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In America, it’s Halloween weekend, filled with youngsters dressing up in costumes and visiting door-to-door, gathering candy and listening to spooky tales.  The tradition comes, at least in part, from old Gaelic festivals, in particular one called Samhain.  It marks the end of the harvest season, and in some places begins the Gaelic New Year.  It is also the dividing line between what is known as the “lighter” and “darker” halves of the year.

While many think of the time as one for spirits and ghosts, the Samhain interpretation would mean the beginning of darkness, when the lines between the two worlds are the thinnest.  Bonfires are lit to preserve the light, and the forces of evil, in disguise, come to visit the earth.  In the case of one FOX television show in 2005, it would remind us of one girl’s future also on the edge, and her fate and behavior very much depends on the road taken from here.  Ultimately, the influences upon her and the people she meets, both good and bad, might change the entire world.  The sad part is, as the old proverb goes:  Sometimes, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

What path to take?

Welcome to the small coastal town of Point Pleasant.  A sleepy little bedroom community an hour or two south of New York City, the town’s peaceful existence is suddenly interrupted by a freak storm, which washes up the body of a teen-age high-schooler named Christina Nickson (Elisabeth Harnois).  She’s revived by a local lifeguard, Jesse Parker (Samuel Page), and brought to a nearby doctor’s house to rest and recoup.  Taken in by Dr. Ben Kramer (Richard Burgi) and his wife Meg (Susan Walters), she becomes friends with their tomboyish youngest daughter Judy (Aubrey Dollar).  Christina’s reluctant to even remember her past, let alone be returned quickly to her mysterious, usually absent father.

Christina has an odd effect on those in Point Pleasant, as tendencies are amplified, feelings are given voice, and inhibitions are unknowingly ignored in those around her.  Jesse’s girlfriend Paula (Cameron Richardson) is jealous of the relationship that might be growing between Christina and Jesse, and ends up with another boy, Terry (Brent Weber), causing a love triangle. (The sparks erupt at the end-of-summer bonfire — any references to Samhain are purely on purpose!)  Meanwhile, Paula’s mom, Amber (Dina Meyer), is a former classmate of Dr. Kramer, and she decides that the good doctor should provide some tender loving care for her… especially after she’s dismissed by her latest target, Lucas Boyd (Grant Show), who’s just moved into the town as well.

Lucas and Christina

It turns out that Boyd has a different target… he’s not only threatening Jesse’s religious mother Sarah (Claire Carey) because of her crusading son’s feelings toward Christina… but he’s ultimately trying to influence Christina towards darkness, as he works for her absent father.  Of course, daddy’s rather busy, as daddy dearest is apparently Satan himself, which would make the lost Christina the devil’s daughter.

She’s also the daughter of a human woman, who left shortly after Christina was born.  Christina’s search for her, and her interactions with the locals, will guide her towards either good or evil… and therein lies the conflict of the series.  Which path will Christina ultimately choose, and what will happen to the others in the process?

“It feels good having her here.  I feel good.”
–Meg Kramer, when Christina arrives in their home

While the Kramers are people of good heart, they’ve also dealt with tragedy along the way, as their daughter Isabelle died a few years earlier.  Christina’s entry into their life seems to have brought new hope to Meg… but temptation is finding its way towards her husband, thanks to Amber. Burgeoning boyfriend Jesse and new companion Judy are trying to help, but have their own issues to deal with.  The junior love triangle is starting too, but all these things are being nudged along by Boyd’s machinations and Christina’s emotions… and heaven (or hell) help those who get her angry.

Christina doesn’t know her capabilities early on, let alone the abilities of Lucas Boyd.  Her presence seems to erase inhibitions, letting the true nature of the people around her come into play.  And more often than not, there are other than just pure reasons for any particular action taken along the way.  Christina is learning… but is she learning the strength of good?  Or the anger and betrayal of evil?

“One of the challenges is to make it seem like it could happen to you.  That struggle in the Christina character between the dark and the light seems to us to be a very good metaphor for being an adolescent.”
Point Pleasant Creator Marti Noxon

Little do they know what's coming....

Marti Noxon was one of the people behind Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Angel.  Just as fighting otherworldly forces was seen in Buffy as a metaphor for the alienation of high school and the trials of those young people finding their way, so too were the efforts of Christina and the residents of Point Pleasant to be seen as a supernatural search for morality and meaning.  The struggles of each of the characters adds to the choices Christina ultimately has to make, and whether she comes down on the side of good or evil depends more on their natures than any one of them realizes.  And once Christina makes her final choice, the fate of the world could depend on it.

“It’s all about duality, it’s about the best of people and the worst of people.  The fate of the world is going to come to a head in this really ordinary place.  It’s kind of fun, because it gives you an excuse for people to really look at themselves and say, you know, what do I want to be?”
–Marti Noxon

This is just a much more modern-day approach to the whole idea of Halloween, and some of its antecedents.  The observance of All Saint’s Day in many Christian religions is also traditionally the same weekend as Samhain, giving the “holiday” a feeling of yin and yang, of dark and light… a duality, just as Noxon and Point Pleasant were going for.  Characters did things you didn’t always expect, and even the best person in town had, if not evil, at least some doubt as to their own place in the occurrence of events larger than themselves.

This wasn’t necessarily even the big battle between good and evil, although the outcome would portend such a thing.  The battle on Point Pleasant could be likened more to the preliminaries of a chess match, where certain characters (instead of chess pieces), each of different strengths and weaknesses, fought more for position and possibilities than for ultimate domination… although such a thing might ultimately come.  And, opposed by enough lesser pieces, even the best and brightest of those among us could fall.

Who's influencing whom?

These are sometimes uncomfortable choices for everyone, and yet they are choices each of us makes every day, in matters large and small.  Unlike the characters on Point Pleasant, we aren’t archetypes on a canvas where we’re influencing the anti-Christ, but we are in a position where our choices influence those we love, those we interact with, and most importantly, how we see the world each day.  Marti Noxon is right when she sees Point Pleasant as a metaphor for these types of things, but they’re not just symbolic of choices for adolescents.  As soon as we are responsible for ourselves, we are responsible for shaping our own views on the world around us.

The scariest part of all this is not even how our choices affect us, but how they affect those in our lives.  For that is the part which is really out of our control, and yet all we can do is present, hopefully, the best of ourselves to everyone around us, to display the virtues of compassion, empathy, love, and honor, even when our own natures (and our own dualities) want us to do otherwise.  Perhaps this is reading too much into a prime-time television series like Point Pleasant, and yet it is part-and-parcel of the influences of viewers’ lives, and one would hope that the lessons learned there would be good ones.  Because otherwise, television becomes the good-intentioned road to Hell its worst critics believe it to be, instead of what its supporters hope for… a path, not to Hell, but to a better place for all.

ELISABETH HARNOIS (Christina Nickson) was almost born an actress, starting her career in front of the camera at the age of three.  As a tween into a teen, she was Alice, the lead in the live-action TV version of Adventures in Wonderland for The Disney Channel.  After Point Pleasant, she appeared as a recurring character on One Tree Hill and is now a regular on the current season of CSI.

