I badly wanted to do comedy,” Gene Barry said in a profile for the November 23, 1963 issue of TV Guide. “I searched the scripts for the inherent comedy that can be found in almost any drama. I searched for the twinkle, the lift of an eyebrow [that] could change the tone of a serious sentence. I read Burke’s Law. I envisioned the twinkle in it.”
And so, after three seasons as the Western hero Bat Masterson, after having said he would never do another television series, Barry returned to the small screen to portray Amos Burke, millionaire captain of the LAPD homicide division (and eventual secret agent, but we’ll get to that later), in the whimsical mystery-comedy that ran on ABC, in two different formats, for a total of three seasons..”
I never saw Burke’s Law when it was in first-run. My only recollection of it was from the reruns that Channel 11 aired in the late-60s, and from that all I can remember is the Rolls Royce tooling down the road while a woman’s voice cooed, “It’s Burke’s Law!” To tell you the truth, that voice kind of scared me a bit. Of course, I hadn’t yet learned the meaning of the world “sultry.”
Based on the premise alone, it would have been impossible to produce Burke’s Law without that twinkle Barry mentioned. Burke is indeed a millionaire (the source of his money is never definitely stated, though he refers to an inheritance from his father, and implies that he’s multiplied that fortune through shrewd investments*) who lives in a mansion, is often clad in a tuxedo and surrounded by beautiful women, and is chauffeured to crime scenes in a Rolls Royce by his driver/valet, Henry (Leon Lontoc).
*Gene Barry himself was no slouch when it came to investing. That same 1963 TV Guide article mentions Barry’s ownership of a 40-acre orange ranch, mines in Nevada, a half-share of a construction company, and prime land in Los Angeles on which he and his partners planned to put up office buildings and apartments. Substituting Burke for Berry does a pretty good job of filling in the gaps.
Which, of course, begs the question: why does a man who clearly doesn’t have to work for a living choose a profession that’s not only difficult, but dangerous, one that required him to work his way up the ladder from beat cop to captain of homicide and could claim his life at any moment? I don’t know if Barry was one of those actors who composed backstories for each of the characters he played, but he does drop hints as to his concept of Burke. He is “a carry-over of the Old World, but part of this world,” cultured, mannered, sophisticated, worldly. “Police work is as important to Amos Burke as building a building is to me. Hell, he wouldn’t be happy sitting in a stock-exchange seat. He is alive, vital, now.”
Given its various elements, Burke’s Law could have gone in several directions, but its success derives from the direction it chose. Neither traditional police drama nor situation comedy, each episode is centered on a spectacular murder (with the victim identified by the episode title Who Killed …) and a cast of flamboyantly eccentric (to put it lightly) suspects, mostly played by big-name guest stars (listed in alphabetical order in the opening credits, and frequently making little more than cameo appearances). Given that, one could hardly be blamed for expecting the investigating detectives to be just as zany, but far from it: Burke and his two cohorts, Sergeant Les Hart (veteran actor Regis Toomey) and Detective Tim Tilson (Gary Conway), could have been buffoons or broad caricatures, but instead they’re skilled cops who understand that murder is a deadly business and take their jobs seriously (if not always how they do them). They’re very smart, and very, very good.
The show’s premise also offers Burke an unusual advantage, never overtly stated but often implied, that as a millionaire he has the ability to deal with rich, powerful suspects on an even footing. Their money can’t intimidate him (he’s probably as wealthy as they are), nor can their influence scare him off. He’s beholden to nobody but the public, and he doesn’t scare easily.
|L-R: Regis Toomey, Gary Conway and Gene Barry|
Indeed, Burke is seldom out of the company of an attractive female – the episode often begins with him in the embrace of some such lovely companion – but the moment the phone rings, with Les or Tim calling him to the scene of yet another murder, Burke is all business. The debonair playboy is gone, replaced by the determined homicide captain. There’s never an attempt to avoid his job – just a request to his female companion that she not go away.
And that, I think, is one of the main reasons I find this show so enjoyable. For all of the light touches – and the mix of comedy and drama works surprisingly well – Amos Burke is a policeman before all else, a damn good one who understands the importance of his job. His suspects may include glamorous women, but their beauty never blinds him to the possibility that behind their makeup may be the face of a killer. He’s not afraid to trade either punches or gunshots, and he’s not satisfied until the killer is apprehended.
Then there’s that twinkle in the eye that Barry talked about – the priceless reactions when Burke meets yet another crazy suspect or has to listen to yet another ridiculous story. It’s when Burke lets us know that it’s a joke, and that we’re in on it. Throw in some great supporting players, such as Michael Fox as the droll medical examiner and Eileen O’Neill as a desk sergeant who doesn’t have to take second place to any of Burke’s beauties –and you’ve got the ingredients for a great show.*
*And by the way, speaking of beauties, did I mention that Anne Francis’ detective series Honey West was a direct spin-off from Burke? She was introduced in the second-season episode “Who Killed the Jackpot?” and would go on to a one-season run in 1965-66.
Apparently Amos Burke tired of the secret agent business and returned to the LAPD, or at least that’s what had happened in the 1994-95 revival of Burke’s Law. Burke was now a chief, his sidekick was his son Peter (during the intervening years Burke had married and was now a widower), and Henry was back behind the wheel of his Rolls (albeit with a different actor). It was a middling success, running for 24 episodes over two seasons.
Burke’s Law could have been many things. It could have been a comedy, ala Barney Miller or Car 54. It could have been a police procedural, like any one of the cop shows on at the time. Instead, it was a one-of-a-kind, a comedy-mystery, a sophisticated whodunit. Most of all, Burke’s Law was fun. It wasn’t searing drama, it didn’t involve impossibly convoluted plots. It was easy to watch, and easy to enjoy. Hopefully, those who see it on Me-TV, whether for the first time or to rekindle an old memory, feel the same way.