Monday, June 27, 2011

A Father, A Son, and Two Detective Shows

It is not unusual for sons to follow their fathers into acting. One need look no further than Michael Douglas, who followed  his father Kirk Douglas into acting, or Beau and Jeff Bridges who followed their father Lloyd Bridges into acting. While the sons of many actors have followed their fathers into the field, however, it is rare that their careers will follow much the same path save for a few notable exceptions (Douglas Fairbanks Jr. being one). This holds true of Timothy Hutton, who followed his father Jim Hutton into acting.

In the Sixties Jim Hutton's career was a duke's mixture of comedies (Where the Boys Are and Who's Minding the Mint), Westerns (Major Dundee and Hallelujah Trail), and assorted other films. By the Seventies he was mostly doing television. In contrast, Timothy Hutton's career began with appearances in television movies before moving onto dramatic films such as Ordinary People (1980) and Turk 180. It was a path on which his career would remain for much of the Eighties and Nineties, with the occasional foray into comedy (Made in Heaven), crime drama (Q&A), and horror (The Dark Half). Timothy Hutton's career would have one thing in common with his father Jim's, however, as both had the honour of playing legendary, literary detectives in television series set in the past.

In the Sixties Jim Hutton had appeared primarily in movies. By the Seventies Jim Hutton primarily worked in television and most often on TV movies. When the creators of Columbo, William Link and Richard Levison, were given the chance to bring another mystery series to the small screen, they naturally thought of the Ellery Queen novels. The writing partners had been fans of the series of novels since they were boys. Indeed, some of their early short stories they had sold to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Here it should be pointed out that Messrs. Link and Levinson were not the first people to ever pursue an Ellery Queen television series. Beginning in 1950 on Dumont and later moving to ABC, The Adventures of Ellery Queen starred Richard Hart and, after Mr. Hart's death, Lee Bowman, as the detective. After moving back to Dumont, the series continued with Hugh Beaumont (most famous as Ward Cleaver of Leave It to Beaver) in the role. It ended in 1952. Another series, The Further Adventures of Ellery Queen, starred George Nader and later Lee Phillips in the title part. It ran from 1958 to 1959. In 1971 Peter Lawford starred in a disastrous television movie entitled Ellery Queen: Don't Look Behind You. Despite the fact that Ellery has always been a native New Yorker, Mr. Lawford still had his English accent.

While the earlier Ellery Queen series and, fortunately, the TV movie with Peter Lawford would be forgotten, William Link and Richard Levinson's television adaptation of the literary detective, simply titled Ellery Queen, is still remembered to this day. There can be no doubt that much of this was due to the casting of Jim Hutton as the legendary amateur detective. Jim Hutton would first play Ellery Queen in the movie pilot for the series, originally titled Ellery Queen but also known as "Too Many Suspects," which aired on NBC in the spring of 1975. The pilot, like the series, was set in the late Forties when it is generally considered that the best Ellery Queen novels were written.  In addition to Jim Hutton, the pilot and the series also featured David Wayne as Ellery's father, Inspector Queen of the NYPD, and Tom Reese as Inspector Queen's assistant, Sergeant Velie.

The format of Ellery Queen was essentially the same as that of the classic novels. Ellery Queen was a mystery writer who solved crimes on the side, much to the consternation of his police inspector father. A crime would be committed, after which Ellery would uncover clues which even his father had missed. Immediately before Ellery revealed whom the murderer was in any given novel, there would be printed a "Challenge to the Reader," which would summarise both the suspects and the clues, and challenge the reader to solve the mystery. The tradition of the "Challenge to the Reader" on the TV series was kept by having Ellery Queen speak directly to the viewers, summarising the clues and suspects, and challenging them to solve the mystery.

