Starring: Richard Widmark
Original Run: 1972-1973 (6 episodes), NBC-TV
Premise: Detective Sergeant Dan Madigan is a “tough New York City cop, soured by years of unrewarding toil,” TV Guide explained in its 1972 Fall Preview edition. Although his principal beat is Manhattan, where he’s attached to the 10th Precinct, Madigan’s investigations often send him out of the country--especially to Europe--in pursuit of clues or culprits. On foreign soil his hard-nosed American street savvy may provide him with a decisive edge over more restrained practitioners of law-enforcement. Critic Cleveland Amory, who was often disparaging of the Peacock Network’s rotating crime dramas, declared Madigan “easily the best of the NBC Wednesday Mystery series ...”
Background: The character of Daniel Madigan was introduced in The Commissioner, a 1962 novel by Richard Dougherty (1921-1986). Once a city hall reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, Dougherty later served as a deputy New York City police commissioner for community relations in the 1950s, and from there became New York bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, press secretary for Democrat George McGovern’s 1972 U.S. presidential campaign, and a vice president for public affairs at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Commissioner was Dougherty’s third and incontestably most successful work of fiction.* In 1968, director Don Siegel used it as the basis for his grittily authentic thriller film Madigan, starring Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Harry Guardino, and James Whitmore. Dougherty often insisted that The Commissioner was not a roman à clef, “but it was strongly based on his experiences in the police force,” as New York magazine pointed out back in 1968. In adapting Dougherty’s tale for the silver screen, writers Henri Simoun (aka Howard Rodman, who would go on to create the private-eye TV series Harry O) and Abraham Polonsky preserved the gist of the book’s story line, though they discarded much of the character development and all of the interior dialogue that make The Commissioner so memorable and distinct from other police procedurals.
Dougherty’s densely woven plot focuses on two ostensibly different members of the New York Police Department, connected by circumstances: Commissioner Anthony Russell, a sometimes too “strict and severe,” by-the-book former cop whose reputation for moral probity might be undermined were it publicized that he enjoys the company of an upper-class and equally married mistress; and First Grade Detective Dan Madigan, a still-handsome and charming officer with “well over twenty years in the Department,” most of those spent in harness with his less-dashing partner, Italian-American family man Rocco Bonaro. “Between them,” Dougherty explained, “the Dude and the Rock, as they were known, had collected more departmental citations for heroism and excellent police service than any other set of ‘partners’ in the 2,300-man Detective Division.” (That Madigan also accepts occasional free gifts “from merchants, restaurateurs, saloonkeepers--and even some friends who operated on the other side of the law” doesn’t mean that he’s corrupt, at least no more so than the many other officers needing to supplement their police paychecks. He doesn’t see himself as “on the take,” or selling out his job.)
The Commissioner provides Madigan with a fairly meaty back-story. He grew up in a Catholic household on Manhattan’s upper Riverside Drive with “an adoring mother, two equally adoring elder sisters, [and] a prosperous and good-natured father.” His uncle, John Madigan, was a respected local judge. Dan Madigan attended St. Bonaventure College (later St. Bonaventure University) in Allegany, New York, where he kept up a “straight C” grade average, was a “fast, high-scoring forward” on the school’s basketball team, and was “voted most popular man in the class of ’32.” Now enduring his mid-40s, with once sandy hair “gone entirely gray,” he lives in a ranch-style residence in an upper-middle-class development in Flushing, Queens, with his socially striving but lonely wife of more than two decades: Julia, a 42-year-old button-nosed brunette “who had kept her figure well, and it was a figure worth keeping--small-waisted, trim hips and legs, a pleasing but not over-large bosom.” Yet despite Julia’s manifest attributes, Madigan maintains a mistress, just like Commissioner Russell--only Madigan’s Jonesy is a “pert, pretty, rather brassy and tough” woman in her 20s, who works as a “publicity girl” at an East Side eatery called the Flame Club and lives in a cheap, third-floor walk-up.
In the book, Madigan and Bonaro are dispatched on what sounds like a pretty straightforward assignment: to locate and bring in a Puerto Rican-born three-time-loser, Barney Benez (renamed Barney Benesch in the movie and played by Steve Ihnat), who’s wanted for questioning in connection with a Brooklyn homicide. But that task goes south, pronto. Benez--who they find in East Harlem, cavorting in the sack with a young woman named Rosita--manages to retrieve his gun while the detectives are distracted by Rosita’s unexpected naked dash across her shabby flat. (That scene’s among those used in the video trailer below, with Toian Matchinga filling the Rosita role very nicely.) Benez promptly forces Madigan and Bonaro to relinquish their own weapons, then leaves the cops trapped on the building’s roof while he flees.
