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Monthly Archives: June 2010

This week, a show again from long ago, but with a topic as eternal as life and death, literally.  Living, loving, dying, and moving on.  The pilot was one of the most watched shows ever at the time.  Here’s the five quotes:

“Who’s gonna clean the toilet?  Who’s gonna clean the oven?”

…what it was “to be young, and a mother, and in love… and dying.”

Her journey was documented with a series of tape recordings…

…and while not maudlin in any way, it was still not the usual laugh-a-minute fare…

…no matter what he is or isn’t, no matter what he may or may not become, there’s still no meaning for any of it without…

Come back Friday 8/7 Central, to read about one of the most touching and emotional stories you’ll ever find.

–Tim R.

Last week’s show was Dark Skies, which took the reality of history and pretended there was an unseen fictional story behind it.  This week presents a show that did the opposite, taking some of the world’s best known fiction, and pretending that there was actually an unseen reality behind it.

“I first came up with the idea of putting Jules Verne at the center of his own adventures when I discovered that he had originally written Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea because he was furious at the Russian invasion of Poland.  Suddenly it came to me… what if there had been more reality behind the Jules Verne fantasies than we even knew?  And what if I wrote a series of stories which revealed the true adventures behind Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, Around the World in Eighty Days, and Journey to the Center of the Earth, then added to these stories some of Verne’s actual contemporaries – noted figures as diverse as Mark Twain, Queen Victoria, and Frank and Jesse James!”
–Gavin Scott, creator of The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne

The cast of The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne

So, let’s say that all of the fantastic adventures Verne wrote about in his later years ACTUALLY happened to him… but not exactly the way he wrote.  In other words, the stories we’ve come to know as classics are actually fictionalized versions of the “real” events shown in the series.  So, we meet Jules Verne (played by Chris Demetral), not as the seasoned and famous author, but as a young artiste in Paris, full of brilliant ideas, but trying to figure out what he’s really going to do with his life.  His path crosses that of a former member of the British Secret Service, Phineas Fogg (Michael Praed), and his valet Passepartout (Michel Courtemanche), who have recently come into the possession of an airship (dirigible) called the Aurora.  The Aurora serves as the unofficial home base of the group, allowing them to travel almost anywhere in the world (there’s even a five-episode “arc” that takes place in America roughly during the Civil War).  They are joined on their adventures by Rebecca Fogg (Francesca Hunt), Phineas’ adopted cousin, who is essentially the first female secret agent.  She is the Victorian era version of Mrs. Peel from The Avengers:  sexy, capable, and more than able to handle herself in a fight.

Young Verne, inquisitive as always

And fight they all must, thanks to the existence of the villain of the piece (and there’s always a villain, isn’t there?).  In this case, it is Count Gregory (Rick Overton), leader of the League of Darkness and champion of the aristocracy (and opponent of the democratic movement sweeping Europe and the Americas at this point).  Since chaos and disharmony are good for their cause, the League is always interested in creating anarchy in any way possible.  And they want the brilliant mind of Verne, if only for his imaginative designs of fantastic ships (such as rockets, tunneling devices, and an early version of the Nautilus submarine) which they intend to build and use in their conquests.  And so the ongoing conflict in many episodes is created.

We now have the set-up for fantastic adventures and daring escapades, many of which will (supposedly) make it into the future Verne’s amazing tales… with the names and events SLIGHTLY fictionalized, of course, so as to protect the “actual” people involved.  Quite a nice trick, if you can pull it off.  And the producers were pulling no punches in trying to do so.

The Aurora -- One of the most beautiful ships ever on television.

A 100,000 square-foot soundstage was created in Montreal (it was actually a former railway warehouse, complete with railroad tracks running through it), and the city streets of Paris and London were recreated there, as well as the interiors of the Aurora and assorted caves and other locales needed for the series.  The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne was the first hour-long series shot completely in Hi-Definition, and for its time used more special effects per episode than many theatrical movies.  Of course, being the first to do anything is basically saying that you’re the one who gets to discover where things can go wrong, “working the bugs out” as it were.  It didn’t help that most potential outlets for the show (it was originally on the Sci-Fi channel here in America, before landing in syndication on local stations) weren’t set up at the time for HD broadcast.  Therefore, the wonderful HD production values were reduced to being transferred to film anyway, with the result being probably less than what film itself would have provided, although the digital effects were more than worth it.  The Aurora, in particular, is shown in numerous flying scenes, and, at times, is simply breathtaking.

