Sunday, June 14, 2009

Fame Is the Name of His Game

Some of you will remember him as a derby-wearing lawman and gambler in the NBC-TV series Bat Masterson (1958-1961). Others will recall his starring role as a suave, millionaire Los Angeles chief of detectives--with his own chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce!--in the ABC series Burke’s Law (1963-1965). Still more are likely to put his name to the face of Glenn Howard, the urbane magazine publisher in NBC’s The Name of the Game (1968-1971). But however you recall actor Gene Barry, do you also remember it’s his birthday today? That’s right: he’s turning 90 years old.

Born Eugene Klass in New York City on June 14, 1919, the grandson of Jewish immigrants from Russia, Barry exhibited an early intelligence and an aptitude for music. He was chosen valedictorian of his high-school graduating class, and “at age 17, received the coveted singing scholarship awarded by David Sarnoff, then head of RCA,” according to the Official Gene Barry Fan Page.

Barry reportedly created his professional moniker to honor the famous stage performer John Barrymore. After taking several modest parts on TV shows and in movies, he finally captured the spotlight playing physicist Clayton Forrester in the 1953 Martian invasion classic The War of the Worlds (based on H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel of the same name). He went on to a recurring role as physical ed teacher Gene Talbot in Our Miss Brooks (which starred Eve Arden), and in 1958 debuted on the small screen as a dandified version of the real-life peace officer-turned-New York sportswriter, Bat Masterson. That series was rather tongue-in-cheek, with Barry’s Bat wielding a gold-tipped cane as a weapon, but it won the actor the cover of TV Guide and a wealth of new fans. (He’d later return to the Masterson role in a couple of TV projects in 1989 and 1991.)

Two years after Bat Masterson was cancelled, Barry returned to the boob tube as LAPD Captain Amos Burke in Burke’s Law. This was another series with a lighter side, again making use of Barry’s perceived debonair demeanor. The program placed him in a mansion, surrounded by beautiful women and big-name guest stars, and let him lay down weekly witticisms known as a “Burke’s Laws” (e.g., “History is most likely to repeat if you stick to a woman with a past”). Although it wasn’t trailblazing crime fiction, Burke’s Law did offer some unexpected plot twists. And in an April 1965 episode titled “Who Killed the Jackpot?” it introduced TV audiences to female private eye Honey West, played by Anne Francis, who’d go on to star as that curvaceous character in a spin-off series.

In 1965, Barry picked up a Golden Globe Award for his work on Burke’s Law. The show also helped establish at least one precedent for other TV series, as David Bushman of the Paley Center for Media explains:
Every week a roster of well-known guest stars popped up as suspects in Burke’s murder investigation, a shtick evocative of John Huston’s 1963 film The List of Adrian Messenger, which included cameos by Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum, and Burt Lancaster, and one that [Burke’s Law producer Aaron] Spelling himself later reprised in such shows as The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. By the spring of 1965, however, few viewers still cared whodunit, so Burke returned not as an L.A. cop, but as Amos Burke, Secret Agent, hoping to capitalize on 007/Man from U.N.C.L.E. mania--alas, the new format never did bond with viewers.
Amos Burke bit the dust after 17 episodes.

However, the handsome Barry was rarely unemployed for long in those days. Audiences enjoyed seeing him on their big boxy TV sets, even if he was only guessing answers to questions put to him on The Hollywood Squares. He delivered one of his finest performances as a clever, homicidal physician in Prescription: Murder (1968), the first of two teleflicks that paved the way for the NBC series Columbo. And in October 1968, Barry returned to the small screen in The Name of the Game, a path-breaking 90-minute “wheel series” that placed him in protagonist rotation with former Untouchables star Robert Stack and future Matt Helm portrayer Tony Franciosa. Barry played Glenn Howard, CEO of Howard Publications, while Stack was an FBI agent turned crime reporter, and Franciosa was the star reporter for People magazine (several years before there actually was a People magazine). The single constant player in that series was a young, mini-skirted Susan Saint James, who served all three stars (as well as other rotating leads who joined the show during its third and concluding year). In an article for the Museum of Broadcast Communications Web site, David Thorburn makes clear The Name of the Game’s significance:
One of the first television programs to deal directly with the increasing social and political turbulence of late 1960s, The Name of the Game regularly confronted such topics as the counter culture, racial conflict, the sexual revolution, political corruption, environmental pollution. Its ideology was a muddled if revealing strain of Hollywood liberalism, and its rotating heroes, especially Gene Barry’s elegant corporate aristocrat, were enlightened professionals who used the power of their media conglomerate to right injustice and defend the powerless. If many episodes ended on a reformist note of muted affirmation for an America shown to be flawed and endangered but resilient and ultimately fixable, individual scenes and performances often dramatized social evils, injustice, moral and political corruption with a vividness and truthfulness rare in television during this period.
“Both in its formal excellence and in the intermittent but genuine seriousness of its subject matter,” Thornburn concludes, “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.”

Gene Barry took the lead in just one other TV serial, a 1972-1973 British work called The Adventurer, which co-starred Barry Morse and Catherine Schell. It found Barry, then in his early 50s, playing the action-heavy role of Gene Bradley, “a wealthy, jet-setting movie celebrity who indulged himself in business ventures of all kinds, but whose real job involved secret assignments for U.S. intelligence,” as the Official Gene Barry Fan Page recalls. The series featured theme music by John Barry (lots of Barrys here!), but was critiqued poorly for its improbable premise and often “impenetrable” plot lines.

Over the next two decades, Barry worked the guest-star circuit, turning up in Charlie’s Angels, The Love Boat, Hotel, a Perry Mason TV movie, and Murder, She Wrote. He broke a long hiatus away from the stage in 1983 by playing one of the two gay leads in the musical La Cage aux Folles. And he headlined the brief, 1994-1995 revival of Burke’s Law. Directed at an older audience, that show returned Burke to his duties as an L.A. police detective, this time working with his son, Peter (Peter Barton). Given the popularity back then of similarly styled programs such as the aforementioned Murder, She Wrote and Matlock, the honchos at CBS evidently thought the rebirth of a now-silver-maned Amos Burke could only be good for their company’s bottom line. The series started out with solid ratings, but its campy style didn’t wear well after the first season. It disappeared--again--after just 14 episodes.

Barry’s résumé page in the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) shows that his last appearance before the cameras was a small role in Steven Spielberg’s 2005 remake of War of the Worlds, taking his Hollywood career almost full circle. Since then, he’s lost his wife of 58 years, but not his humor. Asked by an interviewer in the year 2000 whether he ever watches his old films or TV shows, the actor said, “Rarely. I’d rather read.”

Happy birthday, Gene Barry. Wherever you are, we hope you’re engrossed in a good book right now.

READ MORE:Burke’s Law (TV), 1963-66,” by Chuck Rothman (Great but Forgotten); “It’s Burke’s Laaaaw!” by Steve Thompson (The Booksteve Channel).


David Cranmer said...

Thanks. I will enjoy watching this.

RJR said...

In the '94 version of Burke's Law Barry played the Chief of Detectives and worked with his son. I kinda enjoyed that series. As for Amos Burke, Secret Agent, as much as I enjoyed the first three seasons of Burke's Law, this new version was opposite I Spy. 'nuf said.


Martin Edwards said...

That's a terrific post, thanks. I watched Burke's Law when I was young and all I can remember is that I enjoyed it. As for The Adventurer, I suspect the best thing about it was the John Barry theme.