May 16, 2018

G-Men vs. Commies

Efrem Zimbalist Jr., left, receives an award for "patriotic civilian service" from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, center, and Gen. William C. Westmoreland, Army chief of staff, in Washington, Dec. 4, 1968. (AP)
I've mentioned in the past that our Sunday night routine includes watching The FBI, starring the great Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. and a succession of partners, fighting criminals and making the country safe from Communism. Although J. Edgar Hoover never appeared in the show, his fingerprints - so to speak - are all over it, and it must break not only his heart but that of Zimbalist and everyone else who worked on the series to see the mess the Bureau has become. Therefore, let us think of happier times, when the FBI was seen as the shining light of American law enforcement. The following, a kind of compendium of past mentions of the show, is one of the essays included in my forthcoming book. 

Although J. Edgar Hoover first came to prominence with the FBI’s 1936 capture of gangster Alvin Karpis, “Public Enemy #1,” I think it’s safe to say that his real passion in life (at least from a law enforcement perspective) was protecting the nation from the threat of Communism. Hoover not only viewed Communism as the greatest danger to the stability of the American government, he also saw other groups (anti-war radicals, civil rights protesters) as working in tandem with the Reds, either intentionally or inadvertently, to undermine American democracy.

This was evident at the very start of The FBI. Right there in the show’s original opening credits, viewers were informed of the Bureau's mission: to “protect the innocent and identify the enemies of the United States Government.” That opening title scene was perfect, really; perhaps only the start of Perry Mason did a better job of summarizing what the show was all about. After a cold opening that gave us a look at the episode’s criminal, along with the case number and why he or she was wanted by the FBI, the scene dissolved into shots of Washington icons: the Capitol, the Washington Monument, and the Supreme Court, ending with a zoom-in on the Justice Department, home of the Bureau. Between that and the majestic theme, written by Bronislaw Kaper, it was enough to make you run right out there and sign up. I’m sure Hoover must have loved it.

Hoover and the FBI had had a brilliant public relations machine for years, dating back to radio programs such as I Was a Communist for the FBI, and favorable articles in the nation’s publications and periodicals. By the mid-60s, though, the Bureau was going through some tough times, what with the twin barrages brought by Vietnam and civil rights (and Hoover’s surveillance against leaders of both movements), and though the Bureau’s reputation was probably far above where it is today, a little good publicity couldn’t hurt. "We finally decided to clarify for the public what the FBI does," Cartha DeLoach, Hoover's #2, said. "We're simply an investigative agency. We can't protect people - like civil rights workers, for instance. There's some confusion about what we do and I hope this program will show people how we really work." Nicely played.

Over the years, Hoover had received many requests from television people interested in doing a weekly FBI series, and it’s been said that he personally wanted producer Quinn Martin, he of The Untouchables and The Fugitive, to be the one who did it. Martin had resisted the idea at first; he was, he said, "much more politically left of the FBI," but he eventually too up the challenge, and despite their political differences the two men liked each other and got along well.

A cynic might be tempted to dismiss The FBI as an entertaining piece of propaganda designed to show the Bureau in the best light possible, and in fact it does come across as a paragon of law enforcement, more interested in getting the guilty party than simply making a quick arrest (although ideally doing both); one of the highlights of each episode is when the fugitives realize the Feds are on their trail. “It’s one thing to have the cops after us,” one of them will always say to the other, “but now we’ve got the FBI out there.” It’s a sobering moment - from then on, no matter how much they may try, they know in their heart of hearts that the jig is up.

The perfect man to embody that philosophy was the show’s star, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. Hoover may not have hand-picked the cast on each week’s show, but the Bureau did have approval rights, and supposedly screened the background of every potential actor and actress who appeared in order to make sure they upheld the image that Hoover wanted projected. Over the years Zimbalist and Hoover became lifelong friends; every year, when the show’s production team would come out to the Capital to shoot some exterior shots establishing location, Hoover would have him come to his offices where they'd chat a bit, and then Zimbalist would address the agents, who cheered him as their hero. (At Hoover’s funeral in 1972, Zimbalist was seated in the FBI section.) For years afterward, Zimbalist recounted, men and women would come up to him, current or former FBI agents, and they would tell him of how watching him on the series had inspired their own career choice. It was humbling, he said, and how could it not be?