The remodeled (and now state-of-the-art) HD production facility and the period setting weren’t cheap, and the show was rumored to cost almost $2 million dollars an episode — in 1999.  Worse, that money didn’t show up on the screen after the transfer to film, especially when the fight scenes and quicker camera movements looked somehow “off”, because the digital information didn’t transfer properly to regular film technology at that point.  So, here’s what you ended up with:  A show about futuristic events that took place around the 1860’s, shot with state-of-the-art technology that didn’t look, as presented, like it was filmed with current filming methods.  And it cost $40 million dollars for 22 episodes.  Not exactly pocket change.

No, this is not Gavin Scott looking for funding... although it probably felt like it!

Creator Gavin Scott had to go on his own “around the world” tour to get this dream produced in the first place.  He had been shopping the idea of the series to various potential financial partners for a number of years.  First, he found some connections in California (Crest Films, specifically), but no one that could put together all the funding for the concept.  He then went to England, and got some of the money from a production company named Talisman, then an insurance company called Flashpoint ponied up some more cash.  A German production company climbed on board, and finally it became a Canadian co-production, with the caveat that it was filmed in that country, for tax reasons.  Note that nowhere in this equation is there any mention of an actual broadcast outlet… because as of that time, there wasn’t one.  This was $40 million dollars riding on, literally, faith in the concept.  It was all “deficit spending”, with filming finished on the first season before the show had been sold to ANY broadcast outlets.  Talk about amazing adventures….

This was definitely NOT business as usual for television, let alone the rather atypical subject matter of the steampunk flavored Jules Verne.  A Sci-Fi series that’s also a period piece is not an easy sell, even though you’ve got 22 episodes already made.  Fantastic though it might be, both story-wise and production-wise, it still had to find that elusive audience ratings-wise.

The show ended up being bought in the US by the Sci-Fi Channel, by the Space network in Canada, and by other outlets around the world.  Thereafter, it was syndicated to local stations as well, in an attempt to make enough money back to warrant a second season, but unfortunately, that never happened.  Even though there were significant plans to build a Nautilus set, and bring in Captain Nemo (and his daughter Laura as a love interest for the young Verne), a second season was just as impossible as some of the real Jules Verne’s fantastic tales… no matter how much we wanted to believe in them.

CHRIS DEMETRAL (Jules Verne) was best known as Jeremy Tupper, the son on the HBO comedy Dream On, prior to becoming Jules Verne.  He left the acting business shortly after the series, and is now one of the editors of the website WickedInfo.com, specializing in reviews and interviews of numerous comedians, musicians, and other up-and-coming stars.

MICHAEL PRAED (Phineas Fogg) has done most of his work in his native England, becoming the cult hero of the British series Robin of Sherwood.  American audiences knew him best as Prince Michael of Moldavia over multiple seasons of Dynasty.  Currently, he acts as narrator on the long-running BBC documentary series Timewatch, and concentrates much of his performing on his stage career, including a recent tour as Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music.

FRANCESCA HUNT (Rebecca Fogg), also from England, starred in the British series Strathblair and Roughnecks before becoming the first female of the British Secret Service in Jules Verne.  In addition to acting, she also happens to be a competitive swimmer, and an excellent swordswoman, doing many of the fight scenes and swordplay on the series herself.  Coming from a talented family, she recently “appeared” with her real-life sister, India Fisher, in the Doctor Who series of monthly audio plays.

MICHAEL COURTEMANCHE (Passepartout) gained fame as a French-Canadian comedian, selling out arena shows with his “mime and sound effects” style of comedy.  An accomplished physical comedian, he later turned to the production side of the camera, forming a company called Encore Television and producing for Canadian television and film.

RICK OVERTON (Count Gregory) has had a long career as a stand-up comedian, and an equally long one in films and television as varied as TV guest shots from NYPD Blue to The Office; and film roles from Willow to Cloverfield.  Most recently he’s been seen in a recurring role as the slightly bumbling FBI agent Taggart on Leverage.  He’s also an accomplished mimic, and is credited additionally on Jules Verne as a “creative consultant”, as he conceived and built many of the original models for Verne’s fantastic machines, including a time machine, the tunneling engine, and best of all, the Aurora itself.  (Oh, and he’s also just a really great guy.  I got to meet him this past spring, and he’s just fantastic!)