Not only would the series Ellery Queen be remembered to this day, but arguably the legendary detective would become the role with which Jim Hutton is now most identified. It might be surprising for some to learn, then, that the series received mixed reviews upon its début. In September 1975 Jay Sharbutt of the Associated Press gave Ellery Queen  a good review, writing, "It's old fashioned whodunitry, but it works well, thanks to costars Hutton and Wayne." In the 15 September 1975 issue of Time Richard Schickel gave the show a less favourable review, writing, "Ellery Queen (NBC, Thursday, 9 p.m. E.D.T.), starring Jim Hutton, is a garage-sale period piece. The presence of Guy Lombardo, some ancient autos and the oldest of detective story conventions (all suspects are assembled in one room to await the results of the detective's ratiocinations) are supposed to evoke nostalgia. They do not−and the format's stasis is numbing." Not only did Ellery Queen receive mixed reviews, but it also lasted only one season--a whole 22 episodes. Of course, here I must point out that one season was actually a long run for a show in the Seventies, when networks were inclined to cancel shows after only a month!

Regardless of what critics said of the series or how long it lasted, Ellery Queen would prove to be the best remembered adaptation of the detective on television. What is more, the role of crime solving mystery writer Ellery Queen would become the one for which Jim Hutton was best remembered, despite the many movies in which he had appeared. Sadly, Jim Hutton would die of liver cancer at the age of only 45 in 1979.

While his father would work later primarily in television, from the Eighties into the Nineties Timothy Hutton continued to work in feature films, only occasionally appearing on television in more upscale TV movies such as Zelda (in which he played F. Scott Fitzgerald) and Aldrich Ames: Traitor Within (in which he played the title role). Given the projects in which Timothy Hutton had been involved, it should hardly have been surprising when he was cast as Archie Goodwin, leg man and general, all around assistant to the brilliant detective Nero Wolfe and a great detective in and of himself. The project was a television movie based on the 1953 novel by Nero Wolfe's creator Rex Stout entitled The Golden Spiders for the A&E cable network. Planned as the first in a series of two hour telefilms, The Golden Spiders : A Nero Wolfe Mystery aired on 5 March 2000 and proved so successful that A&E green lighted A Nero Wolfe Mystery as a regularly scheduled, one hour series.

A Nero Wolfe Mystery was set in a vague time period that could have been the Forties or the Fifties and was extremely faithful to Rex Stout's original short stories and novels. It starred Maury Chaykin as eccentric but brilliant detective Nero Wolfe, who much preferred to remain in his brownstone with his orchids and gourmet food than to go out and interact with people. While it would be Nero Wolfe who solved the cases, then, it was his assistant Archie Goodwin, and occasionally additional detectives such as Saul Panzer, who did much of the actual investigating. Archie was particularly suited to the role, having an incredible memory that allowed him to recall conversations verbatim and a wealth of detail. These he would summarise in reports to Nero.

Just as Ellery Queen had been seen previously on television, so too had Nero Wolfe, although it would only be following Rex Stout's death. Rex Stout had been disappointed by the motion picture adaptations of the Thirties and so he would not allow the great detective to adapted to television either. It would not be until 1977, two years after Rex Stout's death, that the television movie Nero Wolfe would air on ABC. The telefilm was based on the novel The Doorbell Rang and stared Thayer David as Nero Wolfe and Tom Mason as Archie Goodwin. Thayer David's death in 1978 prevented a television series from developing out of the TV movie. In 1981 NBC proceeded with it s own Nero Wolfe series, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe, starring William Conrad as Wolfe and Lee Horsley as Goodwin. Despite its title, only a few episodes were adapted from Rex Stout's work. It lasted only 14 episodes.

It is little wonder, then, that A&E's A Nero Wolfe Mystery would become the best remembered adaptation of Rex Stout's creation, better remembered than either the movies or the radio shows before it. Indeed, the series did not simply adapt Rex Stout's works, but sought to duplicate their plots and even dialogue as precisely as possible. Unlike the 1977 telefilm or the 1981 series, A Nero Wolfe Mystery was a period piece, set in an era that could have been anywhere from the Forties to the late Fifties. The series featured all of the major characters from the novels, including Nero's cook Fritz (Colin Fox), private detective Saul Panzer (Conrad Dunn), Inspector Cramer (Bill Smitrovich), and others.  Timothy Dutton would actually do more on the series than play Archie Goodwin. He was also one of the executive producers of the series and directed four of its episodes.

