Don't I know that TV sleuth from somewhere? (Part II)



In an earlier post we examined how some movie stars of the post-World War II period, finding their film careers on the decline, embraced the new medium of television to maintain their visibility in the entertainment industry. While some of these actors still under contract to studios were expressly forbidden from appearing on the tube in one of the more extreme moves taken to stem TV's bite into ticket sales, others were freelancing, working for the rising roster of independent producers or getting supporting parts in A projects. These actors found offers of steady employment and exposure in a series not only lucrative but attractive. A series kept the actor's name out before the public and served as stopgap until the studios took notice of them once more.

A goodly number of male stars found TV a refuge as they matured and desired movie roles became less plentiful. With film production slowing down in the late 1940s into the '50s, an emphasis on "big" movies to combat the box in most Americans' living rooms more evident, half-hour comedies and dramas, crime stories, mysteries and westerns became a new source of work for Hollywood's creative force. One of the first programs filmed specifically for TV airing was the Jerry Fairbanks-produced PUBLIC PROSECUTOR in 1947, starring John Howard, a former screen Bulldog Drummond. The Fairbanks studio was also the production center for the first filmed series on network television, YOUR SHOW TIME, which aired on NBC in 1949 and included among its adaptations of classic short fiction a respectable version of the Sherlock Holmes tale "The Speckled Band," featuring Alan Napier as the Great Detective.

As can be seen, early television shows tended to attract non-or-former A list talent. Soon, as the studios trimmed their contract player rosters, actors like Robert Young took successful radio shows in which they appeared, in Young's case, FATHER KNOWS BEST, to television to become one of the more beloved family comedies of the '50s and beyond in syndication. Consequently, actors who distinguished themselves in certain film genres were cast in programs that helped perpetuate their screen image, be it tough guy/police detective/private eye (as we will see here), western hero, adventurer or modern-day parent.

Fueling the boom in product for TV as the '50s dawned was the syndication market. Shows not included on the regular primetime, evening schedule of the networks had a berth in daytime programming either on that network or on local television stations at different times of the broadcast day. Frederic W. Ziv, a Cincinnati-born entrepreneur who entered production for radio syndication during the '40s, switched his operations to TV before the close of the decade. Using a property immediately recognizable to audiences of the time, Ziv launched the first set of episodes built around THE CISCO KID, "O. Henry's Robin Hood of the Old West," in 1950. Wildly popular with children, the series starring Duncan Renaldo and Leo Carrillo remained in production for the next six years, until about the time the TV syndication market dominated by independent producers such as Ziv (and some of the studios) peaked and went into a slow decline as the networks began offering re-runs of their own product in direct competition.

But for the first half of the '50s, syndicated programming was the rage, especially those utilizing at-liberty Hollywood luminaries who didn't view television work with disdain. In our first examination of such moves to the small screen, actors such as Louis Hayward, Charles McGraw and Beverly Garland headlined shows sold directly to syndication. McGraw's THE ADVENTURES OF THE FALCON was distributed by NBC, DECOY with Garland by Official Films, and THE LONE WOLF starring Hayward by United Television Programs. The trend would continue for newcomers who formed the first front of television's legion of crime-fighters.

DANGEROUS ASSIGNMENT (Syndicated by NBC, 1952-1953). His movie career changing shape by the end of the '40s, tough guy player Brian Donlevy -- a 1939 Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee for his villainous Sergeant Markoff in BEAU GESTE -- took command of his destiny by starring in a radio series, DANGEROUS ASSIGNMENT, a summer 1949 replacement show that NBC deemed successful enough to renew for a three-year run in early 1950. 

The role of Steve Mitchell, troubleshooter for a Washington-based agency looking to maintain the Free World's balance of power overseas, was tailor-made for the actor. Donlevy brought a dry but bemused flavor to the proceedings, frequently commenting in his voiceover narration of the story, "I've been to a half-dozen countries whose names I can't pronounce, but they all spell the same thing -- trouble." Mitchell was also quick on action when needed, and while he was not a detective, he found himself playing one to unmask a spy, political provocateur or new-fangled criminal.

