Friday, September 17, 2021

Clear the Way for Mac and Sally

This last Wednesday brought us one significant small-screen anniversary, a full half-century having passed since Columbo made its debut as part of the equally new NBC Mystery Moviewheel series.” Today offers another. It has now been an amazing 50 years since Once Upon a Dead Man—the two-hour pilot film for McMillan & Wife, another popular Mystery Movie component—was first broadcast on Friday, September 17, 1971. The teleflick’s competition that evening included the second-season opener of the ABC sitcom The Partridge Family; the debut of David Janssen’s third boob-tube drama, CBS’ ill-fated O’Hara, United States Treasury; the ABC comedy Love, American Style; and the CBS “world premiere” of Terror in the Sky, based on blockbuster best-seller Arthur Hailey’s 1956 television play, Flight into Danger.

Once Upon a Dead Man starred Rock Hudson as Stewart “Mac” McMillan, a defense attorney turned police commissioner of San Francisco, who took an extraordinarily active role in criminal investigations; and Susan Saint James (formerly of The Name of the Game) playing Sally McMillan, the commissioner’s two-decades-younger spouse, whose tendency to attract trouble was fortunately paired with her own skills at crime solving—she was, after all, born to a legendary Bay Area criminologist. Regarding the plot of that teleflick (written by Leonard B. Stern and Chester Krumholz), it found Sally drawing Mac into a charity-auction theft … which inevitably led to murder. John Schuck (who’d previously been seen in episodes of M*A*S*H, Gunsmoke, and Mission: Impossible) took the role of Sergeant Charles Enright, Mac’s phlegmatic and sometimes laughably obtuse assistant. Further filling out the cast were Jack Albertson, René Auberjonois, Kurt Kasznar, James Wainwright, the then-ubiquitous Herb Edelman, and Lost in Space’s Jonathan Harris. (Nancy Walker, who would receive three Emmy Award nominations for her supporting role as the McMillans’ grouchy housekeeper, Mildred, didn’t appear in this pilot; she only joined the series with its first regular episode, “Murder by the Barrel,” shown on September 29, 1971.)

As the TV Guide ad above asserts, Once Upon a Dead Man was intended to “generate laughs and suspense.” That should’ve been amended to read “smiles and suspense”—it wasn’t a comedy, after all. However, it did feature splendid, playful repartee between Hudson and Saint James, as well as an unusual but delightful bicycle pursuit through the streets of San Francisco, surely meant as a spoof on Steve McQueen’s squealing car chase in the 1968 film Bullitt.

Curiously, while McMillan & Wife is one of the vintage TV series (together with Banacek, McCloud, and others) added just this month to the lineup at IMDb TV, Amazon’s free, ad-supported streaming service, Once Upon a Dead Man is omitted from the episodes available. To watch it nowadays, you may have to spring for the complete series on DVD. Below you’ll find the movie’s opening title sequence.

Oh, and if you’re confused by the second new show being promoted in the ad atop this post, you’re probably not alone. The D.A., which also debuted on this date 50 years ago, was Robert Conrad’s third series, following Hawaiian Eye and The Wild Wild West. According to Wikipedia, the half-hour drama had Conrad playing Paul Ryan, “a tough-minded, hard-hitting prosecutor” for Los Angeles County. Aided by criminal investigator Bob Ramirez (ex-Dan August co-star Ned Romero), Ryan “prosecuted all types of cases under the watchful eye of his supervisor, Chief Deputy District Attorney H.M. ‘Staff’ Stafford (Harry Morgan, who directed at least one episode himself). His opponent was usually Public Defender Katherine Benson (Julie Cobb).”

Employing a half-investigation, half-prosecution format that had been used in the earlier ABC-TV series Arrest and Trial (1963-1964), and would work to superior effect on NBC’s Law & Order (1990-2010), The D.A. was a production from actor, director, and screenwriter Jack Webb, spun off from a couple of TV films made by Webb’s company, Mark VII Ltd.: 1969’s Murder One and Conspiracy to Kill from 1971, “both of which fictionalized cases prosecuted by Vincent Bugliosi, world-famous as the prosecutor of Charles Manson.” Despite helpful hype in TV Guide and other sources, the series lasted only 15 episodes, the final regular installment appearing on January 7, 1972. However, again quoting Wikipedia, "some episodes were later compiled in 1978 as a two-hour TV movie titled Confessions of the D.A. Man which aired on CBS on January 20, 1978, as part of The CBS Late Movie.”

To read more about The D.A., click here.

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