Wednesday, December 07, 2011

NBC’s “Mystery Movie” Turns 40: “Banacek”

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

Title: Banacek

Starring: George Peppard

Original Run: 1972-1974 (16 episodes, plus pilot), NBC-TV

Premise: Thomas Banacek (pronounced BAN-uh-check), a stylish, smooth-talking, but tough Polish-American freelance insurance investigator, based in Boston, Massachusetts, solves seemingly impossible, big-valued heists--much to the relief of insurance company executives but the teeth-grinding vexation of their on-staff property-recovery agents. For his trouble, he’s paid 10 percent of the insured worth of the reclaimed goods, which helps support his lavish lifestyle. “While not classic television,” Frank DeCaro wrote in The New York Times when the first season of this series was released on DVD in 2007, “Banacek is modish fun that holds up 35 years later.”

Background: As the Museum of Broadcast Communications Web site notes, the original NBC Mystery Movie rotation--which debuted in September 1971 and comprised Columbo, McCloud, and McMillan & Wife--“was an immediate success” for the network, “finishing at Number 14 in the Nielsen ratings for the 1971-72 season.” Emboldened by that triumph, NBC decided to double down on its “wheel” concept. In September 1972, it relocated the established trio of Mystery Movie segments from Wednesday evenings (8:30-10 p.m. ET/PT) to Sundays at the same hour, added a fourth component (Hec Ramsey), and rechristened the package The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie. Meanwhile, three new character-driven crime dramas were installed in the previous 90-minute timeslot under the umbrella title The NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie: Banacek, starring George Peppard; Cool Million, with James Farentino; and the Richard Widmark-headlined Madigan.

The first of those newbies to air was Banacek, created by Anthony Wilson. The son of a prominent MGM producer-screenwriter, Wilson had put together scripts for The Fugitive and Land of the Giants, served as the story editor of Lost in Space, and would one day help bring Planet of the Apes to television.

Banacek’s two-hour pilot film (usually seen nowadays as “Detour to Nowhere”) had been broadcast on March 20, 1972, but the premiere episode of its regular run--“Let’s Hear It for a Living Legend”--wasn’t shown until September 13 of that same year. Both demonstrated this series’ intent, as well as some of its faults.

“Detour” found Thomas Banacek (Peppard) being hired to track down an armored car, carrying $1,600,000 of gold bullion, that apparently disappeared while under police escort on an all-but-deserted Texas highway. The clues were sparse--a barricade of barrels in the road, tire tracks terminating at a cliff side--and the trail pretty darn cold after investigators with National Meridian Insurance Company failed to turn up so much as a single errant ingot. Yet Banacek sussed out not only who engineered that crime, but the clever means by which it was accomplished. “If Columbo, the template for all the 90-minute Universal detective series, was a howdunit that revealed the identity of the bad guy from the start,” remarks Stephen Bowie in The Classic TV History Blog, “then Banacek tried to top it by being both a how- and a whodunit. Each episode depicts a daring theft before the opening titles, without showing the culprit, and leaves Banacek to ferret out the crook and piece together the details of his or her tricky scheme (usually in an extended reconstruction sequence in the last act).” As one commentator put it, “Banacek was like Mission: Impossible inside out--the unraveling of how an impossible-seeming heist was pulled off.”

