Monday, September 20, 2010

Killed in the Ratings: “Griff”

(The ninth entry in a month-long series about American TV crime dramas that debuted with fanfare, but are now largely forgotten.)

Title: Griff

Starring: Lorne Greene and
Ben Murphy

Original Run: 1973-1974 (12 episodes, plus pilot), ABC-TV

Premise: After 14 years of playing patriarch Ben Cartwright on the western series Bonanza (a show that had been canceled just nine months before the debut of Griff, with less than two days notice), the 58-year-old Greene was saddled with a much different job as a private investigator. He played Wade “Griff” Griffin, described by publicity materials as a former Los Angeles police captain who “had become a legend in the department prior to being forced into early retirement.” He had moved into the gumshoe game after his private-eye son was murdered; he started out by solving that mystery, then took over the junior sleuth’s private practice. Griff, viewers were told, would get “emotionally involved in cases and was young enough to have appeal for women.” (Perhaps to reassure himself of that latter capacity, he lived in the “swinging, youth-oriented Westwood section of Los Angeles.”) His 31-year-old partner was Mike Murdoch (former Alias Smith and Jones co-star Murphy), the son of one of Griff’s colleagues--who’d been killed in the line of duty--and even more devastating to the opposite sex than his new boss. The two worked out of antiques-filled offices, shared a secretary-receptionist, Gracie Newcombe (Patricia Stich), and had a reliable LAPD contact they could summon for assistance, Captain Barney Marcus (Vic Tayback).

Created by Larry Cohen

Additional Notes: In an era when cop, private-eye, and lawyer series were epidemic on television, critics dismissed Griff as carbon-copy material. It didn’t help that the series concept--an older detective takes over his son’s private-eye firm after the younger man is killed--sounded an awful lot like the premise of Barnaby Jones, which had begun its run earlier in the same year. As he made the media rounds, and before the final casting decisions were announced, actor Greene was asked more than once by impish reviewers which former Miss America would be hired to play his secretary on the show (an allusion, of course, to Lee Meriwether’s participation in the Buddy Ebsen series.) TV Guide’s Cleveland Amory had assorted other complaints. He described Wade Griffin as “fatherly and bulldoggy, but besides being that and looking rather like a bulldog--he has a kind of bit-it-off and spit-it-out approach to characterization anyway--we just don’t learn enough about him to make him interesting.” Amory also condemned Griff’s plots as “strictly old hit. In an early show, a woman’s husband is murdered on a yacht--all aboard wished him dead. When have you last seen that one? Not since last night, right? In another episode, Griff’s secretary is besieged by phone calls from an unknown psychic. Again, say when. No, please don’t. In still another, Griff has to thwart the potential killer of a Middle East potentate--à la Day of the Jackal. It was the jackal, yes, but hardly the day of.” Surprisingly, Steven Bochco was one of the executive producers behind this short-lived Saturday night series, the pilot for which wasn’t broadcast until a year after Griff had bitten the dust.

Above: Griff’s write-up in the September 8-14, 1973, Fall Preview edition of TV Guide. (Click to enlarge the image.) Below: A scene from the episode “Countdown to Terror,” guest-starring Ricardo Montalban as a hostage-taker with a bomb strapped to his torso.

Although I couldn’t track down the main title sequence from Griff, I did at least find its theme music, composed by Elliot Kaplan. The version below was performed by John Gregory & His Orchestra.

READ MORE:Griff--Robert Weverka,” by Randy Johnson (Not the Baseball Pitcher); “Death Follows a Psycho,” by Marty McKee (Johnny LaRue’s Crane Shot).


RJR said...

The P.I. son being killed thing did not work as well for Griff as it did for Barnaby Jones. Or maybe Buddy Ebsen was just more likeable.

And yep, saw this one when it first came out, too.


Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

I'd like to see a full episode of this.

Randy Johnson said...

I remeber the show well. I think I have a tie0in novel by Robert Weverka somewhere in the house.

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Hey, Randy:

If you do come up with that tie-in novel, I'd love to see the book jacket. And I'm sure I am not alone.