July 12, 2023

Burke's Law: the cop show with a heart—or at least wallet—of gold

A badly wanted to do comedy," Gene Barry said in a profile for the November 23, 1963 issue of TV Guide. "I searched the scripts for the inherent comedy that can be found in almost any drama. I searched for the twinkle, the lift of an eyebrow [that] could change the tone of a serious sentence. I read Burke’s Law. I envisioned the twinkle in it."

And so, after three seasons as the Western hero Bat Masterson, after having said he would never do another television series, Barry returned to the small screen to portray Amos Burke, millionaire captain of the LAPD homicide division (and eventual secret agent, but we’ll get to that later), in the whimsical mystery that ran on ABC, in two different formats, for a total of three seasons.

When you keep finding new-old programs to watch, you have to be careful not to forget the old-old programs you’ve already enjoyed. It's been close to a decade since we last watched Burke's Law, and so last month we reintroduced it into the Saturday night schedule. Sometimes when you revisit an old favorite, you find your ardor somewhat diminished, but it's not the case here; it's every bit as enjoyable now as it was back then. 

I never saw Burke’s Law when it was in first-run. My only recollection of it was from the reruns in syndication in the late-60s, and from that all I can remember is the Rolls Royce tooling down the road while a woman’s voice cooed, "It’s Burke’s Law!" To tell you the truth, that voice kind of scared me a bit. (Of course, I hadn’t yet learned the meaning of the world "sultry.")

Based on the premise alone, it would have been impossible to produce Burke’s Law without that twinkle Barry mentioned. Burke is indeed a millionaire (the source of his money is never definitely stated, though he refers to an inheritance from his father, and implies that he’s multiplied that fortune through shrewd investments*) who lives in a mansion, is often clad in a tuxedo and surrounded by beautiful women, and is chauffeured to crime scenes in a Rolls Royce by his driver/valet, Henry (Leon Lontoc).

*Gene Barry himself was no slouch when it came to investing. That same 1963 TV Guide article mentions Barry’s ownership of a 40-acre orange ranch, mines in Nevada, a half-share of a construction company, and prime land in Los Angeles on which he and his partners planned to put up office buildings and apartments. Substituting Burke for Berry does a pretty good job of filling in the gaps.

Which, of course, begs the question: why does a man who clearly doesn’t have to work for a living choose a profession that’s not only difficult, but dangerous, one that required him to work his way up the ladder from beat cop to captain of homicide and could claim his life at any moment? I don’t know if Barry was one of those actors who composed backstories for each of the characters he played, but he does drop hints as to his concept of Burke. He is "a carry-over of the Old World, but part of this world," cultured, mannered, sophisticated, worldly. "Police work is as important to Amos Burke as building a building is to me. Hell, he wouldn’t be happy sitting in a stock-exchange seat. He is alive, vital, now." Probably the best answer comes from fellow detective Tim Tilson, who in the premiere episode is asked by a bystander at a crime scene why a millionaire would bother being a cop. "Why are you a construction man?" Tilson counters. "That's what I do best," the man says, to which Tilson replies, "That's why he's a cop."

It's a premise that requires some selling, but Barry is just the man to do it. Producer Aaron Spelling describes him as a man "at home in [a tuxedo], secure in it," and his portrayal of Burke owes much to his previous turn as the Western dandy Masterson. In this updated environment Berry is still a crimefighter, albeit with a gun instead of a walking stick. And, as his colleagues are quick to remind others, a millionaire is what he is, but a policeman is who he is.

Given its various elements, Burke’s Law could have gone in several directions, but its success derives from the direction it chose. Neither traditional police drama nor comedy, each episode is centered on a spectacular murder (with the victim identified by the episode title Who Killed …) and a cast of flamboyantly eccentric (to put it lightly) suspects, mostly played by big-name guest stars (listed in alphabetical order in the opening credits, and frequently making little more than cameo appearances). Given that, one could hardly be blamed for expecting the investigating detectives to be just as zany, but far from it: Burke and his two cohorts, Sergeant Les Hart (veteran actor Regis Toomey) and Detective Tim Tilson (Gary Conway), could have been buffoons or broad caricatures, but instead they’re skilled cops who understand that murder is a deadly business and take their jobs seriously (if not always how they do them). They’re very smart, and very, very good.

