May 13, 2020

Captain Kirk is Archie Goodwin!

You all know by now that Nero Wolfe is a favorite in the Hadley household, both in written form and in the legendary A&E series with Maury Chaykin as Nero Wolfe and Timothy Hutton as Archie Goodwin. There was another Wolfe series, in 1981, with William Conrad and Lee Horsley doing the honors; that one's fun enough, I suppose, but it never really did it for me. But did you know we might well have had yet another Nero Wolfe series?

Back a few years ago I mentioned an item in a 1959 TV Guide issue about a pilot being shot, with Kurt Kasznar playing Wolfe and William Shatner in the role of Archie. At the time, I remarked how I'd like to see that sometime, but the pilot was thought lost. No longer, though; a couple of months ago at Lee Goldberg's YouTube channel, what should pop up but the original pilot, in a very clear print, for all to see!

So what did you think? Comparing it to other versions, it does very well. It's certainly better than the radio adaptation with Sydney Greenstreet; he plays Wolfe a little too avuncular, as if he were channeling Kasper Gutman from The Maltese Falcon. It's also superior to the Conrad version; had Conrad played Wolfe with a little less of Frank Cannon's good humor (perhaps a little more like the hitman he played in The Killers), it would have been better. And of course, Horsley falls far short of the Archie Goodwin standard set by Timothy Hutton.

But this is actually a pretty fair adaptation, and while Kasznar hits the right notes (especially the accent; Wolfe, after all, is from Montenegro), it's our old friend William Shatner who who is a pleasant surprise. After watching him, it dawned on me that Archie is really James T. Kirk in a suit and tie. I mean, look at the smirk in that picture under the header. Doesn't that look just like Kirk after he's pulled a fast one on the Klingons? While Shatner did have the tendency to talk a little too quickly, there was none of Kirk's mannered emoting that we sometimes have fun with—just a same kind of smartass cockiness that describes Archie to a T. It's nice to know Kirk would have had something to fall back on if the Starship thing didn't work out.

It's hard to tell if the quality would have remained over the course of an entire season; while the script picks up many of the mannerisms that distinguish the characters in print, it's also true that the pilot often hits marks that a subsequent series struggles to match. I would have liked to have seen it, though—even a single season would have been well worth it. Pfui! TV  


  1. I remember one funny thing about the 1981 NERO WOLFE series. Robert McKenzie, TV Guide's critic after Cleveland Amory, reviewed his mail in his last column for the 1980-81 season. He wrote about one woman who wrote that he should be "Whipped with a wet William Conrad" for his negative review of the series. He followed up that quote by writing "A sobering thought". He often had similar humor to Amory, and this was a short, cute witticism of many that he made.

  2. McKenzie was the TV critic at the Oakland Tribune, and reporter for two local TV stations in the Bay Area for three decades. While he did the usual investigative and 'hard news', he became known for lighthearted pieces, displaying the same wit he showed in his columns. Here is a San Francisco Chronicle obituary, from 2011:

  3. This one, I had to put a lot of thought into …

    Also a lot of "research", staring with a comment I sent you on August 29, 2013.
    One of the earliest ones I sent you.
    The one where I told you about this pilot film, back when it was still believed to be "lost".
    Look it up; it's still up there.
    In the years since, I've been keeping up with things Wolfean, from many sources - in particular, my long-term membership in The Wolfe Pack (I have mentioned that, haven't I?).
    Most recently, I passed along to you the news that this Nero Wolfe pilot film was now available on DVD (about a year ago, IIRC).
    So your post, wherein you seem surprised that this film even exists …
    … well, frankly, I'm worried.
    You're ten years younger than I am, and if your memory at 60 is this bad, I really ought to worry about mine at (nearly) 70 …

    In any event, I suppose I ought to mention the reason that this version of Wolfe didn't go to series:
    Rex Stout hated hated HATED the pilot.
    He's quoted by his biographer, John McAleer, thusly:
    Once (Stout) previewed a TV Nero Wolfe pilot film. "It was terrible", he told me …
    That's from Rex Stout: A Biography, by John McAleer, published in 1977; the quote appears on page 487, and is part of a larger take-down of television in general.
    CBS's Wolfe series had a time slot commitment (Mondays at 10 Eastern/9 Central Time), but was dropped at the last minute in favor of Jackie Cooper's Hennessy.
    It's been verified since then that Rex Stout himself stopped the series, telling his representative Edwin Fadiman that he wanted no part of any TV production - period.
    Exceptions to the above: Stout did allow productions of Wolfe by Italian television, because he wouldn't have to see them.
    American producers didn't stop making offers, though; on page 488, McAleer lists a number of suggestions for Wolfe and Archie made by various TV types, some of which might make you wince (as they did me).
    Anyway, it's all academic; after Rex Stout's death in 1975, his estate made Wolfe and Archie available to TV, and you know the rest.

    I note that you didn't mention the main mistake that CBS made with this Wolfe film: it's only a half-hour long - and even then it was obvious that you needed at least an hour to do a mystery right (not that Rex Stout might have liked an hour show any better than he did the half-hour).

    Anyhow, there it is; that's why they call it "the past".

    I see that Dan at Eventually Supertrain is about to take on the Bill Conrad/Nero Wolfe show from '81.
    Now that one has me a bit worried …
    … but that's another story …

    1. No, I remember well how I blogged about this a few years ago. This was the first time I'd ever seen the pilot, which had only been up at Goldberg's channel for a couple of months. If it sounds as if I'm suggesting that it's just been found, that's not the impression I intended to convey, although I suspect for 99% of the audience, it wouldn't matter - they wouldn't have seen it either. I'll still stack my memory up against anyone's, anyday!


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!