Great Moments in Classic Television from 2017

8 Jan

I watched approximately 765 episodes from over 100 different TV shows in 2017, spanning the years 1949 to 2017. And that doesn’t include specials, movie-spin-offs or TV movies. I watched more from the 1950s than any other decade (190), followed closely by the 2010s with 185. I watched four series in their entirety, as well as two entire seasons of “Perry Mason.” I watched mostly on DVD, but also on VHS, Blu-ray, Amazon Prime, YouTube and cable TV. I like to celebrate anniversaries so I watched a lot of shows from 1957, 60 years ago, and 1967, 50 years ago, and a good amount from 1997, but far fewer from 1977, 1987, and 2007.

One of the series I watched in its entirety (39 episodes) was “Decoy” (1957-58), which I wrote about here in October. Beverly Garland starred as a New York City policewoman who handles all manner of cases and the show was filmed entirely in New York City.

I watched 87 episodes of “Perry Mason,” starring Raymond Burr, thanks to the complete series box set I bought for half-price from my local FYE during its closing sale in May. I finished Season 1 early in 2017 (a season I’d already owned), watched all of Seasons 2 & 3 in the second half of the year and started Season 4 on January 1st of this year. I wouldn’t have watched so much of it if I didn’t enjoy every episode. What’s great is how different all the plots are from each other. Except for the courtroom wrap-ups which follow a certain formula and get tidied up far too easily in ways that often have me scratching my head, no two shows are exactly alike. I find the characters and storylines consistently compelling and always enjoy seeing Mason extract the truth out of so many disparate characters. An added plus is all the great Hollywood character actors who turned up in this series.

Fay Wray (KING KONG) appears as a once-renowned Hollywood star who had given her daughter up for adoption in 1935 in “The Case of the Watery Witness” (Season 3 / #2, Oct. 10, 1959), which recalled the case of Loretta Young whose “adopted” daughter, Judy Lewis, was decades later revealed to be her love child from Clark Gable, conceived during their stint on location for CALL OF THE WILD, which came out in 1935 and was also the year of the child’s birth. This was the second of two Wray appearances in “Perry Mason” that I’ve seen. She did one more in a later season.

Wray’s not in the episode long—you can guess what happens to her—but she’s  the most memorable thing about it.

One major casting surprise was found in “The Case of the Lazy Lover” (Season 1 / #35, May 31, 1958) in which Neil Hamilton plays the stepfather of Yvonne Craig. Hamilton would later play Commissioner Gordon on “Batman” (1966-68) while Yvonne Craig would play his daughter, Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl, in the same show. In this episode, they find the body of Hamilton’s employee in their driveway and Yvonne thinks she hit him.

“The Case of the Pint-Sized Client” (Season 2 / #3, Oct. 4, 1958) reunited tough-guy actors Elisha Cook and Eduardo Ciannelli, who’d once co-starred in DILLINGER (1945). Cook played his usual small-time crook pressured into going on one last heist, while Ciannelli plays against type as a kindly old single grandfather who is charged with murder after his grandson finds the robbery stash in an abandoned house where one of the robbers is also found—dead.

Beverly Garland, the star of “Decoy,” guest stars in “The Case of the Mythical Monkeys” (Season 3 / #17, Feb. 27, 1960) as a hard-drinking, chain-smoking crime novelist involved in some shady business. She’s neither the murderess nor the victim, even though such a character would likely have been one or the other in any other episode. Louise Fletcher (ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST) plays Garland’s hapless secretary who gets charged with murder.

