October 19, 2022

Over the Transom: Wishing upon the stars

by Stephen Taylor

Watched a couple of Ironside episodes the other night; one was routine but entertaining for another reason, and one was sterling in every way. Both episodes are from the end of the Seventh Season.

My evening led off with "Come Eleven, Come Twelve." It’s s a routine little thriller; Ed has to bring home from Chicago a prisoner (Andy Robinson) who’s going to testify in a high-profile
murder trial. Obstacles arise immediately; his gangland buddies don’t want him to testify and are trying to shut him up permanently. Through a bizarre series of events, Ed and his prisoner become trapped in an abandoned bar way out in the mountains. Pretty routine, but fun for another reason.

I have this little game I play. In any movie or TV show I watch I look for the Star Trek connection. Star Trek was a prime locus of my television watching in the Seventies, and I enjoy seeing Star Trek veterans in other productions. The Star Trek connection may be in any iteration of the franchise, from the early days when Spock still smiled, to the execrable reboots with Chris Pine. It’s a lot of fun. Westerns are usually pretty easy; if John Hoyt wasn’t in a Fifties western, then Karen Steele or Paul Fix was. My personal all-time best catch was a bit player in a Randolph Scott movie from 1943 (Barfly / Man eating with Edith Keeler) I thought Leave It to Beaver was going to be a tough slog, but Tony Dow directed a Deep Space Nine episode in 1999. Ironside hasn’t been any sort of challenge, due to Barbara Anderson and producer Cy Chermak (story for a Next Generation episode in 1993.) Sometimes I strike out but most times I’d find someone. It can be an actor or someone involved in production. Like I said, a little game.

Whoa. "Come Eleven, Come Twelve" had Andy Robinson as Ed’s prisoner, Michael Strong and Paul Comi as mobsters, Ken Lynch, Bill Zuckert, Paul Kent, Cy Chermak (producer), David Huddleston, and Shelley Manne (musician). Seven actors and two production personnel. Like I said, lots of fun. This episode was just loaded with Star Trek talent.

The second episode was "Riddle at 24,000 Feet"; it’s about the pilot of a small airplane who has a heart attack in mid-flight, leaving his wife to land the plane. A small-town doctor crawls up into the plane to start the post-mortem, and immediately becomes suspicious. We’re already off to a good start, but it gets even better when the small-town doctor opens his mouth and starts to speak and Ay-yi-yi-yi-yi it’s Desi Arnaz. What a treat!

It’s simply impossible to overstate just how much impact Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball had on television, past and present. Both were very shrewd business people, with both having that perfect combination of foresight and the ability to solve problems. Arnaz decided that I Love Lucy needed to be filmed, and in doing so solved the time-zone kinescope problem and at the same time inventing the concept of re-runs. And in a masterstroke of genius, he talked CBS into allowing him to retain the rights to I Love Lucy, and in doing so invented the concept of syndication of television shows. (Fredrick Ziv could be said to have originated the concept of syndication before Arnaz, but Ziv was syndicating original product, while Arnaz and Ball were syndicating already-shown product created for a TV network.) American television looks like it does today in large part due to Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball.

And here he was on Ironside. His Cuban accent was just as thick as ever, but he had the same charisma that has charmed TV viewers for 70+ years. People just liked seeing him and allowing him into their living rooms. Here he was older, but still vigorous.

And he was excellent. He’s a small-town doctor in a solo practice, and his old friend Chief Ironside is coming to visit. All good so far, until the small plane makes that unscheduled landing. And Dr Domingo immediately smells a rat. And after Domingo ‘splains things to Ironside, the Chief becomes interested as well. They decide it’s murder. And there are a number of suspects; the dopehead son (Michael Richardson), his business partner (Ralph Meeker) as well as the business partner’s wife (Dolores Dorn). There’s a local cop who tries to supervise (L.Q. Jones)* but allows the Chief to take over the case after observing that the Chief seems competent.

*I see by the papers that L.Q. Jones died back in July of natural causes. He was everywhere, but is probably best known for the five movies, all Westerns, that he did with Sam Peckinpah. My favorite? Ride The High Country, with Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott and a very young Mariette Hartley. He’ll be missed. He was 94.

The car dealer/business partner is very nasty; Ralph Meeker runs away with the part. He doesn’t much care for Domingo; he has no use for "wetbacks." He didn’t care for his business partner, either. Meeker, who’s put on weight since the first time he was on Ironside way back in Season Two, is really good; he has no redeeming qualities and doesn’t care who knows it.

It’s odd, but the whole thing felt like a backdoor pilot. Dr Domingo is a very strong character who could have carried a television series, and the episode went to great pains to show us the very close relationship he has with his nurse Big Sue (Linda Foster); there’s even a cute sub-plot involving a teenage boy with a sick duck. It had an interesting feel to it. Having said that, the writing, acting and directing were all outstanding. Not the best episode of the series, but in the top ten for certain.

No spoilers here, but the murder involved a thermos and an oxygen tank. Dr Domingo walks us through the entire murder, from how it was committed to what the suspect did wrong, and ties up the case very neatly, doing everything except enjoying a glass of port with the post-confession suspect. Lieutenant Columbo would have approved. TV  

1 comment:

  1. "... the whole thing felt like a backdoor pilot ..."
    Figured that out all by yourself, eh?
    I watched this with my family in its original airing back in '74 ... and all of us spotted it out as the "premiere" of Dr. Domingo, starring Desi Arnaz - coming soon to NBC!
    MCA/Universal had been using its series as a seedbed for possible future prime-time programs for as long as they'd been in business; the very week following, Ironside presented "Amy Prentiss: AKA The Chief", a double-length episode guest-starring Jessica Walter in the title role ...
    ... and guess what showed up the very next season as a new element in the Sunday Mystery Movie rotation?
    Dr. Domingo didn't sell, which means that Cy Chermak went one-for-two that year (he left Ironside not long after this; MCA brought him on to Kolchak: The Night Stalker almost immediately, but that's another story).
    I'm guessing that the demographics disciples didn't care for sixty-something Desi Arnaz at the helm of a new show, and that was that.
    By the bye: Ever see Desi's hosting turn on Saturday Night Live the following season? One of the best of the early shows; Desi aced it from start to finish (when he led the cast and audience in a conga line - unforgettable!).
    Also by the bye:
    Did you ever take a later look at the Ironside pilot from 1967?
    All those surprises I mentioned before are still there, waiting for you ...
    (And Mitchell, that's for you, too; I really want to know your reaction.)


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!