Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The 60th Anniversary of The Untouchables

For a time The Untouchables was one of the more popular TV shows of its era. It was also one of the most controversial, facing outcry from both moral watchdogs and Italian American groups, among others. Regardless, it would spawn several imitators and would have a lasting impact on television that is still felt even now. It debuted sixty years ago today.

The Untouchables was very loosely on a group of special agents of the United States Bureau of Prohibition, led by Eliot Ness. It was not long after he had taken office that President Herbert Hoover came up with the idea of using small teams of Prohibition agents to tackle large bootlegging operations. With Al Capone and the Chicago Outfit having built an empire based upon bootlegging, it was then in late 1930 that Attorney General William D. Mitchell decided to implement President Hoover's plan. United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois George Q. Johnson, then investigating Capone, selected Eliot Ness to head the new team in Chicago. Special consideration was taken in choosing agents who would not be corruptible. In fact, the agents were so resistant to Capone's attempts to bribe or threaten them that Chicago Daily News journalist Charles Schwartz called them "untouchables." While Al Capone would never be prosecuted for violating the Volstead Act (the act that enforced Prohibition in the United States), he would be convicted of income tax evasion. The Untouchables were disbanded by 1932.

It was in 1956 that Oscar Fraley, a reporter for UPI, met Eliot Ness.  Messrs. Fraley and Ness co-wrote a memoir on Mr. Ness and the Untouchables' efforts to bring down Al Capone. Titled The Untouchables and published after Eliot Ness's death, the book proved to be a bestseller. By 1957 Eliot Ness and the Untouchables had mostly been forgotten, but the book catapulted both Mr. Ness and his team to fame again.

The success of the book The Untouchables would not be lost on Desilu Productions, the television production company responsible for such shows as I Love Lucy, Our Miss Brooks, and December Bride. It was in early 1958 that Desi Arnaz, who co-starred with his wife Lucille Ball on I Love Lucy and was the head of Desilu, persuaded CBS to buy a new anthology series from the studio. As part of the deal, the hour-long specials starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, which had aired since 1957, would air on the new anthology series alongside various dramas. Westinghouse Electric Corporation came on board as the new show's sponsor, paying a record setting $12 million to do so. The new show, titled Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, debuted on CBS on October 6 1958.

Although it only ran for two years, Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse would prove to have a lasting impact on television. On November 24 1958 Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse aired "The Time Element," a science fiction teleplay by Rod Serling. It was the success of "The Time Element" that would lead to Rod Serling's now legendary TV series The Twilight Zone. It was on April 20 1959 and April 27 1959 that Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse aired "The Untouchables," a two part adaptation of Oscar Fraley and Eliot Ness's book of the same name. The adaptation was written by Paul Monash, who had written for shows from Suspense to Studio One.

The two-part episode proved very successful, so much so that Desilu decided to turn it into a regular TV series. At the time CBS had the right of first refusal with regards to Desilu's shows, so Desilu approached the Tiffany Network with an offer of The Untouchables first. Unfortunately for Desliu, CBS rejected the series. While CBS turned Desilu's offer of The Untouchables down, then perpetually third ranked ABC jumped at the chance to air the new show.

Of course, The Untouchables would depart a good deal from history. The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse episode "The Untouchables" had depicted not only the investigation of Al Capone, but his eventual conviction on tax evasion. It ended with him sentenced to prison. While the Untouchables continued to attack the Chicago Outfit's bootlegging operation following Al Capone's conviction, they did not do so for very long. The new series would then depict the Untouchables pursuing Capone's heir apparent, Frank Nitti, and other criminals after Capone was already in prison, a stark departure from history.

The Untouchables debuted on ABC on October 15 1959. While it did not rank in the top thirty shows for the season, The Untouchables proved popular nonetheless. The Untouchables even picked up two Emmy Awards for the 1959-1960 season: Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Series (Lead or Support) for Robert Stack and Outstanding Achievement in Film Editing for Television for editors Ben Ray and Robert L. Swanson. The Untouchables also won a Writers Guild of America award for Episodic TV show, Longer Than 30 Minutes in Length for the two part episode "The Unhired Assassin" by William Spier and was nominated for the Directors Guild of America's award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Television for Tay Garnett's work on the episode "The Jake Lingle Killing."

