Saturday, December 31, 2016

New Year's Eve radio: SUSPENSE "The Old Man" (Dec. 31, 1961)

As we prepare to ring out the old year, it's worth noting that not all old years are ready to go. 2016 feels like one that most people are anxious to have done with, but the sentiment isn't new. Here it illustrated in a late-run installment of Suspense from New York, broadcast over CBS on New Year's Eve, 1961: "The Old Man."

Here we have an atypical late-run installment of Suspense. It's not very suspenseful, *but* it's also one of the better shows from the waning years, when the series returned to New York. The cast (more on them as we go along) is headlined by Leon Janney in the title role, and Reynold Osborne (who did SUSPENSE and YOURS TRULY JOHNNY DOLLAR periodically between 1961-1962, but I can't find anything else about him). The "heard in tonight's story" crowd are a seasoned bunch, in order of billing, Lawson Zerbe, Ivor Francis, Larry Haines, Ralph Camargo, Rita Lloyd, and Guy Repp (in a one-liner as Johnson).


By 1961, radio was an old man itself. To save money in the waning years of network radio, CBS relocated both Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar to New York (where the radio soaps were still going), in the fall of 1959. By the end of 1962, the soaps were long gone (or moved to TV) and the theater of thrills and the man with the action packed expense account were both axed. Even by 1959, the heyday of Hollywood stars like Cary Grant or Ida Lupino emoting on Suspense had passed; the last few Hollywood years were dominated by the radio stalwarts (and a few names like Vincent Price who might drop in because they still loved the medium). The NY talent pool (old radio pros, stage veterans, a few early TV folks) was more than capable (some like Ian Martin even worked Suspense from the beginning, *before* the Hollywood move).

The real problem lay with the scripts. The show had run through the classics by this point, and it was so hard to get good writers that often the actors (or even technical staff) would contribute (with results ranging from decent to abysmal). "The Old Man" is better than I expected, a fun fantasy reminiscent of Norman Corwin (especially "The Odyssey of Runyon Jones" or "The Undecided Molecule.") This was writer Bob Corcoran's first of three scripts for Suspense, when he was a staff writer for CBS's Stagestruck (blend of variety and interviews, focused on the theater) and TV variety shows (Patti Page), but also dramatic scripts for radio's Rocky King and Modern Romance.

We open with a radio announcer (Camargo) along Broadway interviewing people on New Year's Eve (and trying to keep them from stepping on his wire). One of the folks he encounters is an inebriated gent identified in the credits as "The Tippler" (played by the great Larry Haines). After interviewing senior cab driver Joe Walston (Zerbe), the announcer shrewdly bundles the drunk into the cab.

Meanwhile, in some sort of celestial bureaucracy (Times Past, Present, and Future), the Director (Osborne) and secretary Miss Fowler (Rita Lloyd) discuss the retirement party for "the old man." He knew it was a short-term job, after all. The pompous director harries his assistant (Ivor Francis) but is aware that he has to answer to... "the Chairman of the Board" (heavily implied to be God).

The old man himself resists the notion and the standard gold watch, since he already has his own timepiece (the big hour glass, no doubt). He makes his way to earth... and explicitly, to the New York street where Walston and his pickled passenger spot him. Assuming he's headed to a New Year's Eve costume party, Walston picks him up, talks about retirement age... and then they find themselves transferred back to those otherworldly offices of time and space (snatched by the assistant, though his director chides him for getting those "other two clowns.") Walston's reaction is priceless, thinking the cab must have cracked up and now, "we're deadsville or something?" The pompous director resents that assumption (and word). "Nutsville?!?"

From here, the Old Man tries to argue that he can still fix the problems of 1961 (and thinks the baby new year 1962 looks rather stupid). Walston, now fully aware of what's going on, points out that a lot of people (including himself) will not be sorry to see Old 1961 go (sound familiar?) and encourages him to let the new year take its place, for good or ill. Will the new year of 1962 commence or not? Will the year chime? What will become of the calendars?? Listen and find out.

The sound on the above link is fuzzy in spots and pitch sounds a trifle off, but it's still a good show (and familiar voices like Ivor Francis and Larry Haines are still recognizable).

Cast notes:
Leon Janney, who does a great cranky old man voice here, was 44 at the time, but he knew all about aging out of a job. He had been a former child actor in the late twenties and early thirties, starring in Penrod and Sam (as Penrod) and he was featured in exactly one "Our Gang" entry, Bear Shooters. In adulthood, he worked heavily on radio (including Number One Son on Charlie Chain, John Cole and other suitors on The Romance of Helen Trent), and by this point was appearing near weekly on Suspense. TV included episodes of Car 54, Where Are You and The Defenders. He was later heard on the revival series CBS Radio Mystery Theatre and on National Lampoon Radio Hour (narrating the "Flash Bazbo" segments)

Lawson Zerbe was one of the busiest voices of NY radio, from at least 1937 onward, from soaps and serials to anthologies. He starred as the title characters on The Adventures of Frank Merriwell and Pepper Young's Family (for a time anyway, preceding Mason Adams). He played photographer Dusty Miller on Big Town and was heard at various times on the soap The Road of Life as Dr. Jim Brent's brother Fred and later as his adopted son Butch. Lots of X-Minus One (along with nearly everyone in this episode), Inner Sanctum, Mutual's mystery anthologies, and more.