L-R: Regis Toomey, Gary Conway,
and Gene Barry
The show’s premise also offers Burke an unusual advantage, never overtly stated but often implied, that as a millionaire he has the ability to deal with rich, powerful suspects on an even footing. Their money can’t intimidate him (he’s probably as wealthy as they are), nor can their influence scare him off. He’s beholden to nobody but the public, and he doesn’t scare easily.

The interplay between the three is one of the show’s delights. Hart is the veteran, wizened cop and mentor to the young Tilson, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of almost everything but lacks the experience and intuition to put the pieces together. Burke and Les obviously go back a long way (Les will on occasion drop the formality and refer to Burke as "Amos,"), and while Tim can sometimes be a bit of a showoff, it’s clear that Burke has a paternal affection for the young detective, often imparting a bit of his collected wisdom. ("Never ask a question unless you already know the answer—Burke’s Law.") The three men split up the investigative work, with Burke generally reserving for himself ("Your old Captain") the interrogation of the most interesting suspects. Those suspects are frequently also beautiful women, and their attraction to the handsome, dashing Burke may be genuine—or an attempt to throw him off the trail.

Indeed, Burke is seldom out of the company of an attractive female—the episode often begins with him in the embrace of some such lovely companion—but the moment the phone rings, with Les or Tim calling him to the scene of yet another murder, Burke is all business. The debonair playboy is gone, replaced by the determined homicide captain. There’s never an attempt to avoid his job, just a request to his female companion that she not go away.

And that, I think, is one of the main reasons I find this show so enjoyable. For all of the light touches— and the mix of comedy and drama works surprisingly well—Amos Burke is a policeman before all else, a damn good one who understands the importance of his job. His suspects may include glamorous women, but their beauty never blinds him to the possibility that behind their makeup may be the face of a killer. He’s not afraid to trade either punches or gunshots, and he’s not satisfied until the killer is apprehended.

Then there's that twinkle in the eye that Barry talked about, the priceless reactions when Burke meets yet another crazy suspect or has to listen to yet another ridiculous story. It’s when Burke lets us know that it’s a joke, and that we’re in on it. Throw in some great supporting players, such as Michael Fox as the droll medical examiner and Eileen O’Neill as a desk sergeant who doesn’t have to take second place to any of Burke’s beauties, and you’ve got the ingredients for a great show.*

*And by the way, speaking of beauties, did I mention that Anne Francis’ detective series Honey West was a direct spin-off from Burke? She was introduced in the second-season episode "Who Killed the Jackpot?" and would go on to a one-season run in 1965-66.

Which is why the third and final season is such a disappointment. Caught up in the spy hysteria of the early James Bond years, for 1965 the series changed format completely. Amos Burke was now a secret agent (hence the show’s new title: Amos Burke, Secret Agent), working for a spymaster known only as "The Man" (Carl Benton Reid). It had a flashy opening title and fun gadgets and even more beautiful women, if that was possible. It even had Burke’s Rolls. What it didn’t have was the chemistry of the original. No Les, no Tim, no Henry. It ran for 17 episodes, and by January 1966 it was over.

Apparently, Amos Burke tired of the secret agent business and returned to the LAPD, or at least that’s what had happened in the 1994-95 revival of Burke’s Law. Burke was now a chief, his sidekick was his son Peter (during the intervening years Burke had married and was now a widower), and Henry was back behind the wheel of his Rolls (albeit with a different actor). It was a middling success, running for 24 episodes over two seasons.

Burke’s Law could have been many things. It could have been a comedy, a la Barney Miller or Car 54. It could have been a police procedural, like any one of the cop shows on at the time. Instead, it was a one-of-a-kind, a comedy-mystery, a sophisticated whodunit. Most of all, Burke’s Law was fun. It wasn’t searing drama, it didn’t involve impossibly convoluted plots. It was easy to watch, and easy to enjoy. It has suffered from one of the most frustrating of DVD issues, with the first season coming out in 2008, and nothing since. Fortunately, it has aired on Me-TV in the past (which is where I caught it), and hopefully it will again. It's also available on YouTube—all three seasons, including Amos Burke, Secret Agent. And whether you're watching it for the first time or rekindling an old memory, you'll feel the same way.  TV      


  1. Gene Barry was better at playing villains. The banter between him and Peter Falk in Prescription Murder, the Columbo pilot, is still amazing to watch.

    1. Yes - he's very good in that. Makes you want to just smack him. He's the very kind of killer that Burke would have had contempt for.


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