SAMUEL PAGE (Jesse Parker) earned a college degree in ecology, and promptly came home and announced to his family that he was moving to Hollywood to become an actor.  The move turned out successfully, as he’s played regular and recurring roles on American Dreams, Shark, Mad Men, Desperate Housewives, and Gossip Girl.  He’s also modeled, and appears on the cover of the current Xmas catalog for the J. Crew clothing brand.

RICHARD BURGI (Dr. Ben Kramer) was the star of one of the few UPN hits not named Star Trek, in the 3 1/2 seasons of The Sentinel.  He’s also had runs in Judging Amy, The District, Harper’s Island, and Desperate Housewives.  Fans of short-lived series almost saw him as another hero, as he was one of the rumored candidates for the lead in the CBS series The Flash.

SUSAN WALTERS (Meg Kramer) was a regular on both Hotel and Nightingales before finding a lasting series in Dear John.  After Point Pleasant, she was seen in both One Tree Hill and The Vampire Diaries, in addition to a soap role on The Young and the Restless.  During an earlier stint on the daytime series, she’d met her soon-to-be-husband in real life.

AUBREY DOLLAR (Judy Kramer) has been featured previously on this site as the young reporter Cindy Thomas on Women’s Murder Club.  Another actress who started young, her first movie appearance was just prior to her teens.  She appeared for three seasons on Guiding Light, and also had a recurring role on Dawson’s Creek.

GRANT SHOW (Lucas Boyd) also started in soaps, playing on Ryan’s Hope for three years.  He hit prime-time stardom on the original Melrose Place, and was later seen in Swingtown, Accidentally on Purpose, Dirt, Private Practice, and Big Love.

CAMERON RICHARDSON (Paula Hargrove) started as a model before making the jump to acting.  Her first role was as a regular on the series Cover Me, which was later followed by Skin, 12 Miles of Bad Road, and Harper’s Island.  Now a new mother, she recently modeled for Forever 21’s maternity line during her pregnancy.

DINA MEYER (Amber Hargrove) has been featured on Beverly Hills, 90210 (the original) and Miss Match.  She’s likely more familiar to genre audiences, having appeared in Johnny Mnemonic, Dragonheart, Star Trek: Nemesis, Starship Troopers, and the Saw movie series, as well as starring on the TV series Birds of Prey.  Athletic by nature, she has performed many of her own stunts on-screen, and suffered a concussion during one particularly nasty stunt on Starship Troopers.

BRENT WEBER (Terry Burke) was discovered by a modeling agency when he accompanied his sister to an open call.  His career includes guest spots on Scrubs and CSI: Miami, and a featured role on the daytime soap All My Children.

CLARE CAREY (Sarah Parker) was a featured player on the comedy Coach, playing daughter Kelly Fox.  She was the “mother” of the Olsen Twins in the series So Little Time, and also a regular on the first season of Jericho and Crash.  She’s most recently been featured in multiple episodes of Chuck.

Point Pleasant is, thankfully, available on DVD, including five episodes never broadcast during its original run.  Since it was designed as a mid-season replacement, there’s a definite conclusion to the series if you get to watch all thirteen episodes… and a choice is made, although there’s plenty of room for more of the series to continue, had it been successful.  Alas, it was not, as FOX pulled the plug after Point Pleasant failed to garner the desired ratings, especially up against hits like Grey’s Anatomy and the original CSI.  Somehow, a series all about choices wasn’t one viewers made the choice to watch.  Maybe some of the less than perfect decisions of the characters hit a bit too close to home….

“I’ve found that evil usually triumphs unless good is very, very careful.”
–Dr. Leonard McCoy, Star Trek

OK, so I’m a Star Trek fan from way back… so sue me.  But in this case, I think this is the most appropriate quote to describe Point Pleasant, and the displayed duality between good and evil.  If you wish to go another route, famed Christian writer C.S. Lewis (author of The Chronicles of Narnia) described in his book, The Screwtape Letters, how ethics really fell into four categories… and how “good” only fit one of them.  A person making the right choices for the right reasons is doing “good”.  A person doing the wrong things for the wrong reasons is obviously evil.  But “right things for the wrong reasons”, and “wrong things for the right reasons”, are, to Lewis, simply rationalizations for evil masquerading as good.  Hence, the old saying about how “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

As we examine ourselves and the lives we lead, how many choices do each of us make which would fall far too easily into the “rationalization” categories?  Those are the ones which cause each of us doubt, and reflect upon those around us, positively or negatively… and we don’t always know how they’re seen.  Even if you aren’t religious in any way, those choices in life still have to be made, and still will be part of how we know ourselves… and how others come to know us.  We all have a duality inside… it’s what we create from it that makes our entire world… for good or evil.

Vital Stats

13 hour-long episodes — 8 aired — 5 unaired (all available on DVD)
FOX Network
First aired episode:  January 19, 2005
Final aired episode:  March 17, 2005
Aired at Friday @ 8/7 Central?  No, FOX premiered the series on a Wednesday night, before the series settled into its regular Thursday night slot at 9/8 Central.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

“I’m about to take you on the greatest adventure of your life.  You’ll probably never even thank me for it.”
–Austin James to Michelle Castle, in the pilot of Probe

The mysteries of the universe... in a grain of sand

By any estimation, many of the investigators on television have flashes of brilliance.  Whether it’s street smarts, understanding people better than most, or just plain book knowledge, heroes on television use their brains to figure out the most impossible mysteries.  But when it comes to putting together the clues, their level of intelligence pales in comparison to Austin James, the lead character of a 1988 ABC television series called Probe.  And Austin James was either the smartest man in the world… or he was justifiably crazy.  And no one could really tell  which description was true… except maybe Austin himself.

Parker Stevenson starred as Austin James, a scientist and inventor with an intellect that would make most geniuses jealous.  He set about each week to discover the answers to offbeat mysteries, aided by his assistant/secretary Michelle Castle (Ashley Crow).  Known as “Mickey”, she was the duo’s heart paired with Austin’s intellect.  They were drawn into the strangest of stories, detailing unusual, scientific crimes and odd situations that only Austin’s brainpower might be able to understand… and only Mickey might be able to lead him to, through the unpredictable maze of human behavior.

Austin had started a company, Serindip, designed to be a home for the most cutting-edge scientific developments of the era… and then he walked away from it.  He lives in a combination workshop/lab, sleeping in a cabinet (which he refers to as an “isolation chamber”).  Mickey, of course, doesn’t understand any of this, but she’s never met anyone quite like Austin.  Rather than return to her previously humdrum life, she takes on the role of assistant to either the most brilliant person she’s ever met… or a certifiable crazy man.  She’s just not sure which yet.

“What do you use for a heart?  A pocket calculator?”
–Mickey, to Austin

Back at Serendip, Austin has left Howard Millhouse (Jon Cypher) in charge.  Howard is trying to hold the place together, but would like the attention of Austin at the think-tank, given Austin’s formidable intelligence and what he could offer.  (Besides, it IS Austin’s company in the first place!).  But the more pressure Howard puts on Austin to be part of the organization he created, the more Austin tries to find other uses for his time… like solving practically impossible murders.  Austin’s fellow scientist Graham McKinley (Clive Revill) also is employed by Serendip, but is much less able to think “out-of-the-box” like Austin.  The friction between the two also serves to force Austin into directions that wouldn’t always be considered “normal” by most.  But then, “normal” wasn’t what Probe was all about.