While The Untouchables was both popular and received some acclaim, it also had its share of detractors. To a large degree this is understandable. If The Untouchables was not the most violent broadcast network television show of all time, it would certainly be among the most violent. While the violence on The Untouchables was not graphic in the way that scenes from modern day police procedurals are today, the show probably featured more scenes of violence than any modern day broadcast network show ever has. On The Untouchables scenes in which several people are mown down by Tommy guns were par for the course. Here it must be pointed out that, despite this, the violence on The Untouchables was never gratuitous. The Untouchables was a realistic portrayal of Chicago in the early Thirties, a city where mob violence was hardly unknown.

While the violence on The Untouchables was not gratuitous, the fact there was a lot of it led moral watchdogs to attack the show. The October 22-28 1960 issue of TV Guide featured the article "Do You Like The Untouchables?" by psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham, then as now best known for his 1954 attack on comic books Seduction of the Innocent. Newspaper columnist John Crosby referred to The Untouchables as "a national disgrace" and "the worst show ever shown on television." Given the level of violence on The Untouchables, it should come as no surprise that it became a prime target for the Senate Juvenile Delinquency Subcommittee and its chairman, Senator Thomas J. Dodd (long a crusader against television violence) in their hearings held in 1961. Carl Perian, the chief counsel to Senator Dodd, said of The Untouchables, "We made films for each hearing. ABC complained that we took them out of context, so I said… ‘If they don’t want us showing excerpts, let’s show their own trailers.’ The next week, I ran 30 minutes of trailers for The Untouchables, and I swear to God, when it was over the room was shell-shocked. It was nothing but machine guns, bombings, and stabbings. We said, ‘All right, now what’s your complaint about showing excerpts?’”

Violence was not the only source of controversy for The Untouchables. The show as also attacked by Italian Americans, who believed that the show relied on negative Italian stereotypes. Historically many of the gangsters of the early Thirties were Italian in descent, including Vito Genovese, Lucky Luciano, Frank Nitti, and others. And The Untouchables did tackle gangsters from other ethnicities, including Bugs Moran, Dutch Schultz, and Legs Diamond. Unfortunately, The Untouchables would sometimes given Italian names even to fictional gangsters featured on the show, such as Joe Bucco in "The Noise of Death." Between historical gangsters who were Italian in descent and fictional gangsters with Italian names, The Untouchables presented a skewed view of Italian Americans.

Quite naturally, various Italian American groups took umbrage with this. The Order Sons of Italy called for a boycott of the sponsor shortly before the episode "The Noise of Death" was set to air. The president elect of the Italian American service organisation UNICO National remarked that the ethnic stereotyping on The Untouchables had gotten so bad that "people have started referring to The Untouchables as 'The Italian Hour.'" Among the groups upset by Italian American stereotyping on The Untouchables was the Federation of Italian-American Democratic Organizations, who picketed ABC. What is more, the Federation of Italian-American Democratic Organizations warned that unless The Untouchables stopped using Italian names for fictional gangsters, then longshoremen (many of who were Italian in descent) would refuse to handle Liggett & Myers tobacco products (Liggett & Myers was one of the sponsors of the show).  Ultimately ABC had to make a promise that unless a character was a historical Italian American gangster, no more Italian surnames would be used on the show. They also promised that Agent Enrico "Rico" Rossi of the Untouchables would be featured much more prominently on the series. While the tendency of The Untouchables to stereotype Italians was certainly regrettable, it was also not unusual for television in the late Fifties and early Sixties to stereotype various ethnic groups. Indeed, the Westerns of the era were filled with stereotypes of Native Americans and Mexicans.

Of course, one Italian American family had been unhappy even before The Untouchables debuted. After the two part episode "The Untouchables" aired on Westinghouse Desliu Playhouse, the estate of Al Capone sued Desilu Productions and Westinghouse Electric Corporation for appropriation of Capone's "name, likeness and personality" and a claim for invasion of privacy. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed as the courts rejected the plaintiff's claim of property rights over Capone's "name, likeness and personality" and rejected their claim that their right to privacy had been violated as, under Illinois law, the right to privacy dies with the individual.