Unlike most of the others in "The Old Man," Zerbe didn't do on-camera work or even Broadway. He stayed behind the mic, heard in children's records for MGM from the sixties through the seventies (playing the Gingerbread Man, for example). He continued to be heard on NBC's The Eternal Light (which, under their public affairs division, continued to broadcast, finally ending in the eighties.)

Ivor Francis (as the assistant to the director) is a personal favorite of mine. He was heard all over the New York airwaves, including Studio One, X-Minus One, and others. He was most familiar on-camera, however, with his weary face popping up in character roles, often as gentle but absent-minded professor types, doctors, or clergy. He had a regular role on the not-so-hot "Gilligan in the Old West" series Dusty's Trail (as the wealthy Easterner, the millionaire counterpart), recurred on Room 222 as old-fashioned English teacher Kenneth Dragen, was a frequent arrestee on Barney Miller (as shown above), and had guest turns on The Defenders, Kojak, Quincy, Happy Days, Get Smart (as a Stanislavsky-style acting coach), and countless others.

Larry Haines often played crooks, bartenders, tough guy detectives, or general blue collar types. An obvious New Yorker, he could lend menace or humor to his roles, depending, heard on several prior (and subsequent) Suspense installments, Gangbusters (of course), Treasury Agent (starring as the lead, Joe Lincoln), That Hammer Guy (as Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, who fared better on TV), X-Minus One, CBS Radio Mystery Theater, and hundreds more (including soap stints, such as The Second Mrs. Burton as Lew Archer and on Rosemary as Lefty Higgins, another gangster type, but this one tried to reform). He transitioned well into movies and TV, highlighted by playing poker buddy Speed in The Odd Couple and a long stint on Search for Tomorrowt as Stu Bergen. He also worked Broadway (billed as "A. Larry Haines," for some reason), originating the part of Jason Robards' brother in A Thousand Clowns, as well as the lead in Last of the Red Hot Lovers and Dr. Dreyfus in Promises, Promises.

Ralph Camargo, as the above industry ad indicates, acted, announced (on the Marine Corps recruitment series Marine Story), and narrated (including on the 1959 Suspense version of "The Country of the Blind.") He was a perennial "featured in the cast were" player on X-Minus One and other NY series. ON TV, he sometimes played judges on soaps.

Rita Lloyd worked New York radio (notably the children's series Let's Pretend) but later became a staple of TV soaps, usually as matriarch figures trying to control the lives of their children (usually daughters). Lucille on The Guiding Light was typical of the breed.

So, farewell to the old year, in with the year, even if it does seem like discrimination against the elderly. A better year for anyone reading this, and as the CBS announcer reminds us, "unscheduled stops for many this night of nights will be emergency wards, hospital beds, and the morgue... Be extra careful, extra courteous, and moderate in tonight's celebration." (And don't start a forest fire while you're at it.)

Sunday, December 25, 2016

A Barney Miller Christmas: "Homeless" (season 8, 1981)

Well, 2016 was not content with finally taking Abe Vigoda. Within the last thirty days, we've lost fellow BARNEY MILLER alums Ron Glass (Det. Sgt. Ron Harris) and character actor Don Calfa (a frequent arrestee). I hope to write more about both gents soon. But right now, the timely episode "Homeless," from the final season, seemed a nice way to look at both of them in action. This was only the last of three Christmas episodes for the show. Season 3's "Christmas Story" is the best known, highlighted by a love interest for Jack Soo's Nick Yemana, and it featured to a lesser extent in season 5's "Toys."

"Homeless" is a sweet, underlooked gem. Glass has little to do (most of the regulars are on the periphery, watching events converge). But Calfa, who often played despicable crooks or else those with definite health (or mental) issues, has his most likable role here, his seventh and last appearance.

So, the episode opens with Officer Levitt (Ron Carey) on detective assignment again. Harris brings in a large wrapped gift for a needy child... a Bavarian German-crafted march of the wooden soldiers set. Levitt, whose gift is the size of a matchbox, resents it.
Before the main theme rolls, he'll refer to them as a "box of Nazis." (I'm not a fan of Levitt, who started out sullenly insufferable and stayed there; he had his moments, often with Dietrich, but the writers left him flatter as a character than Inspector Luger, which is saying a lot). I like Harris' sweater, though.

Now, plot starts: Dietrich (Steve Landesberg) and Wojo (Max Gail) enter. Wojo helps a clearly shaken, ailing Edward Pratken (Don Calfa), Eddie to his many friends. Dietrich's escorting a repeat offender, obnoxious sporting goods store owner Bruno Binder (Stanley Brock). As a loudmouth merchant with vigilante tendencies, Binder was often in as complainant or arrestee (or both at the same time). He found Pratken in his tent display and attacked him with a cattle prod (!) Binder never appeared without a hat, and usually had a cigar present, adding to the impression of boorish shopkeeper (who really hates the public; he "jokes" about wishing he could zap some carolers.)

