Saturday, 13 November 2004

The NBC Mystery Movie

As I mentioned yesterday, my mind has been on The NBC Mystery Movie of late. The series is somewhat unique in the annals of American teleivision as the only truly successful "wheel show" or "umbrella series." On The NBC Mystery Movie several, regular series were rotated within the same time slot. The NBC Mystery Movie did very well in the ratings and ran five seasons. It also happens to be one of my fonder childhood memories from the Seventies.

The NBC Mystery Movie originated in the offices of Universal Studios. In the late Sixties Universal, in conjunction with NBC, had started experimenting with TV formats. In 1968 the studio produced The Name of the Game for the network. The Name of the Game was a show with rotating stars. In 1969 Universal produced The Bold Ones for NBC. Unlike The Name of the Game, The Bold Ones was a true wheel show or umbrella programme. It consisted of three shows which rotated under The Bold Ones title. The NBC Mystery Movie followed the format of The Bold Ones in that it featured rotating series. It differed from The Bold Ones in that it centred on mysteries and in that each episode of its series was 90 minutes long.

When The NBC Mystery Movie debuted in September 1971, it consisted of three rotating series. McCloud had been a part of another Universal umbrella series the prior season, Four in One. Columbo featured Peter Falk as the detective of that name, having first played the role in the 1968 TV movie Prescription: Murder (although the character had appeared before that). McMillan and Wife was the only wholly brand news series, introducing screen Rock Hudson to the small screen. The NBC Mystery Movie proved to be extremely successful. In fact, it did so well that with the 1972-1973 season The NBC Mystery Movie aired twice a week. The original line up of rotating series moved to Sunday night to be joined by a new series, Hec Ramsey. A new group of rotating series took over the Wednesday night time slot: Madigan, Cool Million, and Banacek. Unfortunately, none of the new series would catch on, so that The Wednesday NBC Mystery Movie would eventually move to Tuesday and then leave the air completely. But The Sunday NBC Mystery Movie would continue for a few more years.

Over the years, about 15 different series aired as part of The NBC Mystery Movie. I cannot say that I enjoyed all of them, but I have very fond memories of a few. Chief among them is Columbo. Of all the characters on The NBC Mystery Movie, LT. Columbo has the longest history. His origins go back to the short story "May I Come In" by Richard Levinson and William Link, first published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March 1960. In the short story there was a smallish detective named Lt. Fisher--the prototype for Lt. Columbo. Levinson and Link adapted their short story as "Enough Rope" for the anthology series The Chevy Mystery Show. The TV drama featured the first appearance of Lt. Columbo, played by character actor Bert Freed. Link and Levinson were disappointed with the production and set about turning their story into a play. The play, entitled Prescription: Murder featured character actor Thomas Mitchell (best known as Uncle Billy from It's a Wonderful Life) as Lt. Columbo, a rumpled, cigar smoking NYPD detective. Columbo was only a secondary character in the play, but throughout the play's tour it became obvious that audiences loved the detective. When Prescription: Murder became a telefilm (the action was moved from NYC to LA), Columbo was definitely the star. The role of the rumpled lieutenant was originally offered to Bing Crosby and then Lee J. Cobb, but finally went to Peter Falk, the man who would make the role his own. The movie received very good ratings, but neither Levinson nor Link nor Falk were interested in a series at that time. This changed when Universal approached them with the idea of making Columbo part of The NBC Mystery Movie.

The appeal of Columbo was twofold. First, it was not a traditional whodunit. The viewer knew from the very whom the culprit was. Instead, the appeal of the series was watching the game of cat and mouse between Lt. Columbo and the suspects. Second, Lt. Colubmo was quite possibly one of the greatest character ever created on television. He was hardly what one would expect of a police detecive. He was almost always unshaven and constantly wore a rumpled rain coat (even when it wasn't raining). He often smoked cheap cigars. Columbo appeared to be somewhat bumbling and deferential to the point of being apologetic. But the rumpled, bumbling exterior hid a mind like a steel trap. Columbo was an excellent judge of human nature and a genius at deductive reasoning. Indeed, one often got the feeling that Lt. Columbo usually knew who had committed any particular murder from the very beginning...