Midway through the radio show's tenure, Donlevy and NBC produced a set of 39 episodes for TV syndication in which Mitchell, at the behest of his boss, The Commissioner (Herb Butterfield, who had the same role on radio), travels to another international hot spot to derail a revolution or rescue information or personalities the other side would love to get and use against us. ("Oh, great," he'd comment). Typical is "The Mine Story," where Steve gets himself sent to a forced labor camp in an Iron Curtain country and obtain freedom for an important scientist (Lester Sharpe). Steve clashes with a brutal guard (Michael Ansara) who, of course, gets his in the end. 

In "The Refugee Story," Steve aids displaced Europeans looking to establish a safe haven on an island, threatened by a traitor within (Henry Rowland) working for the dictatorship seeking their elimination. Usually seen enroute to his next job in Europe, Africa and Asia, Steve did get to remain stateside in "The Civil War Map Story," in which he investigated skullduggery surrounding the title artifact. And in "The Submarine Story," we learn a little something of the seemingly anonymous Steve, in that he's a Naval Academy graduate and former officer with a distinguished war record.

For early low-budget television, DANGEROUS ASSIGNMENT was handsomely produced, with top-notch supporting casts drawn from the ranks of Hollywood's second features, some who went on to more lasting fame on TV. Among them were Hugh Beaumont, Ward Cleaver of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, and Jim Davis of DALLAS, each of whom guested in at least two episodes. Stories were recycled from the radio version, and their Cold War influence put DANGEROUS ASSIGNMENT on a thematic par with another syndication success of the time, Sheldon Reynolds' European-produced FOREIGN INTRIGUE. In fact, at one point during its initial run, Donlevy's show outpaced FOREIGN INTRIGUE in a viewer survey of syndicated programs then airing. 

But despite finding a critical and popular reception, the TV version of DANGEROUS ASSIGNMENT did not inspire a second season, and Donlevy, who died in 1972 at 71, contented himself with supporting roles in movies and television guest spots until his retirement in the late '60s.

I'M THE LAW (Syndicated by Revue Productions, 1952-1953). Generally seen as a footnote in the career of its star, George Raft, I'M THE LAW is a diverting one-season entry that proved a film noir feel could be obtained quite readily on a constrained budget for television. Raft's own personality as stolid, unemotional but compassionate Lt. George Kirby of the New York City Police Department helped define the lower-case but fascinating atmosphere the show generated.

Storylines were fairly typical of the period, and Raft may have felt a case of deja vu in "The Trucking Story," in which he goes undercover to root out a killer and criminal enterprise at a haulage outfit. Raft performed the same duties in his 1952 feature film LOAN SHARK, exchanging his trademark natty wardrobe for working man's duds so he can solve the murder of his character's brother and expose a shylocking racket in a tire factory. (Coincidentally, the murder victim in both the movie and TV episode were played by the same actor, William Phipps). Some episodes, such as "O Sole Mio," were unusual as Kirby struggles to protect a young boy (Tim Considine) who witnessed his father's  murder, while a bizarre nighttime environment informs "The Cowboy and the Blind Man," character actor Percy Helton's eccentric portrayal of the latter role adding to the episode's dark milieu.

That the scripts were a notch above the normal run of TV cop drama of the time is attributable to the contributions of Jackson (billed as Jack) Gillis, whose next assignment included several outstanding episodes of THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, and veteran B movie director Jean Yarbrough's noirish filming of the stories. Raft, whose year of birth is variously given as 1895 and 1901, lent a commanding presence to the role of Kirby and was nicely backed by the supporting casts. 

Raft's movie career, firmly established when he played Paul Muni's sidekick in SCARFACE (1932), underwent successful runs at Paramount, Warners Bros. and RKO, but had slowed to a crawl at the time of I'M THE LAW. He no doubt appreciated the work afforded by the show's 26 half-hour entries. Although Raft later landed the occasional film role, notably kidding his own gangster image in Billy Wilder's SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), Raft fell into the guest star mode in the years prior to his death in 1980.

I'M THE LAW is also interesting in that it was issued by the production company founded by comic Lou Costello to film episodes of the THE ABBOTT AND COSTELLO SHOW from 1951 to 1953. Costello's brother, Pat, was listed as executive producer of both programs. The shows were syndicated by Revue, the production arm of Music Corporation of America, which took over A&C's home studio, Universal, in the early '60s. Re-runs of THE A&C SHOW were a staple of local programming until well into the 1970s, while I'M THE LAW remained in limbo for decades until it fell into the public domain and home video distribution.

