Thursday, September 15, 2011

NBC’s “Mystery Movie” Turns 40:
On the Case with Slick Dicks, a Rumpled Cop, and Cowboy Crime Fighters

It was 40 years ago tonight--on September 15, 1971--that one of the most memorable TV series of my youth debuted:

The NBC Mystery Movie.

As I’ve written before, my introduction to crime fiction came in high school, when I discovered the unusually compassionate private-eye novels of Ross Macdonald. However, the NBC Mystery Movie--a rotating collection of distinctive, sometimes quirky televised crime dramas, the number of which fluctuated over a six-year run--was what cemented my interest in this genre.

(Left) The 1971 TV Guide Fall Preview page introducing the original version of the Mystery Movie. Click to enlarge.

After all these decades, it’s not easy to put my finger on exactly what kept me tuning in to that “wheel series” week in and week out. Certainly I was drawn to the idiosyncratic protagonists--everyone from an unassuming police detective in a rumpled raincoat and a western marshal who rode the wild frontier of Manhattan, to a police commissioner and his ostensibly ditzy wife, a Polish-proverb-spouting insurance investigator, and a pair of elderly mystery-writing sisters who couldn’t seem to confine their crime-solving to the printed page. However, I was also attracted to the series’ storytelling blend of humor and homicide, its rather leisurely 90-minute (later two-hour) format, and of course its atmospheric main title sequence (embedded above), which was created by Wayne Fitzgerald, with music by Henry Mancini.

The Mystery Movie wasn’t NBC’s first shot at a wheel, or “umbrella” series. The broadcast network had previously experimented with a similar formula in The Name of the Game (1968-1971), a mystery/adventure drama that featured different stars on a weekly basis (among them Gene Barry), all of whose characters worked for an aggressive, empire-scale publishing company. Shortly thereafter, NBC launched The Bold Ones (1969-1973), which alternated series focusing on daring practitioners in a diversity of fields: the law, medicine, police work, and politics. And in 1970, it introduced Four-in-One, a rotation of unconnected mini-series--including the opening seasons of both McCloud and Night Gallery--that lasted only into 1971.

(Right) The 1972 TV Guide Fall Preview page showcasing the brand-new NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie

However, the Mystery Movie--originally comprising Columbo, McMillan & Wife, and the surviving McCloud--was NBC’s most successful and award-winning rendering of the wheel ideal. So successful, in fact, that in the autumn of 1972 that series was relocated on the broadcast schedule from Wednesday nights (8:30-10 p.m. ET/PT) to Sunday evenings at the same hour, and renamed the NBC Sunday Mystery Movie, in order that a second such rotation--this one presenting Banacek, Cool Million, and Madigan--could take over its prized Wednesday-night slot. Hoping to mine gold from the same formula, NBC’s then two prime competitors (remember, this was before the advent of cable TV) soon inaugurated their very own wheels: In 1972, ABC introduced The Men, encompassing Assignment: Vienna, The Delphi Bureau, and Jigsaw; and a year later CBS unveiled The New CBS Tuesday Night Movies, which brought to the boob tube Jimmy Stewart’s Hawkins and Shaft, a spin-off from the popular “blacksploitation” flicks starring Richard Roundtree. But neither of those ventures scored ratings high enough to win renewal for a second year. Neither did Search (1972-1973), another NBC wheel series, built around a trio of high-tech security specialists.

(Left) TV Guide’s 1973 Fall Preview introduced the second incarnation of the NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie

Most people today remember only the much-heralded Columbo, and perhaps also McMillan & Wife and McCloud, as components of the classic NBC Mystery Movie. Yet 14 separate series actually debuted beneath that umbrella title between 1971 and 1977. In alphabetical order, they were:

Amy Prentiss, starring Jessica Walter
Banacek, starring George Peppard
Columbo, starring Peter Falk
Cool Million, starring James Farentino
Faraday and Company, starring Dan Dailey and James Naughton
Hec Ramsey, starring Richard Boone
Lanigan’s Rabbi, starring Art Carney and Bruce Solomon
Madigan, starring Richard Widmark
McCloud, starring Dennis Weaver
McCoy, starring Tony Curtis
McMillan & Wife, starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James
Quincy, M.E., starring Jack Klugman
The Snoop Sisters, starring Helen Hayes and Mildred Natwick
Tenafly, starring James MacEachin

A few of these programs deserved the accolades they received during their first broadcasts, and have escaped the decay of datedness, even after four decades. But several needed more time to develop proper audiences, and others were just downright disappointing. Still, they all contributed something to the NBC Mystery Movie, a concept that “left a legacy that would not soon be forgotten,” as David Gunzerath writes on the Museum of Broadcast Communications Web site. He notes, further, that the Mystery Movie served as “an inspiration for a future television trend: the recurring made-for-television movie, featuring regular characters and routinized plot lines, which would appear only a limited number of times each season.”