Probe was a co-creation of mystery writer William Link (of Colombo and Ellery Queen fame) and prolific science fiction/fact author Isaac Asimov.  Both men wanted to show that the modern mysteries of our scientific and technological world could be just as entertaining as a traditional parlour mystery, just moved forward into the new millennium.  Their result was a show featuring the most intelligent person in the world, solving some of the most amazing puzzles ever created.

“If they want something, I can tell them. I’m certified.”

“Certifiable….”

“I mean, I’m certified by the federal government.  They had some people test me, and found my memory system to be five times better than the best computerized data directory and retrieval system.  So, listen to me.  I’m certified.”

–Austin claiming his genius, while Mickey admits her disbelief

Austin is, to most observers, kind of peculiar.  He was a man who had no use for money, or fame, or any of a myriad of things that many hunger for.  He had few of the motivations of most men.  To him, knowledge was all… and anytime there was a mystery, it was then Austin was finally moved to action.  For a man to whom the intricacies of the world could be reduced to equations buzzing around in his head, a true puzzle was that which seemed not to have a rational answer.  Like Sherlock Holmes, he may have not been understood very well, but that was no knock on his adeptness at figuring out impossible situations.

Mickey:  “Admit it.  There could be things out there completely beyond anyone’s understanding.”

Austin:  “I can name you one.  Murder.  I’ve never understood it for a second.”

When people were murdered on this show, you couldn’t just round up the suspects like a traditional Agatha Christie mystery.  Especially when the suspect in the pilot turns out to be a computer program run amok.  Or, as in a later episode, when an advanced ape is being framed for killing one of its handlers.  These were unusual stories, with an unusual hero at the forefront.

Probe could very easily have resulted in a television series that was dry and far over-the-head of most people, but the creators realized that problem early on, and set out to fix it with humor.

“We had to go back and reshoot about a third of the pilot for a number of reasons.  It was too strong, it was too intense… the fun of it went out of it, and the fun of it couldn’t go out of it because it wasn’t a serious show, it was a fun show.
–Alan Levi

Austin was played by the familiar and likeable Parker Stevenson, but the character of Austin James, as developed, was SO “out there” that he wasn’t the most relatable lead on television.  The character’s attitudes came from advanced science and knowledge of facts (Austin had attended college at age 10), but the very intelligence that made him sought-after as the creator of the Serendip consulting organization was also the very same thing that kept him from being part of it.  His skills at interacting with people were almost non-existent.  That’s why he needed Mickey, even if she didn’t always understand his behavior.  He came off to those around him as arrogant, or aberrant, or sometimes just plain crazy, although he was none of these things.  But extreme intelligence in a world of “average” looks that way to the average.

“Why do you enjoy tormenting people so much?”

“Because when I torment them, I get what I need.  Answers.  It’s nothing personal.”

–Mickey and Austin, talking about his brisk approach to other people

The problem with this approach to a television series is the “average” person — exactly the person television executives hope will tune into their shows.  While Link and Asimov hoped to improve the usual ordinary fare with more enlightened mysteries, and to show there was still some fun to be had in their solving, many took one look and said “I have to think?  No thanks.” Probe only lasted a month and a half, despite its strong pedigree.  As an early spring show, it tried to appeal to an audience that liked to be challenged… and it found, instead, an audience merely wanting to be placated.  (And some thought Austin James was crazy….)

“Part of the challenge to us as writers was, we had to have a mystery that the smartest man in the world would look at it and wouldn’t immediately know the answer to it… and it also had to be a mystery that, once we figured out the answer, people in the audience could also understand without having to be lectured for about half an hour.”
–Writer James Novack

Perhaps the creators aimed a bit too high… as the modern-day success of the cable series Monk has shown, audiences will respond to a character who seems a bit far afield, if they can recognize parts of themselves in the portrayal.  But on Probe, the lead was, almost by definition, light-years ahead of the normal person, while Adrian Monk is portrayed as someone both gifted and cursed with his condition.  Monk was once “normal”, while Austin never had been, and perhaps that led to a bit of distance for that “average” viewer.  Monk presented a more acceptable “crazy”.

Austin James NEVER turned his mind “off”.  He even commented once about someone interrupting his few hours of sleep every day, because even then, he was using his mind to puzzle out some conundrum.  Many thought he was nuts (or at the very least abnormal).  As presented on Probe, he was the hero we were meant to identify with, albeit flawed somewhat emotionally.  But the important thing is, without the knowledge, he wasn’t even “average”, and if I’m going to have a champion to cheer for on a show, it’s one with brains and a little help in the heart department rather than one with much lesser intelligence.  Because, those with brains are always seeking more — and those with less are satisfied with enough.  I’d rather have more….

“But it was complex stuff. . . it wasn’t the kind of show in which a viewer could get up during the middle of it, get a sandwich and think, “I’ll catch up when I come back.”  Viewers had to work at watching the show, and perhaps that was a bit too much to ask.  Maybe that’s why they tuned into Cosby instead.”
–Parker Stevenson

The Cosby Show was the number one series on television at the time, so ABC had to take some risks in trying to challenge it.  But ABC did Probe no favors in its promotion.  They touted the involvement of Asimov significantly to the press, believing it to be a significant selling point for the series.  (Asimov had written over 200 books, both fiction and non-fiction, and this was his first significant journey into the realm of television.)  Unfortunately, a great many people took this as meaning the show was simply too highbrow, too focused on the intelligence the viewer brought to the table, and didn’t tune in.  The advertising made the show out to be either “silly” science fiction (in the vein of much earlier television) or “too intelligent” and something that would be better found on Public Television.  Truthfully, Probe presented a much more accessible adventure, if only more of the public would have sampled it.  But they didn’t, and unfortunately that led to the demise of Probe after seven episodes.  The series was many good things, but it almost certainly was not what most people thought it to be originally.  Like Austin James, Probe was sorely misunderstood. 

PARKER STEVENSON (Austin James) first came to fame (and teen idol status) as Frank Hardy, one of the sleuthing brothers on The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries.  Other regular/recurring television roles included North and South Book II, the original cast of Baywatch, and Melrose Place.  His birth name is Richard Parker, but he was forced to change it when another actor by that name was already registered with the Screen Actors Guild.

ASHLEY CROW (Michelle “Mickey” Castle) was a regular on both short-lived series Champs and Turks.  She’s best known by genre fans as Sandra Bennet, the wife of the man known as HRG (for “Horn-Rimmed Glasses”) on Heroes.  She’s set to play the grandmother of the lead character Cassie on the new CW series The Secret Circle this fall.

JON CYPHER (Howard Millhouse) was a fixture on television in many series, including Knots Landing, Dynasty, and the soap opera Santa Barbara.  He played Police Chief Daniels for the entire run of Hill Street Blues, and appeared as the General to Major Dad.  He was also active on Broadway, especially in musical like 1776, Man of La Mancha, and Big:  the musical.

