There are shows I watched on TV as a child and have seen repeatedly in the years since, through reruns and/or home video (e.g. “The Twilight Zone,” “Adventures of Superman”). There are shows I watched on TV as a child but haven’t seen since and don’t know how well they hold up (“Peter Gunn,” “Sea Hunt,” “Yancy Derringer”). There are shows that were on when I was a child but didn’t see at all until I was an adult and now consider among my favorites (“Bonanza,” “The Untouchables”). There are shows I saw as a child and have only recently rewatched for the first time in over five decades that have held up very well (“The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Wanted: Dead or Alive”). Finally, there are shows that were on in my childhood that I never saw at all, some I’ve heard of (“Adventures in Paradise,” “Richard Diamond, Private Detective”) and some I’ve discovered only by poring through the IMDB credits of actors I’m interested in. For instance, when I did the piece on Lisa Lu in the “Day of the Dragon” episode of “Bonanza” (January 8, 2013), I discovered among her TV credits in the 1950s and early ’60s such unfamiliar shows as “Tightrope,” “Dante,” “Cimarron City,” “Hong Kong,” “Checkmate,” and “Coronado 9.” I’m curious to see them all.
Every January marks the TV on DVD Challenge on the DVD Talk Forum. My initial goal is invariably to use it as an opportunity to plow through my unwatched pile of Japanese TV series, both live-action and animated, of which I have dozens. However, I usually find myself instead plunging into classic American TV shows that I have on tape or DVD, simply because they’re there on the shelves (or in boxes), waiting to be watched and the Challenge makes it seem like an opportune time to watch them. And since I’ve picked up more of these box sets in the last two years (“Bonanza,” “The Untouchables,” “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” “The Naked City,” “Dragnet,” “Police Story,” etc.), I have plenty on hand. What started all this was my purchase two years ago of the “Ultimate Westerns: Television Classics 150 Episodes” box set put out by Mill Creek. It offered multiple episodes from 28 series, including such favorites that I hadn’t seen since childhood as “The Roy Rogers Show,” “The Lone Ranger,” “The Adventures of Kit Carson,” and “Annie Oakley.”
What struck me as I re-watched these series, especially the older half-hour westerns, was how tightly constructed and full of action they were. They revived my taste in old television. On the same trip to my local FYE in which I purchased the “Ultimate Westerns” set, I also bought the “Top TV Westerns” box set which offered 17 episodes from four high-profile western series from the late 1950s to early 1960s (“The Virginian,” “Wagon Train,” “Laredo,” “Laramie”).
And then a few weeks later I bought “TV Westerns Featuring Robert Redford” offering five episodes from four different series, including “Whispering Smith,” a western starring Audie Murphy that I’d been wanting to see ever since I first heard of it.
The difference between these two sets and the “Ultimate Westerns” set is that they were put out by a legitimate distributor (Timeless Media) working with the original producer (NBC Universal), as opposed to the “Ultimate Westerns” set from Mill Creek, compiled from public domain copies. So there’s a significant difference in print quality.
(Which raises the question of why there aren’t more samplers like this for people who don’t necessarily want to buy a complete series box set.)
And then I bought the box set of “Dragnet” that I wrote about here on November 16, 2013. And that only further increased my admiration for classic TV from the 1950s. Also around that time I got into the classic westerns that were running on Encore’s Western Channel, including “Have Gun Will Travel,” “Cheyenne,” “Rawhide,” “Gunsmoke,” “Maverick,” and many more, most of which I hadn’t seen since childhood.
And when I talk about seeing any of these series as a child, I’m talking about the period before the summer I turned nine. Our TV set broke that summer and we didn’t get a new one (albeit used) for two years. When we did, my TV watching gravitated to the newer secret agent shows like “Secret Agent,” “The Wild Wild West,” and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and the new wave of genre-themed sitcoms like “Gilligan’s Island,” “Bewitched,” “The Addams Family,” “I Dream of Jeannie,” “My Favorite Martian,” “Get Smart” and “F Troop.” Very few of the western or adventure series I watched when I was four-to-eight-years-old were still on the air when I resumed TV watching in 1964. And then that period of TV watching ended in 1966 when that TV set broke down and didn’t resume again until 1971 when I bought a used set from a friend for $20 in my Freshman year of college. (My parents were not big TV watchers.)
