February 10, 2016

Don't mess with the Men from U.N.C.L.E., and other Friday night fun

As some of you might recall, last summer I started what I thought would be a nice little project to fill some time - sharing with you the classic TV lineups we watch in the evening. Unlike many, we don't binge-watch shows, nor do we tend to watch the same shows every night. No, being the anal person I am, we have a set lineup for the three or four nights a week when we just relax from the pressures of daily life and settle down to an evening of retro TV.

Well, you can see how well that worked. I finished Saturday and Sunday, and even then I'd abandoned the idea of profiling each show, instead doing the Sunday night lineup in one fell swoop. And then the whole thing just kind of went away, as I found other things more pressing - or should I say interesting? - to write about. In time, I forgot the idea altogether.

But, lo and behold, I find myself today with nothing particular to write about, and - lo and behold - the idea came to me. Why not just finish what you've started for once? I couldn't really argue with that logic, so here's another look into our viewing habits - this time for Fridays.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
During one of my frequent times of underemployment, when I was temping while between permanent jobs, I got an email from Deep Discount announcing their Deal of the Day. It was a boxed set of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., complete in the fake attachĂ© case, for something like forty bucks. Well, even though we were really trying to avoid big expenditures while we were were living under a reduced income, that seemed too good to pass up. Other people apparently thought so as well, because when I clicked on the button, the set was already on back order. It did come eventually, and found a place leading off the Friday night lineup.

I never much watched U.N.C.L.E. when it was originally on, and I'm not sure why. I remember once being grumpy about there being nothing on TV, and my mother suggesting I watch that. I did, but I don't think I got much out of it. I was aware of it, of course, what with the books and games and comics and other tie-ins, but it didn't have a whole lot of appeal to me. Of course, by the time I picked it up, I was ready for it - it was firmly entrenched in the classic TV oeuvre, and right about in the middle of the timeframe to which I increasingly found myself attracted. I knew all about the disastrous third season, when the show ratcheted the camp level up to 11 or 12 to compete with Batman, but while there were a lot of stinkers in that season, it was still fun.

I've never been a big Robert Vaughn fan; to me, he epitomizes the word "smarmy," but he turns out to be perfect for Napoleon Solo - once the producers realized the appeal of David McCallum's Illya Kuryakin, that is. McCallum's serious nature and ruthless edge balanced Vaughn's oily charm well, so that even when they were stuck in the most ridiculous situations (think "The My Friend the Gorilla Affair"), they were a winning team. By the shortened fourth season, when the show was finally cancelled, the turn to more serious storylines was an effective one, and it's too bad it wasn't tried earlier; we might at least have gotten a complete season out of it.

In short, it's a great show to kick off a Friday night.

The Saint
Vincent Price played him on the radio, and George Sanders and (more recently) Val Kilmer (!) played him on the big screen, but for my money, there's only one Simon Templar, and that's Roger Moore.

It's tempting, and fun, to look at this as Moore's tryout for James Bond, but this is a show that should be enjoyed on its own merits. Simon Templar, professional thief turned Good Samaritan (and occasional Avenging Angel) is a fascinating character, particularly in the black-and-white episodes, when he comes across as a good deal more ruthless than most TV heroes of the time. He seldom gets ambushed from behind, he rarely ever gets taken in by a femme fatale, and whenever the plot takes a twist you didn't see coming, he already seems to have been two or three steps ahead.

A word about that ruthless streak: looking back to the original source material for the series, the novels by Leslie Charteris, we see that Templar is often cast as someone trying to right a past wrong, and that he's not above killing those he refers to as the "ungodly" in his pursuit of justice. That side of The Saint is toned down a bit in the color episodes, when the show starts to take on a more Bondian feel, but it's definitely there in the early episodes.

Personally, I can't think of anyone other than Roger Moore in this role. He's smooth and suave, dryly humorous, confident in the extreme (if I could bottle a tenth of that confidence and use it myself, I'd be home free), and always surrounded by beautiful women. He'd be a charming dinner companion, and definitely a man to have on your side, but would you want to cross him in a dark alley when you'd been up to something you shouldn't have been? Not on your life.

