July 16, 2013

Burke's Law: the cop show with a heart - or at least wallet - of gold

This post is part of Me-TV's Summer of Classic TV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Go to http://classic-tv-blog-assoc.blogspot.com to view more posts in this blogathon. You can also go to http://metvnetwork.com to learn more about Me-TV and view its summer line-up of classic TV shows.


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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.”

It’s a premise that requires some selling, but Barry is just the man to do it. Producer Aaron Spelling describes him as a man “at home in [a tuxedo], secure in it,” and his portrayal of Burke owes much to his previous turn as the Western dandy Bat Masterson. In this updated environment Berry is still a crimefighter, albeit with a gun instead of a walking stick.

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
The interplay between the three is one of the show’s delights. Hart is the veteran, wizened cop and mentor to the young Tilson, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of almost everything but lacks the experience and intuition to put the pieces together. Burke and Les obviously go back a long way (Les will on occasion drop the formality and refer to Burke as “Amos,”), and while Tim can sometimes be a bit of a showoff, it’s clear that Burke has a somewhat paternal affection for the young detective, often imparting a bit of his collected wisdom. (“Never ask a question unless you already know the answer - Burke’s Law.”) The three men split up the investigative work, with Burke generally reserving for himself (“Your old Captain”) the interrogation of the most interesting suspects. Those suspects are frequently also beautiful women, and their attraction to the handsome, dashing Burke may be genuine – or an attempt to throw him off the trail.

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.

Which is what makes the third and final season such a disappointment. Caught up in the spy hysteria of the early James Bond years, for 1965 the series changed format completely. Amos Burke was now a secret agent (hence the show’s new title: Amos Burke, Secret Agent), working for a spymaster known only as “The Man” (Carl Benton Reid). It had a flashy opening title and fun gadgets and even more beautiful women, if that was possible. It even had Burke’s Rolls. What it didn’t have was the chemistry of the original. No Les, no Tim, no Henry. It ran for 17 episodes, and by January 1966 it was over.

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.

37 comments:

  1. You truly did justice to a most entertaining program. I only came to appreciate "Burke's Law" in reruns during the past decade, but it didn't take long for it to become a top favourite. At first it was those fabulous guest stars that pulled me in, but it is indeed the byplay among the regulars that keeps me wanting more.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words! You're right - it's the guest stars that first attract you, but the three leads (and Eileen O'Neill and Michael Fox, when they're in it) work so well together. It's really how an ensemble cast ought to be.

      And although I didn't mention it originally, there's a way that Gene Barry reacts to the craziness about him - the lifted eyebrow, the double-take - that is almost as if he's breaking down the fourth wall and addressing the audience, telling us that we all know how strange these people can be...

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  2. Great post! I had no idea Burke's Law had a revival in the 90s. I'm going to have to check that out!

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    1. Thanks! I've never really seen the revival myself. I'm sorry that I wasn't more familiar with this series back then; it would have been nice to see Gene Barry make time stand still for awhile longer.

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  3. In the first episode, "Who Killed Holly Howard?", the victim is found half-buried at a construction site in the early morning.
    Burke arrives at the murder scene, dressed in a tux from the previous evening.
    One of the crew asks Tilson why Burke works as acop when he's a millionaire.

    Tilson: "Why are you a construction worker?"

    Crewman: "Because I like the work, and I'm good at it."

    Tilson: "That's why he's a cop."

    All the explanation you need, really.
    So effective, in fact, that when Burke's Law was revived in the 90's,the scene was repeated verbatim, with Burke's son and a road worker.

    The word here is stylized.
    Any resemblance between Burke's Law and actual police work is purely coincidental..
    And that's why it's still so much fun, 50 years later.

    (Mind you, the revival's not bad at all, either.)

    Burke's Law was a Four Star production - Old Hollywood at its apex.
    The guest star gimmick was Aaron Spelling's idea; he sold it to Dick Powell because he knew that Powell's many friendships would provide an endless supply (after Powell's passing, it continued to do so).

    That extended to the scripts as well; read the writing credits and you find many names that are familiar from the many B-detective movies of the '40s and '50s (as well as the occasional newcomers like Levinson and Link).

    Excuse the pseudo-scholarliness here, but I've always had the theory that the various forms of shows flow into each other from one generation to the next, and Burke's Law is about as prime an example as any.

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    1. No, that's great stuff, Mike. I love that line from Tilson that you quoted - it really does say it all, doesn't it? And it makes Burke such an interesting character.

      I really like that theory of yours of shows flowing from one generation to the next - we'll have to explore that further at some point.