GAVIN SCOTT (Creator/Producer) has always been involved in making the fantastic, having written or produced the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, Space Rangers, Small Soldiers, and The Borrowers, as well as The Mists of Avalon and Legend of Earthsea mini-series for the Sci-Fi channel.  Oh, and if you’re into REALLY fantastical adventure, check out Scott’s current project, The Adventures of Edward and Henrietta, in which he uses his own sculpted figures to tell a web story that’s like a combination of Jules Verne and whimsical Monty Python.  Hard to describe, but it’s sure something unique.

The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne has never been made available on DVD (too many people/companies/countries have to sign off on the deal to make it happen), but bootlegs are out there.  Numerous clips of the show are available on YouTube, however, including many “broken up” full episodes.  These also showcase the amazing guest list this show was able to acquire, including Patrick Duffy, John Rhys-Davies, David Warner, Margot Kidder, Michael Moriarty, and Rene Auberjonois.  The best fan site for more information is from TwoEvilMonks, who also have information on series like Alias, The Mists of Avalon, and Firefly.  They also have the original promotional brochures for Jules Verne, so you can see what the series was like during its creation, and the changes it went though.

Looking towards the next adventure

The real Jules Verne was one of the first authors to ask the question “What if?”  Gavin Scott asked that same question, and it led both men to adventures and experiences that were both amazing and fantastic.  The best part is, we all get to come along for the ride.  Watch The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne, and let your imagination take you away.  Adventure, excitement, and beauty, all the things that television, and life, should be.  And then, find your own way to change fantasy into reality.  Ask yourself “What if?”

Vital Stats

22 aired episodes – no unaired episodes exist
Sci-Fi Channel in the US, and Space in Canada, and syndicated around the country.
First aired episode:  June 18, 2000
Last aired episode:  December 16, 2000
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central:  Yes, when it aired on the Sci-Fi channel originally, that was EXACTLY the spot.  Why am I not surprised?

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

Here’s a first:  a show that involved four different countries to produce, had locales that represented even more places, and was based on material written before any of us were born.  Quite a globe-trotting series for the new millennium.

Five quotes:

“…because he was furious at the Russian invasion of Poland.”

“…noted figures as diverse as Mark Twain, Queen Victoria, and Frank and Jesse James!”

…sexy, capable, and more than able to handle herself in a fight.

…was the first hour-long series shot completely in Hi-Definition.

This was $40 million dollars riding on, literally, faith in the concept.

Again, a show many have never heard of, even with 22 episodes.  It won’t be a secret much longer.  Just tune in this week to Friday 8/7 Central for the adventure!

–Tim R.

“It just came to us — what if we fused the two greatest conspiracies of all time together?  We came up with the Unified Field Theory of conspiracy — who killed JFK and why, and whether Roswell was a real event or not.  The essence of the series is that John Kennedy was assassinated because he was going to tell the truth about UFO’s in his second term.”
–Bryce Zabel, co-creator of Dark Skies

There has always been a fringe element of society known as “Conspiracy Theorists”.   The type of people who think that everything is interconnected; that some faceless and nameless “shadow organization” is pulling the strings and controlling humanity.  Whether it’s the Illuminati or Men in Black, there is always someone just behind the curtain manipulating people and events for their own ends.

But what if that “someone” wasn’t human?

Watching the skies -- John Loengard and Kimberley Sayres

In the 1996 series Dark Skies, John Loengard (Eric Close) and his girlfriend Kimberley Sayres (Megan Ward) arrive in Washington D.C. in 1961, full of the dreams of young people about to change the world.  Kimberley actually works for the Kennedy administration, while John becomes an aide to a Congressman.  While performing his duties, John stumbles upon evidence of a UFO… and after being attacked by a mysterious stranger and losing the evidence, he tracks down the organization the man belongs to, code-named Majestic-12.  It turns out that Majestic-12 and its leader, Captain Frank Bach (J.T. Walsh), have been secretly covering up evidence of aliens since Roswell in 1947.  Why?  Because the alien “Hive” are trying, slowly, to infiltrate the human race.  Once the Hive have reached a certain threshold, they will be powerful enough to create a “group” mind and take over everyone and everything.  And telling the public now will not only create panic and disorder, but it might force the Hive’s hand and end up in the destruction of the human race.

