Thursday, November 10, 2011

NBC’s “Mystery Movie” Turns 40:
“McMillan & Wife”

(The third entry in our long-running succession of posts highlighting shows featured in the 1971-1977 NBC Mystery Movie “wheel series.”)

Title: McMillan & Wife

Starring: Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James

Original Run: 1971-1977 (39 episodes, plus pilot), NBC-TV

Premise: San Francisco’s particularly activist police commissioner turns detective to solve murders and other major crimes with the help of his comely, trouble-attracting, and occasionally brilliant younger spouse. Because of this show’s emphasis on the couple’s May-September romance, as well as its lighthearted storytelling nature, it wasn’t uncommon to hear critics say that McMillan & Wife “brought the screwball sleuthing of The Thin Man into the 1970s with a series of posh, whodunit mysteries.”

Background: McMillan & Wife was the last of the three original NBC Mystery Movie series to debut in the fall of 1971. Its initial regular episode--titled “Murder by the Barrel”--aired on Wednesday, September 29, a week after McCloud’s season premiere. However, the two-hour McMillan pilot movie, Once Upon a Dead Man, was broadcast on September 17, only a couple of days after Columbo’s launch.

This comedy-tinged mystery was created by Leonard B. Stern, who had already racked up an impressive list of writing and producing credits, including work on The Honeymooners, The Phil Silvers Show, I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster, and Get Smart. Once Upon a Dead Man was a different sort of venture for Stern, and he wasn’t at all sure how it would be received by executives at the then three U.S. TV networks. In fact, the likelihood that his teleflick would not evolve into a regular program might have been one of its attractions for the guy Stern hired to play Police Commissioner Stewart McMillan: Rock Hudson, a handsome, 6-foot-5-inch leading man of 1950s and ’60s films who, having moved into his mid-40s, was no longer so much in demand by Hollywood as he’d been. Hudson didn’t want to take on long-term small-screen efforts. But as Stern explained in an interview for the Archive of American Television, the cast of Once Upon a Dead Man had so enjoyed doing the project, that when NBC asked Hudson to reconsider his resistance to portraying the commissioner in a series, he did exactly that. “Once Rock was involved,” recalls Paul Mason, an early producer and writer of the show, McMillan & Wife “got the highest priority” and was quickly tagged to become the third spoke of the primary Mystery Movie “wheel.”

Before casting the & Wife portion of this new show, Stern “talked to many gifted actresses” about the part, including Diane Keaton and Jill Clayburgh. But a lunchtime get-together in Los Angeles between Stern, the famously shy Hudson, and the gregarious Susan Saint James--a mid-20s brunette who had played sexy purloiner Charlene “Charlie” Brown in four episodes of It Takes a Thief and scored an Emmy Award for her role as the short-skirted, over-educated editorial assistant, Peggy Maxwell, on The Name of the Game--ultimately won Saint James second billing on the series. “Rock felt comfortable with Susan,” Stern recalled, “so we said, OK, we’ll go with her. And she turned out to be an ideal choice, ’cause she had an innate sense of mischief. And that’s what the role calls for.”

(Left) Season 1 publicity shot of stars Hudson and Saint James

On paper, the two lead roles showed great potential. Stewart “Mac” McMillan was a middle-aged, Scottish-descended U.S. Navy veteran with a background in CIA intelligence and a string of former girlfriends. (It was a running gag on the show that attractive young lovelies would sidle up to Mac, say “hi” and wish him well--much to Sally’s annoyance--but he rarely remembered their names.) McMillan had been a prominent defense attorney in San Francisco before being asked to serve as the city’s police commissioner. (Actually, San Francisco has a more complicated police commission hierarchy than that, but for the purposes of this show, it worked.) Sally McMillan, née Hull, was the free-spirited daughter of the late Fred Hull--described in the pilot as “a great criminologist”--and had benefited from her father’s influence. “She grew up in the business,” Mac says early on. “She knows a clue when she meets one.”

