June 22, 2022

Over the Transom: Ironside


by Stephen Taylor

We were not an Ironside household as I grew up. I never saw a single episode of the show as a child, and grew up knowing only that it involved a cop in a wheelchair; that was the extent of both my knowledge and my interest in the show. I’m much older now, and I have time to watch old television shows, and I thought I’d give Ironside a try. I’ve always enjoyed Raymond Burr, and thought the show might be fun to watch. I’ve watched the first three seasons, and thought I’d offer a few comments.

The premise is this: Robert T. Ironside (Raymond Burr) is the Chief of Detectives for the San Francisco Police Department. He survives an attempt on his life, but suffers an injury which leaves him a paraplegic. Forced to retire, he returns to the SAPD as a consultant; he forms a special unit comprised of Detective Sergeant Ed Brown (Don Galloway), Officer Eve Whitfield (Barbara Anderson) and assistant Mark Sanger (Don Mitchell). He reports to Police Commissioner Dennis Randall (Gene Lyons). The special unit handles almost every sort of crime, from con artists to car thieves to murder to property theft to security for dignitaries and more. Sometimes they’re directed by the Commissioner to handle certain crimes, but they mostly spring into action unbidden. It’s a standard police drama centered around Burr, except that he’s in a wheelchair.

The two-hour pilot aired in March of 1967. It was pretty good; it introduced Ironside and his team to the audience, and explained how Ironside came to be in that wheelchair. There is a lengthy list of suspects, as Ironside was not popular with quite a few people. The ending was fairly suspenseful; the murderer was not who you might think it was, and the pilot made a basic attempt to show how Ironside assembled his team. Sgt Brown and Officer Whitfield he wanted because “they’re good cops!” Mark Sanger was a different story. Ironside had already sent Sanger to jail twice. Hearing that Sanger was downstairs in booking and making threats about “getting” the Chief, Ironside had Mark brought to his office, where he offered Sanger a proposition: come to work for him or go back to jail. Push the wheelchair, assist Ironside in getting around, perform odd jobs, other duties as assigned. All for the princely sum of $20 a week. Sanger accepts, but he’s an angry black man. Very angry. Angry, but not stupid, and knowing that he’s entered an important fork in his road, he accepts. His hiring set up some of the only conflict between characters the show ever had.

Raymond Burr was an excellent actor. He’d been a supporting player in movies since the Forties, and could play a variety of parts. He committed a murder in Rear Window, and starred as a psychopathic gangster in a movie called Raw Deal* in 1948. He already had a lengthy track record on television; he’d starred in Perry Mason as the titular character in the long-running series about a defense attorney. America knew Raymond Burr, and they liked him. Never a father figure, he was the gruff but avuncular uncle who always knows how to be stern with an adult but kind to a child; understanding always, but insistent on a moral code based on honesty and integrity. The part of Chief Ironside called for this character, and it fit Raymond Burr to a T; he’d been playing a variation on that character for the last 10 years. For his part, Chief Ironside had been a cop for at least twenty years. It’s mentioned that he’d been in the Navy, presumably in WW II. He’d risen through the ranks to Chief of Detectives, where he stayed until the attempted murder. Even as a consultant he’s still called “Chief” by his subordinates and others. There are exceptions; those exceptions being his aunt; who calls him Robert, and Commissioner Randall, who, along with all his old flames, and there were many old flames, calls him Bob. 

He’s gruff and something of a tyrant, yet capable of acts of astonishing kindness and generosity. He takes no guff from anyone. He demands respect and gets it; even professional criminals respect him, as they know he’s fair and will never give them a raw deal or go back on his word. He has a keen sense for when something’s not quite right, a sharp eye for detail, and a knack for interrogation. He inspires an almost slavish loyalty from his team, and sometimes abuses that loyalty; he also has a short temper and isn’t above raising his voice if something displeases him. The show was centered around Chief Ironside, and it’s fair to say that Raymond Burr carried the show. Burr, in this part being confined to a wheelchair, has to rely on his face to convey mood and emotion, and he’s gifted in doing so. He could convey anger, happiness, deep suspicion, exasperation and many other emotions with his expressions or the way he held his jaw. He’s quite good.