So, we have the Government, we have the Hive (and apparently another alien race, the Greys, whom they’ve taken over previously), we have the secretive Majestic-12, and we have John and Kimberley.  All have their own points of view on what should be done concerning the alien threat and how much the public should know (if anything).  Plus, all of them are trying to keep their own secrets for their own reasons, and changing (or being forced to change) their alliances with each other.

This is why conspiracy theorists are typically wrong.  It just gets too complicated.  But Dark Skies, as originally conceived, was a complicated idea to begin with.

“We wrote an ultra-classified briefing book, and it had a gold foil seal to bind it together.  We put it in a brown paper wrapper marked ‘Confidential.’  Inside it, not only did we lay out the concept of the series, but the first five seasons as well.  We included a timeline that was 85 pages long, going from 75 million B.C. to 2001 A.D.  We showed pretty definitively where the show was going.”
–Bryce Zabel

In this presentation of Dark Skies to NBC, Zabel and his writing partner Brent Friedman conceived of one of the most audacious premises of a TV series ever, with one simple idea:  History as we know it is a lie.  Almost all significant modern events, from the Roswell landing in 1947 onward, were influenced by an unseen “war” against alien invaders who were trying to take over humanity, bit by bit, and what we know as “historical fact” was anything but.  For example, the famous Beatles telecast on The Ed Sullivan Show was actually going to be used by the Hive to broadcast subliminal messages.  The fires of the Watts riots in Los Angeles weren’t racially motivated; they actually were set to burn down a hospital that was being used by the aliens for experiments.  The Chernobyl nuclear disaster was actually an attack led by (then Major) Colin Powell against the Russians, not knowing that the “black ops” group the Americans were sent to stop were ACTUALLY fighting the aliens, and not the United States.

Confused yet?  It made more sense on TV, but still, it’s like looking at the panorama of recent history through a prism lens…  things are somewhat recognizable, but not as we know them.  And that was the point.

It’s comparatively easy to make up a show out of whole cloth, with a back-story for characters that is totally fictional.  It’s quite another thing to make it blend in with history as we know it, and tell a fictional story BEHIND the real one.  Zabel took that one step further yet, with his five-year show plan.

“We start the series in the ’60s and stay there the whole first season, then reach the ’70s in our second year, and move faster from there so we can catch up with reality by December 31, 1999.  The show and reality will synchronize on the eve of the millennium, when we’re going to say a very important event is happening.”
–Bryce Zabel

The only show that had ever even TRIED a detailed “five-year plan” before was the syndicated production of Babylon 5, and it was a much cheaper show to produce.  B5 also came with a mythology all its own, and not one that had to legally clear almost every reference it ever made to ANY figure or event in the past.  Dark Skies was a demanding (and confusing) show to do, and there were also questions about “aging” its stars for future seasons, as well as budget problems brought about by reshoots of complicated special effects and numerous physical effects involving the Hive and their “infection” of the human race.

Dark Skies ultimately only ran one season, and even during that there were creative roadblocks and decisions that would affect the series significantly.  At mid-season, a new regular character was introduced, Juliet Stuart (Jeri Lynn Ryan), an operative of the Russian version of Majestic-12 and another romantic interest for Loengard.  Girlfriend Kimberley became pregnant in the storyline, and then was somewhat co-opted by the Hive, creating conflict for the good-guy Loengard, but making one of the original lead “heroes” of the series into a victim and an enemy.  Other than Loengard, audiences didn’t necessarily know who to cheer for, and that just muddied the murky conspiracy waters even more.  And Loengard himself was sometimes working with Majestic-12, and sometimes against them, not always sure of where the side of “right’ was.

Complicated conspiracies will do that to you.

The Hive, using Greys, experimenting on humanity. It's complicated.