Give credit to Efrem, though, because his portrayal of special agent Lewis Erskine was an iconic one, the very definition of the hard-working, incorruptible FBI man. So identified was Zimbalist with the role that for the political satirist Art Buchwald he was the FBI; in a hilarious column about the first known wiretap (President Grant tells a Hooveresque surrogate “I want you to go to Boston and find out what Alexander Graham Bell is up to”) the agent registers in the hotel under the name of “Zimbalist”; another of his columns features an agent named “Efrem Zumgard.”

The FBI didn’t spend all its time fighting Communist agents; there was a fair share of bank robbers, kidnappers, corrupt union officials, organized crime bosses, and other lawbreakers whose nefarious activities took them across state lines (and therefore into the jurisdiction of the FBI); and Quinn Martin tended to shy away from hot-button issues such as civil rights (he was as sensitive to audience and sponsor reaction as anyone). It’s probably true, though, that the most frequent heavies were those who spoke with eastern European accents and preyed on the weaknesses of those who could be blackmailed into helping them – particularly if those people worked with Department of Defense contractors. Occasionally, you’d even meet a true believer, someone who of their own free will was involved in providing aid and comfort to the enemy, in the form of top secret information on a new missile guidance system which they hoped would lead to the victory of the peace-loving Soviets or Red Chinese.

No matter. The FBI always got their Commies.

As was the case with Mission: Impossible, The FBI had to adapt as the public began to adopt a more cynical attitude toward government, and in lieu of Communist agents, La Cosa Nostra became a favorite target. I wonder, though, if The FBI wasn’t one of the last dramas of the ‘70s to actually portray the war against Communism in a favorable light. Although several of the Red agents were given very complex treatments, with some of them even emerging as sympathetic characters, there was never the slightest suggestion that what they were doing could be ignored or excused. They were involved in espionage, and if they were Americans, they were also betraying their country. Neither the FBI nor The FBI thought much of that.

There was, in that day, great dignity – even nobility – in the idea of being a part of the world's greatest police organization, which brings us back once again to those opening credits. As much as anything, they showed us how the FBI was, even if it was never how it was. TV  


  1. Yep, Hadley, the "good ole days" when the FBI was doing illegal stuff like COINTELPRO...

  2. Kinda-sorta off-topic, but maybe not:

    In your reading of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe, have you ever read The Doorbell Rang?
    This is Wolfe's tweaking of the FBI, published in 1965 - oddly enough, the same year that The FBI series began its long run on ABC.
    Rex Stout had long been an outspoken critic of the Bureau, and of J. Edgar Hoover in particular; this in its turn brought Doorbell quite a bit of attention both here in the USA, and abroad, where the Wolfe stories had always been popular.
    One of the countries that saw publication of Stout/Wolfe stories was Russia -actually the USSR, whose component republics were big fans of US detective fiction.
    Remember in this context that Nero Wolfe was a native of Montenegro, which for years was part of Yugoslavia - but that's another story ...

    Rex Stout, though left-of-center politically, was always vigorously anti-Communist, which made his popularity in the USSR somewhat of an anomaly - or maybe not; the Wolfe stories were mainly published in "literary magazines" and suchlike.
    The Doorbell Rang changed that a bit; after a few serializations, the book itself got a full scale USSR release in 1973 (shortly after Hoover's death), with much made of the anti-FBI angle of the story.
    Soviet readers were stunned that an American writer could be so openly critical of a US government agency as Stout/Wolfe was of Hoover and the Bureau.
    My source for all of this is a recent book called Rex Stout Does Not Belong In Russia, by Molly Jane Levine Zuckerman, which covers Stout's popularity in Russia, both in the Soviet period and after the fall of the USSR. (The book is apparently self-published, and is available from Amazon.)
    The odd thing is that Rex Stout's popularity in Russia (and in Europe generally) is far greater than it currently is in the USA (where the Wolfe books are almost completely out of print).(Damn demographics ...)

    The Doorbell Rang has been filmed twice: first in 1977 for ABC (this was the Thayer David pilot), and later in 2000 for the A&E series; both are available on DVD. (Just so you know ...)


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!