My other favourite series on The NBC Mystery Movie was Hec Ramsey. Hec Ramsey featured Richard Boone (of Have Gun Will Travel fame) as Hec, a former gunfighter currently surving as a deputy to young Sheriff Oliver B. Stamp (Richard Lenz) in the turn of the century West. Hec had long ago given up his six guns for a new weapon in the fight against crime--the young science of forensics. Hec had a trunk full of equipment he used in his investigations--magnifying glasses, a fingerprinting kit, and so on. Hec was a bit of a curmudgeon, somewhat uncouth, but he had a flair for solving crimes. I loved Hec Ramsey because it blended two of my favourite genres--Westerns and mysteries. Unfortunately, the series would only run two seasons. Reportedly, Boone and Universal constantly came to heads, thus leading to the end of the show.

Another one of my favourite series from The NBC Mystery Movie also touched upon the West. McCloud featured Dennis Weaver (best known as Chester from Gunsmoke) as Sam McCloud, a U. S. Deputy Marshal from Taos, New Mexico assigned to duty with the NYPD. McCloud usually dispensed with procedure and had a habit of ignoring the rules, something which displeased Police Chief Peter Clifford (J. D. Cannon). The appeal of McCloud was that it was a classic fish out of water situation. Sam McCloud hardly fit into the NYPD, yet his arrest record showed him to be a success. Not having seen the series for literally years, I have no idea if it was actually good, although I know I enjoyed it as a kid.

I also enjoyed The Snoop Sisters, which aired on The Wednesday NBC Mystery Movie (and later The Tuesday NBC Mystery Movie). The Snoop Sisters centred on a widow, Gwendolyn Snoop Nicholson (Mildred Natwick), and her spinster sister, Ernesta Snoop (Helen Hayes), who were both mystery writers. Not only did they write mysteries, the Snoop sisters insisted on solving them, much to the chagrin of their nephew, Police Lt. Steve Ostrowski (Bert Convy). The appeal of The Snoop Sisters was twofold. First, one was able to see two of the greatest actresses in the world, Helen Hayes and Mildred Natwick, at work. Second, the series had a sense of humour. It was as much a comedy as a mystery, often placing the Snoop sisters in such strange milieus as those of the occult and rock stardom. Like McCloud, I don't know if the series really was good, but I know I enjoyed when I was young.

The NBC Mystery Movie lasted until the 1976-1977 season before going off the air. Two of the series that had aired on the show would outlive it. Columbo would continue as a series of special movies throughout the 1977-1978 season. Quincy M.E., which debuted in the final season of The NBC Mystery Movie, would continue for several years as a show of its own. Since The NBC Mystery Movie, its various series have been rerun, most notably on The CBS Late Night Movie in the Eighties. Columbo was revived for The ABC Mystery Movie in the 1989-1990 season. After the demise of that series, it continued as special movies throughout the Nineties. In 1989 there was a McCloud reunion movie, The Return of Sam McCloud, which returned the character to New York City.

With the possible exception of Columbo, one does not see the series that aired on The NBC Mystery Movie very often any more. The Hallmark Channel has aired both McMillan and Wife and McCloud the past year. As for myself, I would love to see Hec Ramsey and The Snoop Sisters again, not to mention the opening credits of The NBC Mystery Movie (a man in silhouette with a flashlight accompanied by the theme written by Henry Mancini). I can only hope that Universal and NBC decide to come out with the entire series (compelete with the opening credits) on DVD. I know the first season of Columbo is out on DVD, but it would be nice to see the other shows again too.

Friday, 12 November 2004

A Short History of Umbrella Series

This week I have been thinking of the old NBC Mystery Movie series of the Seventies; however, it occurred to me that before writing about it, I should probably take a look at the sort of series it was. The NBC Mystery Movie was what is called in the television industry a "wheel show," more commonly referred to as an "umbrella series." That is, it was a title under which several, regular series were rotated within the same time slot. The NBC Mystery Movie is by far the best known and most popular of these series, although it was hardly the first.