While it was fun to see the multiple ways in which history was supposedly “influenced” by the battle against the Hive, Dark Skies and its magical history tour ended, still stuck in the ’60s, in the Spring of ’97.  The show simply didn’t pull high enough ratings, especially in its scheduled time slot on Saturday nights.  Networks currently no longer schedule new shows on Saturday nights, because not enough people are watching network television then to make the programming worthwhile.  While this phenomenon didn’t start until the mid-2000’s, audiences were already deteriorating in the late ’90s on Saturdays, and viewership of SF programming even more so.  The secret war against the Hive was over, its ending unknown to the public at large.

ERIC CLOSE (John Loengard) has been in a number of one- and two-season series, and will likely show up in this blog again sooner rather than later.  He starred in the series McKenna, Sisters, Now and Again, and the western The Magnificent Seven, before finally landing an extended gig on Without a Trace.

Before Dark Skies, MEGAN WARD (Kimberley Sayres) had a recurring role on both Party of Five and Class of ’96.  Following her alien hunting, she went on to appear in numerous guest shots on television, and as a regular in the original Melrose Place, Boomtown, and Sleeper Cell.  She has been a regular/recurring character on the soap General Hospital since 2007.

J. T. WALSH (Captain Frank Bach) was primarily a movie actor, best known for his appearances as a bad guy in Hoffa, A Few Good Men, Good Morning Vietnam, and Pleasantville.  He was so good as the proverbial bad guy that Playboy magazine once dubbed him “everyone’s favorite scumbag”.  He died of a heart attack in 1998.

JERI LYNN RYAN (Juliet Stuart) is the actress most likely to be cast in the middle of a series run.  After their start, she joined Star Trek: Voyager (as Borg Seven of Nine), Boston Public, The O.C., Boston Legal, and Leverage in regular roles.  She finally joined a series at the beginning (but not at the end) in Shark, and will be seen in the new Dana Delany series Body of Proof this fall.  She is also the co-owner of a trendy French restaurant in L.A., Ortolan, with her husband, French chef Christophe Eme

At one time a CNN correspondent, BRYCE ZABEL also produced or created Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, M.A.N.T.I.S., and The Crow: Stairway to Heaven.  He is a past chairman of The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (the organization that gives out the Emmy Awards), and most recently he and his wife Jackie have written movies for Hallmark, including the critically acclaimed Chasing a Dream.

AUGUST MAJOR UPDATE:  Shout Factory has just announced that DARK SKIES WILL be released on DVD in January 2011.  The music has all been cleared, and there WILL be extras!!  Further developments to follow as we get closer to the release, but celebrate anyway!!!

Dark Skies has not been will be released on DVD, although it’s not for lack of trying.  (The trying finally succeeded.  January 2011.  Ed.-Tim). First Sony (who actually announced a release in 2007), then other companies, tried to secure its release, but the costs for the ’60’s period music proved just too high.  That’s what happens when you use The Beatles and Jim Morrison as characters in your show.  Bryce Zabel has said on his website that he’d try to tell the story at some point, to finish the “five-year plan”, but it has yet to materialize.  The best SHORT explanation of the complicated alien storyline is actually on the show’s Wikipedia site, where you can find out more about the Hive, the Greys, and their methods of infiltration.  But if you REALLY want more info, I suggest the text-heavy Dark Skies FAQ that goes into tremendous detail of what we know about what happened on the show, and information and trivia galore.

Interestingly, the existence of Dark Skies itself as a television show (presenting a fictionalized version of the “actual” truth) was going to be referenced as part of the psuedo-history that Zabel had created for the show, once the timeline had reached the 1990’s.  As Zabel said:

“When Dark Skies is created, it begins to cause the public to talk about what’s really going on.  So, in our master plan, the public becomes aware of the disturbing truth by New Year’s Eve, 1999.”

Of course, the series never made it that far.  But then, can we really be sure that the reason for the cancellation of Dark Skies was just low ratings?  Or was there something deeper, darker, and more sinister at work here?  Could it have been the shadowy hand of Majestic-12?  Perhaps it was the Hive themselves who were worried about their discovery, and canceling Dark Skies early would simply leave it as a footnote in television history instead of the warning call for the end of the human race that the series was meant to be.  Perhaps the leadership of NBC, and maybe all of television, had been infiltrated and taken over by aliens, bent on their own mysterious purpose….

That, of course, could never happen.  Although it would explain why good shows die so soon… so maybe there is a conspiracy behind this after all.  I have this theory….