MARTIN KANE, PRIVATE EYE (NBC, 1949-1954). A live program originating from New York for its entire run, MARTIN KANE had four actors, all veterans of the Hollywood scene, take the lead role as a savvy private investigator utilizing his fists, gun and especially his wits in solving murder cases. Like Ralph Bellamy's Mike Barnett on CBS's MAN AGAINST CRIME (a.k.a. FOLLOW THAT MAN), which aired during the same time period, Martin Kane was not drawn from a literary source, but was an amalgamation of the classic hardboiled detective characteristics of American pulp fiction.

Scripts, many by paperback novelist Henry Kane, veered toward underworld themes and crimes committed by the rich, but were occasionally offbeat, with the images seen in the show's surviving kinescopes lending a brooding atmosphere to the proceedings. An example is "Rest Home Murder," involving a murderous proprietor of the title business, the dotty doctor aiding her and Kane's becoming their prisoner while investigating a call for help from the tumbledown facility. A creepy feel to the sets and the eccentric medico (Robert Emhardt, a busy actor in live TV at the time) made the episode reminiscent of NBC's then-current supernatural anthology LIGHTS OUT. A similar sinister vibe can also be found in "Reclusive Sisters," featuring actors Una O'Connor and Halliwell Hobbes, familiar faces from horror and mystery movie classics of the '30s and '40s.

MARTIN KANE began as a radio series on the Mutual Broadcasting System in August 1949, with the video series premiering the following month. The first Kane was played for two seasons by William Gargan, who had notched a lengthy list of movie roles since the early '30s. Film offers had declined by the time he accepted the part of Kane, but both the radio show, which came to NBC in 1951, and its TV version kept him occupied. Gargan (1905-1979), whose pipe-puffing, probing but tough portrayal defined Kane's rugged demeanor, left to take a similar part in a radio program, THE ADVENTURES OF BARRIE CRAIG, which ran until 1955. He returned to the Kane role in a syndicated series of 1957-1958, THE NEW ADVENTURES OF MARTIN KANE, shot in Europe for United Artists Television.

Gargan was succeeded in 1951 by Lloyd Nolan (1902-1985), who lent a breezy approach to the role, both on television and radio. The part suited Nolan, whose long film career as a tough guy included the lead in Fox's Michael Shayne mysteries produced from 1940 until 1942. But as the fourth season debuted, he was gone and Lee Tracy was the new Kane. (Nolan continued working in film and TV, notably the Diahann Carroll series JULIA, right into the '80s). Tracy (1898-1968) was a raspy-voiced veteran of the New York stage, originating the role of Hildy Johnson in the famed newspaper comedy-drama THE FRONT PAGE in 1928.

But Tracy, who soon went Hollywood to portray devil-may-care reporters like Hildy, was seemingly his own worst enemy when it came to the studios (he was fired from his contract with M-G-M in 1934 for reportedly urinating in public) and had not been in a film since 1947. He fully embraced live TV in New York, though, and had headlined the series THE AMAZING MR. MALONE as Craig Rice's attorney-sleuth John J. Malone in 1951-1952 before taking on the MARTIN KANE assignment. Tracy seemed less congenial as Kane, lacking the charm of the Gargan and Nolan portrayals, although to be fair the series shifted to a more violent feel during his tenure. The MARTIN KANE radio series also ended during Tracy's time with both programs.

In its final season (1953-1954), Kane was played by Mark Stevens (1916-1994), whose pedigree in the film capitol was of a more recent vintage. The former lead actor at the Cleveland Playhouse signed with Warners in 1943 but obtained his release for a more rewarding career at Fox, where he starred in one of the classic postwar noirs, 1946's THE DARK CORNER. Given his liberty in 1949, Stevens had freelanced at Columbia, Universal and Monogram/Allied Artists when offered the role of Kane, returning to the smooth yet cagey portrayal established under the Gargan and Nolan regimes. Following MARTIN KANE's cancellation, Stevens returned to Hollywood to replace Patrick McVey as Steve Wilson, the crusading newspaper editor of the CBS series BIG TOWN for its final two seasons (1954-1956).