However, it was the on-screen romance between Hudson and Saint James that made magic for McMillan & Wife. Although Hudson was gay (something that certainly wasn’t publicized at the time), he came across on this program as an understanding and supportive older husband, while Saint James was clever, kindhearted, and altogether captivating. (The series’ regular bedroom scenes, in which the actress donned a long, red, No. 18 football jersey, fueled the fantasies of many adolescent boys.) The pair seemed, at least during half a dozen episodes every year, to be very much in love. Their chemistry is conspicuous in the scene embedded below--clipped from the pilot--which finds a then mustachioed McMillan and the almost-foot-shorter Sally discussing what might be evidence in the theft of an Egyptian sarcophagus from a charity auction.*

Film authority Richard Meyers wrote in TV Detectives (1981) that “McMillan and Wife were as much George Burns and Gracie Allen as they were Nick and Nora Charles, because Police Commissioner Stewart McMillan’s wife, Sally, was as wacky as Gracie and as prone to finding corpses as Nora (or Mrs. North, for that matter).” He was especially complimentary of Saint James’ talents: “It is not that easy to be kooky without being cloying or completely unbelievable, but Saint James pulled it off. In every episode, it seemed, Sally would uncover a body or something and spend the rest of the show getting kidnapped, attacked, threatened, or else all three ...”

The McMillan & Wife plots often revolved around friends, family, or social acquaintances of the commissioner and his wife, be it someone from Mac’s espionage days, a bedeviled concert pianist associate of Sally’s, the commissioner’s long-feuding relatives back in Scotland, or Mac’s soon-to-be-wed sister, Megan (played by The Rockford FilesGretchen Corbett, with Mildred Natwick of The Snoop Sisters appearing as his mother, Beatrice). In one episode, a minor Bay Area earthquake toppled part of the McMillans’ chimney, revealing a corpse bricked up inside. Another focused on Sergeant Charles Enright (John Schuck)--the loyal but rather slow-witted cop assigned as Mac’s official assistant--who had apparently murdered his jealous ex-wife, while a third installment found Mildred (Nancy Walker), the McMillans’ imperfect and oft-grumpy housekeeper, attacked in her hotel while serving on a sequestered trial jury.

Additional Notes: Although some of its episodes were penned by Edward D. Hoch, Steven Bochco, Steve Fisher, and Columbo’s Levinson and Link (using their pseudonym Ted Leighton), this show’s story lines could be pretty outrageous at times. Take, for example, the second season’s “Terror Times Two,” in which the commissioner was abducted by mobsters and replaced by a surgically altered look-alike--a thoroughgoing criminal who, while he had no qualms about assassinating a hospitalized informant, stopped short of hopping into the sack with an unsuspecting Sally. (The idea of a McMillan double was employed yet again the next season in “Cross and Double Cross,” which found Mac switching places with a mirror-image malefactor to intercept a shipment of stolen gold.)

(Right) An early newspaper advertisement for McMillan & Wife

But then complete credibility never seemed of paramount importance in McMillan & Wife. Robert Daley, a former New York City deputy police commissioner turned novelist, acknowledged as much in his November 19, 1972, assessment for The New York Times of that season’s TV crime-fighters. Examining an episode of McMillan & Wife in which Mac chased after a suspect fleeing aboard one of San Francisco’s celebrated cable cars, Daley wrote:
Police commissioners do not catch suspects with their bare hands, any more than presidents of General Motors build cars with their bare hands, and for exactly the same reasons. There is too much other work to do--administrative work--which is perhaps not as much fun as catching crooks, but which is absolutely essential if the machine is to work at all.