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  4. Mitchell, love this post on BURKE'S LAW! I think it was Berry's best role (though I never saw him on stage where he earned raves for LA CAGE AUX FOLLES). As you described so well, the Berry twinkle epitomizes the breezy tone of BURKE'S LAW. And, of course, the guest stars were a lot of fun, too. The switch to AMOS BURKE, SECRET AGENT seemed abrupt and unnecessary. I'm sure ABC was trying to capitalize on the Bond craze that peaked in the 1960s with GOLDFINGER. But BURKE'S LAW was fun just the way it was. Like Amanda, I don't even rember a 1990s revival. That just goes to show I always learn things at your blog!

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    1. Thanks, Rick! I agree that Berry was at his best in Burke, although I very much enjoy him in Bat Masterson as well - some of the same characteristics there. I believe you're right as well regarding the reasoning for the format change.

      I wonder: is it possible that this kind of a series revival would be more successful today due to the home video market? Had the original Burke's Law been more readily available for viewing back in the early 90s, would it have been easier to attract an audience for the new version? We're certainly aware of many more old series today because we can see them on DVD or online, and the original was nearly 30 years old at the time. Perhaps we would have been more tuned in.

      Or was the original running on Nick at Night back then, and they were hoping to use that to generate momentum? I don't know - Mike, if you read this, do you know?

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  5. Interesting that you didn't mention the Burke's Law Origin Story:

    The first Burke was the premiere episode of The Dick Powell/Reynolds Aluminum Show, on NBC in 1961.

    The first Amos Burke was Dick Powell himself, having to find out "Who Killed Julie Greer?"
    The title victim was Carolyn Jones, who was Aaron Spelling's then-wife.
    Spelling, Powell's main producer, came up with the cameo guest gimmick, and Powell conscripted as many friends as he could to fill the slots.

    "Who Killed Julie Greer?" was a hit, and the Powell show got off to a major start.
    ... at which point Powell and Spelling realized that the anthology could be a kind of seed bed for what would come to be called "backdoor pilots" that Four Star could sell to the three networks.
    Burke's Law went into series development, but Powell and Spelling decided to get another star for the series. Their first choice was Jackie Cooper, and when Four Star made the Burke sale to ABC in 1963 he was duly announced.
    I don't know the exact reasons, but after ABC scheduled Burke, Cooper was out and Gene Barry was in. Things like this happened a lot in Hollywood TV of that period.

    I've got C2C DVDs of both Burkes - '60s and'90s (plus the Powell pilot) - and I'll be giving them a look-see in the weeks ahead.

    ... nice hobby to have, no? ...

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    1. It's a wonderful hobby! Thanks for the details on the Powell version - I've actually got that on disc, although I've yet to see it - having already started the Burke series, I wanted to get to the end before sampling it. And I'm more tempted to see the revival now based on your previous comments.

      Can't imagine Jackie Cooper in that role, though he's done some fine work over the years. Gene Barry just seems made for the part.

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  6. Great post, Mitchell! I had never even heard of BURKE'S LAW until a few years ago, when VCI released the first season. I enjoy the show for the many reasons you cited, even if Gene Berry's smarm threatens to ooze right off the screen (he's a little more bearable in BAT MASTERSON, which love). I especially enjoy the great supporting casts that show up in each episode. And of course, the bevy of beauties on display is highly amusing and enjoyable, as well as something you just wouldn't see on a TV series today. I haven't had a chance to see the "secret agent" phase of the show, but it sounds right up my street.

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    1. Hey Jeff, thanks for the kind words! I agree that the guest stars are a great feature of the show, particularly since you don't know whether they're going to play a key part in the murder, or if they're just there in a cameo, as celebrity eye candy. (And speaking of eye candy, why oh why didn't they find more for Sergeant Ames to do?)

      Amos Burke, Secret Agent needs to be appreciated on its own, I think. When you try to compare it to the first two seasons of Burke, you find yourself missing the familiar elements and the byplay between the cast. However, putting that aside, the spy angle carries its own charms - and, of course, they didn't forget to include a generous number of beauties!

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  7. Great post Mitchell! I had never seen this show, but I thoroughly enjoyed your writeup and dialed up some clips on Youtube to see what I was missing.

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    1. Thanks, Jeff. I'm always glad when I can recommend something that other people enjoy. It's a shame that season one is the only one formally released on DVD (although you can get the entire series on the grey market), because I think it's a series that ages well, and is just simple fun.

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  8. I loved this show. My first opportunity to encounter it came circa 1989-1990 on the old Nostalgia network, which aired it back to back with DICK POWELL THEATRE reruns. So yes, one morning I got to see the original pilot with Powell playing Burke right before a BURKE episode. The first two seasons were highly entertaining, and I got a kick out of the guest stars. Aaron Spelling was really good at the multiple guest star format, but I don't think he ever did it better than on BURKE'S LAW.