In “Living Legend,” a football halfback was tackled during a game, in front of a stadium full of spectators and “millions of television viewers.” Yet when the players on top climbed off, all that remained of the halfback was his empty red helmet. That plot--which Deane Romano later turned into a novel--drew criticism from more than a few small-screen critics, among them The New York Times’ John J. O’Connor, who said it “progressed from the incredible to the ridiculous.” In his September 20, 1972, column, O’Connor added:
Using TV tapes of the game, which along with sports announcer Curt Gowdy and crew are provided by NBC studios, he laboriously tracks down the obvious clues. It turns out that, at a crucial moment, one of the football-player conspirators on the field began to limp noticeably to distract the TV cameras. One carefully unstressed premise, however, is that each of the thousands of spectators in the stadium was also similarly distracted by the limp. Banacek has a severe credibility problem that deserves investigation.
Other Banacek plots were no less determined to push the bounds of plausibility. In “Project Phoenix,” a multimillion-dollar automobile prototype disappeared--together with its flat car--from a moving train, while in “Fly Me--If You Can Find Me,” a charter jet went missing after making an emergency landing on a back-country airstrip. And in one of my favorite episodes, “No Sign of the Cross” (which guest-starred former film heavy Broderick Crawford), a valuable religious artifact vanished during a supposedly secure transfer across the U.S.-Mexico border. Not all of the stories were equally ingenious, despite the supervision of executive producer George Eckstein and scripts by such talents as Del Reisman, Theodore J. Flicker, and novelist Howard Browne.* But then, as Bowie notes, “it’s a daunting task to come up with eight perfect heists a year. If you could, you wouldn’t be a TV producer, you’d be, well, a master criminal.”

Of course, viewers didn’t tune in to Banacek solely for its plot lines. The show also boasted an appealing star in George Peppard.

The son of a building contractor and an opera singer, Peppard was born in Detroit, Michigan, on October 1, 1928. He served as a corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps before making his stage debut in 1949. While completing a bachelor’s degree program at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), Peppard took turns before the footlights of Broadway, and appeared for the first time on television in 1955. Six years later, he was cast opposite Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a film based on Truman Capote’s 1958 novella of the same name. The actor went on to roles in How the West Was Won (1962), The Carpetbaggers (1964) and The Blue Max (1966), and in 1968 he starred in P.J., a vastly under-appreciated film in which he portrayed a bottom-feeding gumshoe hired to protect the mistress of an eccentric millionaire. (Gayle Hunnicutt played the paramour, while former Perry Mason star Raymond Burr filled the mogul’s shoes. Also in the cast, though with a small, sexy part, was another person who would later figure large in the NBC Mystery Movie universe: Susan Saint James.)

But as Tim Rose observes in Friday @ 8/7 Central, Peppard “had a bit of a bad-boy reputation in the business, despite his impeccable looks and outward presentation. Just like Banacek, Peppard liked some of the finer things in life (such as women and drink), suffered no fools, and was never afraid to tell you whether he thought you were fine or foolish. And that included other actors, directors, producers, and network executives, all of which had run-ins with the man at one time or another along the way. But he did care about the work, and sometimes, that was all he cared about, feelings be damned.”

Because he was thought of as being difficult to work with, and of having an excessive appetite for alcohol (which he didn’t give up until the late 1970s), Peppard’s career had trouble reaching the heights many critics expected it would. Signing on as the star of Banacek--his first TV series--brought him the sort of recognition he’d long been lacking.

(Left) Murray Matheson, George Peppard, and Ralph Manza of Banacek

“Smug” is frequently the adjective associated with Thomas Banacek. Yet “smart” would fit just as aptly. Although, in the series pilot, it was acknowledged that his success rate in recovering stolen property was 66 percent, that was apparently much above the performance of other insurance investigators--a fact he subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, rubbed in the faces of his less-perspicacious competition. “Face it,” a National Meridian exec said grudgingly, “he’s good.” And he had to be, because he needed the money. Banacek lived in an antiques-filled residence in Boston’s historic and high-end Beacon Hill neighborhood (“T. Banacek--Restorations,” read a plaque on the door), drove an elegant, black 1941 Packard Darrin 180 Victoria convertible, played squash at an up-market social and athletic club, imbibed good Scotch, and smoked top-quality panatella cigars (the stubs of which he saved, because “they’re expensive”). He also owned a 1973 Cadillac Fleetwood limousine, behind the wheel of which he installed chauffeur Jay Drury (played by Ralph Manza), a 50-something former Chicago cab driver of Sicilian descent, who had abandoned the Windy City because of stomach ulcers, changed his name (the original family moniker was Ducinello), moved to Dallas, and gone into the limo-driving business. Banacek met him in the pilot film and brought him to Beantown.