Sergeant Brown (Don Galloway) is a detective sergeant who landed on the team simply because Ironside approved of his work as a detective. Although portrayed as a bit of a bumbler in the early episodes, he soon demonstrates that he is fast on his feet, good with interrogation and even better at anticipating the Chief's next request/demand. He seems to have been born suspicious; his eyes squint when he smells a rat, and they squint a lot. He doesn’t seem to have any sort of personal life. And Don Galloway is woefully miscast in this part. I don’t know much about Galloway. I don’t remember seeing him either before or after Ironside. He makes no strong impression. Brown’s a detective sergeant, meaning that he’s a veteran who’s seen every side of the human condition, including a great many things civilians can only imagine. There are many ways to die, and he’s seen all of them. Yet none of it registers on his face. There are no lines or wrinkles; nothing to indicate that his experiences have changed him. He’s just an anonymous guy wearing a suit who happens to carry a badge. He has no gravitas. No bearing. He’s simply not believable. Galloway reminds me of Dick Sargent, not a detective in a large city. He’s simply too clean-cut to believably play the part. He’s not objectionable, and he does sort of grow on the viewer, but he never really makes an impression. And he’s not given a lot to do.

Only one episode, “Girl in the Night” from the first season, really centers on Brown; he meets a troubled nightclub singer (Susan St. James) and becomes attracted to her. Sparks should have flown, but they didn’t. He just isn’t believable as the sort of guy who might meet a nightclub singer and have a brief fling. Susan St. James lit up the room, but it was as though she was talking to a wall for all the good it did her. His casting was a loss to the series. It will be interesting to see if he’s given more to do in later seasons, but Brown was horribly miscast. Journeyman director Ralph Senesky directed “Girl In The Night”. On his website**, Senesky discusses the production of this episode, as well as his general opinion of Universal Television, which wasn’t favorable. He did think that “Girl In the Night” turned out well, however. 

Oh, my. I spoke too soon. I wrote the above after watching all but the last episode of the third season. After an entire season of indifferent writing and acting, would the last episode be the one to break the pattern? Yes. A very strong yes. Don Galloway, please forgive me. 

Don Galloway finally gets a chance to shine in an episode at the end of the third season; “Tom Dayton Is Loose Among Us” shows us that despite being miscast, Galloway could act, and the episode answers some questions the audience has about Sgt. Ed Brown. Bill Bixby plays a sociopath named Tom Dayton, with William Smithers being cast as defense attorney Ross Farley. Dayton tends to react violently to women in positions of authority. During one such act of violence, he causes the death of Brown’s fiancée. Finally, we get some backstory. Finally. Told in flashback, Brown, a rookie patrolman at this point, becomes obsessed with catching Dayton, and gets in the way of Ironside’s investigation into her death. Ironside isn’t happy, and he lets Brown know it, but he also senses the makings of a good cop in Ed Brown, and invites him to join the investigation. Brown comports himself well, and Ironside makes a mental note for the future. But it isn’t over. Not yet. 

Seven years later, Dayton is paroled. Brown, a Detective Sergeant by this time, is convinced that Payton will strike again. His old obsession with Payton returns; he’s angry and in danger of losing his objectivity regarding Payton; it gets to the point that Ironside has to tell Brown to stand down. And Payton does strike again. Ironside, to show his trust in Sergeant Brown, allows him to conduct the initial interrogation after Payton surrenders in the company of attorney Farley. Bill Bixby puts on an acting clinic in the entire episode but especially this scene, proving once again what a superb actor he really was; this is a juicy part and he makes the best of it. But Don Galloway, bless his heart, reaches deep within himself and finds acting talent he probably didn’t even know he had; he matches Bixby stroke for stroke during the interrogation. Sgt Brown begins by trying to build some rapport with Dayton, and he’s successful. He then pushes, pokes, prods and goads Dayton to answer, as one man to another, some questions about the most recent assault he’s committed. And as Brown continues to push, Dayton begins to lose control. Brown pushes even more, and Dayton cracks wide open. 

