Monday, May 28, 2007

Tortes and Terrorists

Assignment: Vienna’s opening and closing sequences

As a young teenager, I thought this television series was so cool. It starred Robert Conrad, who I recalled fondly from The Wild Wild West. It was shot on location in the thoroughly romantic and historic city of Vienna, Austria. And Conrad’s character was a smooth, turtleneck-wearing bar owner named Jake Webster, who just happened to be a U.S. intelligence operative “involved in tracking down various spies and international criminals,” as Wikipedia reminds me. Yet Assignment: Vienna, one of three Thursday night detective series debuting on ABC-TV in the fall of 1972 (the others were Jigsaw and The Delphi Bureau, all rotating under the rather unimaginative umbrella title The Men) didn’t make it past year one.

Actually, Assignment: Vienna seemed ill-fated from the get-go. The pilot film, shown in the spring of 1972, was actually titled Assignment: Munich and starred Roy Scheider in the Webster role, with Richard Basehart playing Major Bernard Caldwell, his U.S. government contact. But, as Richard Meyers recalls in his book TV Detectives (1981), “after the success of The French Connection (1971), in which Scheider co-starred with Oscar winner Gene Hackman, he did not want to be Webster in the series.” Much worse news came in early September of that year, when members of the Israeli team at the summer Olympic Games in Munich, West Germany, were taken hostage and then killed by Palestinian militants. Afterward, it was considered wise to move Conrad’s “assignment” to the Austrian capital, and Charles Cioffi took over Basehart’s role.

Despite these hurdles, there was still a lot going for Assignment: Vienna. It had the talented pair of Eric Bercovici and Jerry Ludwig (who’d worked previously on episodes of Mission: Impossible) as its creators and executive producers. It had a terrific, intrigue-filled theme by jazz pianist and composer Dave Grusin (who had composed the theme music for Burt Reynolds’ Dan August and Robert Wagner’s It Takes a Thief, among others). And it had that gold ’72 Corvette, behind the wheel of which Conrad sped all over Vienna, when he wasn’t manning the stick at Jake’s Bar & Grill, or dodging assassins and nabbing criminals, or swapping ripostes with the gruff Major Caldwell, who apparently had enough information on Webster’s past doings (activities that could’ve led to his deportation, if not his imprisonment in the States) to keep him in line. (Shades of Alexander Mundy’s situation in Thief.)

Sadly, though, only eight episodes of Assignment: Vienna were broadcast before this series (along with Jigsaw and The Delphi Bureau) was cancelled. I watched every single one of them, most in company with my mother, who was very fond of the Austrian capital. Conrad went on to star in Baa Baa Black Sheep, a Stephen J. Cannell series about World War II U.S. fighter pilots in the Pacific theater, and later A Man Called Sloane, in which he played another espionage agent. But I still missed Assignment: Vienna. Maybe someday, it’ll be part of a “cancelled too soon” DVD collection. That is, after DVD producers run out of eps of crap such as The A-Team and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition to peddle to the American public.

(Hat tip to Lee Goldberg’s Main Title Heaven.)


JD Rhoades said...

Ah, yes, I remember that one. After the success of the NBC Mystery Movie, which featured different series rotating within the same time slot, it seemed like everyone was trying to cash in on the format. This particular three-fer was pretty forgettable. It didn't suck as badly as The Bold Ones, though.

Le Magazine des Séries said...

A real good tv show wich remained a huge success in France...

Unknown said...

Yes, I remember this rotation well. I've been unable as yet to find even the Roy Scheider pilot "Assignment Munich". I remember thinking it was strange to change the name of the city, but now I understand why -- what with the terrorist attack at the Munich Olympics. I have collected the pilot movies for "Jigsaw" with James Wainwright and "The Delphi Bureau" with Laurence Luckenbill... but like you, I wish I could get all three complete series! Man, but I'll take even the series that didn't last a season to ANYTHING being made today! I also remember liking two other short-lived series of that time, "Cool Million" with James Farentino and "Cade's County" with Glenn Ford.