Wojo learns that Eddie has been living in that display ("only at night"). One of Wojo's best traits (even in the early seasons where he could be an outright goon) is his sympathy for the underdog, although he gently suggests Eddie should have tried a mission, shelter, or even sleep in the subway. "That's where the bums live!" Eddie explains he doesn't drink, he has a steady job as a dishwasher.... but the 25 dollar a week hotel where he lived was sold to a developer. So all fifty or so residents were dispossessed. Calfa's expressive eyes ahdn hang-dog look really add to the character, trying to maintain his dignity while aware of his situation.

Wojo tries to argue Eddie's case with Barney (wrapping a Christmas present), who becomes apprehensive: "Who did you call?" Wojo's tendency to go overboard in these matters has been well established by now; notable examples include telling the Bureau of Indian Affairs that the case of a single elderly native man "involved a treaty," and most famously, in "Agent Orange," calling down a VA representative, chemical company head, *and* then wondering "Where's the air force?")

This time, Wojo called a man from the Department of Human Resources. Barney assures him that's who he should have called. Wojo: "Don't play games with me, Barney!"

Harris enters with a new Christmas guest, and the only subplot this time (everything else relates somehow to the starting incident at Binder's): Joseph Kellogg (Broadway actor Paul Stolarsky in his only appearance; stolarsky also had a bit part in Muppets Take Manhattan, more heard than seen as the announcer for Gonzo's chicken-themed aquacade).
Greeting card writ Kellogg was causing a disturbance at the office Christmas party... after Santa handed him a sympathy card with a pink slip, instead of his expected bonus.

In the meantime, however, the station has been stormed by two of Eddie's friends and former neighbors: Sam Belinkoff (frequent visitor Walter Janowitz) and Linda (Zane Busby), wanting to get "our Eddie" out of jail.

Walter Janowitz was your go to twinkly Eastern European on sitcoms (and some dramas) in the sixties and seventies. This was his fourth visit to the 12th Precinct (the most famous being as the swordfighting Polish actor in "Hash") and he'd even be in the crowd of neighborhood regulars in the finale.

Zane Busby appeared in comedy films, usually small roles, in the likes of Oh, God!, Americathon, This Is Spinal Tap, and notably in Cracking Up (as foil to Jerry Lewis, in multiple roles). She moved behind the camera around 1984, directing frequent episodes of the sitcoms Dads, My Two Dads, and before she got in a rut of dad shows, Charles in Charge, as well as Blossom and single installments of Newhart and The Golden Girls

So, after Binder hurls some verbal abuse at the "scuzz" outside the cell, Mr. Belinkoff reveals their protest method. At least twenty five of Eddie's fellow dispossessed are in the precinct, essentially staging a sort of sit-in (or at least crowd-in). Wojo grins at the notion, prompting him to disclaim, "Wasn't my idea!"

The homeless horde swells, with Belinkoff having started a rumor that the station was providing free board for the holidays (a pregnant woman is among their number, unseen.) Wojo finds food for the increasing throng through the vending machines: "Lucky you had enough quarters." "Umm, we'll talk about that later."

Further arrivals: Naomi Binder, who for only a month or so has been Mrs. Binder. She's played by Mari Gorman, who played neurotic housewife-types before (once as a woman who decides to try hooking in the hopes of being noticed, and thrice as Det. Rosalyn Licori, who was scatterbrained and had a controlling husband). Mrs. Binder is much the same, and when she flinches as an angry Binder thrusts a hand near the bars, one really rather worries about their homelife.

Next, Howard Weckler of the NY department of Human Resources has finally arrived. He's played by frequent visitor David Clennon, who appeared in assorted roles but more than once ended up as basically the guy in the suit (more on him in a future profile). Nearly all Barney Miller bureaucrats are beleagured (most mean well but their hands are tied), but Weckler looks bewildered before he even enters the room, as if he'd already given up. He talks to Barney a little bit about the problem (city crackdowns, unemployment, tax incentives leading developers to buy up hotels and flophouses to turn into condos.) But nothing useful comes from the conclave.

Finally, smug, pointlessly vindictive Arthur Mench of the greeting card company. It's Ben Piazza, who specialized in smarmy smiling men in sits who you'd like to see get kicked in the teeth. This was his third and final appearance, and they were all louses. This one presses charges, rattles on about wanting to sell greeting cards to hostages (!) and is mostly unfazed when Binder and Eddie threaten to boycott his cards (Harris writes his own).
Weckler has proved useless by this point, only obtaining an abandoned correctional facility in the Catskills (but they'd have to supply their own transportation). But Dietrich reveals it's all academic, as the city is snowed in. Nobody (including city bureaucrats who live in Connecticut) is getting out. Well, except for Bruno Binder, released on bail and willing to brave the snow to his nearby store/home. And a Christmas miracle occurs. Bruno had been observing Eddie (and his lady friend Eddie) with growing warmth and understanding (Linda beat both heroin and hooking, getting two things off her bat). While still apt to call Eddie "Mr. Potato Head" and Linda "Princess Grace," he drops the charges... and invites them both home for Christmas. He even hugs Barney!