CLIVE REVILL (Graham McKinley) is originally from New Zealand, although he’s played everything from British to Chinese to Russian in his lengthy career.  A Shakespearean actor of some note, he’s also been in numerous comedy films. earning a Golden Globe nomination for his role in the movie Avanti!  He will be seen on this site again for his role as the wizard Vector in the series Wizards and Warriors.

Mickey and Austin

Probe has never been released on DVD, although episodes are available, in chunks, on YouTube.  (I’d recommend using the link provided, rather than looking for them yourself, because the majority are listed under the specific episode titles and NOT found when doing a search for the Probe TV series.) Those who posted the episodes run a site called Probe Resurrected, home to lots of information about the series, including quotes from various episodes and links to further information, as well as fan fiction and more.

There’s a very fine line between genius and crazy, a line that’s very hard to see by many.  Those who live on the edge of that line often are asked to justify their behavior to others.  In the pilot episode, there’s a running bit about Mickey having to prove her intelligence by coming up with a limerick about Austin, and her final result at the end of the episode reveals volumes about this odd, highly intelligent, and perhaps crazy man named Austin James.  It goes like this:

“There once was a wizard named James
Whose genius exceeded all claims.
He could solve out of hand
All the problems of man
And tell you it’s all just a game…”

If that’s not a great description of Probe, then you’ll never understand any other.  It’s just crazy smart fun.

Vital Stats

7 aired episodes (a 2-hour pilot and six hour-long episodes) — none unaired
ABC Network
First aired episode:  March 7, 1988
Final aired episode:  April 14, 1988
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  Up against The Cosby Show, it aired on Thursday nights at 8/7 Central.  The only mystery Austin James couldn’t solve was how to beat Cosby in the ratings.

Comments and suggestions welcome, as always

–Tim R.

“When Maury Chaykin and I first started working together, last year, we worked well together from the beginning, from day one.  So, it was in a pretty good place to begin with… and now it’s just become more comfortable.”
–Timothy Hutton, about his co-star Maury Chaykin on A Nero Wolfe Mystery

Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe: A Nero Wolfe Mystery

There’s a certain level of comfort with a well-done mystery.  Whether it’s in traditional book form or a dramatic portrayal on-screen, a particular level of intelligence and style is present, no matter the setting.  It could be Agatha Christie’s well-known Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, or the OCD adventures of Adrian Monk on television, but there are always familiar trappings for the reader/viewer to enjoy and have as touchstones. 

The same could definitely be said about the A&E Network’s  2001-2002 adaptation of A Nero Wolfe Mystery, dramatizing the literary creations of author Rex Stout.  For any unaware of the long-standing characters, Nero Wolfe (Maury Chaykin) was a rather famous and rich recluse who solved mysteries without leaving his own house!  His right-hand man, Archie Goodwin (Timothy Hutton), did the majority of Wolfe’s investigative work, discovering and reporting information to his boss (who then put all the pieces together to solve the crime). 

Nero demands. Fritz provides even better.

Other regular characters included the long-suffering, but loyal, butler/cook Fritz Brenner (Colin Fox), who dealt with Wolfe’s demanding peculiarities.  These included very specific instructions on culinary preferences, down-to-the-minute details on when dinner was served, when to make sure there were no interruptions, and how to intercept and deter almost all visitors to Wolfe’s brownstone.  Fritz knew how to handle Wolfe’s persnickety nature, but was very protective of his boss as well. 

One of the few visitors who was barely (and I do mean barely) tolerated was Police Inspector Cramer (Bill Smitrovitch), whose presence was only allowed because of his official status and the information it gave Wolfe to advance his investigations. 

Cramer, Archie, and Wolfe in the greenhouse

Operating as a 1950’s period piece, A Nero Wolfe Mystery takes place in New York City, complete with some shady gangsters, femmes fatales, mostly innocent ingénues, and times when actions (and fists) speak louder than words.  The “uncivilized” world outside the doors of Wolfe’s townhouse is seldom, if ever, allowed to intrude upon the order and intellect living there, most especially when Wolfe is in his rooftop greenhouse tending (some would say “fussing”) over his beloved orchid collection. 

“You know, I’ve taken great pleasure in lying to you in the past.  And I’m sure I’ll lie to you again.”
–Archie Goodwin, found by the authorities in the wrong place at the wrong time

We therefore see the world (and the crimes) through the eyes of investigator Archie, whose playful attitude, eye for the ladies, and ability to get tough when circumstances demand, allow viewers all the fun of a well-played mystery.  The device of not having the true mastermind on-site provides for dialogue between Archie and the imposing Wolfe, exposing to the audience the information that would normally be an internal thought process for a TV detective.  This, in the best mystery tradition, lets the audience play along with the investigation.  The concept also allows for the traditional “gather everyone into a room” ending of many great mysteries, often the room being the lavish office of Nero Wolfe’s brownstone, where the dénouement of most cases was revealed. 

One of you.... is the murderer!

There’s an entire sub-genre of mysteries in the book world currently known as “cozy” mysteries.  The name comes from the style of description, where grisly descriptions of dead bodies are frowned upon, and style and cleverness are celebrated more than the realistic messiness of homicide; in other words, a “cozy” murder.  In this respect, A Nero Wolfe Mystery fits perfectly, as the crime victims are seldom, if ever, seen as anything other than a dead body on the floor (as if they were sleeping).  The fun of both “cozy” mysteries and Nero Wolfe is in comfortably playing along, trying to figure out “whodunit”, and enjoying the mood and presentation along the way. 

“When we did The Golden Spiders, the first one… nobody was thinking about doing any more.”
–Timothy Hutton, on the original A&E Nero Wolfe movie

In 2001, A&E produced what they believed to be a one-off movie adapting Rex Stout’s The Golden Spiders, featuring Hutton and Chaykin.  Hutton enjoyed his experience tremendously, introducing the world of Archie and Nero to an entirely new audience.  When executives at A&E floated the idea of a continuing series (due to the good reviews and ratings the movie had received), Hutton enthusiastically asked not only to continue his role, but to become both a producer and director on the series in addition to a lead actor.  A&E was more than happy to accommodate an Academy Award winner. 

Hutton not only brought out more of this period style and flair in his presentation, but he also worked with a number of actors who became familiar with the specific type and genre he was trying to present.  Therefore, if only for a level of comfort for both the production and the audience, many of these actors formed a sort of repertory company, and were featured in multiple episodes as widely different characters. 

Kari Matchett portraying three different women in three different episodes

Kari Matchett played Lily Rowan, Archie’s on-again, off-again, love interest in a number of stories.  But she also played almost another dozen characters in different episodes, from nightclub singer to European immigrant.  Occasionally a suspect, occasionally an ingénue, she and Hutton developed a certain special chemistry in their performances.  That relationship continues to this day, as she was requested by Hutton to play his ex-wife, recurring character Maggie, on Hutton’s current show Leverage

James Tolkan, in one of many roles

James Tolkan is another of these recurring actors on A Nero Wolfe Mystery, playing everything from a tough FBI agent to a rather rich, entitled drunk.  While Tolkan has been traditionally cast as a rather rigid authority figure, there are still many shades to that type of character, and Tolkan was able to portray many of them during his stint on the series While his rather distinctive looks (and bald head) made him easy to spot, his superb acting ability allowed him to inhabit various personalities and allowed the viewing audience to enjoy whatever flavor he presented each story. 

