Friday, July 09, 2010

Coast of Bad Dreams

Click above to watch the main title sequence from Barbary Coast as well as clips from the second episode, “Crazy Cats.”

(Editor’s note: This is my humble contribution to the weeklong William Shatner Blogathon, organized by Stacia Jones of She Blogged by Night.)

I’ve mentioned before that my fondness for San Francisco can be traced principally to four influences during my teenage years: (1) Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon; (2) Herbert Asbury’s wonderful book about the city’s criminal past, The Barbary Coast; and (3) a pair of American television series, McMillan & Wife and The Streets of San Francisco. Actually, though, there’s another reason, too, for my association with California’s most colorful burg: the short-lived series Barbary Coast.

That hour-long show, which debuted on ABC-TV in September 1975 and disappeared from the prime-time schedule just a dozen episodes later, in early January 1976, was set in 1870s San Francisco. It starred Star Trek alumnus William Shatner as Jeff Cable, the governor of California’s personal undercover investigator, and Doug McClure (formerly of Checkmate and The Virginian) as Cash Conover, the proprietor of a saloon and casino in the then rough-and-tumble town’s most notorious quarter, the Barbary Coast, which butted up against the Italian district of North Beach. The back-story, if I recall correctly, was that the well-connected Cable had saved gambler Conover’s bacon, after the latter killed (in a New Orleans duel) the son of a powerful nabob, and then “persuaded” Conover to help him clean up the Coast--“the haunt of the low and the vile of every kind,” as B.E. Lloyd opined in his 1876 book, Lights and Shades in San Francisco. Agent Cable was a master of disguise, who lived in a secret deluxe apartment on the casino’s second floor, entered through a hinged fireplace in Conover’s office.

At least initially, Barbary Coast seemed to have much weighing in its favor. Shatner and McClure were both fan favorites. The series’ creator was Douglas Heyes, whose screenwriting credits included episodes of 77 Sunset Strip, Maverick, The Bold Ones, McCloud, and City of Angels. The program was the closest thing to a TV Western since Gunsmoke cantered off into the sunset in the spring of 1975. And the setting held considerable promise for quirky criminal adventures. As I wrote of the real Barbary Coast in my book San Francisco: Yesterday and Today,
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, this unabashedly wicked quarter--centered on Pacific Avenue (or “Terrific Street,” as habitués called it), and chock-a-block with groggeries and brothels--was an affront to everything clean-living San Franciscans wanted for their city.

A survey made in 1870 discovered that the Coast’s underworld population numbered 20,000--3,000 of whom made their living from prostitution. The rest spent their days separating fools from their money in gambling joints, “shanghaiing” drugged sailors and other ne’er-do-wells onto ships bound for Asia or South America, running ribald theaters, operating protection rackets, and managing a remarkable redundancy of drinking establishments. In 1875, the city of San Francisco issued some 2,000 liquor licenses, 304 of which went to places along the Barbary Coast. A single block of Pacific Avenue boasted 10 saloons. With such competition, watering holes had to be creative if they were to attract customers. One chained a live grizzly bear beside its entrance. Others, explained
Scribner’s Monthly magazine in 1875, “have organs that invite patrons to dally. ... And some, in addition to a band, keep a female staff capable of waking thirst in a stone.” At one dive, a rank grotesque known as Dirty Tom McAlear would consume any noxious liquid or foul food you gave him, in exchange for the few pennies at the bottom of your pocket. McAlear was finally arrested for “making a beast of himself.”
But problems were quick to crop up. In the pilot film, directed by Bill Bixby of The Magician fame and shown originally in May 1975, Dennis Cole had starred as Conover, owner of the Golden Gate Casino. But critics deemed Cole too restrained and colorless in that role, so ABC dumped him in favor of the more boyish McClure. Personally, I preferred Cole’s performance as the suspicious and manifestly superstitious Cash, because he emanated a depth and restrained deviousness that McClure could never capture--if he even tried. With the substitution of McClure as Shatner’s partner in crime-solving, ABC also announced plans to retitle the show Cash and Cable; fortunately, that decision never went farther than the announcement. One choice that did go ahead, though, was the unfortunate one to schedule Barbary Coast in the same time slot--8-9 p.m. on Mondays--that had been home to the axed Gunsmoke. The real Barbary Coast had been a despicable, dank, and downright desperate place. Capturing and capitalizing on that reputation in a series slated for the “family hour” was well nigh impossible.