Meanwhile, the remainder bunker down for the night: officers, dispossessed, and man from the city. We get a shot of the precinct window and some Waltons style exchanges: Harris wonders who took his pillow, Dietrich reveals he normally sleeps in the nude, Mr. Belinkoff says "Goodnight, Mr. Weckler" (very funny) and we close with a "Merry Christmas" from Levitt to the captain (and vice versa). Definitely a Grand Hotel-esque episode, for a series that tended to specialize in them (we seldom ever saw beyond the squad room, and by episode's end, they really *are* cut off).
*cue bassline in credits, and a cup of eggnog instead of the bad coffee*

Thursday, December 1, 2016

12th Precinct Rap Sheets: Ralph Manza

Your humble curator had considered this project for some time, and spurred by a recent passing, I've decided to dip into the police files from my favorite fictional precinct, the ol' 12 of Barney Miller fame.

This is the first of several profiles of the many character people who walked and in and out of those ancient doors, as perpetrators, victims, witnesses, or just generally confused locals. As early as the second season, Barney Miller began to move away from "wacky" crooks and focused more often on either colorful eccentrics (usually candidates for Bellevue) or just average citizens who snapped under pressure of modern life and especially living in New York (getting into brawls, vandalizing property, or taking to theft because "everyone else is doing it!") The show liked repeat offenders, using the same actors again and again, usually in different roles. A few recurred as the same character, and several alternated between both. They all added to the neighborhood feel of the show, and many would go on to appear on Barney Miller alumnus Reinhold Weege's Night Court in the eighties and nineties.

So our inaugural offender, Ralph Manza, born on December 1st (today, at time of writing), 1921. He had expressive eyes which gave him a vaguely woeful look. Combined with short stature and going white haired fairly early, he had a very long career in supporting or bit parts, often as nervous little men, flunkies, henchmen, old men (obviously), or working class types (drivers, waiters, hot dog vendors, etc.) He appeared four times as Mr. Leon Roth, neighborhood blind man, his most visible (ahem) role.

However, he appeared twice in other parts. We'll look at those as well as Mr. M.'s overall career. To begin, let's look back at a young Ralph Manza from the 1962 Academy Players Directory (Characters and Comedians).

Manza had been a premed student when he was drafted during WWII. He became an army medic and was assigned to a performing troupe; as often happened overseas, Manza was not sufficiently inoculated from the acting bug. Postwar, he showed up on TV fairly early in the 1950s, as cabbies and the like. He also had a regular role on the 1959 series The D.A.'s Man, as First A.D.A. Al Bonacarsi. By 1962, he had racked up appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Judge Roy Bean, Sugarfoot, 87th Precinct (getting familiar with New York police habitats), and The Twilight Zone (as a stage doorman in the classic "The Dummy," with George "Lt. Scanlon" Murdock in a rather wooden role).

Now, we'll skip ahead to 1975, and Manza's first visit to the 12th Precinct. In the second season Barney Miller episode "Protection" (December 18, 1975), an extortion racket is capitalizing on rumors that the 12th will be closing its doors (in the midst of New York's financial crisis, and after Gerald Ford's infamous speech which papers of the day summed up as "Ford to City: Drop Dead"). One of the joys of the show is how it reflects New York of the day. Well, Wojo, eager to get to the source, goes back to old New York, bringing in Ralph Manza as Anthony Borelli. Known to Inspector Luger as Tony "The Emperor" Borelli, he last worked the rackets in 1942. A tiny old man with a cane, blinking behind glasses, he mostly seems bemused by Wojo's interest. He'd rather talk about 1923 than 1942 ("the good stuff"), now mostly works in his garden (demonstrating his crops with his fingers), and finds he's confused one of his old-time don colleagues with The Godfather.
He scoffs at the ones they get nowadays with funny names like "Bigelow... Dugan... Feldman!" For me, it's the highlight of the episode (and an early example of Wojo going overboard when bringing in witnesses or experts, frequently calling in representatives of multiple government branches at a time).

The following season, we see Manza debuting in his main Miller role, as Leon Roth in "Community Relations" (Jan. 13, 1977). Mr. Roth is arrested for shoplifting, explaining he does so to compensate for all of the times he's been robbed, living alone. He also describes how from the feel of a person's hand, and their sounds, he can tell a lot about them. Nick Yemana asks for a character assessment, resulting in glowing positive traits... "either that, or you're Japanese." At the episode's end, another case, the shotgun wielding Mr. Lukather (Judson Morgan), who they've just dispossessed, moves in with Mr. Roth, solving their mutual problems.

Manza takes a momentary break from Mr. Roth, in "Kidnapping," the one hour fifth season opener (September 14, 1978). Mr. Siegel, owner of Siegel's Department Store (oft mentioned on the show and a stand in for Spiegel's) has been kidnapped. Manza plays his remorseful, arthritic chauffeur who was unable to prevent the snatch. Another episode that mostly calls on Manza to be little, old, and nervous, but it's still a pleasure to see him.

Manza returns as Mr. Roth in "People's Court" (Jan. 3, 1980), still rooming with Mr. Lukather. It turns out they're living in the same building as frequent 12th Precinct pest Bruno Binder (Stanley Brock), the irate sporting good's store owner with vigilante tendencies. He turned his fellow tenants into a court, originally designed to solve their own disputes, but now having branched out into jailing burglars. Mr. Roth's participation is limited to being a rather ill-equipped public defender for the accused.