Defense attorney Farley can’t do anything but give himself a facepalm; he’s never seen an interrogation go off the rails like this, and it gets worse. After Brown finally goads him into losing his last vestige of self-restraint, Dayton concludes by giving a full confession; he’s proud of himself, and with rapport established, is convinced that Sgt. Brown surely understands why he assaults the women who show him disrespect. And, while conducting the interrogation, an entire range of emotion plays across Brown’s face; he’s alternately amused, understanding, angry, misbelieving and repulsed, all within the span of just a few minutes. It’s an excellent scene, with tour de force acting by Bixby forcing Galloway to up his game; he doesn’t want Bixby to show him up, and that certainly doesn’t happen here. More of this from Don Galloway, please. Give us more.

Barbara Anderson portrayed Officer Eve Whitfield. The Chief selected her at the same time he selected Sgt. Brown, because “they’re both good cops”. Barbara Anderson certainly wasn’t miscast. She could act (Lenore Karidian, call your office….) and she’s given a backstory. Eve was a young socialite with a strong sense that there might be more to life than fashion shows. The episode “Reprise” had a badly injured Whitfield recalling how she met each of her teammates. Ironside, who had an absolute gift for sensing human potential, sized her up as a potential police officer, but he had to reel her in, and the early scenes between the Chief and the civilian Whitfield were excellent. She’s a snappy dresser (Barbara Anderson was beautiful) and does a lot of undercover work on the show. 

She’s also unafraid of danger. While leaving a movie theater, she quite literally walks into the middle of a jewelry store robbery, and comports herself well in the ensuing gunfight. This was one of the best episodes of the first season; it’s called “All In a Day’s Work”, and it’s good. Eve shoots down one of the robbers, and is horrified to find that she’s just killed a teenager. She becomes afraid of her pistol, “forgetting” to put the pistol in her purse when she leaves the office and performing abysmally at the gun range. Ironside grows exasperated with her and essentially tells her to put on her big girl pants and be a cop. Which she does. The others were horrified at his attitude, but his little lecture is just what she needed. The ending is a little pat, as almost all the endings were, but this episode was a cut above the rest, due mainly to her acting and the writing by Ed McBain (Evan Hunter). I had no idea that Evan Hunter had done any writing for TV, but he did indeed, especially in his salad days in the 50’s and 60’s. You can tell it in this episode; the writing is a little sharper and the characterizations a little more vivid. And it includes one of the best scenes in the series.

Ironside is talking to the mother of the dead boy; she’s played by Jeanette Nolan, one of the best character actresses I’ve ever seen. Raymond Burr was one of those actors who could draw a better performance out of another actor simply by being in the same scene, but Nolan needed little prodding. The scene lasts about three minutes, but it’s very emotional. She doesn’t want to help Ironside find the Fagin who was running the robbery ring, and Ironside has to convince her otherwise. A lot of emotion and feelings rubbed raw here, and the final moment when Nolan relents and gives Ironside the information he needs is just excellent. It’s always a joy to watch two fine actors work together, and this is a fine example of just how well Raymond Burr could act, especially with actors who were his equal.

Don Mitchell played Mark Sanger. Mark Sanger had to be easy to write for, as Sanger was an interesting character. Mark Sanger grew up on the mean streets of the city, probably in Fillmore. It was a challenging life for a boy with no father and Mark began to drift into crime. As an adult, he’d been sent to jail multiple times by Chief Ironside, and Mark didn’t appreciate that one bit. He was angry, not just at Ironside, but at everything. He was an angry black man, and meat for multiple scripts which explored his upbringing and his relationship with Ironside. He respected Ironside, and ultimately came to care for him very much. In return, Chief Ironside was proud enough of Mark that he paid for Mark’s education, which ultimately led to his becoming a lawyer.