Vital Stats

2-hour pilot and 19 hour episodes aired — no unaired episodes exist
NBC Network
First Aired episode: September 21, 1996
Last Aired episode:  May 31, 1997, although the show was actually canceled in March, with two remaining episodes “burned off” in May, simply to recoup some of the costs of making them.
Aired Friday 8/7 Central?  No.  Its regular slot was Saturdays at 8/7 Central, although it was frequently preempted during its run.

Comments and suggestion welcome as always.

–Tim R.

It is the mid-90s.  Or is it 1961?  It’s a five-season show that only ran one season, and yet, it was eight years.  You didn’t always know who to cheer for, or who was really the villain either.  Or just who was pulling the strings….

Five quotes:

The type of people who think everything is interconnected…

…all of them are trying to keep their own secrets for their own reasons…

“We showed pretty definitively where the show was going.”

…things are somewhat recognizable, but not as we know them.

Although it would explain why good shows die so soon…

Confused?  You’re not alone.  Really, you are not alone.  You’ll see, on the next Friday 8/7 Central!

–Tim R.

“Almost as far-fetched as one of your books.  A dying clue, which makes absolutely no sense, which means, of course, it’s right up your alley.”
–Inspector Queen to his son Ellery, in The Adventures of Ellery Queen

It is New Year’s Eve, 1946.  In one hour, Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians big band will play Auld Lang Syne, and champagne corks will pop, celebrating the coming of 1947.  A wealthy financier has invited friends, business partners, and loved ones to a fabulous dinner party… to inform them that he’s cutting all of them out of his will.  And before the first tick of the clock on the New Year, the financier will be dead.  The question is… whodunit?

Jim Hutton and David Wayne starring in The Adventures of Ellery Queen

Don’t worry, the murderer will be found.  All the clues are there, waiting to be uncovered.  And, just before revealing the identity of the murderer, our hero will turn to the camera and say to all of us at home, “I know who did it.  Do you?”  Welcome to The Adventures of Ellery Queen.  One of the most traditional “whodunits” in television history, with wonderful performances, great scripts, truly excellent mysteries, and all the clues laying out in front of the viewer, if they’re clever enough to spot them.

The year is actually 1975, and NBC has asked Richard Levinson and William Link, the creators of Columbo, to do justice to a television adaptation of one of the greatest and longest lasting series of mysteries ever written.  And amazingly enough, they pretty much got it spot on.

“Ellery Queen” has been a multi-faceted franchise from its beginning.  The name refers not only to the character in the books, movies, radio series, and (in our case) the television show, but it also refers to the pen name of the two cousins, Fredric Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee, who originally came up with the character and wrote the early stories.  (It was actually one of the best marketing tools of the era, having the “author” and the character of the book being one and the same.  Very easy for readers to remember.)  “Ellery Queen” became the best known American fictional detective of the mid-20th century, and the mystery novels led to many successful iterations, including Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, which is still being published today.  But primarily, we’re concerned with the television series, and also the radio series that most influenced it.

First of all, the mysteries of Ellery Queen were always “Closed” mysteries.  In other words, all the clues in the mysteries were discovered by Ellery at the same time as they were by the reader/listener/viewer.  This is the same type of presentation used in, for example, Murder, She Wrote, as opposed to an “Open” mystery, such as Colombo, where the viewer knows the murderer, and the fun is in seeing how our hero will be able to prove their guilt.  “Closed” mysteries have the advantage of having the audience able to completely “play along” with the detective, and thereby try to solve the mystery at home… or in the case of the 1940’s radio series, to have Ellery realize “whodunit”, and then a radio announcer would interrupt the dramatization and a panel of Hollywood guest stars would take a crack at solving the murder (playing the part of the audience) before Ellery would return to dramatize the actual solution.

The 1975 series on NBC was a faithful re-creation of this idea, set distinctly in the late 1940’s, without the “star” interruption.  Each hour would show Ellery (played by Jim Hutton) discovering clues and red herrings, until near the end of the episode.  After discovering the final, vital piece of information, Ellery would turn and speak directly to the viewers at home, telling them all, “I know who did it… do you?”  And then would follow the solution.

