The Untouchables was perhaps, up to that time, the most violent weekly series ever seen on television. It was ostensibly factual, based on the real-life story of Eliot Ness, the U.S. Treasury agent who did much to break Al Capone's bootlegging operations during Prohibition, and his small group of trusted, incorruptible agents, nicknamed "The Untouchables." Ness' autobiography*, written with Oscar Fraley in 1957, was adapted into a two-part presentation on Desilu Playhouse and became a weekly series on ABC in 1959, running for four seasons.
*The book might be seen, in today's parlance, as "inspired by actual events." Fraley wrote most of the book, embellishing stories and adding fictional characters to the extent that in the closing credits to The Untouchables, it's referred to as a novel. The 21 pages that Ness himself was responsible for were, for the most part, straightforward and factual. The book was released shortly before Ness' death of a heart attack in 1957 at age 54.
It's inevitable that a show about G-Men battling mobsters would be a rough one; it was not a world for the faint of heart. I have to admit to The Untouchables as one of my favorite shows of the era. It's an entertaining, fast-paced program that doesn't require a great deal of thought, but is a great deal of fun. The bad guys generally get theirs in the end (except for Bruce Gordon's Frank Nitti, who is always foiled but never captured - and a good thing, because Gordon's menacing performance is always a highlight of the episodes in which he appears), and the show avoids introducing soap-opera elements into the lives of its leads, the downfall of many a modern series. The level of violence is actually fairly mild at the beginning of the series, but ramps up quickly as it goes on, and it isn't long before we see Ness' men smashing illegal liquor stills, tommy guns blazing, bodies dropping everywhere. In comparison to today's television, though, the violence is milder than a baby's chicken broth.
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She's also a fan of the program and never misses it, even though by this time the show has strayed so far from real life that "I no longer know what it will be about." However, even though the stories may be fictional, Mrs. Ness says "they are, in spirit, the same - the enforcement of law and order, the fight against exploitation of the law-abiding members of society, the hunting down of criminals." Eliot's admirers, she says, "should not feel let down."
The real Eliot Ness was quite a figure - charming, vital, charismatic. He was three-times married (Elisabeth was the third and final Mrs. Ness), and - ironically, for a man who made his reputation fighting bootleggers - was a heavy drinker who used to frequent bars and amaze people with his tales of crimefighting. He held a Master's degree in criminology and was one of the first law enforcers to use the lie detector, he helped pioneer the use of two-way radios in police cars, he was an early advocate for civil rights and a crusader against juvenile delinquency. He was a fan of art, the theater and ballet - but also boats, cars and the Indy 500.
Most of all, Elisabeth Ness writes, Eliot should be remembered as a man of integrity and principle, an independent thinker, and a man who "was a practical do-gooder." He enforced the law, but "never tried to reform the world.".
No Sullivan vs. The Palace this week, as The Hollywood Palace is still just a glimmer in the eye of some television executive. Ed's guests this week, in case you're wondering, are (in a tribute to St. Patrick's Day) musical comedy star Tammy Grimes, actor Pat O'Brien, Irish tenor Brendan O'Dowda and the Clancy brothers with Tommy Maken, folk-singing group, and Irish harpist Mary O'Hara.
Did Ed have the best variety show of the week? Saturday's Lawrence Welk show is also a St. Patrick's special, with the regular cast. On Tuesday, Garry Moore's guests are singers Dorothy Collins and Steve Lawrence, and comedian Bob Lewis. Perry Como countered on Wednesday with actor Don Amache and singer Frances Langford. Ernie Ford welcomes singer Gordon MacRae on Thursday.
For my choice, I'm going with Friday's Bell Telephone Hour, an exploration of music inspired by William Shakespeare, with Shakespearean expert Dr. Frank Baxter hosting an hour featuring opera stars Patrice Munsel and Joan Sutherland, musical theater star Alfred Drake, ballet dancers Violette Verdy and Jacque d'Ambroise, and Sir John Gielgud with dramatic readings. Not bad, if you ask me.
Since this is the third 1961 issue in the last four weeks, we should be pretty familiar with the programming guide, so let's focus the rest of our time on the information in what I used to call the "shiny section."
The shiny section always enjoyed casting the spotlight on the most attractive new starlets, and this week is no different. There are profiles of two: Asa Maynor, "an up-and-coming TV actress," had a brief career and was married to 77 Sunset Strip's Edd Byrnes, before retiring become an executive at NBC and interior decorator. However, the other was Lee Remick, and she turned out to have a pretty good career for herself.
I referenced a couple of weeks ago. He was also seen throughout the week in taped appeals for the Red Cross. Today, regardless of who the President is, I'm sure people of all parties would be relieved if he only appeared this often.
Speaking of current events, the New York TV Teletype advises us that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has alerted networks of "a probable attempt to launch a man into space from Cape Canaveral in early spring." They speak of a suborbital flight, about 250 miles downrange - the same flightplan that was recently followed by the chimpanzee Ham.
NBC's The Nation's Future plans a debate between movie producers Dore Schary and Otto Preminger on the subject "Should the movie industry be forced to classify its films?" The show, which eventually aired on April 29, had Hollywood bad-boy Preminger arguing that movies should be rated, but that the film's producer should be the one responsible for the rating, and that the government should have no involvement whatsoever. Schary thought ratings were a bad idea - after all, what producer would want to classify a film as "not suitable for children." To Schary's thought, such a rating would offer no difference between a pornographic film and one that was simply worthy of mature viewing. Which is, in essence what we've wound up with both the X rating and the NC-17, which most producers regard as the kiss of death.
Finally, "if a sponsor can be lined up," ABC plans to debut its Saturday sports anthology program on April 29, with a bullfight from Seville, Spain. The show did indeed debut on April 29, but instead of the bullfight, it carried live coverage of the Penn and Drake relays. And thus was the start of ABC's Wide World of Sports.
Back on February 16, ABC Close-Up presented a documentary on the first week of school integration in New Orleans. Entitled "The Children Were Watching," it was, by all accounts, a pretty unsparing look at the anger and racism expressed by the parents of schoolchildren, while those very children watched and learned the attitudes of their parents. That provoked the following letter to the editor from Mrs. John R. Lepak of Santa Ana, California:
The first time I saw a Negro was when I was seven. In fact, it was my seventh birthday - the day my home town was liberated from the Nazis. He gave me the most precious birthday present a person could receive. At the time, I thought the candy he gave me was the best present I ever had. But, of course, now I realize he gave me my freedom, which is by far more precious. So why can't people, like the people in Little Rock and New Orleans, give the Negro his freedom? I hope that programs like "The Children Were Watching" will continue and open the eyes of people so they can take a good look at themselves. I'm sure they'll be shocked.
That was only 52 years ago. At the time, the educational institution where I currently work prohibited black students from enrolling, a situation they wouldn't rectify for another year. They're currently commemorating 50 years of integration, and while it's laudable, perhaps if they'd spent a little more time looking at themselves, as Mrs. Lepak suggests, instead of the color of their student body - well, perhaps change would have come a lot earlier. I wonder, if they could watch this documentary today, if they would see themselves still in the images?