In "Movie, Part 2," Mr. Roth enjoys his finest hour. This time, he's been mugged, by a crook targeting the disabled (he's eventually caught in front of the House of Canes). Mr. Roth goes through mug books (just feeling his way through) and, while waiting for Mr. Lukather to pick him up, he gets to join the squad in screening Harris' new movie (a porno as part of a departmental decoy, later abandoned). He helpfully offers a tray of crab puffs but ensures that Luger only gets one. He yells "Down in front!" at another civilian, taken aback when he sees who it is. Wojo, who had to take a call and missed the first half, says he liked "what I saw of it." Mr. Roth heartily chimes in with "Same here!"
Even when they use his blindness as a punchline, and despite his clear vulnerability to thieves, Mr. Roth is a fun, feisty character, reflecting the general mix of the 12th Precinct's colorful neighborhood.

In that capacity, he and Mr. Lukather show up in "Finale, Part 3." As the 12th Precinct really *is* shut down this time, and the squad dispersed, the neighborhood folks have dropped by to say farewell, including Binder, gay couple Marty and Mr. Driscoll, and more of the stock company. Mr. Roth asks if Barney looks surprised. It's a sweet and fitting goodbye to the show, the cast, and yes, those guests to the 12th who added so much to the series.

Ralph Manza also worked on several of Barney's sister shows. On the spinoff Fish (1977-1978), he appeared twice as elderly postman Mr. Jackman.
Then there was AES Hudson Street (1978), aka "Barney Miller in a hospital." It came from Barney creator Danny Arnold, with Gregory Sierra (the 12th's Chano Amenguale) as the lead doctor. The other regulars were mostly the same "customers," including Manza as ambulance attendant Stanke. The show lasted less than a full month on ABC.
Finally, he appeared several times on Night Court (less a sister than a weird cousin), created by Reinhold Weege, who had been a staff writer, story editor, and for a time producer on Barney.

Now, having looked at Manza's priors at the 12th and related environs, let's get back to the rest of his career. In the sixties, he continued to pop frequently all over the place. He surprised me on Perry Mason as an expert medical witness (twice), well dressed and professional. He returned to more expected environs as a plaster yard foreman in "The Case of the Scandalous Sculptor' (1964). He was a henchman on Batman (to Catwoman, appropriately named Felix and wearing a cat-eared hat) and at various times on Get Smart (best represented by Finster, the tiny hospital orderly to KAOS doctor Dana Elcar in 1969's "And Baby Makes Four.")

In the seventies, he enjoyed a regular stint on Banacek as faithful driver Jay Drury. He made it as far as Cincinnati for the WKRP episode "Clean Up Radio Everywhere" as Harvey Green, WKRP's longest standing sponsor as owner of Red Wigglers (the Cadillac of worms). He continued to be everywhere, or so it seemed, including Soap (as a prisoner named Digger in three episodes), Fantasy Island, Newhart (semi-regular as Bud, crew member on "Vermont Today"), Doogie Howser, M.D>, The Golden Girls, and the 80s revival of The Twilight Zone (as a harried sound effects man in "Cold Reading" with Dick Shawn). Here he is in the 1989 edition of the Academy Players Directory.

In the nineties, even when he was usually just "Old Man," he stayed busy with spots on Seinfeld, Friends, Mad About You, and Charmed.

Film work always played second to the tube, but Manza can be spotted in Blazing Saddles (as an actor dressed as Hitler), 1984's The Philadelphia Experiment, and the 1998 remake of Godzilla *as "old fisherman.") He passed away at the age of 78 on January 31, 2000.

Mr. Roth's vision may have been lacking, but Mr. Manza's career sure wasn't.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Ides Marches On

On June 15, 1953, Crime Classics was first heard over the airwaves (on the Columbia Broadcasting system).

Crime Classics was a unique little show (running for two seasons), dramatizing historical crimes ("from every land and every time"). It was produced and directed by Elliott "I know a guy" Lewis, one of radio's best triple threats, a man who at the time was doing similar experiments on Suspense. The writing team of Morton Fine and David Friedkin (many great radio dramas, and later TV fare such as "I Spy") provided the scripts, based on "court reports and newspaper accounts of the time" (more difficult when dealing with ancient Rome, and nigh impossible when treating the story of King Arthur as a historical event.) Music was composed by Bernard Herrmann (frequent collaborator of both Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock).

Much of the history was accurate, or reasonably enough, and side facts and quotes from historians or newspaper blurbs helped. These nuggets were provided by our host, the wry Thomas Hyland, "connoisseur of crime, student of violence, and teller of murders." Mr. Hyland was "portrayed on radio" by radio great Lou Merrill, a credit almost suggesting that he was indeed a noted antiquarian in his field who was only represented in proxy (like the police chiefs and mayors on Gangbusters). In fact he was entirely fictitious, a man who checks his copious files for facts and delivers them with many a dry "And..." and typically opened his accounts with "Listen. Hear that? That's the sound of a Victorian gentleman about to be coshed" (or the suitable equivalent).

I could say much more about Crime Classics (and some day, I probably shall), but for now, let us turn our attention to the installment of Feb. 10, 1954: "Twenty-Three Knives Against Caesar." While I usually prefer a purely audio source, here's a YouTube option to follow along.