I suspect that hardly anybody in this country knows what a Police Commissioner does. One thing he does not do is move through the police world accompanied by his wife, as McMillan does. ... The sight of a luscious dish such as Mrs. McMillan hanging about all the time would distract the cops. No work would get done while she was around, and eventually her presence would become downright annoying.
McMillan himself conceded that his job description didn’t include any heroics. The topic came up during a discussion with his city’s police chief, Andrew Yeakel (Jack Albertson), in Once Upon a Dead Man:
McMillan: “Andy, is it necessary for you to keep me under constant surveillance?”

Yeakel: “You’re the commissioner. We don’t want anything to happen to you.”

McMillan (laughing): “Nothing ever happens to commissioners.”
Despite its conceptual flight of fancy, or perhaps because of it (after all, would TV watchers have sat still for Rock Hudson engaging in a real commissioner’s paper shuffling once a month?), McMillan & Wife became a hit for NBC. It also brought still more attention to San Francisco, which at the time was also the backdrop for Raymond Burr’s Ironside and The Streets of San Francisco, starring Karl Malden and Michael Douglas. Although much of this Mystery Movie series was filmed on the Universal Studios back lot, the real city featured in the pilot and select later scenes. Re-viewing McMillan & Wife today (all six seasons are available in DVD format), it’s interesting to see how the Bay Area’s biggest metropolis has changed since the 1970s, especially as a result of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which helped bring the demolition of the waterfront’s ugly, sight-blocking Embarcadero Freeway, a road that made repeat appearances over the show’s run.

Following its fifth (1975-1976) season, though, McMillan & Wife underwent some dramatic changes. Reportedly due to a contract dispute, Susan Saint James left the series. But NBC sought to keep this moneymaker going, even though it now lacked not only wife Sally (who was said to have perished in a plane accident), but also Sergeant Enright (as John Schuck had moved over to the short-lived series Holmes & Yo-Yo) and Mildred (because Nancy Walker was recruited into an eponymous situation comedy). For Season 6, the commissioner took up new residence in an apartment, with a different but equally eccentric housekeeper--Mildred’s sister, Agatha (played by comedienne-singer Martha Raye)--and another police aide, Sergeant Philip DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show was retitled simply McMillan, and managed to limp along for half a dozen more episodes, but Saint James’ absence was too acutely felt, and the introduction into widower Mac’s life of a succession of less-interesting girlfriends only seemed to insult Sally’s memory. In 1977, McMillan was finally cancelled, along with the NBC Mystery Movie wheel (though the network continued showing Columbo films for another year after that).

After leaving McMillan & Wife, Saint James appeared in large- and small-screen movies before landing another TV series gig, Kate & Allie (1984-1989), a family sitcom in which she co-starred with Saturday Night Live alumna Jane Curtin. She was later seen playing the mother of Kate O’Brien (Christa Miller, who is her real-life niece) on The Drew Carey Show, and took the role of a defense attorney in a 2006 episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. But ever since 2004, when a plane crash in Colorado (shades of Sally McMillan’s fate!) took the life of her youngest son, Teddy, Saint James--who turned 65 years old this last summer--has been spotted less and less in the limelight. However, she did receive a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame back in 2008.

(Left) The forthcoming DVD set, McMillan & Wife: The Complete Series

Rock Hudson went on from his disappointing solo year on McMillan to star in the 1979 TV mini-series The Martian Chronicles (based on Ray Bradbury’s 1950 science-fiction short story of the same name), and he featured in the 1980 picture The Mirror Crack'd, adapted from Agatha Christie’s 1962 novel, The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side. He later landed a recurring role on the prime-time soap opera Dynasty, but his physical condition started to cause him trouble. As Wikipedia recalls,
In the early 1980s, following years of heavy drinking and smoking, Hudson began having health problems which resulted in a heart attack in November 1981. Emergency quintuple heart bypass surgery sidelined Hudson and his new TV show The Devlin Connection for a year; the show was canceled in December 1982 not long after it first aired. Hudson recovered from the heart surgery but continued to smoke. He was in ill health while filming The Ambassador in Israel during the winter of 1983-84 with Robert Mitchum. ... During 1984, Hudson's health grew worse, prompting different rumors that he was suffering from liver cancer, among other ailments, due to his increasingly gaunt face and build.
In June 1984, Hudson was diagnosed with HIV, but he struggled to keep his illness secret as he continued his showbiz career. It wasn’t until a year later that he announced he was dying of AIDS. This news prompted fervent debates in the media and elsewhere, not only surrounding Hudson’s sexual history but also the dire fate facing him and other AIDS patients. Rock Hudson, who’d been born Roy Harold Scherer Jr., died on October 2, 1985, at age 59.