Some of the criminal cases these reluctant “pardners” tackled might have been intriguingly fleshed out, had the show’s writers (a few of whom had apparently been borrowed from the stable that made Mission: Impossible a hit) been allowed to incorporate more mature subject matter into their scripts. As the TV Acres Web site recalls, episodes focused on such subjects as “a crooked banker using counterfeit cash to inflate his account,” “recovering a hijacked shipment of rifles,” “retrieving a valuable pair of jade cats for the Chinese,” and “thwarting the assassination plot of a visiting Irish leader.” Heyes’ pilot offered a glimpse of what might have been, with its story line about vigilantes (who had actually terrorized historical San Francisco) wanting to take law enforcement into their own violent hands. But of course such dark material would have been unacceptable on a weekly basis when children were watching. Heaven knows, they might have been traumatized for the rest of their lives!

Television reviewers compared Barbary Coast with another 19th-century Western spy-crime series, The Wild Wild West, and found the former wanting. Shatner’s Cable wasn’t nearly as appealing as Ross Martin’s suave master of disguise and gadget maker, Artemus Gordon, and he could be downright annoying and campy. And McClure’s Conover--unconvincingly a smash with the female sex--lacked anything approaching the magnetism of Robert Conrad’s secret agent, James West. TV Guide critic Cleveland Amory was particularly unimpressed with the show. In his column of October 25, 1975, he wrote:
Barbary Coast is half adventure, half spoof and all complicated. The plots are so involved that it takes someone with nothing else on his mind to understand them. If there’s anything that makes a spoof go poof, it’s not knowing what’s going on--before they start making fun of it. There’s also another problem. Your heroes, William Shatner and Doug McClure, are evidently directed to be as cute as bugs, and, like all actors so directed since the prime of recorded time, sooner of later they begin to--well, bug you.
From the reviewers’ point of view, Barbary Coast probably outstayed its welcome. Even Shatner--who went on from this failure to do the Star Trek movies and then play a veteran police sergeant in T.J. Hooker (1982-1986)--has been dismissive of the show’s strengths in the 35 years since it was cancelled. However, I think Barbary Coast (which, unfortunately, is still not available in DVD format) had potential, and could have been a crowd pleaser--if only it had landed a later evening time spot and been allowed to actually depict the dangers and devilishness that the genuine Barbary Coast offered to both its habitués and the well-fixed young slummers who thrilled at the opportunity to wander its tawdry thoroughfares.

I can only imagine what director Martin Scorsese, who is in the process of developing the fall 2010 HBO-TV series Boardwalk Empire, set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City, New Jersey, could do with a historical detective drama backdropped by a San Francisco locale that made Atlantic City look like a children’s playground. Would he at least sign the now 79-year-old William Shatner to do a cameo bit?

READ MORE:A Cruise on the Barbary Coast,” by Albert S. Evans (The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco).


Stacia said...

Wow, so much information on a show I've never seen! Not for lack of trying, though. As a kid I really wanted to watch this because I was a Shatner fan even back then (my 3 big TV faves were Shatner, James Garner, and Harry Morgan; I'd watch anything with them in it) but my parents vetoed the idea because something else was on opposite. Wikipedia tells me it was "Rhoda", which sounds about right. It does sound like it could have been a great show if it had been darker like other ABC shows of the time, as "Baretta" and "Streets of San Francisco" seemed to be. Maybe that's my faulty memory, but not everything on ABC was Donnie & Marie.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

The only thing I remember about this series was Shatner's character's penchant for disguise--which I thought was amusing, given that his former Star Trek co-star Leonard Nimoy plied the same trade during his two-year stint on Mission: Impossible. So thanks for bringing back a nice memory, Jeff -- I'd love to be able to see the pilot for Coast again.

Judy said...

I'd never heard of this series until reading this - I suspect it may not have been shown in the UK. After recently seeing the Howard Hawks movie Barbary Coast, I'd be interested to see this if it ever does get a DVD release - you make it sound worth watching despite the problems. One of the first series I loved as a child was The Virginian starring McClure, so the combination of him and Shatner is intriguing.

Evan Lewis said...

I liked this show then. Be interesting to see how it looks now.

Mike Doran said...

With all the detail in the blog and the comments, I'm frankly just a little surprised that no one mentioned Moose, the doorman at the Golden Gate casino - or the actor who played him: the one and only Richard Kiel.

I dunno - maybe you all just didn't notice him ...