“It’s wonderful for them.  They have an opportunity to morph into completely different characters every week.”
–Maury Chaykin, about the repertory company of actors on the series

All in all, 15 different actors (besides the regular cast) appeared in at least half the series episodes, in multiple roles.  And over 60 actors portrayed at least 2 different parts in the series (which is incredible, considering there were only 30 hours filmed in total).  A Nero Wolfe Mystery truly did have its own little world, full of actors who trusted each other and allowed consistent performances from all due to their level of comfort.  That comfort translated to the audience as well, bringing into our homes the familiarity of old friends and new adventures, no matter who they portrayed each week. 

If anyone at home was already familiar with Nero and Archie, the stories were like the gourmand Wolfe’s rather famous meals:  just one more helping of exquisite comfort food.  All 30 hours were taken from the original stories of Rex Stout, lovingly adapted for television in a very faithful manner.  Many of the stories were made into 2-part episodes, allowing time for proper dissemination of the layered plots from the original novels. 

Anyone wishing to immerse themselves into a world gone by, full of action, fun, and mystery, had to look no further than A Nero Wolfe Mystery.  The immersion also involved some unique challenges.  Street and location shooting meant using period automobiles and the removal of what would be anachronistic items like air conditioners and other modern amenities.  Costumes and make-up required specialized application in order to re-create the feel of fashionable ’50’s looks.  Since Hutton was a producer and director in addition to his starring role, he had to make decisions for the look and presentation for the series almost every minute of every day, let alone involve himself in the 12-to-15 hour shooting days as an actor.  And yet, for him, this was also a level of comfort.  This went all the way down to the dialogue of the show, a throwback to movies made half a century before the filming of the series. 

“There’s a style of those movies where the dialogue was very rhythmic.  It wasn’t sentimental.  You know, nobody took these long, realistic, emotional pauses.  There wasn’t a lot of contemplating going on.  It all has to have a certain kind of a rhythm to it, so that it becomes musical, and people don’t get bogged down into naturalism, you know?”
–Timothy Hutton, describing the presentation of the show

Taken together, the elements of A Nero Wolfe Mystery created something about as comfortable and classy as a television show could be.  It involved a familiar cast each week, memorable period presentation, fun characters, and the opportunity for viewers to lose themselves in a clever story, full of twist and turns in great mystery tradition.  What else would you expect from a cozy mystery repertory company? 

TIMOTHY HUTTON (Archie Goodwin) won an Oscar for his performance in the movie Ordinary People.  He has preferred character roles in many independent films, taking parts on the basis of their acting needs rather than their box-office potential.  In addition to his wearing multiple hats (acting, producing, directing) on A Nero Wolfe Mystery, he’s the lead on TNT’s Leverage, where he literally gets to wear multiple hats in various cons and heists (a part he took simply because “he wanted to have fun!”)  Also noted is the family acting legacy, as Hutton’s father Jim played the great American sleuth Ellery Queen in the ’70’s series of the same name, a role Tim paid tribute to in a recent episode of Leverage

MAURY CHAYKIN (Nero Wolfe) is a relatively soft-spoken actor, quite unlike the bombastic Nero Wolfe.  A prolific actor in Canada, he’s best remembered in America (other than his role as Wolfe) as being the commanding officer of Kevin Costner’s character in Dances With Wolves.  He died of kidney failure on his 61st birthday in 2010.

COLIN FOX (Fritz Brenner) is another Canadian actor, having starred in PSI: Chronicles of the Paranormal and guested in numerous series shot north of the border, both for American and Canadian television.  He’s also a stage veteran, and helped design and perform a unique theatre work for pianos, actors, and multimedia. 

BILL SMITROVITCH (Inspector Cramer) played the patriarch on the early ’90’s series Life Goes On, a four-year success for ABC.  He’s also starred in Crime Story, The Practice, Without a Trace, and The Event.  Specializing in tough-guy/military roles, he’s been featured on television shows from Star Trek:  Deep Space Nine to Castle, and movies like Independence Day, Air Force One, and Iron Man

KARI MATCHETT (Lily Rowan and others) is a favorite on this site, and although she’s not yet been a regular on a show covered here, she’s been a featured and recurring character in Wonderfalls, Invasion, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.  Currently, she’s a regular on the USA series Covert Affairs, and hopefully will make a return visit to Leverage in the near future. 

JAMES TOLKAN (FBI Agent Wragg and others) was a notable presence in the Back to the Future trilogy, playing Michael J. Fox’s school principal (and other roles, naturally, in the past and future settings of the sequels).  A regular on the short-lived comedy Mary, he was also a recurring foil for Remington Steele, as an insurance investigator out to prove Steele’s guilt.  Other significant roles were in the feature films Top Gun and WarGames.  In addition to his multiple acting parts on A Nero Wolfe Mystery, he also directed two episodes of the series. 

Nero and Archie, and the orchids

For those sleuths wishing more information on Nero Wolfe, in book form or on television, there are multiple resources available.  The series was released on DVD, and is still available, as are most of the books written by Rex Stout.  The fan website A Nero Wolfe Mystery is an excellent source of information, including links to scripts and notes about scenes filmed but never aired on A&E.  Other adaptations of Nero Wolfe have been tried, most notably a 14 episode NBC series from 1981 starring Lee Horsley as Archie and William Conrad as Nero Wolfe (memtioned here only for completeness — it wasn’t really all that good).  Oddly enough, both shows used the same Rex Stout story, The Golden Spiders, as their pilot episodes. 

“Rex Stout wrote the books over many decades.  We chose to set this series in the early 1950’s because there is such a unique sense of style and flair and fun and color about the period.  The cars look great.  The femme fatales look great.  Archie’s hats are fabulous.  There’s a whole world and sense of style there that is very different from 2001 because it is “period”.  I think it’s going to be very appealing to a contemporary audience, because of the fun and flair of it.”
–A&E executive producer Delia Fine

A&E Network was in the midst of changing from running off-network reruns to original programming in the early parts of the decade, and despite the enthusiasm most had for the project, costs and a limited pocketbook caused the demise of the show after two short seasons and a total of 30 hours, counting the pseudo-pilot film of a year earlier.  While the network was still searching for the right combination of money, time, and program content, A Nero Wolfe Mystery certainly was one element they could point to as successful.  Fondly remembered by those who saw it originally, its style, intelligence, and cleverness are definitely missed on today’s television screens. 

The idea of a repertory cast for a television drama was last used regularly on the live dramatic broadcasts of the 1950’s, so the use of such a group for this show was a unique idea almost 50 years later.  A Nero Wolfe Mystery did it, and did it well, embracing the entire concept with flair, confidence, and comfort seldom found in most modern shows.  There’s more than a little to be said for something that can best be described as “cozy’.  A Nero Wolfe Mystery couldn’t be described as well any other way. 