I really have no idea what the first umbrella series was, although I am thinking it may well have been Warner Brothers Presents. In 1954, Walt Disney Studios became the first major Hollywood studio to enter the television industry with Disneyland. Disneyland proved to be enormously successful, not only providing ABC with much needed ratings, but giving Disney a powerful means of promoting their movies. This did not go unnoticed by Warner Brothers, who saw in television a way of publicising their motion pictures. ABC was fortunate enough to be the network on which Warner Brothers decided to debut their first venture into television.

That first Warner Brothers series, Warner Brothers Presents, was an umbrella series which featured three rotating shows: King's Row (based on the novel and the movie of the same name), following the travails of a small town doctor (played by Jack Kelly); Casablanca (based on the movie of the same name), with Charles McGraw in the role of Rick Blaine; and Cheyenne, a Western featuring Clint Walker as a drifter in the Wild West. The series would open with a shot of the famous, trademark Warner Brothers shield while a voice over announced, "From the entertainment capital of the world comes Warner Brothers Presents. The hour that presents Hollywood to you. Made for television by one of the great motion picture studios." Following the episode of each show would be a segment called "Behind the Cameras at Warner Brothers," hosted by actor Gig Young. James Dean on the set of Giant, director John Ford on location with The Searchers, and others promoting various Warner Brothers projects appeared in this segment.

Unfortunately for both Warner Brothers and ABC, Warner Brothers Presents was not well received by either viewers or critics. Of the three rotating series, only Cheyenne proved to be a hit. In the end, both King's Row and Casablanca were cancelled and the idea of Warner Brothers Presents was dispensed with. Despite a rocky start, this was not the end of the relationship between Warner Brothers and ABC. Warner Brothers would produce some of ABC's biggest series in the Fifties, among them Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, and Hawaiian Eye. As for Cheyenne, it lasted eight years in all.

The failure of Warner Brothers Presents may well have disuaded the networks from any more experiments with umbrella series. For the remainder of the Fifties and much of the Sixties, none of the networks tried the format again. In the late Sixties, however, NBC seemed willing to experiment, while Universal Studios was more than willing to provide NBC with shows that were off the beaten track of most television. In 1968 NBC debuted a rather unique show, produced by Universal, called The Name of the Game. The Name of the Game was not an umbrella series per se, although it did come very close. Instead of shows, The Name of the Game rotated its stars. The series was set at Howard Publications, the publisher of various magazines. Tony Franciosa played Jeff Dillion, a crusading investigative reporter for People Magazine (nothing like the magazine that Time-Life would publish several years later). Robert Stack played Dan Farrel, a former FBI agent and senior editor of Crime Magazine. Gene Barry played Glenn Howard, owner of Howard Publications. Each character was featured in his own self contained episodes on a rotating basis. The Name of the Game was the most expensive show produced for its time, with each episode costing $400,000. Each episode also ran 90 minutes (the only other show on at the time with 90 minute eipsodes was The Virginian). The series proved successful enough to run three years.

Perhaps because of the success of Name of the Game, NBC debuted a true umbrella series in the 1969-1970 season. Three series were rotated under th title The Bold Ones: The New Doctors, The Lawyers, and The Protectors (which centred on a police chief and a district attorney). With the second season of The Bold Ones, The Protectors was gone, replaced by a series called The Senator (with Hal Hobrook as the title character). By the 1971-1972 season, The New Doctors and The Lawyers would be the only two series left under The Bold Ones title. With the 1972-1973 season, The Bold Ones effectively ceased to be an umbrella series. Although the umbrella title remained, The New Doctors was the only show which aired under the heading of The Bold Ones.

With 1970-1971 season NBC took an even greater risk. Instead of rotating series under an umbrella title, they aired four mini-series for six weeks in a row each under the title Four in One. Two of the series would prove successful enough to outlast the Four in One format. One was the horror anthology series created by Rod Serling (of Twilight Zone fame), Night Gallery. It would go on to run two more seasons following the demise of Four in One. McCloud would go on to become one of the rotating series on the NBC Mystery Movie. San Francisco International Airport and The Psychiatrist were not so lucky. Like Name of the Game before it and The NBC Mystery Movie following it, Four in One was produced by Universal.