Much of the rest of The Commissioner is devoted to Madigan and Bonaro’s dogged pursuit of Barney Benez, which finds them tapping their customary contacts and snitches, at the same time as they fend off jokes about how an ex-con got the drop on them. Meanwhile, the police commissioner tries to mollify a leader of the local black community who is convinced that his psychologically fragile son--mistakenly grilled after a Coney Island rape--was abused by the investigating officers; deal with suspicions that his “most intimate and trusted friend,” Chief Inspector Charley Kane, has been compromised, that he’s going easy on an operator of illegal enterprises; and confront the possibility that his mistress of three and a half years, Tricia Bentley, is finally losing interest in him.
The film Siegel made from Dougherty’s novel has often been praised for its cinematography, its “semi-documentary approach” to storytelling, and its realism (former NYPD Commissioner William Bratton says “it accurately portrayed decision-making at the top of the organization, along with what was happening on the street”).† The publication Mystery Readers Journal named Madigan as one of the 10 best New York cop films. Other critics, however, have been more skeptical. The New York Times declared it a “respectable but slack-jointed Universal offering.” A film blog called The Stop Button finds fault with Siegel’s production values and contends that the main but overly familiar manhunt plot is less interesting than some of Madigan’s side stories--particularly the affair between Fonda’s police commissioner and Susan Clark, who plays his lover. (Perhaps to avoid rebukes from 1960s audiences, the screenwriters here made Commissioner Russell a widower.)
No matter what doubts were voiced about the movie as a whole, though, Richard Widmark won considerable acclaim for his performance in the title role.
Then in his mid-50s, about a decade older than the maverick police detective Dougherty envisioned, Widmark had been a radio and stage actor in New York before heeding the siren call of Hollywood in his early 30s. He went on to be nominated for an Academy Award (in the Supporting Actor category) for his movie debut, playing a giggling, sadistic killer in Kiss of Death (1947). Widmark was later featured in dozens of other pictures, including The Street with No Name (1948), Road House (1948), Night and the City (1950), Panic in the Streets (1950), Pickup on Noon Street (1953), The Alamo (1960), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), How the West Was Won (1962), Cheyenne Autumn (1964), and The Way West (1967), based on A.B. Guthrie’s 1950, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. Yet Dan Madigan--“a shaded character, a hero and a villain rolled into one”--is often said to have been his finest leading role in a drama. “Widmark was very much at home on the police beat,” opines critic Brian W. Fairbanks, “playing a detective in a terse style later echoed by TV’s NYPD Blue.”
Of course, once Madigan was finished, it was assumed that his cop character was too. For in both the film and Dougherty’s novel, Detective Madigan is killed at the end.
Hollywood, though, has a funny habit of resurrecting the dead.
Additional Notes: “For a long time,” wrote author and film expert Richard Meyers in his 1981 book, TV Detectives, “[Richard] Widmark would not do television at all, except for a guest-star spot on an I Love Lucy episode in 1955, but in 1971 he saw the writing on the wall. The good roles were getting fewer and fewer and the telefilms were getting better and better.” Widmark finally agreed to play the president of the United States in a small-screen flick called Vanished. But he still refused to sign on for a weekly series. “I felt that, in a series, you tend to become the character you play in people’s minds rather than yourself,” he told TV Guide writer (and later Rap Sheet contributor) Dick Adler in 1973. As proof, he cited Robert Young, “a fine actor [who] is recognized Marcus Welby.”
(Right) The opening from Brock’s Last Case.
However, like Rock Hudson, Karl Malden, Helen Hayes, Glenn Ford, Dan Dailey, and other cinema stars--many of whom were roped into NBC Mystery Movie ventures--Widmark finally consented to tackle a TV serial. But it wasn’t Madigan. In 1971, he starred in an NBC “World Premiere Movie” and pilot called Brock’s Last Case, playing Lieutenant Max Brock, a Manhattan cop who’s in serious need of some life changes. The Film Collectors of America site provides this synopsis of Widmark’s TV movie:
Lt. Max Brock is a war-weary New York City police detective who has had enough of the big city, the judicial system ... and the weather! He has systematically been investing in a California orange grove and decides to take an early retirement and enjoy “the fruits of his labors.” Not! When he arrives he discovers his “caretaker,” Native American Arthur Goldencorn [played by Henry Darrow], has used all of the money to keep a decrepit small grove basically out of foreclosure. Immediately after arriving, Max is roped (his background is common knowledge in the small town) in by the young local deputy sheriff, “Stretch” Willis [Michael Burns], to help him solve the murder of the sheriff--with Arthur as the prime suspect!Had that film (which was produced by McMillan & Wife creator Leonard B. Stern in association with Roland Kibbee) spawned the show Brock, as planned, viewers would have seen Widmark being regularly coaxed away from his peaceful Indio, California, orange grove to help scrutinize murder cases. But NBC executives reacted toward Widmark’s pilot with surprising indifference. In fact, the teleflick didn’t even find a place on the broadcast schedule until March 5, 1973--a year and a half after it was made. Instead, Widmark was approached with the idea that he step back into Dan Madigan's brogues. “I guess the network was worried about the thing [Brock] being too rural,” Widmark told TV Guide, “so they switched it back to New York.”