Vital Stats

2-hour “pilot” TV-movie + 27 episodes aired — none unaired (series premiere also 2 hours)
A&E Network
First aired episode:  TV-movie – March 5, 2000; series debut – April 22, 2001
Final aired episode:  August 18, 2002
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  No.  Although cable networks tend to repeat their shows more than broadcast networks, each episode premiered on Sundays at 8/7 Central. 

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

Sometimes, the biggest mysteries aren’t just about figuring out who committed the crime.  Sometimes, it’s about figuring out how the culprit pulled off the caper in the first place.  Like how a three-story multi-ton sculpture was stolen, or how an experimental concept car was taken from a freight train moving at full speed.  When the police can’t figure it out, and the insurance company is on the hook for possibly millions of dollars, that’s when they grudgingly call in the rare man who can figure out the impossible… and that’s Banacek.

The impossible made easy...

Insurance investigator Thomas Banacek (George Peppard) was cool, suave, and had a taste for the high life.  From his old-style luxury residence in the expensive Beacon Hill district of Boston, he was called upon to solve the most unusual crimes.  But his talents came at a price.  If he solved the case and recovered the lost merchandise, he would receive 10% of what the insurance payout would have been if the insurance company had been forced to pay for the “lost” item… and since some of the multi-million dollar insured items included jewel-encrusted coaches and ancient Greek treasures, he got a pretty good payday for his work.

Plus expenses, of course.  And Banacek had expensive tastes.

There's style... and then there's Style!

His usual method of travel was a 1941 custom Packard, a beautiful and elegant car that showed off not only his expensive taste, but also his desire for style and elegance.  He was aided (and occasionally distracted) by the driver of the car, his trusted chauffeur Jay (Ralph Manza), who would always offer up some wild conspiracy theories about how the crime might have been committed.  Jay’s ideas were rather preposterous, but sometimes served to help Banacek discover a new clue or angle.  And when you’re trying to figure out how a multi-million dollar thoroughbred racehorse disappeared in the middle of a lap around the track, ideas are needed, no matter how outlandish they might be.

His other source for ideas (likely more intelligent ones) was Felix Mullholland (Murray Matheson), a dealer in rare and antique books.  He not only shared Banacek’s love for the finer things, he was also an expert in art and history, and able to fill what few holes might exist in Banacek’s knowledge.  Felix also served as a bit of a mentor to Banacek, and there are hints in the series that the hero of our show hadn’t always been as smooth and elegant as he presently appeared.  It was likely Felix who helped Banacek eliminate the rough edges of his youth (as he’s the only one allowed to call him “Thomas”).

That having been said, Banacek wasn’t afraid to mix it up with the bad guys when necessary, but he was mostly a man who had learned to fight with his brains and his words, and only backed them up with fists as a last resort.  Of course, with millions of dollars on the line, sometimes the villains were more than willing to choose physical threats and violence… but Banacek would rather prefer a verbal sparring match, especially when he so completely had them over-matched in the brains department.  And he knew it.

“A truly wise man never plays leapfrog with a Unicorn.”
–Banacek, reciting one of his many “old Polish proverbs”

Whether it was to simply amuse himself, or to just spar with the numerous suspects verbally, many episodes had Banacek reciting one of the “old Polish proverbs” of his youth, usually with a bemused look on his face.  The cocky investigator loved to spout his own brand of wisdom, but the truth is, these were never real Polish sayings, just lines made up by the writers of the show.  The proverbs were almost as impossible to understand as the amazing crimes Banacek was trying to solve.  But it was one more piece of characterization that made Banacek a unique creation.

Actor George Peppard was still many years away from his career-milestone role in The A-Team, and Banacek was his first regular series gig.  He flew through it with an apparent winning, engaging style, and the show was very successful, mostly thanks to his character’s charms.  The success was also due to the amazing and clever plots cooked up by the likes of mystery greats Richard Levinson and William Link (who had created Colombo and adapted Ellery Queen for television).  But behind those televised charms and smart plots was a difficult and tumultuous journey, with as many difficulties in real life as the plot of your basic impossible mystery story.

“In the network mind, in the studio mind, you cost them millions of dollars.  That’s more than being difficult.  That’s being a sonofabitch.  You also cost yourself millions of dollars, and that’s insane.  It’s the same thing as dropping a baby out of a 40-story building as far as they’re concerned.”
–actor George Peppard, on his reputation for being difficult

Peppard is not exaggerating!  Even before Banacek, he had a bit of a bad-boy reputation in the business, despite his impeccable looks and outward presentation.  Just like Banacek, Peppard liked some of the finer things in life (such as women and drink), suffered no fools, and was never afraid to tell you whether he thought you were fine or foolish.  And that included other actors, directors, producers, and network executives, all of which had run-ins with the man at one time or another along the way.  But he did care about the work, and sometimes, that was all he cared about, feelings be damned.  When you were the best, he let you know… and when you weren’t, he was never shy about telling you so.  This is how “impossible” reputations are made in television….

Nothing is impossible... or is it?

Like his character, Peppard at times believed that, in real life, he had many of his Hollywood “peers” over-matched in the brain department and, also like his character, he loved to spar with them.  Executive Producer of the series George Eckstein would be awakened by annoyed phone calls at 3 AM from Peppard, demanding revisions to scripts and complaining about personnel.  Now realize that Peppard and Eckstein were good friends and not foes… so imagine what reputation Peppard’s behavior would earn from those on the opposite side of the argument that didn’t have years of friendship in place….

Banacek ran for 2 seasons, but only 17 episodes.  It was part of a rotating set of shows on the NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie, along with series like Cool Million and The Snoop Sisters.  It aired once a month or so, and therefore only made eight 90-minute episodes per season.  NBC was willing to renew the series for a third year, worth a significant amount of money to Peppard (and Universal Studios), but Peppard, following his own trail, quit the successful show instead.  And it’s kind of hard to do a show called Banacek without Banacek….

Why did he quit?  Not the grind, necessarily, or even the constant battles.  Those he was more than willing to fight.  But Peppard was going through a divorce from his then-wife, actress Elizabeth Ashley, and he’d rather walk away and leave money on the table instead of giving half of it to her in the divorce settlement.  And of course, leaving money on the table is something Hollywood simply can’t understand, for good or bad reasons, and one more reason for the “impossible” label was hung around Peppard’s neck.

That label continued for many years.  He was originally cast as Blake Carrington on the series Dynasty, but left after the shooting of the pilot due to “creative differences”.  The role went to John Forsythe, and Peppard’s reputation took another hit.  The only producer who was willing to deal with Peppard was Stephen J. Cannell, known as a bit of a maverick himself, and that would lead to the role Peppard is best identified with, Hannibal Smith in The A-Team.

By this time, Peppard was still occasionally difficult, but now he had a producer who understood his behavior, and Peppard’s fights became less divisive and more about just getting the best possible work done, even though he was still willing to stop production once to make a point.  To Peppard, it wasn’t about being impossible… it was all about getting it right.

Sounds like a certain investigator I’ve seen near Boston.  He’d probably tell you an old Polish proverb about the experience….