The NBC Mystery Movie debuted in 1971 on Wednesday nights with three rotating series, each with ninety minute episodes: Columbo, McCloud, and McMillan and Wife. Columbo centred on a rumpled LAPD detective (Peter Falk) whose bumbling exterior belied a mind like a steel trap. McCloud followed the adventures of a Deputy U. S. Marshal from Taos, New Mexico assigned to the NYPD. McMillan and Wife focused on San Francisco Police Commissioner Stewart McMillan (Rock Hudson), whose wife Sally (Susan St. James) insists in getting involved in his cases. The NBC Mystery Movie defied the odds that faced most rotating series before it and became a smash hit. It was successful enough that with the 1972-1973 season NBC moved the original NBC Mystery Movie to Sunday nights and created a new set of rotating series for Wednesday night. Eventually the Wednesday Night NBC Mystery Movie would be moved to Tuesday nights, but the Sunday Night NBC Mystery Movie would continue to run until 1976. I'll write more about The NBC Mystery Movie in my next entry.

The NBC Mystery Movie proved successful enough that both ABC and CBS attempted to jump on the umbrella series bandwaggon. The Men debuted on ABC in 1972 with three rotating series: Assignment Vienna, The Delphi Bureau, and Jigsaw. Assignment Vienna followed the adventures of Jake Webster (Robert Conrad), a man without a past who becomes part of a government organisation that works with Interpol and other European law enforcement agencies to fight crime around the world. The Delphi Bureau centred on the secret government agency of the same name, with Laurence Luckinbill as rumpled spy Glenn Garth Gregory (the series was created by Man From U.N.C.L.E. creator Sam Rolfe). Jigsaw focused on Lieutenant Frank Dain (James Wainwright) of the Missing Persons Bureau with the California State Police Department. The Men failed to catch on with audiences, facing stiff competition from Ironside on NBC and the Thursday Night Movie on CBS.

That same season NBC tried another series similar to The Name of the Game with rotating stars. Search focused on Probe, a subsidiary of the World Securities Coroporation. Probe hired its agents to various governments, companies, and individuals to retrieve missing objects (jewels, money, documents) or people. Each agent was equipped with scanners which would transmit all kinds of information (everything from the agent's health to what the agent saw and heard) back to Probe headquarters. The agents were also in constant contact with Probe through a tiny transmitter implanted behind the ear. Burgess Meredith as V.C.R Cameron was the one constant in the series; Camerson was Probe's Controller, who watched over the computer room to which all information from the agents was transmitted. Hugh O'Brian played agent Hugh Lockwood (Probe One), who dealt in those cases not related to organised crime. Tony Franciosa played Nick Bianco (Omega Probe), who dealt with those cases involving organised crime or criminal activity. Doug McClure as C.R. Grover was designated "Standby Probe." In an emergency, he was the agent who was sent in. Search was a very high tech series for its time and its format of rotating stars set it apart from other shows on in the early Seventies. Perhaps for that reason, it failed to find an audience.

Despite the failure of both The Men and Search, CBS tried its own hand at an umbrella series in the 1973-1974 season. The New CBS Tuesday Night Movie rotated three elements: Shaft, Hawkins, and The CBS Tuesday Night Movie. Shaft featured Richard Roundtree as John Shaft, the same character that had brought him fame in three movies. Unfortunately, the series was very different from the motion pictures. John Shaft not only cooperated with the police, but would actually call LT. Al Rossi (Ed Barth) for assistance! Fans of the Shaft movies were hardly happy with the series. Hawkins brought Jimmy Stewart once more to the small screen, this time as Billy Jim Hawkins, a West Virginia defence attorney. The CBS Tuesday Night Movie was simply whatever movie CBS decided to air in the time slot. The New CBS Tuesday Night Movie proved no more successful than The Men and was cancelled by the end of the season.

