July 28, 2021

What I've been watching: June, 2021

Shows I’ve Watched:

Shows I’ve Found:
Johnny Staccato
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Richard Diamond, Private Detective
The Search for Ulysses
Smiley's People

suppose it would be many years ago now, on the late, lamented Trio cable channel, that I first saw the private detective series Johnny Staccato, starring John Cassavetes. It was part of a block of shows called "Brilliant But Cancelled," but the episode I saw must not have been very brilliant, because it gave me the impression that Staccato wasn't anything to write home about. But the end of N.Y.P.D. left a half-hour hole in our Thursday night schedule, so maybe it was time to give it another chance. And having that opportunity to view the series again has also given me the opportunity to reassess my opinion, for while Johnny Staccato may not be brilliant, it's mostly good and occasionally better than that, and it's always enjoyable to watch. (The ridiculous name of the show's hero also proved good fodder for SCTV's detective parody Vic Arpeggio, but that's a story for another day.)

Johnny Staccato (NBC, 1959-60) comes from the great era of jazz detective series, which also included Peter Gunn and Richard Diamond. (I wonder, though, was there another, not-so-great, era of jazz detective series, maybe a show starring Miles Davis as an irascible, iconoclastic, go-his-own way loner, doing battle with his evil nemesis, Felonious Monk. Or was that joke too easy? But I'm afraid I've digressed.) Staccato comes by his creditentials honestly, as a jazz pianist-turned-private detective who, when he's not hunting down the bad guys, spends his time jamming with real-life jazz greats like Red Mitchell, Barney Kessel, Johnny Williams and Red Mitchell. (The show's theme, by the great Elmer Bernstein, and the driving score, supervised by Stanley Wilson, add instant credibility for both jazz and mystery fans.) 

As is the case with many half-hour detective shows, the mysteries sometimes tend to get wrapped up a little too easily. That's an occupational hazard of the genre. It can seem as if Staccato barely has time for any detecting at all. But almost every episode introduces something that makes it worth watching. Cassavetes took an active part in making the show work, and it shows; in addition to directing several episodes himself (and you can tell; those episodes have a distinctive, movie-like feel to them), he also insisted on playing a part in casting, which results in some outstanding guest star lineups. In "Nature of the Night," a mysterious slasher is attacking young blondes in the neighborhood. As the attacks continue, Johnny suspects that the club's bartender, Dave, is involved. In the conversations that follow we learn the details, a bit at a time: Dave and Johnny are old friends; Dave is bothered by Johnny's success; Dave's life collapsed after his wife left him to pursue an acting career. Johnny thinks he's persuaded Dave to turn himself in, but Dave makes a break for it, and threatens to jump off a building. With help from the police and the parish priest, Johnny is able to talk Dave down.

On the surface, there's not much to the story. There's very little doubt that Dave is the slasher, we know Johnny won't fall in trying to rescue Dave. We're not sure that Dave's going to make it, though, thanks to an excellent, nuanced performance by Dean Stockwell, who gives Dave a backstory and depth often missing in half-hour dramas. Then there's J. Pat O'Malley as the police sergeant who recognizes the risks involved but doesn't resist Johnny's involvement. Finally, there's Vladimir Sokoloff as Pastor Keeley (unsaid, but likely a Catholic priest), who takes the time after Dave's rescue to make sure that Johnny is all right as well. As I say, there's a quality to this that raises the episode above the average detective thriller.

A halo, or the inquisitor's spotlight?
Another very good episode, this one directed by Cassavetes, is "Evil," which opens with a striking scene: Alexander Scourby, he of the diginfied speaking voice, looking straight into the camera and intoning,"Evil attacks you through your television sets." (Talk about bitting the hand that feeds you.) Scourby portrays Brother Max, a gospel mission preacher who may or may not be a con artist; Johnny's called into the case by a relative of an old woman who's pledged all her money—both in this life and in the next—to Brother Max. Johnny's preconceived notion of guilt is shaken after talking to her; he finds not a helpless old woman but one serene in her faith and the direction her life has taken, thanks to her involvement with Max. He decides to investigate further: if the preacher's a crook, the authorities need to know, but if he's legit, Johnny needs to know; he envies the quiet certitude that he's seen in the woman. 

Cassavetes brings a style and panache to his direction, putting himself in the backgroud to emphasize a trio of powerful performances from his co-stars: not just Scourby, who oozes charm and smarm in equal parts, but Elisha Cook, heartbreaking as a man constantly falling back into the sin of demon drink; and 
Lloyd Corrigan as Brother Thomas, founder of the mission, who finds an inner strength he never knew he had when he's forced to admit to the congregation that he, and they, have been duped by Max. His transformation from a weak man worried about what his congregation will think of him to a courageous man taking responsiblity for his failings and standing up against Max is both moving and inspiring; it's also a sign of an actor's director, which Cassavetes most certainly was, the certainty of the star allowing the guests to drive the episode.

Not every episode is this good, of course, or the series might have run for a few seasons rather than 27 episodes. And Cassavettes can be annoying in the best of times: I've always thought he had a Method tendency toward hammy, tic-filled, over-the-top performances at times, and perhaps that's part of what prejudiced me against the series for so long. I'm glad I got past that, though. Johnny Staccato is a worthwhile half-hour: entertaining, thought-provoking, exciting. If I was wrong to ignore it for so long, I'll gladly admit to it when the results are this satisfying.

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We've been speaking of noirish jazz detectives and Thursday nights, and they both segue nicely into Richard Diamond, Private Detective (aka Call Mr. D), the other half of Private Eye Thursdays in the Hadley household. Richard Diamond, which ran irregularly on CBS and NBC for four seasons between 1957 and 1960, is a spin-off of the radio series created by Blake Edwards, who also created Peter Gunn, which is either a remarkable coincidence or proves conclusively that these jazz detectives deserve to be grouped together.

