Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Best TV Crime Drama Openers, #12

Series Title: Baretta | Years: 1975-1978, ABC | Starring: Robert Blake, Tom Ewell, Michael D. Roberts, Edward Grover, John Ward, Dana Elcar | Theme Music: Dave Grusin

One of the most interesting things about the 1970s cop drama Baretta is how it made it on the air in the first place. We have a combination of an actor’s reticence, a writer’s innovation, and James Garner’s willingness to return to television to thank for it.

TV historian and radio host Ed Robertson provides the twisted background details in the opening chapter of his book Thirty Years of The Rockford Files: An Inside Look at America’s Greatest Detective Series. As he explains it, in 1972 writer-producer Roy Huggins--already the brains behind such hits as Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, and The Fugitive--came up with the idea for a series about a private investigator who took on only “closed cases.” However, he had to set that aside, because he was already involved with another project. It was a police drama based loosely on the real-life career of Newark, New Jersey, cop David Toma, who was known for butting heads with his superiors, using disguises to bring down malefactors, and showing compassion for some of the criminals he sought. With the backing of Universal Television, Huggins put together a pilot for Toma, starring Tony Musante, Simon Oakland, and Susan Strasberg; it sold to ABC-TV. Toma debuted in the fall of 1973, with TV Guide describing its protagonist as “a maverick who prefers to work alone, enjoys taking big risks, and doesn’t like to use his gun.”

That series, which highlighted not only Toma’s work on the streets but his life at home with his wife, Patty (Stasberg), and their two children, got off to a fairly slow beginning. But by the end of the season it’s renewal seemed assured. There was just one problem, and it was daunting: Musante wasn’t interested in coming back to the show for a second year. He wanted to do other things (he eventually racked up a long résumé of theater performances), and had evidently made that clear, even before Toma debuted. But Huggins and Universal apparently thought they could change his mind. They couldn’t. So ABC had an arguable hit on its hands with no star. The solution was to drastically retool Toma, without losing its popular essence. Huggins might have taken that task on himself ... except that by then, he was developing his private-eye series for the fall 1974 season: The Rockford Files, to which he’d finally signed Garner, despite the actor’s wariness of TV work, after the failure of his 1971-1972 Western series, Nichols. Instead, Huggins handed the Toma re-conception off to one of his most able associates, writer Stephen J. Cannell. (While it’s impossible to know, it would certainly be interesting to see how different Baretta might have been, had Huggins remained at the writing helm.)

To replace the intense and talented Musante, Cannell turned to Robert Blake, “a terrific actor who had been doing great movie roles since 1959 but had never been given a chance to shine,” as Richard Meyers explains in TV Detectives (1981). Meyers continues:

Blake started his film career as Mickey Gubitosi in the Our Gang short comedies of the late thirties and early forties. As Bobby Blake he worked in the Red Ryder Westerns playing the Indian lad, Little Beaver. That led to many other parts in films like Humoresque (1947), in which he played the John Garfield character as a boy, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Leaving a hellish home life, he progressed on a self-destructive cycle which included juvenile delinquency, several arrests, and drug addiction.

Pulling himself out of the nosedive, Blake started back up the mountain, reaching a high plateau with his performances in In Cold Blood (1967) and Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969). But even after these films, he was still known around Hollywood as a “talented unknown.”
Considering Blake’s background and presence, he seemed like an awfully square peg to be shoving into the round hole left by Tony Musante’s departure. As a consequence, more than just the name of this crime drama had to change before its reintroduction on ABC in January 1975 as Baretta. “Toma lived in a nice little house with a beautiful wife,” Meyers recalls. “[Anthony Vincenzo ‘Tony’] Baretta lived in the rundown cellar of the King Edward Hotel with a cockatoo named Fred. His best human buddy was Billy Truman (Tom Ewell), a former cop and presently the rummy manager and house detective at the hotel. ... Toma carried a gun, but did not like to use it. On his show, he rarely had to. On Baretta, the world of pimps, racketeers, prostitutes, rapists, crooked officials, and slum violence was laid out for all to see. Baretta did not like to use his gun either, but he would use anything when he had to, and he had to often. Even his best stool pigeon was a pimp named Rooster (Michael D. Roberts).”

Like Dave Toma before him, plainclothes cop Tony Baretta employed a theater’s worth of disguises as he chased down and cuffed petty crooks and mob bosses. The idea of fictional sleuths masquerading during the course of their jobs was hardly new; Sherlock Holmes was an early advocate of the practice, and was followed by Craig Kennedy, Arthur B. Reeve’s “scientific detective,” James West in The Wild Wild West, Jeff Cable in Barbary Coast, and many others. Some of Baretta’s get-ups defied belief, especially the more flamboyant ones. He was more at home in the T-shirts, jeans, and caps that comprised most of his personal wardrobe. Such attire--and the unlit cigarette that was so often found dangling from his lips or tucked behind an ear--reflected what viewers understood as his real personality: solidly blue-collar (“the orphaned son of poor Italian immigrants”), short on education but long on bravery, and not exactly contemptuous of authority, but undeniably resistant to its strictures. The randy and rowdy Baretta had more in common with some of the underworld figures he pursued than he did with the bosses to whom he reported, Inspector Karl Shiller (Elcar) and Lieutenant Hal Brubaker (Glover).