The NBC Mystery Movie would continue until the end of the 1976 season. Afterwards, umbrella series would be a rarity on American television. In the 1989-1990 season, ABC attempted to recapture the success of the The NBC Mystery Movie with their own ABC Mystery Movie. Columbo returned as one of the elements on the series, the other two being with B.L. Stryker and Gideon Oliver. B.L. Stryker featured Burt Reynolds as the title character, a burned out New Orleans Detective. Gideon Oliver centred on the character of that name (played by Louis Gossett Jr.), an anthropology professor at Columbia University who also solved crimes. Eventually Gideon Oliver was replaced by two other series. One was a revival of Kojak. The other, Christine Cromwell, featured Jaclyn Smith as the defence attorney of the title. The ABC Mystery Movie would only last one season, although new Columbo movies would continue to appear on and off throughout the Nineties.

The umbrella series or wheel show is a format that has a chequered history. In fact, it can be argued that there has only been one successful series of that type--The NBC Mystery Movie. I can only guess that perhaps television viewers are somewhat regular in their habits. They like for their favourite shows to be on once a week and at the same time every week. As to why The NBC Mystery Movie proved to be the exception to the rule, it is perhaps because the quality of its rotating series were such that viewers were willing to tune in once a week, even if it meant waiting a month for their particular favourite. Anyhow, in my next entry I'll examine The NBC Mystery Movie and some of the series that aired under that title.

Sunday, 7 November 2004

The Late, Great Howard Keel

Howard Keel, the star of such musicals as Kiss Me Kate and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, died this morning from colon cancer. He was 85 years old. Keel was born Harold Clifford Leek in Gillespie, Illinois. At age 20 he decided to take up singing after seeing baritone Lawrence Tibbett at the Hollywood Bowl. His first real job as a singer was at the Paris Inn Restaurant in Los Angeles, where he was paid a meagre $15 a week. Eventually he had an audition with Oscar Hammerstein II, leading to the role of Curly in Oklahoma.

Keel starred in a number of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals before deciding Hollywood offered greener pastures. He signed with MGM and achieved star billing with his first film, playing Frank Butler in Annie Get Your Gun. His baritone voice and sheer size made him ideal for roles in a number of MGM musicals. He starred in Show Boat, Lovely to Look At, and Calamity Jane. Perhaps his biggest role was in my favourite musical of all time(it was also his favourite film), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, as the eldest brother Adam. I have often thought that Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a man's musical. The protagonists are seven rugged men, living off the land, looking for brides. The dance sequences are hardly minuets, but lively, undeniably masculine dances involving a lot of jumping and stomping. And there are seven beautiful women (among them a young Julie Newmar) for us fellows to ogle. Anyhow, Keel was perfect as Adam, perhaps the most rugged and bull headed of the brothers. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was one of the first musicals I ever saw and remains my favourite to this day.

Perhaps his other biggest role was Fred Graham in Kiss Me Kate, another one of my favourite musicals. Kiss Me Kate is essentially an adaptation of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew about the staging of, well, an adaptation of Taming of the Shrew. It is one of the funniest musicals I have ever seen and Keel handles the comedy quite well. Too, it features Ann Miller in a major role (always a bonus in any movie).

After the age of musical came to an end in Hollywood, Keel continued to perform on stage, touring with companies performing South Pacific, Annie Get Your Gun, and, of course, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Keel also appeared in Westerns, among them Waco and The War Wagon (one of my favourite John Wayne movies). He even appered in a sci-fi film, Day of the Triffids. Keel also performed on the TV show Dallas for ten years. His last appearance on film was in the 2002 movie My Father's House.

I must say that Howard Keel was one of my favourite musical stars of all time. Like Gene Kelly, he was the sort of actor with whom the average man could identify. The roles he played were generally those of typical males of the sort one might meet in the local pub or the local barbershop (an exception being Fred from Kiss Me Kate). It truly saddens me that he has passed on, as I assume it does many other people. He was a great singer, a very good actor, and one of the few musical stars who played roles that the average guy could see himself as.