Despite this show’s occasional incredible turns and the fact that some later, two-hour episodes lacked the vitality of their predecessors, McMillan & Wife still occupies a prominent spot in my memory. Susan Saint James was the first woman I fell in love with, though we had of course never met. The show made me long to visit San Francisco, which I have done many times since. And I still find myself, in contemplative moments, humming the theme from this Mystery Movie series. In fact, I’m doing that right now--you’re correct to imagine that I am smiling at the same time.

Next up: Banacek

The video below features the main title sequence and closing credits from “Death Is a Seven-Point Favorite,” the fourth regular episode of McMillan & Wife (originally broadcast on December 8, 1971). This show’s theme music was composed by Jerry Fielding, who later also created themes for two other NBC Mystery Movie series, The Snoop Sisters and Faraday and Company.

* By the way, the interiors of the McMillans’ house shown in the pilot movie were actually shot in star Rock Hudson’s own Los Angeles residence. “We were low on the budget and the set we’d picked was awful,” Paul Mason explains. “So Rock said, why didn’t we just use his home. He was later surprised when he saw the size of the crew ... but overall a good sport about the mess.” In the series’ first episode, the McMillans moved into another house, the address of which was given as 250 Carson Street, though the exterior filming was done at 1132/1134 Greenwich Street, between Hyde and Leavenworth, in San Francisco.

As Leonard Stern mentioned in his Archive of American Television interview, the McMillan & Wife pilot never showed Mildred, though it did refer to the housekeeper, her tendency to store things in unlikely spots, and her almost illegible messages left for Mac and Sally. “But she had such a palpable presence through her notes,” Stern explained, “that we said, why not write her [into the scripts]? And we did.” Nancy Walker joined the cast as Mildred in “Murder by the Barrel.”


Mike Doran said...

This is something I've mentioned elsewhere, and I'm not really sure of the clearest way to explain it, but here goes:
I've been following the TV business for most of my life. By that i mean I've been a lifelong reader of TV Guide (back in the days when it was truly informative), as well as trade papers like Variety, and always tried to keep up with what new shows were being considered by the networks for prime time use.
In 1971, when NBC announced its Mystery Movie wheel idea, the series involved were always supposed to be Columbo, McCloud, and McMillan And Wife.
Peter Lawford's Ellery Queen was not earmarked for the NBC Mystery Movie wheel at any time.
What happened (I think) was this:
Here in Chicago, one of our traditionally incompetent newspaper TV columnists wrote a pan of the Lawford-EQ movie when it ran on NBC in the late fall of '71. He compared it unfavorably with McMillan And Wife, correctly in my view, but his unclear writing somehow implied that the two shows had been in competition for the wheel.
This mistake was then picked up by a writer for whom I have enormous admiration and respect, which is why I'm leaving out his name. I'm also not naming the idiot newspaper guy, because I frankly don't remember which one it was (I want to say Gary Deeb, who was the worst of a dreadful lot, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't him this time).
Anyway, the mistake has been reprinted so many times that my unfortunate 'Mr. Know-It-All' gene has kicked in, and so here I am.
What I am pretty sure of is that it was the reluctance of both Rock Hudson and Peter Falk to commit to weekly series that caused NBC and Universal to come up with the wheel format in the first place (I do recall that McCloud was initially fashioned as a weekly hour, which it was in its first season as part of Four-In-One).