The series Madigan debuted on September 20, 1972, just a week after Banacek introduced the new Wednesday edition of NBC’s Mystery Movie. Its first 90-minute installment was “The Manhattan Beat,” which found Madigan--now promoted to the rank of detective sergeant--trying to help out a couple of grocery store owners who’ve been assaulted by local hoods. Veteran movie and TV actor Murray Hamilton played his “[police] academy buddy, Inspector Charlie Kane,” who asks Madigan to partner up on this case with a younger detective, recent sociology graduate Norman Fields (Ronny Cox), who’s “eager to ‘build bridges’ to the troublemakers on their beat.” As New York’s Schenectady Gazette explained in a preview of this episode, “Madigan is opposed to working with anyone, especially a rookie with ideas about police work that differ from his own.” Yet he acquiesces, “grumbling all the way”--only to find “his life in danger as his rookie partner faces his first real police situation.”
Madigan’s second episode, “The Midtown Beat,” took place up in Harlem, where Widmark’s protagonist endeavored to protect a black teenage busboy who was being “hunted by a hit man after holding up a party thrown by a wealthy Texan in honor of a crime boss.” After that, however, the sergeant’s “beat” expanded considerably beyond Manhattan’s borders, to London and Lisbon and Naples, before he was again given a local case in “The Park Avenue Beat.”
Adler noted in TV Guide that “It was Widmark’s idea to take the series on the road, too--‘to give it a different look from the other nine million cop shows. I also insisted that it be all location, not a foot of studio film. It’s harder that way, but I think it’s worth it for the sake of realism. I know every back lot in town, and can spot a phony brick from a hundred feet. You see something like that and all of a sudden reality goes out the window. If people believe you’re really there, where it’s happening, they tend to stick with you despite script weaknesses.”
To the best of my recollection, there was no effort made to reconcile the conflicts between Don Siegel’s big-screen Madigan and the Mystery Movie series produced by Roland Kibbee and Dean Hargrove (who’d later also work together on Columbo, McCoy, and Dear Detective). Widmark’s character in the NBC show was a grim-faced but soft-centered loner, who lived in “a sparsely furnished one-room apartment.” He was portrayed as an incorruptible cop devoted to his job, which often found him battling organized crime. There was no mention in the series of what had happened to Julia Madigan, no references to Rocco Bonaro, no further confrontations with Commissioner Anthony Russell, and certainly no more talk of the detective accepting “occasional free gifts.” It was left up to viewers, as well, to guess why Chief Inspector Charley Kane had been demoted to Inspector Charlie Kane--though Kibbee and Hargrove could probably count on most of them failing to even notice. As had also been true of the mid-series switch of husbands on Bewitched, viewers were expected to accept the altered reality, no questions asked.
For the most part, reviewers played along. While former New York deputy police commissioner Robert Daley chided Madigan for its “stupidities” and ignorance of real-life law-enforcement procedures, even some of the nation’s toughest TV critics gave the show a break. The New York Times’ Robert Berkvist, for instance, concluded a predominantly damning piece about that fall season’s new private-eye series (published on October 22, 1972) by writing:
There’s maybe one of the new guys with some class and a head and a heart, and he’s not even a private eye. Name’s “Madigan” and he’s a police lieutenant. So he doesn’t really qualify, but the way Richard Widmark makes him come to life, he’s kind of in a class by himself.Even TV Guide’s Cleveland Amory, who habitually approached NBC Mystery Movie offerings armed with the driest wit and most poisonous sarcasm,‡ called Dan Madigan “a bright new star on the Deadeye Dick horizon.” Yes, he contended, the show suffered some from plot artificialities (“you never quite believe part of each episode”), but he focused primarily on Widmark’s strengths as its lead:
Funny thing about Madigan and his way of life. You can tell he thinks about what he’s been asked to do, and worries about doing it right, and tries to hold down the wear and tear. The thing is, the wear and tear is there in his eyes and on his face, that great face lined like a map of the soul. You can practically hear his ulcer bleed.