Thomas Hyland, who apparently has a nice copy of Plutarch's Lives handy, opens our narrative. Caesar is played by Edgar Barrier, a member of Orson Welles' Mercury Theater troupe on stage and radio and character parts on Gunsmoke, Escape, and numerous others. He had previously played Caesar opposite Orson's Brutus on a 1939 Columbia Masterworks LP record. His voice, almost always dry and aloof but cultured and articulate, was an excellent fit for the emperor.

For contrast, in one scene Caesar basks in the compliments and toying attentions of Cleopatra (although he wishes she wouldn't play with his hair so much; he's going bald!) And Cleopatra is played by Betty Harford, practically a Crime Classics regular as assorted tarts, temptresses, coquettes, and parts such that I personally classified her as "The Minx." Usually with a Cockney touch (particularly well suited as Blackbeard's 4th wife, who was no good to him), she retains it as Cleo. Later, we meet Calpurnia, Caesar's wife, who speaks with grace and dignity (but less sex appeal, perhaps) courtesy of Irene Tedrow (who played Lizzie Borden in other Crime Classics, and later was Mrs. Elkins on TV's Dennis the Menace, disapproving of how Mr. Wilson treats that poor innocent Mitchell boy).

Of the famed conspirators, only two are heard: Brutus played by Harry Bartell (Gunsmoke, Escape, and the youthful Lt. Seiberts on Fort Laramie, a favorite of mine) and Marvin Miller (announcer and actor on tons of shows, secretary Anthony on TV's Millionaire, voice in UPA cartoons, etc.) as Cassius. Herrmann uses bells and drum rolls to give an ancient and at times portentous sound to the tale. But the real surprise here is the use of a "man in the street" approach, two average Romans asking questions like "Are you going to take a slave?" They're played by Hy Averback (announcer, director, etc.) and good old, dry voiced Lou Krugman (a frequent bad guy on Gunsmoke and others). They get the best lines, like "I've seen your son Cassio. He waxes with each day."

The soothsayer warning against the Ides of March (encountered first in a dream by Caesar, and then in reality) is played by Marvin Miller (again), in his most dramatic, deep tones. Mr. Hyland of course intervenes and comments periodically. As for the outcome? Well, the title gives it away. Twenty three knives against Caesar was not a close contest, after all.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Fish Fridays Intro

So, having bid bon voyage to the late great Abe Vigoda, we now shall attempt to assess his Barney Miller spin-off, Fish.

The groundwork was laid as early as the second season of Barney Miller. The broken-down Detective Sgt. Fish had become a hit, popularly and critically, so there were demands. According to Vince Waldron's Classic Sitcom Guide, ABC wanted a spin-off, ideally for Fish. Danny Arnold experimented with the idea of a rotating spinoff, showing the detectives' home lives or outside activities. Abe Vigoda too wanted either a spin-off or a larger role on the parent show (which was very much an ensemble). He knew this was likely to be his one chance to be a lead and not just support, so you can't really blame him.

The beauty of Barney Miller, as it developed, was that it was a one-set show. Everything happened in the squad room, and what didn't was described (like the actual arrests or chases). This gave the show a stage feel and helped make sure that any subplots still played into the whole (as a "customer" in the cell makes a remark which rebounds into the problem of a detective, and so forth). In addition to home scenes with Barney's wife Liz, there were attempts in the first three seasons to break out (showing a stakeout, different apartment scenes with the squad members), but it really wasn't as effective. The aging, poorly maintained squad room with its attendant problems was a character in itself. Later attempts to use an additional set were mostly saved for special two-part episodes (often season openers or finales).

So an anthology following the 12th Precinct home could have solved that (and indeed, the first season of Fish, which began halfway through the third season of Barney Miller in the spring of 1977, made an attempt). A few earlier episodes suggest some of the other possibilities, however. Wojo's relationship with Detective Janice Wentworth (Linda Lavin), which in the second season episode "Grand Hotel" saw them posing as a married couple in a hotel, was basically an experiment with this idea. A few episodes later, we have... "Fish," the episode, not the series. It introduced Steve Landesberg as Detective Dietrich. He goes to Fish's apartment, meets Bernice (played by Doris Belack, filling in for Florence Stanley) and their daughter Beverly Fish, a teacher having romantic problems with Howard. This leads to Dietrich impersonating Gregory Peck in a classic scene.

Frankly, this actually feels like a better premise for a spin-off then what they tried, having Fish and Bernice running a group home for troubled kids. Early Barney Miller episodes often arrested cute and/or wisecracking kids. The first (an eight year old who tries to stick up Liz Miller) appeared in the first season closer, "The Hero." The urchin (scared by Harris about facing "Judge Meanie" in court) was played by Todd Bridges, who would play Loomis on Fish (and of course, go on to Diff'rent Strokes). "The Kid" from the second season has a cute Puerto Rican kid (whose mother Fish becomes briefly attracted to). Third season introduced Jilly and Victor, who would go on to Fish. More about them in our next installment.

I'd hoped to say more, but Fish has to use the bathroom. He could be there awhile.