The series’ main title sequence was a splendid match with Baretta’s street-smart and cool air. Its visuals--interspersing action sequences with still, colorless images of Blake and the grimy streets his character knew best--quickly established this as a gritty, urban serial. Its theme music came from jazz pianist and composer Dave Grusin, who had previously created the themes for Dan August, It Takes a Thief, The Name of the Game, Assignment: Vienna, and other American shows. Most viewers probably remember the Baretta theme as having lyrics, cooked up by Blake’s friend, singer Morgan Ames. But when the series debuted, those lines were nowhere to be found. There was just the music peppered with what sounded like cockatoo squawks. A Web site called The Dave Grusin Archive explains the evolution of the Baretta theme, including how its vocals disappeared, and how they were eventually restored:
When time came to lay down the instrumental track, [prior to Baretta’s debut, Morgan Ames] had no words ready, save the couplet for a gospel-flavored piece she’d been thinking about (“keep your eye on the sparrow when the going gets narrow”).

It was all she had to offer Dave Grusin as they arrived at the studio. With session musicians standing by--top artists like Lee Ritenour and Harvey Mason just waiting around--he sat down at the piano and composed the tune right there, and by the end of the rhythm date, had recorded what top producer Jo Swerling Jr. has referred to as “the best main title theme ever created.” Not to mention one of the most popular tracks Dave Grusin has recorded (on the memorable “Discovered Again” album).

Morgan Ames now had her inspiration, and she put down the jaunty lyrics which make the song such a dazzler (all the while giving credit to Dave Grusin for the lines “don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time”). ...

When Universal executives heard the recording, however, they were up in arms. It sounded “black,” they said. “No way” was their response. Star Blake, who’d been highly enthusiastic about the production of “Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow,” however, failed to defend it, and so it was only the instrumental version which played over titles in the first season (vocals having been removed and overdubbed by guitar which played it wrong, and distorted the composer’s concept).

However, true to the Hollywood tradition of hypocrisy, the song which sounded “too black” for the first season was augmented in the second by the Morgan Ames lyrics--sung by none other than Sammy Davis Jr.!
Theme songs with lyrics aren’t exactly commonplace in televised crime dramas--or for that matter, any other sorts of series (probably because enough of those that actually made it to the air have been abysmal, a prime exception being this one). Even Isaac Hayes’ famous theme vocals from the 1971 film Shaft were expunged when private eye John Shaft was transferred to television in 1973. Yet, the Baretta lyrics worked well in concert with what else was going on in that series’ opener. (A full version of the song can be heard here.)

Baretta had a good four-year run on ABC, attracting a succession of estimable guest stars and drawing on a high-quality stable of writers (among them future novelist Robert Crais). It was by no means, though, an easy endeavor, according to TV Detectives:
Blake made Baretta work on sheer force of personality. Everything was written for and around him, or else he would rewrite it to his satisfaction. By the second season he had basically taken control of the production--eating, sleeping, and dreaming Baretta. The crew was reportedly devoted to the feisty actor and together they presented Blake’s fantasy points of view to a watching world.

Blake stressed antiviolence, but Baretta lived in a violent world of mobsters, nun-rapers, child molesters, and psycho hoods. The show tried to be honest yet still very entertaining. It was as if the leader of the Bowery Boys had grown up to be a super cop. Blake’s mangling of the English language lived on after the series’ demise in 1978. His “You can take dat to the bank” and “Dat’s the name a’ dat tune” are still being quoted.
Blake’s road since the cancellation of Baretta has been rocky, to say the least. He tried to return to series television in the early ’80s playing a Bogart-esque gumshoe in Los Angeles named Joe Dancer, but despite his enthusiasm and the filming of three TV movies built around the Dancer character--one of them penned by Crais--no series was forthcoming. Blake went on to star as mysteriously vanished labor leader Jimmy Hoffa in the 1983 miniseries Blood Feud, and he portrayed a tough, inner-city priest in the short-lived 1985 NBC-TV series Hell Town. However, as one might have expected, his arrest and prosecution for the 2001 murder of his second wife, Bonnie Lee Bakley, did nothing to endear him to the fans he once had. (He was ultimately acquitted in the criminal case, but found liable in a later civil case for the wrongful death of Bakely.) The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) says that Blake’s last big- or small-screen role was in David Lynch’s 1997 film, Lost Highway.

The premiere season of Baretta was released on DVD in 2002. There’s also a cheaper, three-episode “Best of Baretta” disc for those who would like just a taste of Blake’s best-remembered work. (No word yet on the release of any subsequent seasons.) Before revisiting Baretta, though, it’s necessary to put aside the sordid recent history of its star, and view this series as people did when it first came out. The show certainly has its flaw; Blake played his detective as a bit too boyish and naïve at times, and unbelievably tough at others. Yet there was an uncluttered honesty about Tony Baretta that remains watchable, even 30 years later.

And you can take dat to the bank.


David Cranmer said...

Baretta was big when I was growing up and it was great learning all these forgotten details... I also remember watching Joe Dancer and Blood Feud.

Lee Goldberg said...

The JOE DANCER movies have showed up on Sleuth and they are awful.

BTW, the Toma main title theme is pretty kick-ass, too. I wish someone would post the main title sequence on Youtube (and BRONK, CHASE and DAN AUGUST while they are at it, too :-) )

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

For the sheer excitement of the visuals and music the opening of Streets of San Francisco used to get me going. And to the other extreme the opening of the Rockford Files was successful in creating a mood.

Anonymous said...

One of our local channels here in Chicago was running BARETTA for a while (and may do so again). I recall a tag scene at the end of one episode in which Robert Blake is trying desperately to score with a gorgeous blonde lady doctor, while Tom Ewell and Strother Martin are reeling around drunk behind them. I stayed to watch the closing credits to find out who the gorgeous blonde was... it was Melodie Johnson. Yes, THAT Melodie Johnson (Howe). Why am I suddenly sorry that I even brought this up?