Inspector Queen and Sgt. Veile

Ellery was joined during the mysteries by his father, Inspector Richard Queen (David Wayne) of the NY Police Department, and the Inspector’s right-hand man, Sgt. Veile (Tom Reese).  These two portrayals are the definitive screen versions of the characters, with the possible exception of the fact that Inspector Queen, in the written versions, has a significant mustache… but the performances of Wayne and Reese are, again, spot on.

 

 

John Hillerman as Simon Brimmer

Ken Swofford as Frank Flannagan

Two other characters were created for the television series (although they never appeared together).  Simon Brimmer (John Hillerman) was a competitive foil, an urbane radio host who tried to solve cases before Ellery did, usually coming to a wrong solution just before Ellery provided the right one.  Newspaper reporter Frank Flannagan (Ken Swofford) spoke like he was writing headlines with every sentence, and always tried to get the “scoop” on who  “Junior” (his nickname for Ellery) was about to find guilty.

And Ellery did find the guilty party, every time.  He was the best, after all, even though at times he’d be so absent-minded that he’d forget his reading glasses were on his head.  Or so naive that he didn’t realize the femme fatale was actually trying to seduce him, when he was just incredibly focused on the crime.  Ellery had his foibles (many of which infuriated his father), but when it came to putting together the clues, he was a genius.  In fact, to solve some of these mysteries, being a genius was a prerequisite.

The mysteries themselves were detailed, and usually rather tricky.  In fact, sometimes, the writers almost outsmarted themselves.  In trying to make sure that they didn’t “dumb down” the clues for television, their choices actually led to the mystery solutions being perhaps too difficult for the average audience to deduce.

“Thinking back, the Queen series was too complicated for its own good.  I remember spending an entire afternoon with Dick [Levinson] trying to figure how keys on a keychain would fall into what configuration in one’s pocket when placed there.  Our failure with Ellery Queen was our template for future efforts.  We deliberately made the clues on Murder, She Wrote easier to decipher, including a very guessable murderer now and then.  Part of our psychology was to reward the focused viewers because they might then be motivated to return the following week.  Another unexpressed reason was that it was far easier to come up with facile clues than sweating bullets over keys in a pocket.  The upshot was that Murder, She Wrote thrived for 12 seasons, Ellery Queen one.”
–William Link, Co-creator

For viewers who loved to be challenged, it was the perfect show.  Unfortunately, it aired during an era when the most popular shows were, shall we say, a bit less challenging.

Ellery Queen — Criminally Intelligent?

The show originally aired as a 2-hour pilot as part of the NBC Sunday Mystery Movie series, entitled Too Many Suspects.  The series itself began in the Fall of 1975, and ran for 22 hour-long episodes.  Airing originally on Thursday nights, the show was moved to Sundays late in its run.  Ellery Queen had the distinction, at the time, of being the highest rated regular show ever canceled by NBC, likely due to the fact that it was somewhat expensive to make as a period piece, and also because of the significant intellectual investment it took for the average viewer.  Top shows at the time included Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, a far cry from the complicated and involved plots (and plot twists) of Ellery Queen.

The show is fondly remembered however, and will finally be available on DVD in September 2010.  Part of this fondness is due to repeated airings of the show on the A&E network as part of their morning mystery package for many years, and, if you happen to have a local station affiliated with the RetroTV network (some stations carry it as part of their secondary digital signal), the show is part of their rotating lineup.  There’s also a YouTube video of the “teaser” of one of the episodes (usually cut off in the syndicated airings for more commercials) that is extremely reminiscent of the radio shows, detailing the suspects for that mystery and inviting the audience to figure out “whodunit”.  And if you really want to try your hand at deduction while waiting for the DVD release, here’s some of the original 1940’s radio shows, available for free streaming, so you can truly match wits with the masterful Ellery Queen.

Can you solve the murder?

JIM HUTTON (Ellery Queen) was a contract player at MGM, and his first roles of note were a series of 4 movies (including Where the Boys Are) where he was paired romantically onscreen with Paula Prentiss, apparently because “they were the tallest contract players there”.  He also appeared in two John Wayne movies (The Green Berets and Hellfighters) before moving into television.  A few years after Ellery Queen, Hutton died of liver cancer.  His son, Timothy, is an Oscar winner for Ordinary People and is now starring on the TV series Leverage.