We may have to pick up with a Fish *Saturday*.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Abe Vigoda da vida, Baby

*brushes off dust*
After a hiatus of several years, I'm trying to recharge the blog again. Part of the issue, outside of many personal circumstances, has been too many ideas of where and how to start back. Well, recent events forced my hand. Abe Vigoda finally died at the age of 94.

Vigoda will be best remembered for three things: The Godfather, Barney Miller, and people assuming he was dead or wondering how he could still be alive (down to the website which answered that question, Often, when celebrity deaths were announced, I would jokingly suggest Abe Vigoda was the mastermind, since despite greatly exaggerated reports and rumors, he continued on. The classic cop comedy Barney Miller is one of my all-time favorite sitcoms, I like deadpan, and I like great character actors, so all of that factors into the following mini-tribute to the Man Who Would Be Fish.

Vigoda's early career included stage work, especially Shakespeare, and bits on the CBS Radio series You Are There in 1949 (playing older characters in crowds or juries during famous moments in history). Also in 1949, at least according to several logs and the unreliable IMDb, Vigoda was in a TV episode of Suspense (based on the venerable radio series). "The Lunch Box" (which had been done on radio as "The Lunch Kit," originally for The Whistler in 1944 and then on Suspense in 1949), but the Paley Center for Media, which has the only copy I'm aware of, doesn't list him. Perhaps he was uncredited, or wasn't in it at all, but the place and time are right. Hopefully someday we can confirm.

Moving along, Vigoda continued to do stage Shakespeare and the like, and then appeared a couple of times on a soap opera by the name of Dark Shadows. My friend Danny Horn, who chronicles the series at Dark Shadows Every Day, discussed Vigoda's two 1969 episodes as elderly silversmith Ezra Braithwaite, who dies of a heart attack induced by supernatural shock. After playing multiple ensemble roles in the Broadway play Inquest, Vigoda returned once more in 1970, as elderly antique dealer Otis Greene who... dies of a heart attack induced by supernatural shock. Well, it's good to have a niche.
Then came The Godfather in 1972, which marked a shift for a time away from playing old men who dropped dead. His performance as Sal Tessio led to more supporting roles mostly as mob types, including Anthony Quinn's The Don Is Dead (1973), a sort of poor man's Godfather, and mob bosses in episodes of Kojak, Cannon, and Hawaii 5-0.
Now in 1974, we have Barney Miller, or rather the pilot, The Life and Times of Captain Barney Miller. As Vigoda told the story, when he came to audition, having just finished a run, producer Danny Arnold immediately pegged him as the old cop, Sgt. Philip K. Fish, and said “You look like you have hemorrhoids.” (Vigoda says he didn’t, but *Fish* certainly did. Fish had everything, including menopause, which he caught from Bernice).
The pilot is filmed rather than taped, but has the same station house set, so it's like watching everyone transferred to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. At this point, the show is designed to divide evenly between home and precinct life, with an almost entirely different (and mostly white) squad roster. Also Barney's wife Liz (Abby Dalton) has a windy politician uncle (played by character actor Henry Beckman), who gets third billing in the opening (Vigoda gets fifth and last, but still ahead of two other cops who wait until the end). Val Bisoglia, playing an Italian cop who likes to gamble (and which would become Yemana) later played guest roles on the show. Rod Perry (Wilson, the black cop and a master of disguise) did one episode of the series proper in the same role, but basically Ron Glass' Harris filled that slot. And the prototype for Wojo is played by Charles Haid, who would go on to play Andy Renko on Hill Street Blues.
As noted, none of these made it to the series as regulars (even Liz was recast, with Barbara Barrie, before they realized the show was basically a one-set series focusing on the 12th Precinct, and she faded out). But most of the minor parts (Barney's kids, his daughter's boyfriend, Chu Chu Malave as the perp Ramon, and Buddy Lester as a bookie) made it when the script was reworked as the first series episode, "Ramon," which premiered midseason in January 1975. Of course, Hal Linden as Barney and Abe Vigoda as Fish were retained (no significant differences in characterization for either).
Fish, as Brooks and Marsh put it in their book The Complete Directory to Prime Time and Cable TV Shows, "looked and acted like every breath might be his last." He had kidney stones, he had heartburn, he had arthritis, he had anything and everything. His constant need to use the bathroom was as much a running gag as Yemana's bad coffee, and his one-sided telephone calls with wife Bernice were hilarious. (When she did appear, played by Florence Stanley, she revealed herself as a sweet, insecure, raspy-voiced woman who was better than her trying husband deserved, despite his own put-upon attitude). Mostly he felt oppressed by age (and knowing he would soon be forcibly retired) and so he used complaints and dry quips to fight back. He became the hit of the show and earned Vigoda two Emmy nominations while a regular, and a third for his departure episode "Goodbye Mr. Fish" at the start of season 4. In fact, his last season on Barney Miller was concurrent with the Fish spinoff (which arose from the producers' desire for a spinoff, experimented with in earlier episodes, and Vigoda wanting more of a showcase; as TV Guide recalled in 1979, he suggested renaming the show "Fish and Barney"!) I'll talk more about that in a later post.