    AMOS BURKE, SECRET AGENT was pretty much a disaster, though "Terror in a Tiny Town" was so bad, it was good.

    Great writeup!

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    1. Thanks, Hal! Getting to see Dick Powell play Burke right before a regular episode - great stuff!

      I think you're quite right about this being Spelling's best turn in the multiple guest star format. He did some other interesting shows, but Burke clicked on so many levels. It has a light touch, but as I mentioned in the article, one of my favorite aspects of the show is that it never lets you forget that these guys really are good cops, and they take what they do quite seriously, though not always the way they do it.

      Thanks again for the kind words!

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  9. Thanks for reminding me how awesome BURKE's LAW is--I first fell in love with it watching TVLand in it's first few years on the air (late 1990s). Now I have to watch it on Me-TV. Thanks for pointing me in the right direction.

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    1. Thanks, Joanna! It's always fun to share the fun!

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  10. I have to be honest - Aaron Spelling never really sold me on the concept of a millionaire cop ("He can't be bribed!") but I've always been a fan of the series only for the high-powered celebrity wattage (oh, and the indestructible Regis Toomey, too). Dr. Tobias O'Brian at Toobworld postulated a theory that the killer in each episode is always easy to pick out: they're featured in a total of three separate scenes.

    I've never seen Amos Burke, Secret Agent but judging from what I've heard from other sources I don't think I'm missing much. ("He won't sell government secrets because he doesn't have to!")

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    1. I like that tag line for Amos Burke, Secret Agent! Reminds me of what Stan Freberg said about Hogan's Heroes - "If you liked World War II, you'll love Hogan's Heroes."

      Interesting about Dr. O'Brian's theory - I'm going to have to check that out!

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  11. Permit me to perhaps close this one out by observing that many times, it wasn't simply the guest stars but the groupings of guests that made for the best Burkes.

    A few favorites:

    - "Who Killed Cable Roberts?"
    An early episode in which a big-game hunter gets it.
    Guest Stars in Alphabetical Order:
    Mary Astor
    Zsa Zsa Gabor
    Paul Lynde
    John Saxon
    Lizabeth Scott
    Chill Wills

    - "Who Killed What's-His-Name?"
    Tycoon gets it during a bank stick-up.
    GSIAO:
    Edgar Bergen
    Dick Clark
    Andy Devine
    Reginald Gardiner
    Spike Jones
    Gena Rowlands
    In this one, we see who does the deed at the start - but the overall mystery (including the motive) is way more complicated.

    - "Who Killed Supersleuth?"
    Some famous fictional detectives (by proxy) are the suspects:
    Ed Begley (Senior) as "Poirot"
    Zsa Zsa Gabor (again?) as "Commissar Buda" ("Buda, you're a pest!")
    Thomas Gomez as "Wolfe"
    J. Carrol Naish as "Mr. Moto"
    Carl Reiner as "Holmes"

    - "Who Killed Hamlet?"
    Ham actor gets it right in the soliloquy.
    GSIAO:
    John Cassevetes
    Eddie Foy Jr.
    Edward Everett Horton
    Agnes Moorehead
    Basil Rathbone
    - and an unbilled surprise guest star as the victim.

    There are several others I could mention, but these four are real highlights of Burke's Law for me ...
    ... and I hope for you.

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    1. Great selections, Mike. "Hamlet" - isn't Basil Rathbone great in that? And I'm convinced Cassavetes must have come up with that whistling sound himself - I wonder how much time he spent looking for the character's motivation for that.

      And you know what? I don't think I've seen "Supersleuth" yet - now I'm really looking forward to it!

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  12. My brother and I watched this show religiously when it was first-run on ABC. We considered it very cool - the Rolls, Burke's uptown threads, the twinkle in Gene Barry's eye - and his performance. I had the pleasure of seeing Barry in "La Cage Aux Folles" during its run in San Francisco. He was always a class act.

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    1. Great that you had a chance to see him - I never had the pleasure, but between Burke and Bat Masterson I'm trying to make up for it!

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  13. I have never seen a single episode of BURKE'S LAW. After reading your awesome review, I'm going to have to change that.

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    1. Thanks, Dawn. Stay in touch and let me know what you think!

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  14. Mitchell, first, thanks for stopping by my place, not only for your comments but for the opportunity to take a look at your site. Your essay on BURKE'S LAW brings back memories. Back in my school days this was one of the hip shows to watch. Barry was cool and debonair and like you mention, a lady was never far away. I haven't seen the show since but your thoughts here want to make me take a look. Thanks!!!

