Monday, September 17, 2007

Get Wheel

I’ve been waiting for months to post this YouTube video, and with the 2007 fall television season beginning in earnest this week, now seems like the right moment.

Yeah, yeah, I know: There’s been a good deal of boob-tube nostalgia suffusing this page of late, what with our tributes to Columbo and its star, Peter Falk; our midlife mooning over The Fall Guy’s gal, Heather Thomas; and our remarks on how much better the 1972 television season was than the one before us. But allow me one more indulgence, for it was on this date, 35 years ago, that I officially became a crime-fiction enthusiast. That night, which was a Sunday, marked the season premiere of The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie, a “wheel-format” series that featured four quite different 90-minute TV mysteries in monthly rotation. Two had debuted together on Wednesday evenings during the 1971-1972 season. One had actually been introduced in 1970. And the last was brand new. All of them stirred my imagination and conspired to make me the crime-fiction fan I am today.

As originally configured, the Mystery Movie comprised a trio of series. The first of these had been introduced by a February 1970 TV flick called McCloud: Who Killed Miss USA? As Richard Meyers recalls in his 1981 history, TV Detectives, that feature found Dennis Weaver playing a matchstick-chewing marshal out of Taos, New Mexico, “who comes to New York to extradite a subpoenaed witness, only to see the witness shanghaied and find himself handcuffed to a fence along a highway. From there he gets involved with the murder of a pageant contestant and runs afoul of the NYPD ...” Inspired by Clint Eastwood’s 1969 film Coogan’s Bluff, and penned by the legendary team of Richard Levinson and William Link (who had previously created the private-eye drama Mannix), this teleflick spawned a series the following fall, part of NBC’s “umbrella rotation,” Four-in-One. It was a peculiar collection, as Four’s three other hour-long, Wednesday night components--Night Gallery, a horror anthology hosted by The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling; San Francisco International Airport, which found ex-Sea Hunt stud Lloyd Bridges managing (and just as often policing) the Bay Area’s busy travel hub; and The Psychiatrist, with Roy Thinnes as an unorthodox “shrink”--had nothing to do with crime fiction. Only McCloud and Night Gallery survived their first year; the latter took over Four-in-One’s 10 p.m. slot by itself in 1971, while McCloud--which NBC apparently liked, but did not think could survive on its own--was tucked in with a pair of newcomers in a rotating, 90-minute slot on Wednesdays, just before Night Gallery.

The first of those two raw recruits was the aforementioned Columbo, which was also created by Levinson and Link, and starred Emmy Award winner Falk, who’d received critical acclaim but lesser ratings in a previous TV series venture, The Trials of O’Brien (1965-1966). Columbo was the first show to debut in mid-September 1971 in The NBC Mystery Movie’s new 8:30-10 p.m. slot.

The other series was McMillan & Wife, which came along just in time to save longtime film star Rock Hudson from early retirement. As TV Detectives puts it, “Hudson had proved his acting ability in The Spiral Road (1962) and Seconds (1966), but people still thought of him as Doris Day’s screen husband. When he reached middle age, his roles began to dry up, but he remedied the problem by going into TV ...” McMillan cast Hudson, then in his mid-40s, as lawyer-turned-San Francisco police commissioner Stewart “Mac” McMillan, whose lovely but trouble-magnet spouse was played by former The Name of the Game regular Susan Saint James, then in her mid-20s. (Much was made on the show, at least in early episodes, of this May-December coupling). Created by writer-producer Leonard B. Stern, McMillan & Wife has been described before as part The Thin Man, part Burns and Allen, with “Sally ... as wacky as Gracie and as prone to finding corpses as Nora (or Mrs. North, for that matter),” to quote Richard Meyers. With John Schuck as a well-intentioned but often bumbling police sergeant, and comedienne Nancy Walker as the McMillans’ housekeeper, the show was “so frothy and watchable that disbelief was suspended ...”

For reasons I no longer recall, but that undoubtedly had to do with the fact that Wednesday was a school night and I was still a young teen, I didn’t catch these three series in their first year. It wasn’t until the 1972 fall TV season--when Columbo, McCloud, and McMillan & Wife were relocated on the programming schedule under the modified umbrella title The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie, to make room for a second rotating sequence of mystery dramas, The NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie (which initially comprised Banacek, Cool Million, and Madigan)--that I finally caught up with them.