DAVID WAYNE (Inspector Richard Queen) won the first Tony award ever given for acting in 1947 for his role as the leprechaun in the original Broadway production of “Finian’s Rainbow“.  He won another for The Teahouse of the August Moon.  On screen, he appeared in the original movie version of The Andromeda Strain and portrayed the villainous Mad Hatter in the Batman TV series.  In addition to many TV guest roles, including a multiple episode stint on Dallas, he played Dr. Weatherby on three seasons of the CBS comedy House Calls.  He died in 1995.

TOM REESE (Sgt. Veile) had a long career before Ellery Queen, first appearing on television in the cult favorite Johnny Staccato in 1959.  He was best known for appearances in numerous TV and movie westerns, including episodes of Bonanza, Have Gun, Will Travel, Rawhide, The Virginian, and Gunsmoke.  Later, he appeared in shows as varied as Chico and the Man, The A-Team, and Moonlighting.  His last guest shot was once again in a western, Paradise, in 1989.

JOHN HILLERMAN (Simon Brimmer)  is best known for playing the role of Higgins, the friend and foil of Thomas Magnum in the long running series Magnum, P.I., for which Hillerman won an Emmy.  He also played a recurring character on the comedy One Day at a Time, and later appeared as a regular on Valerie, a revamp of The Hogan Family.  He is now retired, having moved back to his home state of Texas.  The somewhat British accent of both Simon Brimmer and Higgins was NOT his natural speaking voice!

KEN SWOFFORD (Frank Flanagan) is almost the definition of “television character actor”, having played supporting parts in numerous TV series (actually, almost 100 different series and TV movies, by one count).  Notable series roles include a season on the series Fame, and regular or recurring roles on The Eddie Capra Mysteries, Murder, She Wrote, Dynasty, The Rockford Files, and Gunsmoke.  He also did some voice-over work in recent years before his retirement from acting.

RICHARD LEVINSON and WILLIAM LINK (Producers) were THE mystery team in Hollywood and TV in the ’70’s and ’80’s, having written or produced shows like Columbo (for which they won two Emmys), Banacek, McCloud, Mannix, The Cosby Mysteries, Murder, She Wrote, and Probe.  They also produced and wrote the TV movies Rehearsal for Murder, Murder by Natural Causes, and Guilty Conscience, ALL of which won the Edgar Allen Poe award for Best Mystery TV Movie in their respective years.  They were also nominated for a Tony award for Best Book of a Musical for the show Merlin.  Levinson passed away due to a heart attack in 1987, and Link retired shortly thereafter.

A good mystery is a terrific thing.  A great one, even better.  The Adventures of Ellery Queen is one of the most faithful, most authentic, and most challenging mystery series ever created for television.  The mysteries are fair, with clues revealed honestly along the way, so the audience can “play along” and reward themselves for their shrewd deductive skills, or learn what they should have been paying attention to if clues are missed.  Mix in terrific characterizations, a wonderful period setting, and clever writing and production, and you have a series worth seeking out.  Later this year, treat yourself, and find a copy of Ellery Queen on DVD.  I’ve seen these wonderful mysteries, and I know who did it… will you?

Vital Stats

22 aired episodes, plus the 2-hour pilot movie — no unaired episodes
NBC network
First aired episode:  (Pilot) March 23, 1975;  (series)  September 11, 1975
Last aired episode:  April 4, 1976
Aired on Friday 8/7 Central?  No.  Thursdays at 9/8 Central for much of its run, with a brief move to Sundays in 1976.

Comments and suggestions appreciated.

–Tim R.

The oldest show this blog has done so far, and one that’s finally coming out on DVD later this year.  It’s an adaptation of a long running franchise that has had book, movie, radio, and television versions, and this was one of the best.  See if you can deduce the show from these five article quotes:

In one hour, Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians big band will play “Auld Lang Syne”…

…and the fun is seeing how our hero will be able to prove their guilt.

In fact, sometimes the writers almost outsmarted themselves.

“Part of our psychology was to reward the focused viewers because they might then be motivated to return the following week.”

Top shows at the time included Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, a far cry from the complicated and involved plots…

Come back Friday 8/7 Central to find out what show is being remembered this week.  I know what show it is… do you?

–Tim R.

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