To celebrate this 40th anniversary of the NBC Mystery Movie, The Rap Sheet is readying a months-long succession of posts--one about each of the Mystery Movie shows, plus tributes from guest bloggers, interviews, and videos related to that wheel series. Look for those to begin appearing on this page next week.

This is a large, daunting project, but it should be fun too.

* * *

Below is the U.S. prime-time TV schedule for the fall of 1971, when the NBC Mystery Movie was added to the Wednesday night line-up. Click to enlarge. (From Dennis McGee’s Super Seventies RockSite!)

(The 1971 TV Guide preview page was provided by Brian Sheridan. It’s part of the collection in the Communication Department at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania. It is used with permission.)


Anonymous said...

I would think a lot of people would remember Quincy ME as well, since it was spun off into its own regular series (though they might not know it was part of the Mystery Movie line-up).

Barbara said...

I always thought that part of the reason for our love of Columbo was that when he was on it was special. If he had been on every week, maybe we wouldn't have taken such notice at first. This is one series I definitely hope no one attempts to remake.

Elizabeth Foxwell said...

Jeff, did the Ellery Queen pilot air under the NBC Mystery Movie? The pilot episode on the EQ DVDs clearly has the NBC Mystery Movie theme.

RJR said...

Looks like I cast the single vote for James Farantino's Cool Million!


J. Kingston Pierce said...

Dear Elizabeth:

Well, if Ellery Queen: Don't Look Behind You, starring Peter Lawford and Harry Morgan, debuted under the NBC Mystery Movie banner, it did so on an irregular night. According to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), that teleflick was first broadcast on NBC on Nov. 19, 1971--a Friday. The usual Mystery Movie slot in 1971 was Wednesday. I know that that Ellery Queen pilot was originally planned as a Mystery Movie addition, but my understanding is that it was eventually scrapped by the network in favor of McMillan & Wife.


Elizabeth Foxwell said...

Thanks, Jeff; the use of the theme with the pilot was puzzling me, because I had never heard of any relationship between the NBC Mystery Movie and the EQ series.

J. Kingston Pierce said...

For the record, I have to correct something I wrote in the Comments section of this post. I had understood that the Peter Lawford/Harry Morgan pilot for an Ellery Queen series was intended to fill a slot in the Mystery Movie wheel. But as I've come to learn since, that was not the case. You can read more about that at the bottom of this post:


Anonymous said...

The Jim Hutton version of Ellery Queen debuted on the Sunday Night Mystery Movie and was intended as another member however NBC was so impressed by the telefilm they opted for a one hour series.

J. Kingston Pierce said...

I think the story about Jim Hutton’s Ellery Queen having originally been slated to become part of NBC’s Sunday Mystery Movie is not correct, and I may understand why it’s been promulgated.

Yes, the 90-minute Ellery Queen pilot film, “Too Many Suspects,” was broadcast on a Sunday night--March 23, 1975, to be exact--but I don’t believe it originally appeared under the Mystery Movie umbrella. Here’s how I figure this whole misconception came about. According to information on this page (, when the DVD set of Ellery Queen was released, it for some reason replaced what had been the pilot’s original theme (by composer Elmer Bernstein) with the Mystery Movie theme. (This may have been the result of a licensing issue, I don’t know.) Therefore, people who purchased the DVD and heard the Mystery Movie theme reasoned that Ellery Queen must originally have been shown under the Mystery Movie umbrella and been designed to become a new addition to that “wheel series.”

If anyone has more information on this matter, please share.


Anonymous said...

The show originally aired as a 2-hour pilot as part of the NBC Sunday Mystery Movie series, entitled Too Many Suspects. The series itself began in the Fall of 1975, and ran for 22 hour-long episodes. Airing originally on Thursday nights, the show was moved to Sundays late in its run. Ellery Queen had the distinction, at the time, of being the highest rated regular show ever canceled by NBC, likely due to the fact that it was somewhat expensive to make as a period piece, and also because of the significant intellectual investment it took for the average viewer. Top shows at the time included Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, a far cry from the complicated and involved plots (and plot twists) of Ellery Queen.

Mickeba said...

The Ellery Queen pilot was aired on a Sunday night in place of one of the regular Mystery Movie offerings, with "NBC Mystery Movie Presents" as a draw for viewers to tune in. I always thought that rather than a regular weekly one hour series, Ellery would have worked better as a 90 minute Mystery Movie component. More time to flesh out the stories, but I loved Ellery Queen nonetheless.