GEORGE PEPPARD (Thomas Banacek) was well-known as a movie star in the ’60s, having made a splash in starring roles in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, How the West Was Won, and The Carpetbaggers.  His noted “difficult” status led to his conversion to a television career, and a critically acclaimed title role in Guilty or Innocent:  The Sam Sheppard Murder Case.  After leaving yet another series (Doctors’ Hospital) in the mid-’70s, he became a reformed alcoholic  in 1979, and a few years later won his starring role on The A-Team.  He died in 1994 from pneumonia, a complication of lung cancer.

Matheson, Peppard, and Drury in a lighter moment on-set.

RALPH MANZA (Jay Drury) is almost the definition of a character actor, having had an almost half-century career on television.  From 1955’s Highway Patrol to 2000’s Boy Meets World, he appeared in 120 different television series, and yet only as a regular in less than a handful.   Other than his featured role on Banacek, he’s probably best known as a recurring character on Newhart, but has played everything from Catwoman’s henchman on Batman to a mall Santa Claus on Punky Brewster.  He died of a heart attack in 2000, working until the end.

MURRAY MATHESON (Felix Mullholland) was a veteran of the live television era of the 1950’s, playing roles on the Plymouth Playhouse, Kraft Theatre, and Studio One in Hollywood.  His most acclaimed role was as the Clown in the landmark Twilight Zone episode Five Characters in Search of an Exit.  He played a great many roles in other speculative shows, like Night Gallery and The Invaders.  One of his final roles was in 1983’s Twilight Zone:  The Movie, returning his career full circle.  He died in 1985, at the age of 72.

Banacek is available on DVD, both as a complete series, and as season 1 and season 2 individual sets (but get the complete series, as it’s not only a better value comparatively, but it also includes the 2-hour pilot episode Detour to Nowhere).  There’s also a “best of” release, containing 4 episodes from the series (including my personal favorite episode, To Steal a King).  There aren’t any really terrific reference sites for the show, which is surprising considering how fondly it is remembered (since the series was rerun extensively as part of the “Morning Mystery” set of shows repeated on the A&E network for many years, along with McMillian and Wife and Ellery Queen).  But there is a list of all the Polish proverbs from the series available, so you can try to figure out what any of them mean (and a YouTube video of clips from the show, with Banacek uttering all those words of wisdom himself).

“I learned a long time ago that if I was going to predicate my feelings on other people’s opinions, I’d have no life at all.  So basically I do what I think is the right thing, and let them think what they please.”
–George Peppard

Banacek was a clever show, and the title character was played by a clever man.  In fact, sometimes both the show and the man were too clever for their own good.  But both the series and the person knew exactly what they wanted to be, good or bad, and fought tooth and nail to be exactly that vision.  Neither the crimes nor the star were as truly difficult as their initial presentation, they only seemed that way from the outside looking in.  What seems impossible at first usually just takes some time to figure out.

Vital Stats

17 episodes (a two-hour pilot and 16 90-minute episodes) — none unaired
NBC Network
First aired episode:  March 20, 1972 (pilot); September 13, 1972 (series)
Final aired episode:  March 12, 1974
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  No.  As part of the “wheel” of shows on the NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie, it aired monthly, usually at 8:30/7:30 Central.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

Now here’s something you won’t see on the TV menu every day:  an occasionally film-noir comedy mystery that gently spoofed classic movies and used an accountant as its lead character.  Yes, there was a show like that.  For a little while, at least….

Andy Barker will do your taxes... or find a murderer... And make you laugh too.

Andy Barker, P.I. aired (briefly) in the spring of 2007.  It starred Andy Richter, the former sidekick and announcer for Conan O’Brien on Late Night, and later on The Tonight Show.   And describing the show (including its evolution and eventual demise) is a bit like making a creative multi-course gourmet meal… and no one shows up for dinner.

But I’ll try anyway, because the meal (erm… show) turned out pretty well, even if nobody gave it a chance.

So, let’s start cooking… First, start with Richter’s character Andy Barker as an accountant.  (A bit boring, but we’ve got to start somewhere, right?).  Now add his wife, the sweet and kind Jenny Barker (Clea Lewis), who loves her mild-mannered, smart, but rather average teddy bear of a hubby.  (OK, so perhaps we can whip up a gentle domestic comedy at this point).

Andy is starting his first day as his own boss, having rented a spot in a local strip-mall.  Now he’s just waiting for the customers to flow in for information on 401K plans, tax shelters, and the like.  Except, at least on the first day, nobody knows he’s there yet…. so he has no customers.  (OK, so accountants really are boring… how can we spice this up?  Let’s try something really unexpected….)

Suddenly, a beautiful woman with a Russian accent walks in, thinking that the place is still occupied by the previous tenant, who happened to be a Private Investigator.  The mysterious Russian mistakes Andy for the former tenant and, after a bit of a sob story and a nice retainer, Andy Barker is contemplating no longer being just a CPA, but a P.I. as well.  (And now is when things get a bit interesting, at least plot-wise.  Maybe it’s a mystery show…  AND a gentle comedy.  There’s something to work with here, but it still needs more).

“You do kind of have a good starting place with the conventions of the P.I. genre, there’s a shorthand even with the audience, I think, that lets you get into things kind of quickly.  Then satisfying the story with enough of a twist so that people aren’t too ahead of it.  (…) I think we do try and be satisfying and respectful and not make it too outlandishly unbelievable.”
–Co-Creator Jonathan Groff

Andy has no experience in investigating things other than spreadsheets, so what to do?  Fortunately, while he was waiting all day for customers, he’s made friends with the owners of two of the other stores in the mall, and these flavorful characters are more than happy to help.

Simon (Tony Hale) runs the “Video Riot” movie rental store, and knows every cliché and plot to every great and not-so-great mystery film (and loves the opportunity to play the part of investigator, instead of just watching on video).  And Wally (Marshall Manesh) runs an Afghan restaurant (with an overly American theme, no less), which has been robbed so many times that he’s invested in the latest and greatest surveillance equipment available, just to monitor his eatery.  So Andy now has some tools (and I’m referring to both the people AND the equipment there) to help him in his brand new investigating business.  (And our “meal” now has some comedic counterpoints, and some ways to riff on Simon’s knowledge of old movie mysteries as well.  More flavors added!).

Simon and Wally convince Andy to find the previous tenant, former P.I. Lew Staziak (Harve Presnell), for advice.  It turns out that Lew’s retired (and just slightly crazy as well), but still has the P.I. business in his blood.  And Andy has stirred those old feelings enough that Lew’s now on board as part of the team (a lunatic part, whether Andy wants him or not).  And they’re off to solve a mystery, in every episode… with more than a few laughs along the way.

“Sometimes we do end up… getting into some conventional-type action sequences, but then having our comedic take on them, like a car chase where Andy is giving out accounting advice during the car chase.  Or, Andy has a gun drawn on him and tries to bargain his way out of a situation by agreeing to sign a waiver of liability or nondisclosure agreement.  It’s more like little snippets of things.  The show is not intended to be a straight ahead spoof or parody.”
–Jonathan Groff, on balancing comedy and mystery without one overwhelming the other.