So anyway, thanks for the use of the hall.

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Mike: Thank you for calling into question this story regarding the relationship between the 1971 teleflick Ellery Queen: Don’t Look Behind You, which starred Peter Lawford, and McMillan & Wife. You’re right: this is information that’s often been repeated, especially on the Internet. I first came across it on a now-defunct Web site called the Ellery Queen TV Series Companion.

I did some asking around. William Link, who with his writing partner, Richard Levinson, created Columbo and wrote the original script for Ellery Queen: Don’t Look Behind You (it was apparently much changed after leaving their hands), says: “I don’t remember for sure, but [Lawford’s Ellery Queen] might have been meant for a spoke in the mystery wheel.” However, Paul Mason, an early producer of McMillan & Wife, declares that the specific story in question--about how Lawford’s Ellery Queen was originally slated to be the third series rotating under the classic NBC Mystery Movie umbrella, but after the network passed on buying it, McMillan & Wife was given that slot instead--“is not true.”

If I find out any more information about this matter, I shall definitely report it. But in the meantime, I have removed from this post the anecdote about Ellery Queen and McMillan & Wife having been in competition for a Mystery Movie slot. I also removed similar information from an earlier post about Levinson and Link’s under-appreciated 1975-1976 series, Ellery Queen, starring Jim Hutton and David Wayne.

It’s disappointing how much misinformation is cast about the Internet waters. Fortunately, when writing for the Web, such info can later be corrected--something that’s not possible in print journalism or books.


Mike Doran said...

Belated thanks for your kind words about my little contribution.

I would like to point out that you can't hang this one on the internet.
The defective story appeared in a Chicago daily newspaper (it's bugging me that I still can't recall which one - there were four dailies in Chicago in '71), and was picked up and spread by a reputable writer and used in a well-researched book, only a few years later.
As a civilian TV watcher in my mid-20s, what would have been the reaction if I had written to the paper and ragged on the critic's muddled writing?
Or what would have been the reaction of a diligent author if a mere reader had called him on believing the critic's poorly-written story?
Whenever I write on of these comments here or elsewhere, I believe I have a responsibility to get things right - but also to show some responsibility toward those who make honest mistakes in otherwise excellent works.
One thing the Internet has created is a class of "trolls", those who love to rag on the better-known or more famous, chiefly to show how smart they are.
That's something I tried to avoid here. How well I succeeded is up to the rest of you to decide.

david gideon said...

I'm glad I found your website and this information about the dubious connection between that Peter Lawford production and the NBC Mystery Movie. I created the Ellery Queen website that you kindly include among your links, and took that claim as true since I've never heard it questioned even though it was published years ago. For that reason I've added a link to these comments to my site and treated the EQ/Mystery Movie report with the skepticism it deserves.

I loved the NBC Mystery Movies, even at their tackiest, with Banacek and McMillan & Wife being my favorites. The most celebrated (Columbo) was my least favorite...knowing whodunit up front spoiled the fun for me. But I have fond memories of even such esoterica as Tenafly and Faraday & Company. I'll bee looking forward to future installments in your series!

Deepski said...

"... ... ...and a string of former girlfriends. (It was a running gag on the show that attractive young lovelies would sidle up to Mac, say “hi” and wish him well--much to Sally’s annoyance--but he rarely remembered their names.) ... ..."

So, how about one of the very first of that "string?" Does anyone know who played "Mr. Buchanan's" secretary, in the very first episode, S1E1, after the pilot? I think offered her name as "Kitty Winters," and she was wearing a very sexy pair of, white, early 1970's, hot pants. John Schuck, "Sgt. Enright," smiled, and even adjusted his tie for the lady, but it was the perfect "hit and run" cameo for the actress and I was unable to find her name in any of the credits.

Anyone have the 411 on Ms. Winters?

Dr. Joe said...

I think it might be Barbara Rhoades. She played June in another episode: Face of Murder.