August 27, 2013

Mitchell's Top Ten, #7: Nero Wolfe

Each week for the next couple of months, I’ll profile one of the series that appear on my personal Top Ten list. I don’t claim that these are the ten greatest series of all time; that would be presumptuous. However, I do presume to identify those shows that mean the most to me.

These aren’t academic histories or encyclopedic entries; rather, they’re personal memories of shows that, through the years, have brought me delight, influenced my way of thinking and doing, left their indelible traces imprinted on me. Think of it as a memoir of my life as seen on TV.

I’ve probably mentioned this before, this annoying reluctance I have to watch a TV show that’s been recommended to me. Generally I watch it only if I have to (i.e. with the recommender sitting next to me), with an anticipation not of the show itself but of it ending. And, more often than not, I wind up enjoying the show immensely. Which doesn’t stop me from repeating the same pattern with the next recommendation.

There are shows I’ve tried and never gotten into: The X-Files was recommended to me early in its run, but I never made much of an attempt. Many people have suggested Mad Men, which, as I’ve noted before, may happen someday – but not today. There are others, which I’ve probably forgotten about.

And then there are shows like Nero Wolfe.

I’d noticed the series’ debut back in 2000, but it didn’t particularly appeal to me at the time. I knew who Nero Wolfe was, and what the stories were about. I’d never read one of the books, but I had seen some of the 80s version that starred William Conrad and Lee Horsley – and that wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. Maybe it was the commercial that A&E ran for the new series, which as it turned out, didn’t present a particularly accurate picture of the overall show. It might have been because of Timothy Hutton, whom I didn’t particularly like at the time (probably having to do with his politics).

So when my friend Gary told me how much he and his wife enjoyed the show, I was skeptical. We’re known to have fairly dramatic differences in our programming tastes – Barney Miller and Desperate Housewives were never considered must-see TV in our household.* But, knowing Gary as I do, I realized the subject would continue to come up until and unless we gave it a try, so that Sunday night we put aside whatever else we might have watched and tuned in to Nero Wolfe. We’ll at least give it a try, we thought.

*Though, it should be said, it was Gary who introduced us to A Christmas Story and Going My Way, two movies we’d never seen before but which became Christmas staples for us, which makes my reluctance regarding Nero Wolfe even less understandable.

The fact that the show appears on this list is evidence of how the experiment turned out.

There are many who blame television for the decrease in literacy, but Nero Wolfe is one of the few television shows around – Perry Mason is another – that caused me to go out and buy the books to read the original stories. (All the episodes in the show’s two-season run were based on Rex Stout’s novels and short stories, rather than being original stories as is the case with so many series.) The pleasure I’ve derived since from reading the Wolfe mysteries would have been reward enough, regardless of the merit of the show, but to say that I’ve enjoyed the show every bit as much as the books should be seen as putting the show on a high plane indeed.

Start with the casting: Timothy Hutton, as Archie Goodwin. Or rather, Timothy Hutton is Archie Goodwin. Wolfe’s legman is so finely brought to life in Stout’s writing that it is difficult to imagine how anyone could possibly capture him in a series, especially since Horsley’s portrayal fell far short of the mark. And yet, having seen Hutton embody Archie so thoroughly, it has now become impossible to read the books without hearing Hutton’s voice as the narrator. He has style to spare, along with a strut and an attitude for which I’d readily kill.  Let's face it - his Archie Goodwin is who I want to be when I grow up.  There is, simply, nothing lacking in the character. It comes as no surprise that Hutton was heavily involved in the creation and production of Wolfe, as well as directing several episodes – the love he has for this project appears in every frame of film.

Nor is there anything lacking in the late Maury Chaykin’s performance as the arrogant, irascible genius Wolfe. Bill Conrad might have been able to capture Wolfe’s gruffness, but never his nimble mind, the quickness with which he connected the dots, the outrage (feigned or real) present in his battles with his nemesis, Inspector Cramer, and his utter disdain for the people he questions - often including his own client. "Either, sir, you're an ass or you're masquerading as one" - well, that's a pretty typical line.  And I love the idea, prevalent in so many of the stories, that Wolfe is personally offended by the criminal who dares to presume that not even the great Nero Wolfe can catch him ("He's taunting me!  I will not have anyone taunting me!") and he winds up investigating out of sheer spite - or vanity.

Put Wolfe and Archie together, and they often bicker like an old married couple.  One of Archie's jobs is to "provoke" Wolfe into action.  If Wolfe had his way, he'd never do anything more strenuous than press the button for Fritz to bring him beer - but there are those bills to pay, such as the salaries for Archie, Fritz and Theodore, the keeper of Wolfe's thousands of orchids.  That takes money, and when the bank balance runs too low, it's up to Archie to goad Wolfe into taking an assignment.  Their frequent arguments hide a deep respect and even affection between the two; Archie is second to none at investigating and amassing evidence, and Wolfe unparalleled at putting the pieces together, often through the most brilliant use of logic and deduction this side of Sherlock Holmes.  There can be no question that Wolfe and Archie are two of the greatest characters in the history of mystery fiction, and Hutton and Chaykin are two of the greatest duos in the recent history of TV.

