June 16, 2021

What I've been watching: May, 2021








Shows I’ve Watched:

Shows I’ve Found:
Stoney Burke
Johnny Staccato
Mike Hammer, Private Eye
The Search for Ulysses
Michelangelo: The Last Giant
The Twilight Zone: The
  Complete Series



Xhere was a time, back in what we might call the “Peak Era of TV on DVD,” when it was possible for just about any program from the classic era to wind up in disc, no matter how unlikely, no matter that there had been no great popular demand to see it, as long as the elements existed. That doesn’t mean that the series wasn’t a good one, nor does it mean that it didn’t have its devoted followers; it’s just that it wasn’t what you might call a “legacy” show, a hit from years past without which no classic television library would be complete.

Such a series is Stoney Burke (ABC, 1962-63 season), a contemporary Western set in the world of the professional rodeo circuit, starring Jack Lord in his pre-Steve McGarrett days. And, in fact, Stoney Burke is a show that’s often better than good, and occasionally very, very good. It’s produced by Leslie Stevens, who was also responsible for The Outer Limits, which means at the very least the episodes, even the ones that fall short, are going to be intelligent.

Stoney Burke is a young saddle bronc rider whose goal is to make it big by winning the world championship, and the series follows him from the beginning of the season through the individual rodeos that make up the circuit. It means visiting lots of smaller cities and towns in the West and Southwest, and even on one occasion a prison (and you can guess how that story worked out). Assisting him on the way is Warren Oates, who plays Ves Painter, a shady, often untrustworthy worker of odd jobs. It would be an exaggeration to call him a friend of Stoney’s, but it wouldn’t be quite right to consider him an antagonist, either; perhaps more like Angel in The Rockford Files, if that makes sense. Also among the supporting cast are Bruce Dern, in a rare television role, as E.J. Stocker; and Robert Dowdell (Cody Bristol), whom fans will recognize from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Both E.J. and Cody are friends of Stoney, and all three supporting actors are excellent, especially Oates and Dern, who give instant credibility to any television Western, even one set in modern times.

Clockwise from left: Robert Dowdell, 
Jack Lord, Warren Oates and Bruce Dern 
One of the interesting things about Stoney Burke is that, in many ways, it’s a series completely typical of its time. By that, I mean that the plot often revolves around guest stars facing one challenge or another, with Stoney somehow finding himself caught up in their story. In one instance, an old friend of Stoney’s (Jacqueline Scott) finds herself alone, depressed, and on the verge of giving birth, while her unreliable absentee husband (Albert Salmi, which tells you all you need to know) is off trying to make a living. Predictably, she begins to substitute Stoney for her hubby; importantly, Stoney does not reciprocate. He knows his place in their friendship, knows the role he has to play in her moment of vulnerability, but more important, knows the role that her husband, the father of her son, has to play. Salmi is always good playing a man you like to dislike, but the script, if it does not reform him, at least allows him some room for possible growth, and the ending is a hopeful one. It would be easy to see this kind of a plot on The Fugitive, Dr. Kildare, or the other quasi-anthologies of the era.

Even when Stoney does play the central role, as in the prison episode I mentioned earlier, in which he and a young woman are kidnapped by a man busting out (Ed Nelson, who’s very good), he has a way of drawing the fugitive’s story out, making him more than a simple character and providing us with an ending that is predictable only because the character development suggested it as the only possible way it could end. Even the disreputable Ves is given an episode of his own, when he's falsely accused of murder and Stoney finds himself defending his frienemy, at times against his better judgment.    

You’re probably wondering how Jack Lord does as a cowboy, and the answer is: pretty good. He’s still Steve McGarrett: incorruptible, virtuous, solid as a rock and ramrod straight. (You can take the boy out of the island, but you can't take the island out of the boy.) As it happens, these are pretty good traits to have if you’re a cowboy, and it makes him a natural leader of the others. It’s true that Lord has never been an actor of great versatility, but he gives you the kind of performance you’re looking for in a show like this. At times the cowboy vernacular sounds a little awkward coming from him; Lord as an actor is too well-spoken for it to sound completely natural when he starts dropping his g’s and using words like “reckon,” but it doesn’t jump the shark either. And you don’t worry about something happening to him, which is a good quality for a hero to possess. 