As if The Untouchables did not already have enough detractors, among them was the Federal Bureau of Investigations, particularly its Director, J. Edgar Hoover. Throughout the show's run Hoover and the FBI were in nearly constant contact with Desilu concerning the inaccuracies on The Untouchables. J. Edgar Hoover was particularly upset by the show's second episode, "Ma Barker and Her Boys," which portrayed the Untouchables taking out Ma Barker and her sons. Historically this was done by FBI Agents. The producers of The Untouchables ultimately had to insert a disclaimer in reruns of the episode acknowledging the FBI's role in bringing down Ma Barker. The FBI had an entire file on the TV show The Untouchables composed mostly of newspaper clippings regarding the show.

Despite the many controversies surrounding The Untouchables, it would only become more popular in its second season. It climbed to no. 8 in the Nielsen for the 1960-1969 season. Unfortunately, The Untouchables would not maintain such ratings. For its third season ABC moved it a half hour later on Thursday night, from 9:30 PM Eastern/8:30 PM Central to 10:00 PM Eastern/9:00 PM Central. This had a deleterious effect on The Untouchables, which lost the time slot to Sing Along with Mitch (which ranked 15th for the season). For its fourth season ABC moved The Untouchables from Thursday night, when it had always aired, to 9:30 Eastern/8:30 Central on Tuesday night. There it aired against the high rated Jack Benny Program. Its ratings dropped further and it was cancelled the end of the season.

For the most part The Untouchables' cast remained stable for its entire run. The show turned Robert Stack, who played Eliot Ness, into a household name. Even though Eliot Ness would become Robert Stack's best known role, he was not Desi Arnaz's first choice for the part when the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse episode "The Untouchables" was being made. Originally Mr. Arnaz had wanted Van Johnson for the role, but he demanded too much money. Desi Arnaz then looked to other actors to play the role, including Fred MacMurray and Jack Lord, before finally casting Robert Stack.

Of course, Robert Stack would not be the only cast member to remain with The Untouchables for its entire run. Abel Fernandez as Native American agent Bill Youngfellow, Nicholas Georgiade as Italian American Agent Rico Rossi, and Steve London as Agent Jack Rossman were all with The Untouchables from the start of its run to its very end. Paul Picerni joined the show in its second run as Agent Lee Hobson and remained with it until it was cancelled. Several other actors portrayed various Untouchables in only the first season.

In addition to the various Prohibition Agents, The Untouchables also featured several actors in recurring roles. Most notable of these was Bruce Gordon as Frank Nitti, who was the head of the Chicago Outfit in Al Capone's absence. Frank Wilcox also appeared frequently as Federal District Attorney Beecher Asbury. Robert Brice appeared in several episodes as Captain Johnson of the Chicago Police Department. Throughout the show's run it was narrated by columnist Walter Winchell in terse, staccato fashion. He was reportedly paid $25,000 per episode for his narration.

Among the production staff of The Untouchables was Quinn Martin, who was its original executive producer. After having produced various anthology series, it was the first episodic television series he ever produced. Quinn Martin left The Untouchables in 1960 to form his own company, QM Productions. He would go onto produce such shows as The Fugitive, The F.B.I., The Invaders, The Streets of San Francisco, and Barnaby Jones. Among the other executive producers on the show were Alan A. Amer (who would serve as a producer on The Fugitive, Lancer, and Cannon), Jerry Thorpe (who would serve as a producer on Kung Fu and Harry O), and Leonard Freeman (who created and produced Hawaii Five-O).

Given its success, The Untouchables would give rise to imitators, some of which were produced by individuals who had been associated with the show. The first of these was The Roaring 20's, which debuted during the 1960-1961 season. Produced by Warner Bros. the show combined a similar period milieu to The Untouchables with the set-up of young protagonists and a beautiful woman from 77 Sunset Strip and its imitators. The young protagonists were newspaper reporters Scott Norris (played by Rex Reason) and Pat Garrison (played by Donald May), who investigated crime in 1920s New York City. The beautiful woman was Pinky Pinkham (played by Dorothy Provine), who sang at the Charleston Club. The other imitators of The Untouchables debuted in the 1961-1962 season, all of them set in the present day. Cain's Hundred centred on former mob lawyer Nicholas Cain (played by Peter Mark Richman), who teams up with the FBI after the Mob murders his fiancée. The show was created by Paul Monash, who had written the episode "The Untouchables" for Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse.