I watched 22 episodes of “Dragnet 1967” and “Dragnet 1968,” part of the four-season 1960s revival of Jack Webb’s venerable 1950s series based on case files from the Los Angeles Police Department. 21 of the 22 originally aired in 1967. I found the newer incarnation consistently fascinating, chiefly because, under Webb’s direction, this unabashed paean to the LAPD went so completely against the zeitgeist of the era, sticking to its law-and-order, play-by-the-rules ethos amidst the anarchic spread of the counterculture, against which the series consistently took square aim. What seemed perfectly normal during the series’ 1950s black-&-white run was wildly—and willfully—out of touch in 1967, even if the lectures turned out, on occasion, to be right. While each script was supposedly based on an actual LAPD case, Webb’s head-scratching predilection for overly “quirky” characters among the witnesses that Webb’s Joe Friday and his partner Bill Gannon (Harry Morgan) routinely question and his slow-burn disdain for the anti-police, hedonist attitudes of the young and the militant among the suspects and lawbreakers he encounters give the frequent impression that the only ostensibly “normal” people in Webb’s alternate universe are the police. At the same time, the nature of the cases assigned to Friday and Gannon cover the full spectrum of everyday police work, so, like “Perry Mason,” no two episodes are exactly alike, at least in terms of subject matter and tone. A human interest story is followed by a tale of violent crime followed by a lecture episode followed by an outright comedy. Burglars, rapists, con men, Ponzi schemers, missing children, neglected teens, drug dealers, drug users, bribery, fake policemen, pornography, extortion, fortune-telling rackets, kidnapping, internal affairs, media relations, you name it, Friday and Gannon dealt with it.

One episode deserves special note for the way the truth is subtly embodied in its depiction of a select group of characters. In “The Missing Realtor” (Nov. 16, 1967), Friday and Gannon investigate the case of a real estate agent who suddenly goes missing. They talk to her co-workers and eventually find her body in a house she was showing to a prospective buyer. They question the clients and her bartender boyfriend, whom they even take into custody for a while. Eventually, they zero in on a supposed buyer who looks at houses in order to rob the agents of their wallets and credit cards and they catch him in the act just after he’s robbed another female agent. All the characters are black, reflecting the segregated nature of L.A. housing at the time (and probably still so). No one ever mentions race and Webb’s Friday treats every character exactly as he would any white character. I’m guessing Webb was proud of that and thought he was contributing to racial progress. However, by tacit acceptance of housing segregation, isn’t the show actually preserving the status quo?

Most of the featured actors were known to me.

Scatman Crothers (“Chico and the Man”) plays the missing realtor’s boss:

Ena Hartman (OUR MAN FLINT) is his secretary:

Juanita Moore (IMITATION OF LIFE) plays the second agent:

Jeff Burton (one of the astronauts in PLANET OF THE APES) plays the culprit:

The only one I was unfamiliar with was Gene Boland, the bartender-boyfriend:

“Dragnet 1968” also gave us “The Big Dog” (Nov. 23, 1967), the only time Merry Anders and Luana Anders, two unrelated actresses, ever appeared in the same production. They don’t share any scenes. Merry Anders plays L.A. policewoman Dorothy Miller, a role she played in other Dragnet episodes, while Luana Anders plays one of the series’ patented eccentric everyday people whom Friday and Gannon have to question. She’s a peace-and-love flower shop owner who had her purse snatched by a dog. This pairing proved significant to me because, before I turned 12, I’d seen Merry Anders in three movies: YOUNG JESSE JAMES (1960), FBI CODE 98 (1964), and RAIDERS FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1965). When I was ten, I saw Luana Anders in two movies a week apart, Francis Coppola’s DEMENTIA 13 (1963) and Roger Corman’s THE YOUNG RACERS (1963). (I would next see her in EASY RIDER six years later.) So I’ve always connected these actresses together in my mind. Sadly, both ladies are no longer with us.

Merry Anders with Ray Danton and Jack Kelly in FBI CODE 98:

Luana Anders in DEMENTIA 13:

In January 2017, Encore Western began running “Tales of Wells Fargo” (1957-1962), in which Dale Robertson stars as trouble-shooting, gun-toting, two-fisted Wells Fargo agent Jim Hardie, and I watched 30 episodes of it. The series devoted several shows to famous outlaws who somehow crossed paths with Hardie and some of the actors they cast in the roles would go on to become big names. Four of these actors would later appear as members of John Sturges’ THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960): Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, Charles Bronson, James Coburn. “Wells Fargo” had them all first. I’ve included IMDB review links where applicable.

Steve McQueen starred as “Bill Longley” (Season 2 / #23, Feb. 10, 1958) just a few months before his own western series, “Wanted Dead or Alive” premiered in Sept. 1958.

Robert Vaughn played “Billy the Kid” (Season 2 / #7, Oct. 21, 1957).