But in the beginning there were fireworks. In “Memory Of An Ice Cream Stick” from the first season, Mark goes to visit an adult figure from his childhood named Sam Noble; Noble has just been released from prison. Mark has pleasant childhood memories of the ex-con; Noble treated Mark decently and gave him a sort of father figure to look up to. Ironside warns him against being involved with Noble, as he suspects Noble is involved in a gangland murder. Mark declines Ironside’s request, and forcefully explains to Chief Ironside that he doesn’t need or want his advice, that he is a grown man, and that the Chief simply does not understand how Mark grew up or the role that Sam Noble played in Mark’s life. He is tired of the Chief’s advice and admonishments in general, as well as his patronizing attitude. The Chief is taken aback, and, for both the first and last time in the first three seasons, apologizes. He takes Mark’s request to heart, and Mark learns a valuable lesson about childhood memories when he finds that Noble is indeed involved in the murder, and that he’s not at all the man Mark remembers. As the series progresses Mark begins to loosen up; he works well with the other members of the team, and begins doing more and more police work. 

My overall impression of the series is that it’s a routine police procedural with some nice touches. The writing and direction was routine, and the acting routine as well. In his discussion of the two episodes he helmed for Ironside, director Ralph Senensky refers to Universal as a factory; he stated further that, and I’m paraphrasing, that simply driving through the Universal gate seemed to drain all the creativity out of him. It’s tempting to say that Ironside was routine, and to simply leave it at that. Except that that’s not really fair to Universal Television. NBC, Universal and Harbour Productions signed a contract guaranteeing NBC 26 episodes of a crime drama; each episode was to be about 52 minutes long, and each episode was budgeted at between $150,000 and $200,000 apiece, and each episode had a shooting schedule of either six or seven days. It was right to say that Universal was a factory; they really were making a product, and their customer was NBC. Consistent excellence simply wasn’t possible under these conditions. And quite a bit depended on the mix of producers, writers and directors. Some dramas, such as The Fugitive, simply had a better mix of the three and were able to turn out consistently better episodes. Ironside did not. As a result of all these factors, there were many episodes of Ironside that were simply routine at best and nearly unwatchable at worst. This was never the intent, but it’s just how it played out.

Having said all this, sometimes the factory turned out some excellent television. And the best was an episode called “Price Tag: Death”. It starred Ralph Meeker as a homeless former cop, and Clu Gulager as a petty thief who lives in the bottle. During a burglary, the thief accidentally kills a homeless man, who was a friend of the fallen cop. Meeker asks Ironside for help. Jack Brody, the thief played by Gulager, is a pathetic figure. He’s a boozer. He’s lost his wife and family. He sits and smokes and drinks all day. He writes bad checks to generate an income; he’s discovered that if you buy some groceries at a supermarket, they’ll let you write the check for some amount over the purchase amount. He dumps the groceries and lives on these small sums of cash. He’s a complete loser. He goes to see his ex-wife; she wants nothing to do with him and doesn’t want him near their children. He picks up a woman at a bar and takes her home, only to wake up the next day to find that she’s cleaned out his wallet; she even returns later in the day and steals the machine he stole during the disastrous burglary, which he uses to make the checks he cashes, meaning he no longer has an income. He wrecks his car. His pitiful little life is falling apart, and he’s almost relieved to be shot to death at the end of the episode.

What to say? Clu Gulager’s acting is outstanding. Gulager was one of those actors who was never going to carry a show, and he didn’t do character roles. He spent nearly his entire career doing Guest Star roles such as this one. He was one of those rare actors that screenwriters live for; give him some good lines and he runs away with them. His Jack Brody is vivid; the cold sweat of desperation oozes from every pore on his body. He’s trapped in this cycle of petty crime, and he doesn’t know how to escape. He’s simply a bystander who watches as his life, which wasn’t much to start with, degrades with increasing speed. Clu Gulager plays this role very, very well, and is completely believable as the alcoholic loser who isn’t even a very good thief. Kudos also to director Richard Colla and writers Collier Young and Robert Earll, who wrote the lines which Clu Gulager used so effectively to define Jack Brody. This is the best episode yet in the first three seasons, and perhaps one of the best episodes of series television I’ve ever seen.