For all of its cast changes, MARTIN KANE remains an enjoyable mystery that has lived on thanks to the advent of home video and streaming. Commercials for sponsor U.S. Tobacco Co. were built into the program, and the camera close-ups of Kane filling his pipe with Old Briar and supporting cast members reaching for Sano low-nicotine cigarettes in any given episode carry a certain amusement.

THE NEW ADVENTURES OF CHARLIE CHAN (Syndicated by ITC, 1957-1958). J. Carrol Naish became known as one of Hollywood's premier character actors in a career spanning the silent era until the early 1970s, mainly from convincing portrayals of ethnic types. He netted two Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor in such roles, the Italian soldier in SAHARA (1943) and as the father of a Hispanic GI in 1945's A MEDAL FOR BENNY. Thus, it was no stretch for him to assume the role of Charlie Chan, the wise, Confucius-quoting Honolulu police detective created in the 1920s by author Earl Derr Biggers, in THE NEW ADVENTURE OF CHARLIE CHAN, a U.S.-British co-production that lasted for 39 episodes.

In this series, Charlie is retired from active duty but takes on frequent requests for his skills to recover stolen property, track down blackmailers and expose fraud, all of these activities embroiling he and Number One Son Barry (James Hong) in murder when a body turns up. Because the bulk of the episodes were filmed in England, Charlie and Barry do their sleuthing on country estates, theaters and universities, occasionally going on the Continent (frequently to Italy, thanks to the producers springing for a location shoot) to bring criminals to book. In "Something Old, Something New," a harmless thief (future Dr. Who Patrick Troughton) seeks Charlie's help in clearing him of homicide when he breaks into a London house, only to be found with a corpse, while in "No Holiday for Murder," Charlie and his son unmask the killer of a wealthy American tourist during a museum visit in Belgium.

Naish (1896-1973) lends Charlie charm and wisdom, but is also adept at judo and other arts of self-defense when the occasion calls for action. In an interview with THE TELEVISION CHRONICLES magazine in 1997, Hong revealed that in order to effect a Chinese visage, Naish had to wear a specially-made eyepiece applied during makeup, which was apparently a source of unhappiness for the actor despite his many years with characterizations. Hong, as Barry, recalls the enthusiastic if at times unhelpful antics of Charlie's sons who "aided" him in his investigations over the course of the nearly 50 feature films built around Charlie from the silents until 1949. (Naish had appeared in at least one, 1936's CHARLIE CHAN AT THE CIRCUS, with Warner Oland as the sleuth).

Hong, now 86, appeared in 25 episodes, although he told the magazine his tenure with the show ended when Naish, believing the younger man upstaged him in a scene, had him fired. The experience failed to slow the Minneapolis-born Hong's momentum in the business, which has extended to such films as BLADE RUNNER (1982), BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986) and WAYNE'S WORLD 2 (1993), and in television, ranging from the original ZORRO to THE BIG BANG THEORY.

As previously mentioned, THE NEW ADVENTURES OF CHARLIE CHAN was produced by Hollywood-based Television Programs of America in cooperation with the Incorporated Television Programme Co., part of Sir Lew Grade's production and distribution giant Incorporated Television Co. (ITC). The deal allowed for the first five episodes of CHARLIE CHAN to be shot in Hollywood (of which the first two, "Your Money or Your Wife" and "The Secret of the Sea" are quite good) and the remainder in England. 

TPA had worked a previous arrangement with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. for the 1956 series HAWKEYE AND THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS starring John Hart and Lon Chaney Jr., while the company and ITC also collaborated on a 1959 show, NEW YORK CONFIDENTIAL, featuring Lee Tracy. Leon Fromkess, TPA's executive producer, held a similar position more than a decade earlier at B movie studio Producers Releasing Corp., which made one of Naish's more notorious movies, THE MONSTER MAKER (1944).

As for Naish, who worked more frequently in TV after his stint as Charlie Chan, his reputation as "Hollywood's one-man U.N." stuck. Having played a villain in the first of Peter Lorre's Mre. Moto mystery/adventure series at Fox (THINK FAST, MR. MOTO, 1937), Naish spoofed the Japanese detective/troubleshooter as Mr. Toto in the Dec. 16, 1964, episode of BURKE'S LAW, "Who Killed Supersleuth?"

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