When not fishing, Vigoda appeared in two episodes of The Rockford Files, one pre-Barney Miller and one post. The first ("The Kirkoff Case," the first episode of the series proper after the two-hour pilot, in 1974) has Vigoda as a "labor union organizer," clearly to be read as mobster. One of his goons is played by Milt Kogan (Kogan the uniform cop in early episodes of "Barney Miller"; the actor left but the character was mentioned to the end of the run, even earning a promotion to sergeant!) It's a one-scene part but Vigoda makes the most of it.
More impressive, however, is his turn in the cleverly titled "Rosendahl and Gilda Stern Are Dead" (and they are) from 1978. Spoilers after the pic, but the pleasure lies more in the viewing than being surprised.
Vigoda plays Phil "The Dancer" Gabriel, a mob boss whose nickname is now tinged with irony since he's wheelchair bound due to botched hip surgery. In "Dr. Phibes" fashion (minus the frog masks and blood draining), he sets a hit out on the entire surgical team (which includes Robert Loggia). The final scene, where he reacts to footage of the surgery and realizes that "you let a salesman" actually place the part, is a gem of fury.
In a rare case on Rockford, it's easy to share Gabriel's indignation. The nervous salesman in question, in an off-camera questioning, asks if the man in the limo (Vigoda as Gabriel) had a "face like a bassett hound," the best description of Vigoda this side of the Boris Karloff comparisons.

They got good mileage out of that in the second season "Barney Miller" episode "Discovery," in which a computer error lists Fish as dead (thus starting the trend!) When another character tells Fish he looks just like Karloff, the inevitable answer is "That's because we're both dead."

Speaking of Karloff, the resemblance was also put to use when he guest starred on The Bionic Woman as an ancient, sinister butler named Barlow, in a sort of homage-slash-spoof of Old Dark House mysteries (complete with Vincent Price as both dead man and his scheming twin brother). Vigoda had played a similar role in a 1960s off-Broadway version of The Cat and the Canary, and in 1986, he did the Broadway revival of Arsenic and Old Lace as the murderous Jonathan Brewster, a part originated by Boris Karloff (in fact, the joke in dialogue is that botched plastic surgery has left Jonathan looking like Karloff). Vigoda also played Fish in the

After Fish's cancellation, Vigoda continued the TV guest circuit, including the expected visits to Fantasy Island, The Love Boat (romancing Nancy Walker), Murder She Wrote, and the short-lived Sweepstakes (a modernized The Millionaire with Love Boat touches), and also BJ and the Bear, but out of respect for the deceased, we'll ignore that. Later guest spots included Law & Order (as a retired NYPD detective, surprise surprise) and a Christmas episode of "Wings," called "All About Christmas Eve," in 1996.
On the latter, Vigoda played the brother of another cranky old man... diminutive character great Phil Leeds, who had been a frequent visitor to the 12th Precinct, notably in the 1977 episode “Group Home” (the title doesn't apply to an actual plot element, but "Fish" had started by this point, so Bernice and two of the kids from the group home pop in). Assigned to mugging detail, Fish is in drag again, and followed by infatuated admirer Phil Leeds (who recalled that Barney often cast him as a “dirty old man,” but in this case, he comes off as a sweet, lonely soul desperate for any human connection).

Most of Vigoda's other film credits, apart from The Godfather and its sequel, were fairly forgettable or downright painful, including Good Burger, the Pauly Shore courtroom "comedy" Jury Duty(as the judge), The Misery Brothers (wearing lipstick and earrings in the trailer), and the title role in an oddball Cannon action thriller Keaton's Cop (opposite Lee Majors and Don Rickles), and many movies that barely got a release. There were exceptions, and he did have a very brief cameo in the cult horror comedy The Stuff (1985), in a commercial, married to Clara "Where's the beef?" Peller:

Other fairly respectable turns included an Alaskan grandpa in North, a vet in the Christmas movie Prancer, and yet another mob boss, this time animated, as Sal "The Wheezer" in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993). Joe Versus the Volcano improbably but brilliantly cast Abe Vigoda as an island chieftain. Near the bubbling volcano of the title, the chief conducts one of the shortest marriage ceremonies. The image below says far more about the role than mere words could.
Much of his work in later years (and for Vigoda, that was basically two decades of later years) was basically showing up and being Abe Vigoda. Two spoofs on TVLand award shows (as Mr. Big from Sex in the City oppposite Bea Arthur, and as the hunky plumber from Desperate Housewives), a very brief glimpse in the Snickers commercial with Betty White (another player turns into Abe Vigoda, in Fish garb, who says "That hurt"), and especially his frequent visits to Late Night with Conan O'Brien, often for quick gags which were funny mainly because it was old, deadpan Abe Vigoda being covered in Christmas decorations or sitting on a chair while a Vigodal eclipse occurs.

Farewell, Abe. May Heaven be devoid of annoying kids and kidney stones.
Tomorrow, I hope to fulfill a long-held plan, which I discussed with my friend Ivan Shreve, author of Mayberry Mondays (chronicling every episode Mayberry RFD) and Doris Days (The Doris Day Show). The latter has been far more intermittent, but given my own delays, and having watched a few episodes, I can hardly blame him. In any event, Fish Fridays will commence in earnest, at least up until the second season premiere (the only second season episode I could find), including the two-part Barney Miller “Goodbye, Mr. Fish” (the character’s retirement) and possibly a look at his two return visits.