Ironside
is worth watching. It’s not great television, but it is entertaining. It doesn’t enjoy the same iconic status in our culture as other shows of the period, such as Mannix and Star Trek, but it succeeds on its own merits as simple entertainment and a pleasant way to spend an hour. This set of episodes was packaged by Shout! Factory; for whatever reason they only released the first four seasons. The second set has been released by an Australian company called Via Vision, and it’s proving difficult to find; it goes in and out of stock at all American retailers. If you enjoy vintage television from a different time and place, you’ll enjoy Ironside.

* Raw Deal is a gem. It’s one of the finest film noirs ever made. Directed by Anthony Mann, with cinematography by the legendary John Alton, it really gives Raymond Burr a chance to shine as the sadistic gangster Rick Coyle. While not the main character, Burr chews the scenery, and plays evil very convincingly; he has an epic death scene which can only be envied by other actors. ClassicFlix has re-released their restoration of Raw Deal; their restoration is pristine. This movie is an excellent introduction to the world of noir, and Raymond Burr is a huge asset to a movie which also stars Dennis O’Keefe, Marsha Hunt and Claire Trevor. John Ireland plays Fantail, Coyle's psychopathic assistant. Highly recommended. This movie is without flaw.

** Ralph Senensky has made an invaluable contribution to television history with his remarkable website “Ralph’s Cinema Trek”. Senensky, who’s still with us at 99, was a journeyman director who worked in television from the Fifties into the Eighties; he directed episodes of a great many iconic television shows, including Ironside, Mannix, The FBI, The Fugitive and many others. He’ll still be known in 100 years, after all the other shows are forgotten, for directing seven episodes of Star Trek. Senensky was a competent and respected director who could solve problems on the fly, knew how to improvise, and most importantly, he knew how to put a show in the can on time and on budget. His website is packed with his memories of nearly every episode he directed; he illustrates his stories with embedded clips from each show, as well as imagery of scripts and other documents used to illustrate his memories. His stories are priceless, as they provide a up-close look into television production of that time. My favorite article talks about how he was fired from “The Tholian Web”. Be prepared to spend hours reading the articles. He helmed two episodes of Ironside, “Girl in the Night” and “Return of the Hero”. He never liked working for Universal; he makes his reasons abundantly clear in the article detailing the productions of these two episodes He describes Raymond Burr as “aloof”; he also describes some of the troubles Burr was beginning to have with Universal. Good, good stuff. His website is at senensky.com. Give it a look-see.  TV  

14 comments:

  1. ED Galloway? I think beyond this show, Don Galloway was also a regular on GENERAL HOSPITAL for a couple years in the 1980s, and he also appeared in the 1990 tv movie about Rock Hudson. I found it interesting that NBC had characters in 2 different shows with the same name, as IRONSIDE's final half-season overlapped with Season 1 of CHICO AND THE MAN, where Jack Albertson played "The Man", Ed Brown.
    Fellow Baylor U. grad Clu Gulager played a variety of parts well. He had a recurring role on THE VIRGINIAN after making 2 guest appearances in S1, both of which I've seen on INSP. He played another petty crook on ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR that MeTV reran recently, stealing an artifact from a young nun played by Carol Lynley. I remember he also had a role in "The Glass House" opposite Alan Alda, playing a newly-hired prison guard while Alda's character was being checked into the prison as a new inmate. He's still with us in his 90s.

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    1. That one got by me--thanks for the catch!

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    2. Speaking of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour, I, and many others, find Universal's decisions involving the availability of their product to be maddening. My wife and I cut the cord in 2000, so everything we watch is on DVD. We were able to find some of the 30-minute episodes released here, but we had to order the rest, including all the one-hour episodes, from ABC in Australia. Same thing happened with Colossus: The Forbin Project. Not available here; had to order it from Germany. Same with Charley Varrick. The list could go on and on.