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Actually, I don't really remember the mighty Moose Moran playing that large a part in the series. My recollection is that he only came into play was when the gamblers and prostitutes who frequented the Golden Gate got a bit out of hand. And of course he served as the "barker" outside that casino, trying to lure the gullible and greedy through its doors.

What's notable about Richard Kiel, though, is that he went on from Barbary Coast to play Jaws in the James Bond films The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker.


Anonymous said...

I remember this show very well and liked it for both William Shatner and Doug McClure. I saw one episode when I was 13--the one where Jeff
Cable and Cash Conover had to save some poor guy who was mistaken for President Lincoln's assassin John Wilkes Booth from the gallows. I
did not get to see the pilot film (aired on ABC in 1975) until 1985
when it was aired in syndication particularly on WTBS-Atlanta as a middle-of-the-night movie. I had a copy of it once upon a time from that source (taped overnight back
in the days of VCR's) but have since replaced it with inferior
quality copies recorded by other
fans. So far I have found of the
original 13 episodes besides the
pilot film only 4 from the series
which were run on TV Land in the mid-90's on Saturdays as part of their classic TV Western lineup.
Those were the days. The other 8 episodes are nowhere to be located. What I find amusing
is where videos of this show are concerned is that collectors I have contacted who do have them
have the exact same 5 episodes.

I was mainly attracted to this
series because of not only William Shatner (as I am a long-time original Star Trek fan) but also
it's similarity to Wild Wild West
which is my main TV series fan interest. I loved the instrumental
theme song (which was catchy),
remember that Richard Kiel (Dr.
Loveless henchman Voltaire in
the first 3 Loveless episodes from Season 1) had a supporting role
in both the pilot and series,
and Charles Aidman (Jeremy Pike
in WWW) was in the pilot. Most
of all, I recall Cash Conover played by both Dennis Cole (pilot) and Doug McClure saying "Cash
makes no enemies." In the pilot
William Shatner had 6 disguises
as Cable and Cole's Cash used
the quote 4 times, whereas Doug's
version of Conover said it at
least once per episode in the series.

A series overall that I liked that
deserved better from ABC. I blame CBS Rhoda and Phyllis (Cloris Leachman) primarily for its
premature demise in 1976.
I wish Paramount/CBS would
release the entire series
pilot film included but I
realize chances are of that
in today's economy are slim
to none. I will probably have
to settle for the 5 episodes
I've got.

Then again, another short-
lived Douglas Heyes-produced
TV Western show Bearcats!
(1971, CBS) starring Rod
Taylor and Dennis Cole was
recently released on commercial
DVD, so that proves you never
know what obscure TV show will
come out on DVD. Maybe one of
these days it will be Barbary Coast's turn.

Jim Smallwood said...

Just to prove never say never,
the site TV Shows On DVD announced
that Barbary Coast the complete TV series is going to be released on
DVD as a 4-disc set by RLJ
Entertainment (which has released
TV series on DVD in past under the
names Acorn Media and Image
Entertainment) on June 3, 2014.
It consists of the pilot movie
The Barbary Coast which then co-starred the late Dennis Cole as
Cash Conover along with William
Shatner as secret agent Jeff Cable. Price: $ 59.95 SRP.
No details on cover box art yet.
I hope the price is drastically
reduced eventually.

I personally am in total shock.
I did not think this would ever
happen. This is good news to
fans of the show and Mr.Shatner/
the late Mr.McClure.

Jim Smallwood said...

If anyone who remembers this series
and watched it on ABC when it aired
originally in the 1975-1976 season,
the competition on CBS and NBC
pretty much killed it. Miraculously
it lasted out the season despite
there only being 14 episodes (counting the pilot movie) filmed
by Paramount. I was about 13 when
ABC ran it.

Competition was:
Monday nights-
CBS: Rhoda (Valerie Harper) &
Phyllis (Cloris Leachman)
spinoffs of the Mary Tyler Moore
NBC: The Invisible Man
(David McCallum) which
lasted 13 episodes itself
and was cancelled first in
mid-season. Surprisingly it
too is on commercial DVD.

Friday nights (moved when ABC
cancelled the newsroom drama
Mobile One starring Jackie Cooper)-
NBC- Sanford & Son,
Chico And The Man
CBS- Big Eddie (cancelled)/
MASH (subsequently moved) &
hour Western drama Sara
(Brenda Vaccaro) (also
quickly cancelled).

Friday night was not too much of
an improvement for Barbary Coast.
Sanford & Chico mainly got it axed.

And that's our TV trivia lesson
for today.