May 26, 2011

Recalling Richard Denning

I know, I haven't done a very good job keeping up lately. But I do have some goodies in the hopper, namely an interview with one of the best JFK video historians around, and what I hope will be a provocative piece bout the relationship between Route 66 and the philosophy of Rousseau. (Boy, doesn't that sound like a mouthful?)

In the meantime, here's a piece I did for Our Word last year, which I think is an appropos follow-up to my previous article on the Sammy Davis Jr. Show.

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During the course of my research for my series last year on those dreadful Sammy Davis Jr. TV theme covers, I dipped into the archives on the original version of Hawaii Five-O and pulled out the name of Richard Denning.

Now, when people think of Hawaii Five-O, they probably think first of the theme, and then of Jack Lord. True enough, since in my opinion, Jack Lord is Steve McGarrett, and his catchphrases are part of TV lore: "Book 'em, Danno," and "Be here - aloha," when doing the promo for the next week's show. Some people might remember James MacArthur, who played Danno for eleven years, and booked all those suspects. Others might recall one of the other officers, primarily from the opening credits (e.g. "Cam Fong as Chin Ho").

But Richard Denning? Well, for all those years he played Paul Jameson, the governor of Hawaii,* and he was one of only a handful of actors who appeared in all twelve seasons of the original series. It must have been an ideal role for Denning, who had already retired to Hawaii and was coaxed out of retirement by the offer of five-hour days and a four-hour work week.

* Surely one of the most successful politicians in all of television.

Richard Denning had a long and successful acting career. His most well-known roll was probably that of Jerry North, the mystery writer-turned detective in the whimsical crime series Mr. and Mrs. North, in which co-starred for three seasons with Barbara Britton as his wife Pam. I first ran across this series in one of those boxed set compliations of public-domain crime dramas, and to be honest I didn't think much of it. Oh, Denning's pretty good, given what he has to work with, and Barbara Britton's certainly lovely to look at. But her character is one of those screwball wives we see so often in sitcoms of that era, the kind that induces you to shout at the screen while you're watching, or just as often to mutter something like, "I'd slap her if I was him."* Added to that, even though Jerry was the supposed crime expert, it's Pam who generally winds up solving most of the cases, with little help from her bumbling, somewhat patronizing husband. It's a low-budget version of The Thin Man without the charm, and I was only able to make it through two episodes before I gave up.

* Not an advertisement for spousal abuse.

Here's a clip from the opening of a typical Mr. and Mrs. North episode:

So when I saw another Denning series, Michael Shayne, as part of the boxed set, I wasn't too enthusiastic. Matter of fact, I kept putting off watching the two episodes in the set, until they were practically all that was left to watch. I guess it says something about the value of low expectations, because I thought Shayne was terrific. Denning was completely different in this role: suave and smooth (a private detective who wears suits and pocket hankeys and works out of a pretty nice office), assured and confident, and comfortable using either fists or guns. Shayne, like North, was based on a series of books, but unlike North lasted only one season, 1961-62. I wanted to learn a little more about the Shayne character. So when the opportunity came at a used book sale to pick up one of the Shayne mysteries, I thought I'd check it out.

The Shayne novels, seventy-seven in all, were written mostly by Brett Halliday (who created the character and wrote the first fifty Shane books). They were the basis for not only the TV series, but a radio series as well, not to mention twelve feature films and hundreds of magazine stories. The book I picked up, When Dorinda Dances, was written in 1951, about twelve years into the Shayne run.

Unfortunately, on the satisfaction scale I found it closer to Denning's North than to his Shayne. It had the drawbacks of most mysteries featuring recurring characters: a convoluted plot, formulaic situations, little in the way of character development (substituting instead the archetypes that had been developed over the course of the series), and the like. Halliday's Shayne was rougher and cruder than the TV version, which was disappointing but not necessarily surprising. There was also a fair amount of left-wing promulgation, which did establish the time period of the 50s but did nothing to enhance either the plot or the atmosphere. As I said, this isn't especially uncommon - the Perry Mason* and Ellery Queen novels can be radically different from their television counterparts - but for me Shayne's appeal was that of the countercultural P.I., ala the suave Peter Gunn, for example.

* Mason is an interesting case, since Erle Stanley Gardner continued to write the books throughtout the run of the series, during which time the literary characters come to much more closely resemble their television counterparts. D.A. Hamilton Burger, for example, an enemy of Mason in the early books, is more of a friendly adversary in the later stories, much in the mold of William Tallman's TV portrayal of Burger.

Interestingly, contemporary reviews of the Shayne TV series were not particularly positive. Although Denning was well received, the series was considered entirely too derivitative of other detective series of the time, most notably Surfside Six, Bourbon Street Beat, and 77 Sunset Strip.*

* Perhaps Shayne would have been more successful if the title had been more alliterative.

It goes to show the importance of context, I guess. Taken within the context of the other Shayne novels, When Dorinda Dances was probably no better, no worse than most. Taken outside the context of other TV detective shows of the time, Michael Shayne was fresher, more interesting, than it might have been if one had seen it in first run.

Regardless, for a one-season series I think Michael Shayne isn't bad, and it's too bad more episodes of the series aren't available. And, considering our previous encounter with Denning in this boxed set, Shayne was a pleasant surprise. So a toast to Richard Denning, an actor who might not have been able to rise above mediocre material, but had a charm and style all his own, and deserves to be better-remembered than he is. Well played, sir.


  1. Remember, in the TV movie/pilot, Lew Ayres played the Governor...and I don't think he was the first choice for that role. He is the man in charge in the first series episode "Full Fathom Five" but several shows later, in "24 Carat Kill" he is a U.S. Treasury agent. I think they filmed that one first, cast him, then moved his first show as Governor to kick off

    He also played Debbie Watson's father in KAREN--originally part of the trio of sitcoms under the umbrella title 90 BRISTOL COURT, then on its own.

    But even with his state salary, he was working two sales jobs at the same time...
    (go to the 32 minute mark)

  2. MICHAEL SHAYNE appeared on NBC during the 1960-61 season (not 1961-62). I had the opportunity to meet Denning's co-star, Gary Clarke, a couple times, and had him sign my copy of the cast picture that appeared in TV Guide's 1960-61 Fall Preview.

    Denning was well-known during the days of radio sitcoms for playing George Cooper, the husband of Liz Cooper, played by Lucille Ball, in MY FAVORITE HUSBAND. I have him on DVD playing Alice's father in "Through the Looking Glass", which was a large tv musical (unfortunately burdened with a laugh/applause track) that included many tv/movie stars such as Agnes Moorehead, Ricardo Montalban, Nanette Fabray, Jimmy Durante, and the Smothers Brothers. NBC aired it in Nov. 1966 and reran it during Thanksgiving weekend several years later.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!