A Nero Wolfe Mystery would début to nearly universal critical acclaim. John Leonard in the 16 April 2001 issue of New York Magazine proclaimed, "Imperious and mysterious, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe was always a natural for television. Finally, A&E got him right." Laura Urbani of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review would write in its 22 April 2001 issue, "Hutton has found a series of which he can be proud. Most actors would kill to be a part of such a witty and classy production." By no means were these reviews unusual. A Nero Wolfe Mystery was praised in most of its reviews, with bad reviews an absolute rarity.

Sadly, such reviews would not be enough to save the series from cancellation after twenty episodes and two seasons. A&E never gave an official reason for cancelling the series, although it could have been due to the sheer costs of the series. This may be confirmed by a statement issue at the time of the cancellation of A Nero Wolfe Mystery in 2002 on the official A&E web site: "We at A&E remain extremely proud of Nero Wolfe. It is a high quality, beautifully produced and entertaining show, unlike anything else currently on the television landscape. Although it performed moderately well amongst tough competition for two seasons, it simply did not do well enough for us to be able to go on making it, given the current television climate." Sadly, it would only be two years after the cancellation of A Nero Wolfe Mystery that A&E would delve more and more into fare of much less quality--reality television.

One does not have to be a great detective to see the parallels between Jim Hutton's series Ellery Queen and Timothy Hutton's series A Nero Wolfe Mystery. Both shows were based on works featuring famous, fictional detectives (albeit one an amateur, Ellery, and one a professional, Nero). Both works were period pieces, with Ellery Queen set in the late Forties and A Nero Wolfe Mystery set in a vague period that could have been the Forties or Fifties. Both series sought to be faithful to the works upon which they were based, although Ellery Queen never went to the extent that A Nero Wolfe Mystery would in adapting the very dialogue of the novels. Sadly, both series would be short lived. Ellery Queen lasted only a season, producing 22 episodes. A Nero Wolfe Mystery would last two seasons, but because those seasons were shorter, it only produced 20 episodes. The parallels are quite interesting.

Of course, if Jim Hutton and Timothy Hutton both starred in two remarkable mystery series based on classic detectives, it is perhaps because both men knew quality when they saw it. Both Ellery Queen and  A Nero Wolfe Mystery have maintained legions of this fans to this day. Indeed, despite their short runs, both series have been released on DVD. What is more, both series have been successful on DVD. It is a unique honour that Jim Hutton and Timothy Hutton have. A father and his son, they each played a classic detective and saw a good deal of success in doing so.

(Credit Where Credit is Due Department: This post emerged largely through discussions with my friend Casey of the blog Noir Girl, who loves Jim Hutton, Timothy Hutton, and A Nero Wolfe Mystery as much as I do)


NoirGirl said...

Oh, Terry! I enjoyed this post more than I can possibly express!

Your knowledge in this area is staggering - I had no idea Peter Lawford was in an Ellery Queen adaptation. It sounds quite... interesting. ;) Peter Lawford in the 70s is always a strange viewing experience.

Reading your explanation of the cancellation of Nero Wolfe reminded me of how sad I was when they announced that. It was a serious blow to a girl's morale! A&E's descent into the depths of reality TV since then is tragic. Looking at their lineup now, you can hardly believe they once aired a show as high-class as Nero Wolfe.

Thank you ever so for that lovely hat tip and the inclusion of my precious DFJ in the first paragraph! Both have completely made my day. :D

Mercurie said...

Casey, I knew you'd like this post. I think the cancellation of both Ellery Queen and Nero Wolfe were both big mistakes, although at least in NBC's case it was business as usual. In the case of A&E I have to wonder if cancelling Nero Wolfe wasn't part of their plan to go into reality programming. A&E's switch to reality shows had to be one of the great tragedies of TV history. Not only had they aired Nero Wolfe, but also great stuff like Horatio Hornblower, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and so on. I think the last great original programming they aired was Shackleton back in 2003 or so.