I mentioned at the outset that Stoney Burke comes from Leslie Stevens, which means Daystar Productions, which means composer Dominic Frontiere; and while the show's theme is appropriately Western, many of the music cues in each episode come from other Daystar shows like The Outer Limits. It often gives the show a decidedly non-Western feel. You might find that strange (I still remember hearing Sea Hunt music on Highway Patrol), but it works, because at heart Stoney Burke is not really a Western; it's a drama about men who still live a life of hard work and independence. (One of the best episodes features Stoney being wooed by a wealthy man, played by smarmy Robert Webber,  who promises him a future of security and success—at the cost of being his own man.) It's always nice to see a show you've only known from TV Guide, and most of the time Stoney Burke gives you a smooth ride.

t  t  t

And then there's Mike Hammer, Private Eye (Syndicated, 1997-98). It's the third of the three iterations of Hammer as played by Stacy Keach, and we'll start with the good news since that won't take all that long. Keach has what it takes to play the rough-and-tumble detective; he wears the role comfortably, he sounds like Hammer, and he acts like Hammer—that is, when he's allowed to. And therein lies the rub.

If you're familiar with Mike Hammer, you probably know that the Mickey Spillane novels are among the most violent stories in the pulp fiction oeuvre. Hammer is a loner, skilled with his gun and his fists, distrustful of a legal system that he believes is too protective of the criminal, attracted by and irrestible to the ladies, but truly trusting only in his secretary and love of his life, Velda. For Mike Hammer, the only good criminal is a dead one. 

If you're familiar with Darren McGavin's version of Hammer from the late 1950s, you probably know that the show was criticized, even by McGavin, for being overly violent, with Hammer routinely shooting, punching, or kicking the bad guys in every episode. 

This, however, is a kinder, gentler Mike Hammer, a Hammer for the 1990s. He gets beaten up at least once in each episode (unlikely) by criminals who catch him offguard (extremely unlikely) before he tracks down the perp, whom he frequently hands over to the authorities (impossible). He's aided in his efforts by young Nick Ferrell (Shane Conrad, son of Robert), whose policeman father was killed in the first episode. Nick is pleasant enough in a bland sort of way, but aside from shooting a few crooks over the course of the season, he doesn't really provide any value other than demonstrating why the real Mike Hammer works alone.

The one major advantage we do have is the inclusion of Velda, who was inexplicably left out of the McGavin version. Velda is played by Shannon Whirry, who most certainly has the figure for Velda. What she doesn't have, for the most part, is the edginess and spark of the literary Velda. That Velda, you have to remember, is a licensed private detective in her own right, who packs heat and knows how to use it. She's also crazy about Mike; she knows his dalliances, but also knows that in the long run they mean nothing to him. Whirry's Velda, while delightful to look at, is more of an office manager/private secretary; she isn't above a little undercover work to unearth a clue, but she doesn't look like the kind who could drill you between the eyes with one shot, and the sexual chemistry between her and Hammer is virtually non-existent, to the point that you're not even sure if it's supposed to be there. 

The stories themselves are generic, run-of-the-mill mysteries, with none of the grimy, unsavory elements of the novels. They're frequently blandly written, the production values are on the cheap side, and the logic applied by the police in the course of their investigations is sloppy at best. (And by the way, there's no sign in this series of Lieutenant Pat Chambers, Hammer's old friend and occasional opponent. Instead, for reasons that are apparently none of our business, his police contact is Captain Skip Gleason, played with bluster but without inteligence by Peter Jason. And each episode features plenty of what sportswriter Dan Jenkins called "shapley adorables," most of whom are far too young for the mature Mr. Keach. 

The whole thing is disappointing, not just because I love the Hammer books (which I do), but because it's such a waste of intellectual property. Here you are, with the rights to one of the greatest fictional detectives in history, one whose sense of justice often borders on the sadistic, and you completely take away from him what makes him larger than life: you let him get punched around and ambushed by two-bit punks, you turn him into a more sensitive, more modern man (although he does still wear a fedora),  you seldom allow him the violent latitude that he's known for, and you stick him in stories worthy of The Snoop Sisters. I'm still willing to give the earlier versions of Keach's Hammer (both from the 1980s) a try; at the very least, having both been on CBS, they're likely to have higher production values.