Add to that a superior supporting cast – Bill Smitrovich as Cramer, Colin Fox as Fritz Brenner, Wolfe’s major domo, Saul Rubinek as newspaperman Lon Cohen, and Conrad Dunn as the freelance detective Saul Panzer – and a repertory group of secondary players, from George Plimpton to the luscious Kari Matchett, and source material far above that used by the average series, and you have the recipe for television greatness.

Unfortunately, in A&E’s efforts to reshape itself as a storehouse for second-rate reality-based crap, there wasn’t room for high-budget period pieces like Wolfe, and after only two seasons the show left the air. With Chaykin’s death, any kind of reunion is pretty much impossible, so between the 20 episodes and the 47 Wolfe books written by Stout, what you see is what you get.

Ah, but for those who check out Nero Wolfe on DVD, what you get is priceless – an intelligent, literate series, with nearly perfect period details, a topflight cast, clever mysteries, and characters you like and care about. It might even cause you to check out the books if you haven’t already; unlike so many movies and TV shows, you won’t be disappointed by the comparison between the two. Even though I’ve seen every Wolfe episode at least twice, I’ve still got a ways to go on the books, so there’s that to look forward to.

Nero Wolfe is the shortest-lived series on my top 10 list, but this is one of those cases where size isn’t everything.

We take a breather next week to catch up on some other topics, but the list returns in two weeks with the story of the man who won't take "guilty" for an answer
Last week: The Fugitive


  1. I believe I've mentioned that I'm a Nero Wolfean from way back - in my case, since I've been old enough to buy my own paperback books (high school).

    This would be the mid-to-late '60s. I actually still have many of those same editions - Bantam Books with a 50-60c cover price.

    But since this is a TV site, I'll just lay some history on you:

    Nero Wolfe was being proposed for TV as far back as the early '50s. There had a been a raesonably popular radio series the decade before (one of the radio Wolfes was Sydney Greenstreet), and Rex Stout's agent Edwin Fadiman was eager to take the character to the homescreen.
    There was one problem: Rex Stout hated television.
    Back in the '30s, he'd been burned by two botched movie versions of Wolfe, one with Edward Arnold, the other with Walter Connolly. In these movies, Archie was played by Lionel Stander - 'nuf sed.
    Stout OK'ed the radio shows, but had nothing to do with their production; he had no desire to take on TV.
    Fadiman was persistent, though, and after many false starts, he finally got a Nero Wolfe TV series ready to go on CBS in the fall of 1959.
    CBS and Fadiman taped/filmed a pilot starring Kurt Kasznar as Wolfe and William Shatner as Archie; reportedly several more episodes were actually produced.
    Wolfe even had a timeslot (Mondays at 10/9 Central) and a sponsor.
    Then =, with almsot no notice, Wolfe was out and Hennessey was in.
    The whole Nero Wolfe series vanished without trace - the pilot was never shown, no other episodes surfaced, without trace to this day.
    No one knows for sure what happened.
    The best guess seems to be that Rex Stout killed the whole project, but no one can seem to confirm that.
    All that is known for sure is that no TV production of Nero Wolfe was mounted until after Rex Stout's death in 1972.
    I'd send you somewhere for more info, but basically what I've written here is all that's known about Wolfe'59.
    There's the website of The Wolfe Pack, with much Wolfean lore for you to sample, but they don't know much more than I do.

    In the meantime ... enjoy.

  2. First, correcting a mistake from yesterday:

    Rex Stout died in 1974, aged 88.

    This next part is a little complicated, so follow along:

    Back in the '40s, there was a popular detective show called The Fat Man, a sort-of creation of Dashiell Hammett (loosely based on the Continental Op).
    The radio Fat Man was called Brad Runyon, and was played by J. Scott Smart, an announcer with an appropriate physique.
    Smart starred in a movie version for Universal circa 1950, but the radio show fell victim to Hammett's blacklisting not long thereafter.

    Fast forward to 1958: Screen Gems buys the title The Fat Man and dcides to mount a TV series.
    At this same time, Screenwriters Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts (White Heat) have tried and failed to get TV rights to do Nero Wolfe.
    SG then engaged Goff and Roberts to do their Fat Man show, which the two writers turn into a carbon copy of Wolfe; Robert Middleton plays "Lucius Crane" and Tony Travis is an Archie clone (I have this pilot in my DVD wall at home, which is how I know all this). This pilot didn't sell (probably after the lawyers got a look at it).

    Fast forward to 1976, after Rex Stout's death.
    His estate puts Wolfe in play as possible TV fare; Paramount mounts a pilot with Thayer David (who had played a dozen different characters on Dark Shadows)for ABC, written and directed by Frank Gilroy (The Subject Was Roses). This pilot sits on ABC's shelf for several years, during which time Thayer David died; ABC finally burned off the pilot around 1980 in a late-night slot.

    Fast forward to 1982 or so; Paramount still has the Wolfe rights, and Orson Welles has expressed interest in the part.
    Paramount puts a new pilot on fast track, to be produced and written by none other than Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts (see above).
    By the time they get the script ready, Orson Welles has lost interest (see his entire career), and Paramount proceeds with Bill Conrad (one fat actor is as good as another, right?).

    And there things stood 'til the turn of the Millenium, when A&E suddenly got interested ...

    TV - It's Fun! It's History! It's America!


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!