This past month I began making a list of series I either wanted to see again for the first time in 50-odd years or series I’d never seen and finally wanted to see. It’s a long list and all of them are from the 1950s and ’60s. I looked up some of them on Amazon.com to see if they were available on DVD. Many were, some at reasonable prices ($14.96 for “Whispering Smith,” the complete series), some not (“M Squad,” complete for $61.48, and “Route 66,” complete for $73.96). I just wanted to sample series, not watch every show in them. Of course, I could get a Netflix or Hulu account, something I’ve long avoided for the simple reason I have enough films and TV series on tape and DVD to last me the rest of my life and don’t need to add to the pile by renting. But at the same time, it’s a useful tool to sample lots of series that are too expensive to buy.
At some point, I got the bright idea to take my list and go on YouTube to see what’s been posted there. And, lo and behold, what an array they had! Since embarking on this path, I’ve watched 17 TV episodes in their entirety on YouTube. Some of these were for series I’d never even heard of, but discovered on one particular YouTube Channel. “Everglades!” (1961) is a contemporary crime series about a lawman or “constable” operating in the Everglades who rides around on one of those fan-powered swamp boats. “This Man Dawson” (1959) is a police drama about a special police agent assigned to root out corruption in an unnamed big-city police department. “Rescue 8” (1958-60) is a precursor to the popular 1970s series, “Emergency” and stars Jim Davis as head of a rescue unit for the L.A. Fire Department. “Court Martial” (1966) is a World War II legal series about two officers investigating cases for the Judge Advocate General both during the war and right after it. “Whirlybirds” (1957) is about a pair of helicopter pilots who hire out their services to a wide range of clients.
Other episodes I watched came from series I’d heard of but never seen, including “M Squad” (1957-60) with Lee Marvin and “Mike Hammer” (1958-59) with Darren McGavin, two extraordinarily tough half-hour crime shows with forceful heroes who didn’t coddle suspects. “The Asphalt Jungle” (1961) was based on the 1950 film by John Huston. “The New Breed” (1961-62) is a police drama starring Leslie Nielsen as head of the LAPD’s Metropolitan Squad. “The Buccaneers” is a 1956 English pirate series starring Robert Shaw, although the episode I watched didn’t have him in it. (He apparently joined the series after the first two episodes.) Dipping into color for a change, I watched an episode of “Felony Squad” that was continued in a crossover episode of “Judd for the Defense,” which I then watched next.
“Everglades!” appears to be shot entirely on location with local actors and has the look and feel of a regional exploitation movie, something aimed for drive-ins that somehow made its way to television. The actress playing the guest star role, a local girl back home after going to the big city to pursue her fortune but nursing a lethal secret, had a striking resemblance to Hollywood actress Mala Powers, so I was surprised to find out from the credits at the end that it was indeed Mala Powers! She looked enough like her to resemble her, but was playing such a different, localized character that I didn’t think it could possibly be her.
“This Man Dawson” is a hard-boiled crime series co-produced by William Conrad (future star of “Cannon”). The episode I watched, “The Assassin,” directed by Conrad, is about a murder plot targeting a local politician who’s about to set up a crime commission to root out organized crime in the city. Keith Andes plays Colonel Dawson, a former marine officer, and his partner is played by John Marley (THE GODFATHER). The ostensible hired gun, a known killer for the mob, is played by Brad Dexter (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN), but he’s a cover for the real assassin, played by L.Q. Jones (THE WILD BUNCH), who successfully eludes surveillance efforts to be on hand when the targeted politician, played by John Archer (WHITE HEAT), arrives on a private plane. It all builds up to a suspenseful airport climax. Most of the action appears to have been shot on location, even inside government buildings, probably in L.A.