Banacek, we learned, had come a long way since his boyhood. He grew up in downtown Boston’s seedy Scollay Square, which was wiped off the map by urban renewal in the 1960s to make room for today’s Government Center. (“It took me two years to lose the accent,” he related in the pilot--longer to remake himself as a suave millionaire.) His father had been a research scientist in Warsaw, Poland, before immigrating to the United States and finding employment as a mathematician at--of all places--National Meridian Insurance. He “work[ed] for the same company for 20 years,” Banacek lamented to Jay early on, only to be “replaced by a computer.” No wonder our hero delighted so in embarrassing insurers!

Stephen Bowie traces Banacek’s bloodline back to Amos Burke, “the preposterous millionaire homicide lieutenant [played by Gene Barry] who solved murders from the backseat of his Rolls in Aaron Spelling’s trash classic Burke’s Law.” A French Web site, Le Magazine de Séries, casts the protagonist instead as an amalgamation of millionaire-thief Thomas Crown (Steve McQueen) and insurance investigator Vicki Anderson (Faye Dunaway), both from the 1968 film The Thomas Crown Affair. O’Connor defined him simply as a cool blend of James Bond and Sam Spade.

(Right) Banacek’s 1941 Packard convertible

However, Banacek wasn’t cool, smug, or intuitive enough to think he could solve major crimes without at least a modicum of help. While Jay Drury could be depended on for ever-more-outrageous theories of how the assorted purloinings took place, Banacek turned to his sexagenarian friend, Felix Mulholland (Murray Matheson)--the owner of a rare-books store on Boston Common, who fancied himself “the fount of all wisdom, a walking compendium of man’s collective intelligence,” yet “infectiously humble”--for aid in researching the history of valuable objects or the people involved in their pilfering. And in this show’s second season, actress Christine Belford--who had worked with George Peppard on the 1972 film The Groundstar Conspiracy--turned a role she’d played in “Detour to Nowhere” into a regular part, appearing as Caroline “Carlie” Kirkland, an occasionally ditzy, 20-something property-recovery agent (originally with National Meridian Insurance but later employed by Boston Insurance Company) whose professional rivalry with Banacek often threw off romantic sparks and helped to propel his investigations down unexpected avenues.

Much was made in this show of Banacek’s combed-forward, salt-and-pepper hairstyle (“the best haircut of any TV sleuth ever,” pronounced critic DeCaro), his fondness for turtlenecks, and his Polish heritage. The 1970s was an era when small-screen detectives--and there were plenty of them--were distinguished in part by their idiosyncrasies. So Frank Cannon was obese, Theo Kojak was bald and addicted to lollipops, Robert T. Ironside was wheelchair-bound, Mike Longstreet was blind, Columbo had his rumpled raincoat and deteriorating Peugeot ... and Banacek boasted a mouthful of cryptic “old Polish proverbs”--all of them dreamed up by the show’s writers--that he’d spout to amuse himself or suggest his superiority over others. “A truly wise man never plays leapfrog with a unicorn,” the detective recited in one episode. “Twelve good horses and candlesticks won’t stop the snow in Bialystok,” he said another time. A humorous collection of those spurious maxims can be found on YouTube:

Another thing about Banacek: although he could be chauvinistic, this lifelong bachelor also proved devastating to women. As TV Guide reviewer Cleveland Amory wrote in December 1972:
[T]he writers’ idea of making him different seems to be confined to having every girl fall in love with him on first sight. One girl even fell in love on first hear. She was wearing dark glasses and--like most of the girls in this show--very little else, when he approached her at a swimming pool. “Do you mind,” she asked, “if I don’t open my eyes? Your voice is so sexy, I’d hate to wake up and find you were a skinny little gnome.” The only thing left is for a girl to fall in love with him from around the corner, for his footsteps.
This insurance investigator’s prowess with the female set was cause for great envy among adolescent boys (like me) in the ’70s. However, as Kevin Burton Smith comments on The Thrilling Detective Web Site, “the nudge-nudge wink-wink dialogue between Banacek and the numerous gorgeous, often scantily clad women he’s constantly fending off [now] seems quite dated.”