The Untouchables
I'm convinced the writers on this series must have loved writing for Frank Nitti, the character played so well by Bruce Gordon. Whenever Nitti makes one of his occasional appearances as Eliot Ness' nemesis, Al Capone's enforcer while Scarface is in prison, he threatens to overshadow the entire cast. He always gets the best lines (impatiently watching Telly Savalas' scheme to transport illegal booze by running it through an underground piping system, Nitti snarles, "If there ain't booze coming out of them three holes, Pete's gonna put three holes in each of you."), and often has the air about him of a put-upon executive having to deal with underlings who just don't have the smarts to get the job done. It's a magnificent job of nibbling around the edges of the scenery while preserving a sense of real menace.

Of course, you have to have a protagonist for a show like this to work, and Robert Stack's redoubtable Ness is perfect. Yes, he's wooden in the role, but that's the way Ness should be played. As is typical of the era, you seldom see Ness at home; aside from the fact that he's married and has a child (shown in the two-part pilot), you never know anything about his personal life. He's mostly humorless, but has inspired great loyalty among his team of Untouchables because of his personal dedication and honesty.

Who am I kidding, though. The main appeal of The Untouchables, at least for the first couple of seasons, is the unbridled violence. Almost every episode ends in a huge shootout with the bad guys being filled full of lead before flamboyantly pirouetting to their deaths, often with their own machine guns still blaring. Virtually every car chase ends in an explosion, preferably crashing into a vat full of booze, which in turn produces another explosion. People were horrified at the time, which is one reason why it was such a big hit. Today, the violence looks tepid compared to what we've grown accustomed to, but for the time, it was sensational. Because of pressure from Congress and public interest groups, it gets toned down, much to the show's detriment.

The Untouchables won't receive any history awards, and it may not be included in any Golden Age of Television. It's just fun.

Route 66
I've mentioned before that this is the first series that I've ever dropped from our regular rotation. I've revived it in the last month, partly because we're still in the third (of four) seasons and already have the discs, and partly because thanks to Shout! Factory, we'll be able to watch the final season without having to buy them.

Route 66 was always preachy, thanks in no small part to Sterling Silliphant (who, nonetheless, could still uncork a doozy of a script on occasion), and this story of two young men (Martin Milner and George Maharis) driving a Corvette around the country in search of adventure and the meaning of life, provides what James Lileks would call an "inadvertent documentary" on America in the late '50s and early '60s. It's a time when America was still a nation that produced things, when ethnic neighborhoods still existed in most large cities, when someone could still make a living using their hands, when college degrees weren't used as a gatekeeper for even the most minor job. It's a wonderful look at the architecture of the time, at how America was still, for the most part, a regional nation full of dialects and quirks and everything we think of when we talk about a "melting pot."

Milner and Maharis, as Tod Stiles and Buz Murdoch, make for a great team of opposites. Tod's the idealist, the college educated young man with a penchant for thinking he can save the world one person at a time; Buz's education came from the streets, the school of hard knocks. He grew up in an orphanage, has seen the other side of life, knows that there aren't always easy answers. Of the two, he's the more likable, the one it's easier to identify with. When he leaves the series midway through the third season, he's replaced by Vietnam vet Linc Case, whose quiet, often thoughtful demeanor is too much like Tod's to provide the contrast required.

In fact, Tod really got on my nerves after awhile, which is why I wound up putting the show on hiatus for a couple of years. Every episode became a crusade of sorts, trying to change someone (especially a lovely female), increasingly settling things with his fists, falling in love too quickly, sticking around and becoming involved while you're shouting at the screen, "run, run away fast, these people are crazy!" I know they're looking for adventure, but sometimes enough is enough. And that's too bad, because I think Martin Milner was by far the most likable person in the cast; Tod just rubs me the wrong way. Linc's started to grow on me a bit since resuming the series; still, I won't deny that I'll be glad to see them reach the end of the road.

Waiting in the wings: Naked City (replacing The Saint), The Eleventh Hour (replacing The Untouchables)

Recently concluded: The Avengers

Next up: Thursday, if I remember to get around to it!


  1. This is a great way to watch old TV, and of course it is how it was intended to be watched! I'm particularly interested that there are two series you mention that I've never seen and I must look them up. Thanks for a great post.