That was the same year a fourth series joined Columbo, et al.: Hec Ramsey. Produced by Dragnet’s Jack Webb, it starred Richard Boone (Have Gun--Will Travel) as a previously quick-to-draw lawman, Hector “Hec” Ramsey, who had developed a great interest in the aborning science of forensics. After taking the job of deputy police chief in an ambitious Oklahoma railroad town called New Prospect, in 1901, Ramsey set about employing his newfound knowledge to solve murders that seemed, on their face, anyway, to present no clues. In his efforts, he was hampered by an inexperienced but earnest young boss, Oliver B. Stamp (Rick Lenz), but helped by an imperturbable town doctor (played by Webb’s old Dragnet partner, Harry Morgan).

The video at the top of this post is of The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie’s main title sequence, either from 1972 or 1973, after Hec Ramsey was integrated into the mix. Even after all these years, I still get a thrill whenever I hear that dramatic theme music, composed by American arranger-conductor Henry Mancini (probably best remembered for writing the themes for The Pink Panther and Peter Gunn, and the song “Moon River” for Breakfast at Tiffany’s).

Unfortunately, times change. And TV shows--even memorable ones--disappear. By the 1974-1975 season, The NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie was no more, and its Sunday sister would revert to being called, simply, The NBC Mystery Movie again. Meanwhile, Hec Ramsey had been canceled, supposedly because of “unresolvable disagreements between Boone and Universal Studios,” which produced the western detective drama. It was replaced in the fall of 1974 by Amy Prentiss, an Ironside spin-off series in which Jessica Walter played the San Francisco Police Department’s first female chief of detectives--a position that forced her to do battle with institutional sexism (sometimes pitched her way by an overconfident detective portrayed by William Shatner), at the same time as she worked to solve crimes and rear her pre-teen daughter, Jill (played by Helen Hunt). But only a year later, Amy Prentiss was gone and McCoy, headlined by Tony Curtis, had taken its place. You don’t remember McCoy? Well, you’re probably not alone. The Web site American Classic TV Series offers this brief synopsis:
The McCoy character was a curious concept--a con man with a gambling addiction decides to turn over a new leaf and become a latter-day Robin Hood--to help those who have been financially victimized to regain their money and put the perpetrators in jail.

The concept may have had more than a passing co-incidence with that of the hit 1973 movie “
The Sting” in which a con man cons a notorious mob figure and card cheat.
Only four episodes of McCoy were broadcast, before it too went to that great cutting room in the sky. The hole left behind was filled during the fall 1976 season by Quincy, M.E., starring The Odd Couple’s Jack Klugman as a Los Angeles County medical examiner who lived on a houseboat and seemed unable to resist investigating crimes that he, if nobody else, thought were damnably suspicious. Quincy lasted half a year on the Mystery Movie before being cast off as a separate hour-long, weekly series. (It continued showing on NBC till 1983.) After that, the new fourth member of the Sunday rotation was Lanigan’s Rabbi, based on Harry Kemelman’s then-popular Rabbi Small novels (Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, etc.). It starred Art Carney as a small-town California police chief who solved crimes with a modicum of divine assistance from his friend, amateur sleuth Rabbi David Small (Bruce Solomon).

Carney was always a watchable performer, but Lanigan’s (which was also created by Leonard B. Stern) may have been doomed from the outset, because the Mystery Movie formula was then in its last throes. That same season, Susan Saint James finally divorced herself from McMillan & Wife, leaving Hudson to limp along (and I do mean limp--the show was never the same) in the retitled McMillan. (Wife Sally’s obvious absence was explained by a deadly plane crash.) In 1974, all of the rotating shows had been boosted from their original 90-minute format to two hours long, and many of the stories thereafter seemed rather flabby. Other wheel series had come and gone, and collectively they seemed to have worn out their welcome. Even I, by 1976, was tuning in The NBC Mystery Movie less regularly. The prime-time U.S. TV schedule was blessedly rife with P.I. and police shows by then, and the Mystery Movie series no longer seemed as remarkable as they once had.

Yet now, 35 years later and at a time when most crime/mystery series are either too cute or overly repetitive for my taste, Columbo, McMillan & Wife, McCloud, and their companions are looking awfully good again. All it takes for me is to hear the bouncy theme from McCloud or watch the introduction to McMillan & Wife once more, and I am overcome with nostalgia for those character-driven, often quirky Mystery Movie installments that helped turn my curiosity about crime fiction into a lifelong interest.

READ MORE:The NBC Mystery Movie” and “A Short History of
Umbrella Series
,” by Mercurie (A Shroud of Thoughts); “NBC Mystery Movie Series Guide.”


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