Saturday, November 13, 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 big screen star 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 beginning 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 serving 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.

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