A past master of the clipped phrase, even when the dialogue’s a bit too pat, [Widmark] can somehow make it stick. In one episode, he’s asked what kind of guy the killer is. “That kind,” he says, and it’s enough. In the same episode he handcuffs the villain’s henchman to the wheel of the man’s Rolls-Royce. “What’s the charge?” the man hollers. “Reckless parking,” he replies. In another episode, the boss of the bad men stops to ask sarcastically if he’s looking for someone. “Yeah,” he grunts. (He’s terrific at “Yeahs” and “Yahs” and also “Nopes.”) “Someone I know?” questions the bad guy. “Someone you killed,” he answers.Widmark expressed high hopes for Madigan, the episodes of which he said were put together like a succession of feature films (“They’re really like the old B movies which Hollywood used to crank out in a week”). His own producing company owned a piece of the show, and he told Dick Adler that he’d really like to hire prominent crime novelists such as Ross Macdonald to pen scripts for Madigan, though “there isn’t enough money in TV budgets for that.”
However, the actor was philosophical about his series’ future. “All I know,” Widmark said, “is that every show I like only runs one year.”
Which, as it turned out, was precisely the fate of Madigan--one year, six 90-minute episodes, then gone. “The Park Avenue Beat” aired on February 23, 1973, just five days before the much-delayed pilot, Brock’s Last Case, was finally broadcast.
Whether because of his disappointment with that initial venture into series television, or for some other reason, Richard Widmark hesitated to do boob-tube shows after Madigan. He did appear as Benjamin Franklin in a 1974 miniseries about that colorful Founding Father, and worked on several teleflicks, including 1989’s Cold Sassy Tree, in which he starred with Faye Dunaway. Mostly, though, he concentrated on big-screen movie-making, starring in such pictures as Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Coma (1978), and Bear Island (1979). When he died in March 2008, just a few months after celebrating his 93rd birthday, Widmark was well remembered for his roles in Kiss of Death, Judgment at Nuremberg, and of course, Don Siegel’s Madigan. The NBC Mystery Movie series spawned by that last film, though, was barely a footnote in his obituaries, when it was mentioned at all.
Sadly, while the big-screen Madigan can be easily purchased, there’s been no DVD release of the subsequent series. It’s not even available from bootleg DVD Web sites. I haven’t watched the program since its original airing in the ’70s, but what I remember is that Madigan seemed ... well, rather out of character as a Mystery Movie offering--too serious, not as comfortably eccentric as Columbo or McMillan & Wife or Banacek. Yet in Widmark, it boasted a star who could command viewers’ attention, no matter the scripts’ plot holes or the occasional “stupidities” in how police practices were portrayed.
I, for one, would appreciate the opportunity to follow Madigan through its half-dozen “beats” all over again. How ’bout you?
Next up: Cool Million
Madigan is one of only three Mystery Movie series from which I haven’t found any film clips. So below, I’m embedding the main title sequence from Don Siegel’s 1968 movie, Madigan, with theme music by Don Costa. I don’t recall whether Costa’s theme was also used in the Mystery Movie version, but it should have been.
* Richard Dougherty had previously written Down in the Valley (1960) and Duggan (1962). He later composed We Dance and Sing (1971), an “autobiographical novel” based on his growing-up years in Bolivar, New York, and Botch/Up, which he reportedly “finished shortly before his death.” In addition, Dougherty penned a non-fiction work--Goodbye, Mr. Christian: A Personal Account of McGovern’s Rise and Fall (1973)--about the unsuccessful bid by Senator George McGovern (D-South Dakota) for the U.S. presidency in 1972 (“the worst disaster in the history of American politics,” as that book describes the campaign).
† It’s worth noting that in October 1968, just seven months after Madigan was released in U.S. theaters, director Don Siegel debuted yet another cop film, Coogan’s Bluff, this one starring Clint Eastwood as a laconic Arizona deputy sheriff who travels to New York City to extradite a captured fugitive wanted for murder back in the Grand Canyon State. While Madigan later gave birth to the NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie series of the same name, Coogan’s Bluff is generally cited as the inspiration for McCloud, one of the three original Mystery Movie segments, and Herman Miller--who wrote the script for Coogan’s Bluff--was subsequently credited with creating McCloud.
‡ Only years later did Cleveland Amory concede that, after giving Banacek an early, negative review, he had grown to like that George Peppard series. He also acknowledged he’d been “too hard” in his critique of McMillan & Wife.