And before you remind me that commercial television would never allow the level of violence found in, for example, Armand Assante's portrayal in the often-brilliant I, the Jury, I'd point out that McGavin's Hammer was, pound for pound, more violent than this one. Even without the sadism, the viewer doesn't come away from a given episode with any real sense of what it is that makes Mike Hammer one of the most feared men in New York City. 

That's more than just bad; it's a crime. What we need now is a good detective to investigate it.  TV  

6 comments:

  1. The 80s CBS series with Keach is 1000x better than the 90s show.

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  2. Thought I'd get this in early ...

    - Stoney Burke:
    In 1962-63, Stoney was what would nowadays be called a 'bubble' show.
    Its competition on Monday nights was Danny Thomas and Andy Griffith on CBS, which had a third again as many stations as ABC did; this by itself overbalanced things.
    In January, NBC put in a second movie night, and that was the coup de grace.
    There were a couple of other things:
    Leslie Stevens's Daystar Productions was just getting started, and Stevens had big plans: at least one Stoney episode was a "backdoor pilot" ("The Weapons Man", a cop show with J.D. Cannon), and The Outer Limits was in the hopper, ready to go.
    The Plan was for Daystar to have three prime time hours in the fall of '63 - that's "Plan", as in "If you want to make God laugh ..."
    Long story short, the Plan didn't come off: by fall '63, Outer Limits was the only Daystar show on ABC - and whole books have been written about the problems on that show (but you know that, I guess ...).
    Actually, the only one who came out ahead was Dominic Frontiere, who retained ownership of his music, which he endlessly repurposed on many United Artists TV series (and more than a few theatrical features) for years afterwards - and that's another story ...

    - Oh, as for Stoney Burke, What I recall reading at the time was that Jack Lord was as much a fathead in the making as he came to be on Hawaii Five-O - and that's yet another story ...

    Mike Hammer, his heirs and assigns:
    In 2012, my friend Max Allan Collins, in collaboration with James L. Traylor, came out with Mickey Spillane On Screen, a book-length study of all Spillane film and TV adaptations to that time.
    The MH: Private Eye series under consideration here is written up as Chapter 20; the main difference between this write-up and yours is that MAC's is longer and more detailed, but that's to be expected.
    Side note: when I brought the book to one of MAC's events, Max was kind enough to ask "Please tell me that you didn't pay the full price for this."
    The book was published by McFarland, the most notoriously pricey publisher around, and Max's experiences with them were not the best possible.
    I bought the book from Amazon Prime, with a slight discount, so a relieved Max signed happily, informing me that my copy was the first one he'd signed, so that went well.
    Currently, MAC and Jim Traylor are putting the finishing touches on a definitive biography of Mickey Spillane, which should be ready sometime in 2022.
    Also, Max and his wife Barb have just marked their 53rd wedding anniversary, so drop them a line if you like.
    Just go to his website: Friends/Family/Fans of Max Allan Collins; it's not hard to find.

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  3. The 1984-85 episodes of MIKE HAMMER on CBS remains my favorite and IMO best realized version. The show lost something after the hiatus (forced by Keach's overseas arrest) in 1986-87, they had already softened it too much there. The 1997-98 version was even more watered down, as you note. But the first two seasons (unfortunately both truncated--I think there's about 27 episodes) on CBS were both very good.

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  4. Comparing Mike Hammer to The Snoop Sisters made me smile.

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  5. Not many people know that when the show was on the brink of being canceled, a format change was proposed - Stoney would solve a murder on the rodeo circuit every week, with a guest cast of seasoned Western stars as possible suspects. Alas, ABC passed, but they did recast it and reset it in Beverly Hills - which is a good thing, because otherwise we might have wound up with "Stoney Burke, Secret Agent."

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  6. Jack Lord and William Windom became friends after working on this show. Bill appears in one episode. He later appeared on two episodes of Hawaii 5-0. Jack even attended one of Bill's, one man shows when Bill visited Hawaii. I have to say I disagree on the first paragraph of your article. Many obscure shows were put on DVD at one point, like Stoney Burke, but a show like The Farmer's Daughter which was a sleeper for Screen Gems yet still popular, never made it to dvd.

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!