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  2. A question for you, Mitchell - just out of curiosity:
    Have you ever seen the Ironside pilot?
    It's really interesting, from a moviemaking point of view.
    And some very interesting people turn up, in various roles.
    As is my long-standing policy, no spoilers; I'll just throw it open to you - and anybody else who'd like to take me up on this.
    This time, let's have some fun here!

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    1. I may have, but if I did, it would have been when it was originally on, so I still would have been 6 at the time. But between what you mentioned, what Stephen wrote, and listening to the Ironside stinger on Kill Bill, I'm getting tempted to do so.

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  3. Burr was the killer in "Rear Window," not "Vertigo."

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  4. That was a good article. I remember watching the show with my parents when I was a kid. I think you meant Rear Window, not Vertigo.

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    1. That got by me as well--fixed. Thanks!

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    2. Got by me as well. Thanks for the correction. I'm certain that The Master is please as well.

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  5. Nobody seems to be taking me up on my Ironside Pilot Challenge (and that's what it was, by the way).
    Not surprised by that, I guess ...

    Oh well:
    I'm just back from Ye Olde DVD Wall, where I checked out the Ironside episode written by Ed McBain - and the 87th Precinct episode from 1961 from which it was rewritten, "In The Line Of Duty".
    In '61, it was Bert Kling (Ron Harper) who had the shooting incident, which threw him for a loop; apparently Universal TV held onto residual rights to the story (from the old 87th series deal) which cleared the way for the rewrite (not the first time with Evan Hunter's stories, and it might not have been the last either).
    Watching the two shows back-to-back, we see that the story beats match up almost perfectly; the differences in the characters and approach to the overall story are quite interesting (you ought to give it a try).
    Fun Fact: An "informant" figures in both versions, helping the cops track down a bad guy.
    In both versions, the helpful stoolie is played by Walter Burke - looking no different in '68 than he did in '61 (Hooray for Hollywood!).

    By The Bye:
    Collier Young, who recieved on-screen creator credit on every episode of Ironside, did little if any actual writing on the weekly series; Robert Earll was the sole writer on "Price Tag: Death", and deserves full credit for his work (which was top-notch - I watched this one too).

    Nitpick:
    Clu Gulager always did "character roles", for his entire (and still ongoing) career: that's what Guest Star parts have always been, which is why so many actors made careers out of them.

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    1. Thank you for the nitpick. I sometimes get character role confused with character actor. A good point. I didn't know that about "87th Precinct". I'm really looking forward to seeing that series.

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  6. While I totally agree that Universal was a factory, one of the advantages is that they made stories that did not dwell on the unique slant of the show they presented. Ironside was in a wheelchair, fine, now get on with the story. Today the story would take a backseat to the challenges Ironside would have to face an intolerant world that never gives someone different a chance.
    One of my favorite episodes was when Mark Sanger was puller over by the police and did not identify himself as Ironside's aid. Even when Ironside saw him in the holding cell he sensed that Mark was doing something important here. It was one of of the forays into social commentary that TV was just starting to flirty with. It was a good episode designed to "make you think."

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  7. Before "Ironside" ended it's network run, reruns of earlier seasons were syndicated.

    Those reruns were titled "The Raymond Burr Show" until "Ironside" ended it's network run, at which time, the reruns were retitled "Ironside".

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  8. Over at *mystery file*, Steve has a "policy" of not having exactly 13 comments on a post - so here I am again.
    I'd like to mention in passing that Evan Hunter/Ed McBain has a long-standing TV-writing career: the earliest credit I can find is a Tales of Tomorrow from 1952, when he was still Salvatore Lombino ("Appointment On Mars" stars a young Leslie Nielsen, and an even younger Robert Keith Jr., who later became Brian Keith - but that's another story ...).

    Also, my Ironside Pilot Challenge is still open, if anybody's up for it:
    There are at least four (4) jaw-dropping goodies there, each one a guaranteed double-take - and in 1967, nobody saw one of them in particular coming ...
    Anyway, that's Comment # 14 - Hail and Farewell!

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!