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    1. Thanks, John! I appreciate the kind comments, and I'm glad I've helped you renew your ties with Burke! You're absolutely right - Barry was cool, and in this world of tortured, angst-ridden heroes, I'll go for cool anytime!

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  15. As another TV detective of note used to say:
    "Just one more thing ..."

    From the original series:
    "Who Killed Merlin The Great?" (1965)

    And from the revival:
    "Who Killed Alexander The Great?" (1996?)

    Both these episodes concerned the "locked coffin" murder of a magician at a convention.

    Both episodes involved the same murder gimmick (which I won't reveal here - if you are able, see both shows for yourself).

    Both shows gave on-screen credit to the same writers, although their participation in the '90s show was probably only the acceptance of a check (another writer got script credit for this one).

    But here's the really interesting part:

    Sometime around the turn of the '90s, there was a short-lived series called Blacke's Magic, in which Hal Linden was a magician who solved impossible crimes with the assistance of Harry Morgan as his con-artist father.

    The Blacke's pilot was about the "locked coffin" murder of a magician at a convention, just as both Burkes were.

    The murder gimmick (and identity of the killer) - exactly the same as the two Burkes.

    But the three stories, apart from the transfers I just mentioned, were entirely different in the story details.

    So why weren't there lawsuits all over the place?

    The '60s Burke was written by Richard Levinson and William Link.
    The '90s Blacke pilot - Levinson and Link, collaborating with their #1 staff writer, Peter Fischer.
    And the '90s Burke - Aaron Spelling's staff writer, using L&L's murder and gimmick, with permission, credit and payment.

    Just something I happened to know (and having all three shows on C2C DVDs helped a lot).

    *Now if this doesn't bury the subject , what will?*

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  16. Awesome post!!...I,like many other posters,never saw the series when it originally ran in the early '60's.My first exposure to the "good life" of Amos Burke was in reruns that I watched 5 to 6 years after the show ended.I swore that someday I would own a car like Amos Burke had!..Fast forward to 2007-that premise never completely left me;I am a car collector,and thought-what an awesome car to have in my collection,if I could find out what happened to it.I tried to contact Gene Barry or his family members,fan clubs,the Rolls-Royce Owners Club,all to see if they knew what happened to the car-to no avail.Was finally able to locate the car-it is in excellent original condition,and has 35,000 miles,and is a treasured part of my car collection-and a cool piece of television/1960's memorabilia!!!

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    1. Thanks, Jim! I think you and I must have caught the show at the same time. And what a cool story about the Rolls - you should share a picture with us!

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  17. I remember loving the second Burke's Law and recently discovered the original episodes on MeTV. They're wonderfully fun and just as enjoyable this many years later. I found your blog while watching an episode and wondering who was the seductive voice in the opening. I googled the question and never did find the answer. Well, I got distracted by your blog, etc. Anybody have any ideas?

    PS I found your posting so good that I've signed up. ;)

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  18. Does anyone know whose seductive voice say's "It's Burke's Law" at the beginning of each show?

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    1. I don't - I've been looking around since your comment, and it doesn't seem as if anyone's been able to come up with who it is. A pity - would have been nice to hear more! :)

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  19. There's not much to go by, she doesn't say much. But it's a very distinctive voice and everyone comments about it. Any chance of finding anyone from Four Star today who might know? I loved the show as a kid and enjoy watching them even now. Corded dial phones and Burke's state of the art car phone and all.

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  20. My first real experience with Burke's Law came through the '94 remake, which I enjoyed despite the overusage of Melrose Place/90210 actors (it was a Spelling Television production, after all!). I eschewed watching the original for the silliest of reasons (I'd tell you why, but you'd probably laugh yourself silly), but when GoodLife TV ran it, I watched and got hooked, though they maddeningly didn't show all the episodes! The first season DVD's, which I purchased, gave me the opportunity to see the ones from the first season I'd missed, and I recently discovered a guy on YouTube with the entire second season, and I just finished watching the ones I hadn't seen about a week ago.

    I did reviews on Amazon about the DVD's of Burke's Law (under my username of Richard Kimble, Doctor) and I did an episode guide on the TV IV site for both the original and remade series (http://tviv.org). Not only did I do synopses for the episodes (I haven't done Amos Burke, Secret Agent yet, but will do so soon), but there are also bits of trivia, quotes (I've made mention of every 'Burke's Law' that I could find), in-jokes, etc. As for that voice...I read somewhere that it may have been Marj Dusay, who really hadn't had any acting credits at that time, but that's just speculation on the part of whoever wrote that. We may never find out, sadly.

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