Additional Notes: Despite the barbs Banacek received from some critics, NBC expressed enthusiasm for the future of that new show and its wheel compatriots. (In fact, the network seemed quite high on Wednesday series rotations, in general. Not only did it schedule Banacek & Co. at 8:30, but it followed them up at 10 p.m. with Search, a short-lived adventure program built around an alternating trio of high-tech security specialists.)

(Left) 1974 newspaper ad for Banacek, after the Wednesday “wheel” moved to Tuesday nights

NBC had good reason for confidence in this series, based not only on the track record of the Mystery Movie concept and Peppard’s ability to draw an audience, but also the distinctiveness of Thomas Banacek’s hometown. When the stories didn’t take our suave hero off to Las Vegas or Southern California, they were set in Boston, a metropolis that hadn’t been used much up to then as a backdrop for TV shows. (James at 15, Cheers, Spenser: For Hire, and other Beantown-rooted programs wouldn’t debut until years later.) Even detective literature had largely avoided the Massachusetts capital. Robert B. Parker’s first Boston-based private-eye novel, The Godwulf Manuscript, wouldn’t be published until 1973, and other tales taking place in the same historic city were a long ways off.

One other unusual and--for many TV viewers--pleasing aspect of Banacek was that the show didn’t leave a lot of corpses in its wake. The protagonist might engage in the occasion fight, but his probes into larceny didn’t leave him stepping over bludgeoned or bleeding bodies at every turn. Bowie explains that
(except in the pilot TV movie that launched the series) nobody dies. Banacek is a “freelance insurance investigator” who solves big-ticket robberies and gleefully pockets a big fee from the insurance execs. That meant the show could strike a breezy tone--sending Banacek to bed, for instance, with each week’s female guest star--without having to find some way to desensitize us against a rising body count. Giving Banacek corporate underwriters to work for also spared us the scene of the private eye agreeing to help some impoverished sad sack solve his grandma’s or old army buddy’s or pet schnauzer’s murder out of the goodness of his heart. That’s a cliché I’m really getting tired of as I see it used over and over again, even in dark-hearted shows that should know better, like Harry O.
Unfortunately, while Banacek thrived, its two original wheel series partners did not. Eight episodes of Peppard’s show were broadcast during the 1972-73 season, but Madigan was cancelled after six installments, and Cool Million disappeared after only four. When The NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie returned in the fall of 1973, Banacek was still in the mix, but now paired with three new crime dramas: Tenafly, starring James MacEachin; The Snoop Sisters, featuring Helen Hayes and Mildred Natwick; and Faraday and Company, with Dan Dailey and James Naughton. Those newcomers proved no more resilient than their predecessors; all received the ax after just four episodes.

The network reportedly wanted to renew Banacek for a third year, but perhaps roll it over into the rotation of its Sunday Mystery Movie (which was losing Hec Ramsey due to a contract dispute with its star, Richard Boone). However, “Peppard decided to quit the show,” according to the Web site TV Shows on DVD. “That may seem strange, but Peppard was divorcing Elizabeth Ashley [his actress wife of six years], and didn’t want her to receive more money as a settlement. Sounds like a nasty divorce!” It certainly does, and it was too bad, because Banacek had more good years--and many entertaining mystery plots--left in it.

