-time radio, Shreve declares himself “not fit for normal employment.” Therefore, he spends most of his time writing the nostalgia blog Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, as well as contributing essays to Edward Copeland on Film ... and More and editing the “Classic Chops” feature at The Large Association of Movie Blogs. Occasionally Shreve scores a paying gig as a freelance writer for Radio Spirits, the world’s largest old-time radio mail-order company, for which he is currently working on liner notes for a collection of Sergeant Preston of the Yukon programs, to be released later this fall.)

I was 9 years old when I was allowed to stay up a little past my bedtime in order to watch The NBC Mystery Movie on Sunday nights ... a pretty heady deal for a kid that age, though at the time I could only see the first half of each episode and wouldn’t learn the denouement until I got older and could catch the reruns on CBS’ late-night schedule. I vividly remember the flashlight in the main title sequence and Henry Mancini’s piercing theme music--and while I was probably too young to enjoy the nuances of Peter Falk’s Columbo (again, a series I revisited later on in life), I always enjoyed the romantic comedy banter of San Francisco Police Commissioner Stewart McMillan (Rock Hudson) and his ditzy wife, Sally (Susan Saint James), on McMillan & Wife, trading quips while at the same time solving baffling mysteries in the Bay Area.

But when I think back on The NBC Mystery Movie, the series that made the most indelible impression on me was McCloud. I don’t know why--it could be the iconic image of the main character, Sam McCloud (played by Dennis Weaver), riding horseback through the streets of the Big Apple, or it could be that whenever New York City Chief of Detectives Peter B. Clifford (J.D. Cannon) bellowed “McCloud!” because the relocated New Mexico marshal did something to incur his wrath (which didn’t take much) it always made me laugh out loud. To this day, whenever I catch the prolific Cannon in any movie or TV show guest role I find myself shouting the very same thing.

I’m a die-hard Gunsmoke fan, and have been since I was able to wobble over to the TV set and turn it on. But when Gunsmoke was still on in prime time and not yet put out to pasture at the ol’ Syndication Ranch, Matt Dillon’s faithful deputy was Festus Haggen; I wouldn’t see the earlier episodes with Chester Goode--the role that made actor Weaver a household name--until much later on ... and as a fierce partisan of the radio Gunsmoke, I have to come clean and confess that Weaver’s interpretation of the character made famous by radio veteran Parley Baer simply wasn’t up to snuff. There was something sort of phony about Weaver’s Goode, from his gimpy leg to his Texas drawl (indeed, Dennis hailed from Missouri)--his 1959 Emmy Award be damned. I’ve never seen the series that Weaver left Gunsmoke for (Kentucky Jones), and as far as Gentle Ben
goes, all I remember is wanting the bear to eat annoying child actor Clint Howard.

(Left) Clips from Coogan’s Bluff. It gave McCloud its premise.

So McCloud remains for me the series with which I strongly identify Dennis Weaver ... a gig that fit him like a glove. The “fish-out-of-water” concept of the series certainly wasn’t anything new (it had actually been borrowed from a 1968 film, Coogan’s Bluff, starring Clint Eastwood), but Weaver’s portrayal of the down-home New Mexico lawman-philosopher experiencing the culture clash that was New York City was simply sublime; McCloud’s good-natured unflappability (he rarely took umbrage at an insult hurled in his direction) made him a most welcome presence in TV households, and like the celebrated Lieutenant Columbo, he projected a sort of country-boy naïveté that left people with whom he came into contact bewildered and off-guard while he was putting his analytical police skills to good use. McCloud also belied his clodhopper origins by demonstrating a suavity with the ladies, frequently romancing the show’s female guest stars and in many installments Diana Muldaur (who played his steady girlfriend, newspaper writer Chris Coughlin).

Before Atlanta, Georgia, affiliate WSB-TV swapped out the Retro Television Network for Me-TV, I could return to those great boob-tube experiences of the past because RTN would rerun McCloud episodes (alternating with McMillan & Wife and George Peppard’s Banacek) on Saturday evenings ... and to my surprise, the show still holds up as solid as ever. It serves as a historical document of what NYC was like in the late 1960s/early 1970s (a metropolis on the eve of an economic crisis) and features a superlative cast not only in J.D. Cannon, but also Terry Carter as the world-weary Sergeant Joe Broadhurst (Sam McCloud’s reluctant partner) and a young Teri Garr as the endearingly wacky Sergeant Phyllis Norton. But atop it all is Dennis Weaver, heckbent for leather as he straddles his steed through the Naked City, riding herd on the bad guys and criminal element that would threaten his beloved (if adopted) city. It made me a Weaver fan for life.


Barbara said...

I always thought Dennis Weaver was terribly underrated as an actor, but then I liked Festus, so who am I to judge.

devis said...

No I think you are right it seems sometimes that to make it big you need talent but also luck

Steve Aldous said...

Great series of articles. Loved McCloud and have many episodes on DVD. Weaver' signature role and a fine support cast led by the unique talents of JD Cannon.