Target: The Corruptors! was the next imitator of The Untouchables to debut. The series was created by Lester Velie, who had written on everything from organised crime to the slums of New York City. Target! The Corruptors! centred on reporter Paul Marino (played by Stephen McNally) who, with his undercover investigator Jack Flood (played by Robert Harland), investigated crime and corruption. The final imitator of The Untouchables to debut was The New Breed, which was the first show produced by Quinn Martin's QM Productions. The show centred on Lieutenant Price Adams (played by Leslie Nielsen) of a special detail of the Los Angeles Police Department's Metro Squad.

None of the Untouchables imitators lasted beyond the end of the 1961-1962 season. Given the Senate Juvenile Delinquency Subcommittee's hearings on television held in 1961, one might be tempted to believe that the show's cancellations were largely due to concerns over violence. That having been said, it seems more likely that they were simply cancelled due to low ratings. For instance, Cain's Hundred on NBC had the misfortune to air opposite the high rated Garry Moore Show on CBS. The New Breed on ABC was scheduled against the high rated Dobie Gillis and The Red Skelton Show on CBS. Against already established hits, the new shows did not have a chance. The following season The Untouchables would also fall victim to low ratings.

While The Untouchables left network television at the end of the 1962-1963 season, it would prove to be popular as a rerun in syndication. This would change as the Seventies progressed, as The Untouchables started being shown on fewer and fewer stations. The Seventies saw a bias arise in local television station managers against black and white programming, a bias which only a few extremely popular shows (such as I Love Lucy, The Twilight Zone, and The Dick Van Dyke Show) could overcome. The outcry over television violence that had begun in the Sixties also continued well into the Seventies. As an exceedingly violent show shot in black and white, The Untouchables looked less and less attractive to television station managers as the Seventies progressed.

While The Untouchables was seen on fewer television stations as the Seventies progressed, the impact of the show was still felt. While the 1987 feature film The Untouchables was based on Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraley's book of the same name much as the television series was, it seems likely that the TV series not only paved the way for the feature film, but gave it name recognition it might not have otherwise had. In 1993 a new syndicated television series entitled The Untouchables debuted. This new show was based on both the original series that had run from 1959 to 1963 and the 1987 feature film. It would not see the success of the original series, lasting only two seasons.

Over the years The Untouchables would inspire yet other imitators on television, including The F.B.I., Hawaii Five-O, S.W.A.T., Most Wanted (which also starred Robert Stack), Strike Force (again starring Robert Stack), and Crime Story. Along with The Detectives (which also debuted in 1959), it was among the first television shows to portray a team devoted to fighting crime. Previous crime dramas had either centred on a single character (Rocky King Detective, M Squad) or a police officer and his partner (Dragnet, The Lineup, Naked City). Along with The Detectives, The Untouchables then paved the way for such shows featuring crime fighting teams as Ironside, Crime Story, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and NCIS.

Of course, even today The Untouchables has a complicated legacy.  In its first season The Untouchables relied a bit too much on the Italian gangster stereotype, to the point where it is perfectly understandable why Italian Americans at the time were upset. At the same time, however, The Untouchables featured one of the few Native American characters (Bill Youngfellow) of the time who was not a stereotype. While the violence that upset so many in the late Fifties and early Sixties is still intense by today's standards, as pointed out above, it is never gratuitous. Today The Untouchables stands as a particularly hard-edged, well-executed, if not particularly historically accurate crime drama.

While it would be seen on fewer television stations following the Seventies, The Untouchables has never entirely fallen out of popularity. It has been more recently rerun on such venues as MeTV. In 2009 CBS DVD released the first three seasons on DVD, followed by the fourth season in 2012. It was also in 2012 that they released a box set of the complete series. The Untouchables was controversial in its day and it seems likely that it will always remain one of the most violent broadcast network shows ever aired, but it seems likely it will always remain popular.

1 comment:

Caftan Woman said...

A box set, you say? I must have a word with Santa. I haven't seen The Untouchables since the 1970s, but the memory is not easy to shake, nor (thankfully) is Nelson Riddle's theme/score.