Andy Barker P.I. actually tried to be all those flavors in the same show:  A gentle domestic comedy; a “fish-out-of-water” story of an accountant suddenly involved in a world he’s completely unaccustomed to; a light spoof (and sometimes homage) to some of the great film-noir mysteries of Hitchcock and Bogart; and an occasionally crazy and lunatic string of antics with Simon and Lew and some out-of-left-field situations with Wally.  All in a half-hour time slot, in every episode.  And the biggest mystery of all is that somehow, this strange combo-mixture worked rather well.

Simon, Wally, Andy, Jenny, and Lew

Like I said, a creative multi-course gourmet meal, with lots of new and different combinations of style and taste… and nobody came to dinner.  Probably because NBC forgot to send out the invitations.

Andy Barker, P.I. premiered on Thursday nights, in the time slot vacated for a short “break” during the first season of the Tina Fey comedy 30 Rock.  And even before the first Barker episode premiered, NBC then decided that 30 Rock‘s “break” would be shortened by a week, and that the fifth episode of Andy Barker P.I. would be an “online exclusive”.  (The fifth episode happens to center around Lew’s past and his old partner, guest star Ed Asner, and rumor has it that the network bean counters were worried that the episode had “too many geezers” and wouldn’t attract that valuable younger audience they were so desperate for.)

In other words, the network had little faith in the show before it even aired and, other than a bit of promotion before the premiere, there was almost no mention of the show for publicity purposes, at least not by the network itself.  The first four of the six episodes aired on consecutive Thursday nights, with the last two being shown back-to-back AND buried on a Saturday night just over a week later.  And for those who were at all technically savvy, the ENTIRE series was actually posted online at the NBC site BEFORE the premiere… which means, if you were interested at all in the show, you could watch it there (or buy the episodes on iTunes), and never actually HAVE to see the episodes as they aired, lowering the ratings even further.  Andy Richter himself put it a bit more bluntly:

“They apparently decided at some point that, ‘this show is not going to be a big breakout, runaway hit, so let’s just kind of cut our losses and put it on, and if magic happens, then great, we’ll get behind it.  But we’re not going to get behind it before.  We’re not going to really get behind it before and push.  We’re going to put it on.’  It’s basically like a friend of mine once referred to it — they shove you out on an ice float and push you out into the water and go, ‘All right now, thrive!'”
–Andy Richter, on NBC’s apparent attitude towards the series.

(Actually, I’ve found some much more “colorful” quotes by Richter on this subject, but while I’m not averse to using that language occasionally in these articles, this quote still gets the message across.  The show got stabbed in the back, figuratively, and Richter knows it.)

What show at the time DID get a lot of NBC’s promotion and money?  The Real Wedding Crashers, a short-lived “staged reality” series about people pulling stunts during weddings (with the bride and the groom in on the joke, but not the invited guests).  Yeah, THERE’S a show to get behind… just to get a running start at kicking it off a cliff….

All I'm looking for is a few commercials... please?

To be fair though, during 2006-2007, NBC wasn’t attracting many more customers than Andy Barker did on his first day in the strip-mall (they’d put their promotion machine behind Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip earlier that year, and I’ve already written about what happened there).  In fact, this is the THIRD article I’ve written about shows NBC aired that season (The Black Donnellys being the other).  But then, the question must be asked:  with such a variety of ingredients, how would you have promoted Andy Barker P.I. in the first place?

Again, we’ve made a great meal… but the network would’ve preferred McDonalds, because at least they knew what to do to promote the same old Combo #1 comedy or Combo #2 drama, and not the delights of the unique feast being served up here.  And for 30-second snippets in commercials, it’s easier to promote a straight comedy or true drama than to promote the subtle mix of genres, styles, and performances that made Andy Barker, P.I. so well worth watching.

Ultimately, sometimes television at its best is also the hardest thing for television itself to promote and sell.  Appreciating what makes some shows great is only apparent in the context of the show itself, much like the greatest food is complimented significantly by the wine or the ambiance of the restaurant.  And, like some great restaurants, this show opened and closed before most people even knew it was there….

ANDY RICHTER (Andy Barker) is best known as the sidekick (and co-writer) on the Conan O’Brien’s stints of Late Night and The Tonight Show (and Conan returned the effort by being one of the creators of Andy Barker P.I.)  His two other short-lived shows were the critically acclaimed Andy Richter Controls the Universe and the not-so-acclaimed Quintuplets.  He also holds the record for winning the most money on Celebrity Jeopardy, over $29,000 for charity.

CLEA LEWIS (Jenny Barker) was a regular on Ellen (starring Ellen DeGeneres), playing friend Audrey.  Her quirky voice has also lended itself to voice-over and animation work, including Pepper Ann and various characters on SpongeBob SquarePants, and a role in the two sequel movies in the animated Ice Age movie trilogy.

TONY HALE (Simon) is a specialist at playing oddball characters and is best known for his role as “Buster” on Arrested Development.  His other major role has been as Emmett on Chuck, and is now on the web series Ctrl on the NBC network website.

MARSHALL MANESH (Wally) has played recurring characters in numerous shows, including Will and Grace, Scrubs, and How I Met Your Mother.  He has also guested on JAG, Boston Legal, and Burn Notice, among many other series.

HARVE PRESNELL (Lew Staziak) first appeared on TV on Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1956, but really had three separate careers.  First as a musical stage actor, he starred on Broadway in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and performing for many years in touring productions of Camelot and Annie Get Your Gun, returning to Broadway as Daddy Warbucks in Annie.  His film career includes the movies Fargo and Saving Private Ryan.  In his later years, he became a TV character actor in demand, guesting on The Pretender, Monk, and ER.  He passed away of pancreatic cancer in June 2009.

Surprisingly for a six-episode show, Andy Barker P.I. is available on DVD (especially if you want extras), but if you just wish to sample the series for yourself, all six episodes are also available for free streaming on Hulu.  NBC’s main website for the show still exists, although not all the links on it are still active.

If you’ll allow me one more riff on the “food” analogy, here’s another thing:  Just as restaurants’ meals get reviewed by critics, so do television series.  Strangely enough, the TV critics almost universally endorsed the show.  One of the few TV critics that I actually respect, Tom Shales of the Washington Post, had this to say in his review:

Andy Barker P.I. sails along on an admirably even keel, brightened by moments that are convulsively funny — visual gags and subtler forms of slapstick.  It’s the kind of comedy that sneaks up on you.  Sneaks up on you and threatens to steal your heart.”

Ready for action... and tax returns.

Wait…. Threats?  Maybe even a stolen heart?  Sounds like a mystery to me.  Or maybe he can just use the loss as a tax write-off.  Either way, I know just the guy who can help, and have a laugh or two along the way.  Just call Andy Barker, P.I.

Vital Stats

Six aired episodes — no unaired episodes exist
NBC Network
First aired episode:  March 15, 2007
Final aired episode:  April 14, 2007
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  No, four episodes aired Thursdays at 9:30/8:30 Central, up against two Top Ten shows (CSI and Grey’s Anatomy), and the final two episodes burned off in NBC’s “Saturday repeats” slot.

“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.

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