Thursday, November 30, 2017

Banacek’s Run Off to … Pennsylvania?

(Above) The main titles from Banacek’s 1972 pilot film.

It’s not often that we learn what happened to the props used on TV shows and in movies. Unlike, say, the piano played by Dooley Wilson in Casablanca (which was auctioned off a few years ago for $3.4 million), or some of the downed airplane fuselage that backdroppped scenes in Lost (and was purchased for $3,000 in 2010), most such set decorations aren’t recognizable enough to merit collecting. Instead, they are repurposed for future Hollywood productions or, if they’ve been designed too specifically to use again, they are trashed or reshaped into something different.

But as it turns out, there’s no mystery as to the fate of a brass plaque that once supposedly welcomed guests and clients to the pricey Boston abode of a small-screen sleuth named Thomas Banacek, the insurance investigator protagonist (played by George Peppard) in the 1972-1974 NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie series Banacek.

Not long ago, I was contacted via e-mail by 73-year-old Stan Marks, who lives in the western Pennsylvania city of Hermitage. He told me that, from the 1970s through the early ’80s he worked as “a driver captain in charge of picture cars and drove stunts in many of the cop shows” made by Universal Studios in Los Angeles. Banacek was one of Universal’s properties. As Marks tells it, he was on the set of Peppard’s series when its 16th and final regular episode (“Now You See Me, Now You Don’t”) was shot. After that filming wrapped, he recalls, “I removed the brass plaque that was on the front door of [Banacek’s] Beacon Hill residence”—and kept it as a memento.

Banacek’s home (middle) was commissioned by a Boston pol.

Anyone who has watched Banacek will likely remember the gleaming plate to which Marks refers. It appeared briefly in a number of the show’s episodes, but featured prominently in the Banacek pilot (aka “Detour to Nowhere,” broadcast originally on March 20, 1972). I have embedded the opening title sequence from that pilot film atop this post. Beginning at the 0:51 mark, you will see Peppard navigate a 1941 Packard convertible (certainly his character’s classiest vehicle) down the snow-bordered thoroughfares of Boston’s tony Beacon Hill, and turn into the gated driveway at 85 Mount Vernon Street. In the show, the three-story Federal-style brick mansion served by that cobblestone lane was where the urbane, rarely bamboozled Banacek lived and had the headquarters of his investigative business; its front door was decorated with the brass plaque seen near the video clip’s end, reading “T. Banacek—Restorations.” In reality, however, that house—constructed in what had once been a pasture owned by painter John Singleton Copley—was among three built in Boston for prosperous lawyer and early American politician Harrison Gray Otis (1765-1848), a one-time mayor of Massachusetts’ capital city. Like Otis’ other two elegant habitats, these digs were designed by architect Charles Bulfinch, who also created the gold-domed Massachusetts State House and several additional public structures in Boston; the Maine State House in Augusta; and parts of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

The Web site Historic Buildings of Massachusetts says Banacek’s ostensible dwelling, better known as the Second Harrison Gray Otis House, was erected between 1800 and 1802, and is the only detached, single-family mansion remaining on Beacon Hill. “Bulfinch hoped that the freestanding home on a landscaped property with outbuildings in back would be a model for the rest of Beacon Hill,” the site explains, “but the neighborhood would end up being much more densely developed. Otis sold the house in 1806 …” It has been listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places since 1973. Interestingly, that cupola-topped manse on Mount Vernon Street did duty not only as Thomas Banacek’s residence, but had previously appeared as the domicile of Thomas Crown, the Beantown businessman turned bank robber (played by Steve McQueen) in director Norman Jewison’s 1968 film, The Thomas Crown Affair. It’s been suggested that Banacek creator Anthony Wilson conceived his tough but whimsical Polish crime-solver as a synthesis of the cigar-smoking Crown and Vicki Anderson (Faye Dunaway), the tenacious insurance investigator who alternately pursued and romanced him in the movie. So installing Peppard’s character at the same address would’ve been a clever hat tip.

(Left) Marks’ souvenir. Click to enlarge.

Stan Marks insists he wasn’t channeling thief Crown when he absconded with the “T. Banacek—Restorations” plaque from a Universal sound stage in L.A.: he had cleared its capture with the show’s props department. Today, he says, that slightly tarnished brass plate is “located on the inside of my front door”—a reminder of the years he spent, during his 20s and 30s, earning a paycheck from Universal Studios for his labors not just on Banacek but on other NBC Mystery Movie series (including Columbo, McMillan & Wife, Quincy, M.E., and McCloud), as well as on such memorable crime dramas as Kojak, Delvecchio, Switch, Adam-12, and The Rockford Files. (He mentions Rockford star James Garner as “one of the nicest actors” he worked with over the years.) Those Hollywood experiences are now increasingly far in the past for Marks. Born and reared in Philadelphia, he moved with his family to L.A. in 1962, when he still was a high school student, and then put in a few years with the California National Guard (rather than joining the war in Vietnam) before going into the movie/TV industry. Marks left Southern California in 1983, following the births of his two children (“I didn’t want to raise them in L.A.”), and resettled in western Pennsylvania, where his then-wife had grown up. He retired four years ago, after two decades spent driving chartered motor coaches around the country.

When I first began exchanging e-mail notes with Marks about his souvenir plaque, I assumed he’d positioned it at his entryway in order to give it prominence, to make it a conversation piece. He soon disabused me of that notion, though, writing: “I never use my front door, Jeff. The main entrance is along the side of my home, that leads to the family room. I placed the plate there, because the door is wooden. There’s no significance to the placement. Friends who come over don’t even notice it. And I don’t point it out.”

Nonetheless, that generally forgotten, 45-year-old Banacek artifact sure makes for a good story. Wouldn’t you agree?

Ex-Universal driver Marks in Palm Springs, California, 2014.


Gram said...

I don't know about anyone else, but the only name I recognize apart from the guest is George Peppards'. What ever happened to all those others?

Stan said...

Some passed away, retired, or went on to other rolls. Ed Nelson was a popular actor during the 60's & 70's. He died in 2014.