Saturday, September 20, 2008

In the “Name” of Nostalgia

I’m willing to bet that I shall be the first, if not only blogger who mentions this anniversary: Today marks 40 years since the 1968 debut of The Name of the Game, an often innovative NBC-TV mystery/adventure show that was also among the earliest “wheel series” to hit U.S. airwaves. The Museum of Broadcast Communications offers some background on the show and explains its basic premise:
The Name of the Game occupies a unique place in the history of prime time-television. Notable for the ambitious scope and social relevance of its stories and for its innovative 90-minute anthology format, the series was perhaps most influential in its lavish production values, which aimed to recreate the audio-visual complexity of the movies. In 1969 TV Guide reported that the show’s budget of $400,000 per episode made The Name of the Game the most expensive television program in history. The series also functioned as a kind of apprentice field for writers and directors who later achieved great success, including Steven Bochco, Marvin Chomsky, Leo Penn and Steven Spielberg.

The two-hour pilot film for the series, Fame Is the Name of the Game, was broadcast in 1966 as the first World Premiere Movie, a weekly series of made-for-television films produced by Universal Studios for NBC. The series itself, which premiered in 1968, retained the fluid, quick-cutting visual texture of the pilot and added a pulsating jazz theme by Dave Grusin. Tony Franciosa, star of the pilot film, returned to the series as Jeff Dillon, ace reporter for People Magazine, in a rotation every third week with Gene Barry and Robert Stack. Barry played a Henry Luce-type media mogul, Glenn Howard, CEO of Howard Publications, while Stack--in a role intended to recall his performance as Eliot Ness, the crime-fighting hero of The Untouchables--played Dan Farrell, a retired FBI agent now a writer-editor on Crime Magazine. Providing continuity, Susan St. James appeared in every episode as Peggy Maxwell, who remained a research assistant and aide-de-camp to the male stars through the run of the series despite her Ph.D. in archaeology and her knowledge of five languages.
Although I wasn’t old enough to watch this show during its original, 1968-1971 Friday night broadcast schedule, I caught up with it in reruns years later. The series was particularly interesting because it took on issues that, in 1968, would still have been controversial--racial animosity, environmental pollution, and the sexual revolution. It would even experiment outside its conventional format, as in the case of a 1971 episode titled “L.A. 2017,” which imagined Gene Barry being transported into a future Los Angeles where people lived underground (to escape pollution) and under the control of a fascist government. The trio of principles--Barry, Stack, and Franciosa--were quite different from one another, so the individual stories often bore tones somewhat distinct to whoever was starring. That mix was further enhanced after Franciosa left the show during its third season (he would later reappear in Search and Matt Helm), and his place in the rotation was filled by several actors, among them Peter Falk and Darren McGavin.

“Even in its less imaginative and intellectually ambitious episodes,” the Museum of Broadcast Communications site opines, “The Name of the Game held to consistently high standards of production and acting. Both in its formal excellence and in the intermittent but genuine seriousness of its subject matter, the show brought a new maturity to television and deserves recognition as an enabling precursor of the strongest prime time programming of the 1970s and 1980s.” All of which makes it a shame that this series has yet to be released in a DVD set (though copies are available from sites such as I’d like a copy for my own library.

Meanwhile, let me leave you with the main title sequence from The Name of the Game, with music composed by jazz pianist Dave Grusin, who also gave us the memorable themes to Dan August, It Takes a Thief, and Assignment: Vienna, among other shows. In the clip, that opener is followed by a chunk of video from the first episode of The Name of the Game, “Fear of High Places,” which of course showed originally on September 20, 1968.

READ MORE:FFB: Los Angeles: A.D. 2017--Philip Wylie,” by Randy Johnson (Not the Baseball Pitcher).


pattinase (abbott) said...

This show seemed incredibly sophisticated and clever at the time. And Susan St. James at Peggy Maxwell was a treat.

Lee Goldberg said...

THE NAME OF THE GAME and IT TAKES A THIEF are two of my all-time favorite TV themes. Despite the so-called "high production values" of GAME, a large amount of the show seemed to be shot on the Universal Studios backlot.

Anonymous said...

I AM old enough to have watched it when it first came out, and I thoroughly enjoyed each spoke of the wheel, which also introduced Ben Murphy to the viewing audience, who later did Alias Smith & Jones. I particularly enjoyed Franciosa, and lament the fact that he was so difficult to work with that he eventually left the show. I did, however, enjoy episodes that featured Darren McGavin, and then Robert Wagner replacing Tony.

Come on, bring it to DVD!


Anonymous said...

I believe the Gene Barry issue you mentioned was based on a sci-fi novel--maybe by J.G. Ballard?


Jack Getze said...

My family thought it was the best thing on TV.

J. Kingston Pierce said...

To RJR: Writing credit for the "L.A. 2017" episode is given to Philip Wylie, a 20th-century science-fiction pulp author ( I don't see anything about his having adapted the story from somebody else's material.