    1. My pleasure -but of course, I'm always thanking you for your great ones as well! :)

  2. Bruce Gordon was perfect, and it was just sidesplittingly funny to see him spoof his image on CAR 54 during a 1962-63 episode (the UNTOUCHABLES was still on the air!) as "Mr. Big", a mafia kingpin who is very impressed with "Bull", his nickname for an undercover Gunther Toody.

    Roger Moore was perfect for this role, and I really enjoyed his work with Tony Curtis in THE PERSUADERS after it. He didn't fit into the MAVERICK universe nearly as well, but it wasn't his fault; the best writers had departed that series by 1960-61.

    Somehow the first 3 things that pop into my head for Friday night TV (and reveal when I grew up): Sanford and Son, Dallas, Dukes of Hazzard

    1. Yes - I didn't watch Dukes of Hazzard, but associating Sanford and Son and Dallas with Friday - absolutely! Two others that I recall from Fridays - The Rockford Files and Police Woman. Of course, that might have been because NBC was the only station we got back then...

      And I absolutely agree with you on Roger Moore and Maverick charming, but not the best fit.

      I understand that Bruce Gordon loved spoofing his Nitti image - I understand he used to have a restaurant called "Frank Nitti's Place," and another one where he'd greet the diners with the pinstriped suit and carnation. Wonderful!

  3. I forgot to say about the confidence thing, that I've been reflecting recently on how TV characters react to the situation they are in. They are frequently apparently unconcerned by incredibly harrowing situations. I can't make up my mind whether cynically to think that of course they're not worried since we all know it's not real and will turn out alright for our heroes, or to think that this element of unreality is what makes TV the ultimate balm. I'm particularly thinking of the way you can be murdered without blood in The Avengers and have an immaculate corpse days later. But then of course The Avengers takes unreality to an extreme...

    1. That, my friend, is a terrific point. Sometimes in today's series you'll see a character agonize over a justified killing, but it's usually an attempt to introduce the minimum daily requirement of angst into the show, I think. Even series as good as Naked Gun or will never carry over the consequences to the next episode. Killing is, I guess, just another part of the job.

      We should develop your cynical idea a little more - I think there's also something of a recognition by the show and the stars that they aren't going for hyper-realism, but they're portraying an icon (like Steve McGarrett in the original Hawaii Five-O, for example) that is meant to symbolize something - justice, the incorruptible officer, something like that - rather than for you to accept him as an actual human being. Not quite as cynical, perhaps; maybe a little more existential.

  4. The Untouchables:

    Been reading up on this show, and here's the thing:
    In its own time, The Untouchables was considered something of a prestige show, attracting major name stars, writers, and directors.
    The pilot was directed by Phil Karlson, who was told by Desi Arnaz to "... give me the realism ...". When it aired on Desilu Playhouse,the pilot won huge audience numbers, better than average reviews, and was immediately fast-tracked for series development - so fast that CBS, which would normally had the first call, was beaten out by ABC.
    When the series began production, the stars lined up to be guests.
    So did the screenwriters, many of whom were also doing Naked City and the anthology shows.
    Directors, same as above.
    My main source is a book by Tise Vahimagi, published by (of all people) the British Film Institute. Maybe someone can explain why most American writers show so much less respect for homegrown productions than they find overseas.
    Oh well ...

    About Bruce Gordon:
    I've been remembering some of his other TV and movie roles:
    - An early episode of Mannix in which he played a Roman Catholic bishop (purple robes and everything).
    - From the same time frame, an Ironside in which he played (in full uniform) the manager of the San Francisco Giants.
    - many appearances on Perry Mason, almost never as a bad guy.
    - In comedy, don't forget his "reunion" with Bob Stack on The Lucy Show, helping to reveal one of Hollywood's best-kept secrets: Stack's sense of humor (the rest of the world didn't find out until Airplane!).
    - And on and on.

    1. I wonder if I've seen that Tise Vahimagi book somewhere; I'm pretty sure it's not the Untouchables book I have, though I'm not home right now to confirm it. That's a very good question as well, about the respect that homegrown products get overseas as opposed to here. We should discuss that at length sometime.

      I remember that Mannix episode very well - I wouldn't have wanted to be excommunicated by him! And I did just see one of his Mason appearances, where the writers didn't want you to know until the very end whether or not he was a bad guy. I thought he played the role with an extreme sense of dignity. I like him a lot.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!