On radio, Richard Diamond, a former cop who was too independent to stay on the force, was played by the incomparable Dick Powell; he was quick with his tongue, quick with his gun, and quick to spin a song in the apartment of his girlfriend, Helen. It was, overall, a light drama, filled with action and a healthy dose of violence, and the bad guy always got it in the end. Powell's production company, Four Star, brought the series to television in 1957, with David Janssen moving into the lead. 

A trendsetter with his car phone.
There are several differences between the radio and television versions of Diamond; although Janssen can wisecrack as well as Powell, the overall tenor of the show is darker, more serious, and now we can see the fights and shootouts that previously were left to the imagination. Helen no longer appears as Diamond's girlfriend, and his friend and former partner, Lieutenant Walt Levenson, has been replaced by Lieutenant "Mac" McGough, played by Regis Toomey. And the biggest difference of all came at the start of season three, when Diamond moved from New York to Los Angeles and acquired a Girl Friday of sorts, the sultry phone answering service operator Sam, who was never seen except in shadow, and was famously played by Mary Tyler Moore for most of the season (although neither she or her replacement, Roxanne Brooks, ever appeared in the show's credits).

So what do we make of all this? The stories, if not Holmsian in complexity, are good mysteries, and the dialogue is sharp, particularly when Diamond trades bon mots with the heavies. Unlike many detective heroes, Diamond's often playing from behind, due to a susceptibility for being bonked in the back of the head. (I wonder how many concussions he racked up over the course of the series?) One thing you can be pretty sure of, though, is that Diamond keeps score on little things like that, and he's more than likely to even the score before things finish. Janssen, of course, is everything you could ask for. His portrayal of Diamond is, as I said earlier, more serious than Powell's, and with his nervous tics and need to avoid calling attention to himself, you can see Dr. Richard Kimble foreshadowed in his performance. And although you don't worry about Diamond, he shows, I think, more vulnerability than the average TV detective. And the show is replete with guest stars, many of whom will go on to stardom: Dan Blocker, Charles Bronson, DeForest Kelly, Mort Sahl, Ross Martin, Claude Akins, and a very young Barbara Bain, who played Diamond's girlfriend in five episodes. And, speaking of jazz credentials, Diamond's come from the music of Pete Rugolo, who also wrote much of the music for The Fugitive

I use the word "fun" a lot when I'm writing about these shows, and I think that as TV goes, it's an underrated concept. Yes, TV can be educational, it can be profound, it can be mindless, it can be hilarious. We usually hope that it will at least be entertaining, even though we're resigned to our hopes being too often dashed. Sometimes, though, it doesn't need to be anything more than fun, and the team of Staccato and Diamond go a long way toward making Thursday nights a good warmup for the weekend.

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The third program on the lineup this month is The Search for Ulysses, a 1966 CBS documentary based on Ernle Bradford's quest for the real man behind the legend of Ulysses. It's one of a number of documentaries or classical programs from the 1960s that wouldn't see on broadcast TV today, but, somewhat surprisingly, can be seen on YouTube. Even though I saw it in June, I think I'll hold off on writing about it until I can pair it with another program from the era, NBC's Michaelangelo: The Last Giant. It gives us all something to look forward to, doesn't it? TV  


  1. What a fun post! It's true that "Cassavettes can be annoying in the best of times," but Johnny Staccato is never less than interesting and sometimes it's quite entertaining.

  2. Back from a brief research trip (because I have an aversion to repeating myself unnecessarily):

    A Blast From The Past:
    My "collection" of old TV shows began with VHS cassettes (mainly bootlegs) that I would get at nostalgia shows around town.
    One such tape that I happened to have contained several episodes of Johnny Staccato, taken from film that looked as though it had been stored in the basement for 20+ years, next to the water heater.
    One of the enclosed episodes was "Solomon", from late in the season; even for Staccato, this one was very off-beat, with basically only three actors on screen:
    -John Cassevetes as Johnny Staccato.
    -Elisha Cook as Solomon, a rich and eccentric attorney (his second appearance that season; Cassevetes liked to use his friends).
    -Cloris Leachman as Cook's client, a jittery society wife accused of murder (she wasn't Cloris Leachman yet; this was just after she was replaced on Lassie).
    "Solomon" was almost a stage piece: two cramped interior sets, no "action" to speak of, dense, complicated dialogue, a totally atypical Staccato show.
    My brother Sean, watching with me (circa 2000, give or take a year), was hugely disdainful of the whole thing: "Who directed this - ED WOOD?"
    You see the punchline coming down Broadway, don't you?
    When Cassevetes's director credit came up at the end of the show, all Sean could do was shake his head ...

    Actually, there was one part that Sean got a bit of a kick out of:
    The tape includes the original commercials, including one for Salem cigarettes with John Cassevetes doing the pitch himself!
    It's a pastoral outdoor scene, with JC standing on a hilltop, looking benevolently at a gorgeous young couple in a sailboat below.
    As we watch the young couple rapturously puffing away on their Salems, we hear JC on the soundtrack, musing about the fresh taste of his sponsor's product ("Take a puff - It's springtime!"
    It was, as they say, A Different Time ...

    Oh, by the way:
    You didn't mention this in the post, but this is the reason that Johnny Staccato switched from NBC to ABC in midseason.
    NBC wanted to cancel, but Salem didn't; when ABC had a half-hour open up in late spring, the deal was done (not for long, but it was done ...)


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!