In 1975, Peppard starred as Sam Sheppard, an Ohio physician convicted of killing his pregnant wife, in the excellent teleflick Guilty or Innocent: The Sam Sheppard Murder Case. That same year, he played a daring chief of neurosurgery in Doctors’ Hospital, an NBC drama that endured less than a season before Peppard quit. Six years later, he was cast as Blake Carrington, the patriarch of an oil-rich Colorado clan in the TV series Dynasty, but backed out of the show during the filming of its pilot, reportedly because he thought his part was too similar to that of J.R. Ewing in Dallas; John Forsythe was hired to replace him in the role. Not until he signed on to play Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith in The A-Team (1983-1987), a rather silly but nonetheless popular TV program created by Stephen J. Cannell and Frank Lupo, did Peppard find a show he seemed willing to stick with for the long-term. The A-Team, though, was cancelled after five seasons, due to declining ratings.

Peppard was given his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (on the north side of the 6600 block of Hollywood Boulevard) in 1985. He later did a couple of TV movies--Man Against the Mob (1988) and Man Against the Mob: The Chinatown Murders (1989)--in which he starred as the head of an elite Los Angeles Police squad that confronted gangsters during the 1940s. He made his last appearance in “The P.I.,” a March 1994 episode of Matlock, portraying a private dick named Max Morgan, who teamed up with his resourceful daughter, Jessie (Tracy Nelson), to solve crimes; as a poster on YouTube points out, that episode was a “back-door pilot” for a prospective series. Sadly, the series was never to be. Peppard, a heavy smoker during most of his life, who had been diagnosed with lung cancer in 1992, died of pneumonia on May 8, 1994. He was only 65 years old.

Next up: Madigan

The video embedded below is the second-season opening from Banacek, with music by Billy Goldenberg, an American composer who also created the themes for shows such as Alias Smith and Jones, Harry O, Delvecchio, Longstreet, and Kojak. You’ll find the original version of Banacek’s main title sequence here.

* I’ve also spotted references online to Columbo creators William Link and Richard Levinson contributing to Banacek, but Link says that’s incorrect.

† At a time when Poles were often derided as intellectually inferior, Banacek seemed determined to prove he was no Polish joke. The series’ efforts to portray Poles in a positive light won it an award from the Polish-American Congress.

READ MORE:DVD Review: Banacek: The Complete Series,” by Mike Young (Cinegeek); “The Impossible Crimes of Thomas Banacek,” by William I. Lengeman III (Criminal Element).


RJR said...

I love the Banacek theme, for some reason.


Barbara said...

I always liked George Peppard but Banacek never caught on with me. I think it just never rang true and stretched my powers of suspending belief too far.

Adrian Guest said...

I rediscovered Banacek last weekend. The pilot stands up well. Great production values, stylish direction by Jack Smight. IMDB is wrong attributing the theme music to Quincy Jones. Billy Goldenberg is credited (as you have noted).

Gary R. Peterson said...

Excellent article--engaging and informative. I just discovered Banacek and its fast become a favorite. I like to think of it as an updated take on a favorite old-time radio program about a similarly suave and mercenary freelance insurance investigator, "Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar."

Jonah Kyle said...

Forget Al Gore. It looks like Felix Mulholland invented the Internet! At least Google...

wayne said...

The blurb on your teaser page is wrong. You state he drove a 1942 packard. WRONG. It was a 1941. This is verified in the 'To Steal A King'' episode when he talks to the cab driver.

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Excellent catch, Wayne! Web sources commonly give the information that Banacek's Packard was the 1942 model. But you're right, he supplies the correct model year in "To Steal a King." Thanks for the lead.


J. Kingston Pierce said...

I have now corrected that Packard info in my post.

Stan said...

I worked on the "Banacek" series, when I worked at Universal Studios. After the final episode wrapped, on the last season, I removed the brass plaque that was on the front door, of his Beacon Hill residence. I still have it, located on the inside of my front door. I wish there was a way I could post the pic of the plaque.

rusto88 said...

My uncle worked for the owner of that Packard - the owner paid him to drive it up to Boston so they could flim it in for the opening sequence.

Keithw54 said...

I loved the series and still curse Elizabeth Ashley for stopping the series!