“The New Breed” episode was called “Lady Killer” and guest stars Robert Redford as a serial rapist, with Anne Francis as one of his victims and Martin Balsam as her angry husband. What a cast! Nielsen and Francis, of course, had co-starred in the 1956 science fiction classic, FORBIDDEN PLANET. In fact, it includes the spectacle of Leslie Nielsen pulling a gun on Redford as he holds a knife to Francis’ throat while Balsam tries to talk him down.
“The Asphalt Jungle” episode, called “The Professor,” was actually based on the original 1950 film, retelling it in a condensed 50 minutes (as opposed to the 112-minute original). Milton Selzer plays Sam Jaffe’s role (the Professor) and offers a remarkable impersonation of Jaffe’s portrayal of the mastermind behind the jewel robbery. Philip Carey plays the Sterling Hayden role of the “hooligan” who dreams of going back to the farm on which he grew up. Future director Sidney Pollack plays the bookie who helps set up the job. Joan Staley plays the Marilyn Monroe role and Frank Overton plays the lawyer portrayed by Louis Calhern in the film. Jack Warden, the series star, plays the police commissioner who was played by John McIntire in the original. The cop characters take a back seat to the heist team in this one. It’s dark and grim. I liked it a lot but I can see why it lasted only one season.
The episode of “Court Martial” I watched is called “Let Slip the Dogs of War” and takes place in Rome. The two lead officers (Bradford Dillman and Peter Graves) investigate a war correspondent who is suspected of leaking info on an Allied offensive to the Germans, thus dooming the offensive and resulting in 8000 casualties. At one point, Peter Graves has to venture out into the frontlines to question a witness, an Indian Army officer, in the middle of combat against the Nazis. The series was shot in England and used a largely English cast, giving it a European flavor missing from most Hollywood series set in Europe but shot in Hollywood. It was in black-and-white at a time (1966) when nearly every other b&w series had shifted to color or gone off the air. Interestingly, the pilot episode for the series ran as a two-part episode of “Kraft Suspense Theater” and was filmed in color. The two parts were later combined to create a single feature film, SERGEANT STRYKER, and released to theaters in 1968, listing Lee Marvin, who played Stryker, as the star. I remember seeing the trailer at a local theater and thinking it looked like a TV show.
“Johnny Staccato” was a 1959 private eye series starring John Cassavetes and it featured a jazz score and onscreen jazz performers and was set in New York, with plenty of outdoor location shots. I found the first episode, “The Naked Truth,” on YouTube. Michael Landon plays an Elvis-like singer being blackmailed about a youthful arrest. We see Cassavetes on the streets of New York and in the subway at Union Square, getting on the #6 train and getting off at Grand Central, the camera following him all the way.
Of the series I have on DVD that I decided to watch this month, I was impressed with quite a lot of shows, but I especially have to single out “Perry Mason.” I watched two episodes from Season One and it was the first time I’d seen the series since I was a child. I know I watched episodes when I was as young as five because when the movie, GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS, first aired on TV in 1958, I saw it then and I already knew that its star, Raymond Burr, was someone we saw every Saturday night as Perry Mason. I distinctly remember watching whole episodes with my father and siblings. In re-watching it now, I can see why it held our interest. It’s remarkably dramatic and straightforward, with every scene conveying key information and moving the plot forward as concisely as possible and with great closeups. Burr, in particular, is quite expressive and draws us in, no matter how far-fetched the proceedings get. (Has there ever been a trial anywhere in the world where the actual guilty party arises from the spectators and blurts out a surprise confession?) In “The Case of the Cautious Coquette,” the story begins with a model being blackmailed by her estranged husband as she embarks on a new relationship and she provides the emotional core of the story even as the plot twists keep spiraling. The camera regularly cuts back to closeups of her as she confronts various traumas and tragedies and we hang on because her story (and her face) are so compelling. The actress is Kipp Hamilton, who later gained a bit of cult fame by appearing as an ill-fated cruise ship singer in a pivotal scene in the Japanese monster film, WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (directed by the same man, Ishiro Honda, who directed the original GOJIRA, which became GODZILLA when Raymond Burr’s scenes were edited into it).
I still have quite a long list of shows I want to sample, either on YouTube or elsewhere. I don’t wish to be seen as encouraging piracy (and the uploading of shows one doesn’t own to YouTube is indeed a new form of bootlegging), but in many cases these shows would not otherwise be accessible. If they’re available on DVD, like “M Squad,” “Mike Hammer,” “Johnny Staccato,” “Sea Hunt,” “Highway Patrol” and “Route 66,” then they should be rented or bought, especially since the DVDs offer much higher-quality transfers than you’re likely to find on YouTube. Now it doesn’t hurt to preview the series on YouTube and then decide if you want to buy or rent or not. I watched one episode of “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1955) on YouTube and was so impressed I ordered the Season One box set from Amazon for $4.99. I liked the episode of “The Buccaneers” I watched but was dismayed to find that the complete series box set is out of print. When I found a used copy in Book Off for $10, I immediately bought it.
- However, when it comes to series that are not available anywhere else, like “The Asphalt Jungle,” “The New Breed,” “Court Martial,” “Rescue 8,” “Everglades!” and “This Man Dawson,” YouTube is a way to see series that would otherwise be lost.
But not every “lost” series is available on YouTube. “Tightrope” (1959) is a half-hour crime show with Mike Connors that has a good reputation but it’s not on DVD and I can only find one episode on YouTube. “Hong Kong” (1960) is an hour-long drama-adventure series starring Rod Taylor that featured many Asian performers working in Hollywood at the time as guest stars, yet it’s another one I can’t find anywhere. [P.S. I have since found episodes of “Hong Kong” on YouTube and watched one with Lisa Lu as a guest star.] There are tons more. “Empire” (1962), an hour-long color western with Richard Egan and Charles Bronson, sounds intriguing to me, but it’s not on DVD and the only episode on YouTube is in black-and-white.
In any event, I wound up making lists of favorite series; series I want to see, but haven’t; series I remembered fondly but haven’t seen since childhood; and series I only recently discovered and I found that the majority of the shows—I counted 70–were from the years 1958 to 1962, with others no doubt to be added as I discover them. This four-year period (ending in early ’62) happened to coincide with the very earliest period of regular TV watching in my life. Given the list of shows I’ve compiled, I would now call that the Golden Age of Television, at least for me. (I should point out that my bias leans toward western, crime and adventure shows, with few dramas or sitcoms represented.)
These are shows that either were produced entirely from 1958 to 1962 or started production during that period or ended production during that period:
Alfred Hitchcock Presents
Car 54, Where Are You?
Have Gun Will Travel
Leave It to Beaver
The Naked City
Wanted: Dead or Alive
New favorites from this period (thanks to YouTube and DVD):
The Asphalt Jungle
The New Breed
This Man Dawson
Shows I recall fondly but haven’t seen in decades:
The Roaring 20’s
The Tall Man
Shows I still haven’t seen or am not sure I ever saw:
Adventures in Paradise
Bourbon Street Beat
The Gallant Men
The Lawless Years
Man with a Camera
Richard Diamond, Private Eye
The Restless Gun
77 Sunset Strip
The Thin Man
The Third Man
Zane Grey Theater
Some of these are indeed on YouTube in varying numbers of episodes, all waiting to be seen.
Finally, in honor of Russell Johnson, the Professor on “Gilligan’s Island,” who died last week at the age of 89:
ADDENDUM: I had originally included YouTube links to some of the episodes cited here, but the account that hosted those links has been discontinued, so I deleted the links from this entry.