Charles Bronson played “Butch Cassidy” (Season 3 / #6, Oct. 13, 1958) with James Coburn as his onetime outlaw partner, Idaho. This was the first time the two actors teamed up. They would later appear together in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963), also for John Sturges, and their final team-up, in 1975, Walter Hill’s directorial debut, HARD TIMES.

Other outlaws played by name actors on the show included Sam Bass, played by Chuck Connors, the future star of “The Rifleman,” and Doc Holliday, played by Martin Landau. Hugh Beaumont played Jesse James on the show just two months after the premiere of the sitcom which made him a household name, “Leave It to Beaver.” Lee Van Cleef played an outlaw on the show also, just not a famous one.

Rita Moreno played a famous 19th century entertainer in “Lola Montez” (Season 3 / #23, Jan. 5, 1959), where she’s a stage passenger barricaded at a relay station under Indian attack. I was disappointed that the character never got to perform in the episode.

Lola Montez also appeared as a character in two episodes of “Death Valley Days,” thanks to the Encore Western Channel’s decision to start running the black-and-white episodes of that long-running series. She has a cameo in “Lotta Crabtree” (Season 2 / #9: January 5, 1954) as the mentor to another 19th century entertainer and is played by Yvonne Cross:

She is later featured in her own episode, “Lola Montez” (Season 3 / #8: Jan. 4, 1955), in which she’s played by Paula Morgan. Montez performs in both of these episodes.

I also saw Yvonne De Carlo play Lola Montez in a feature film, BLACK BART (1948), from Universal Pictures, where she’s the center of a love triangle with two outlaw partners played by Dan Duryea and Jeffrey Lynn. Thankfully, De Carlo gets to sing and dance in it. This also ran on Encore Western last year.

Coincidentally, De Carlo appeared as Lotta Crabtree in the very first episode of “Bonanza,” “A Rose for Lotta,” which I have yet to see.

I’ve had this publicity still from “Rawhide” for decades, but it wasn’t till this year that I managed to finally see this episode, thanks to the ME-TV Channel. It was called “The Incident at Seven Fingers” and it starred William Marshall as a Buffalo Soldier (a member of the black army troop that fought Indians in the Southwest after the Civil War) who is accused of desertion.

And here is my IMDB review.

I watched an episode of “Naked City” entitled, “Robin Hood and Clarence Darrow, They Went Out with Bow and Arrow” (Season 4 / #17, Jan. 9, 1963), in which young Christopher Walken plays the smart aleck hipster-philosopher college student son of liquor store owner Eddie Albert, who opts to combat a wave of robberies by getting a gun.

Walken also turned up in an episode of “Hawaii Five-O,” entitled “Run, Johnny, Run” (Season 2 / #17, Jan. 14, 1970) in which he plays a vengeful U.S. Navy shore patrolman going after an AWOL Hawaiian sailor who’s accused of shooting Walken’s partner.

Finally, as part of my Asians in TV Westerns project, I watched more western episodes with Asian actors, some of which I’ll write about separately. But I’ll cover one for this piece. Japanese actress Miyoshi Umeki, who’d won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for SAYONARA (1957), plays the daughter of a Chinese herbalist in an episode of “The Virginian” entitled “Smile of a Dragon” (Season 2 / #2, Feb. 26, 1964) In the episode, the cowboy Trampas (Doug McClure), one of the regular characters, has been framed for murder in another town and escapes when he realizes the sheriff is out to kill him to cover up his own crimes. While on the run in treacherous terrain, Trampas gets help from Kim Ho (Umeki), who works for her uncle Ming Yang (Kam Tong). She knows the way off the cliffs, which the posse doesn’t, so she takes Trampas to her uncle’s cabin, where her uncle has been wounded by a shot fired by one of the real outlaws. The Chinese are treated very respectfully by Trampas and later by Trampas’ buddy, Steve (Gary Clarke), who has come searching for him. Kim Ho has lots of heart-to-heart talks with Trampas and he really impresses her. She grows as a result of their interaction and learns it’s better to stay and fight than to run. She had expressed despair over the way she’s been treated in America, in comparison to the way she was treated in China, but she sees in Trampas all the qualities she thought were lacking in Americans: kindness, selflessness, courage, love of life. There’s no hint of romance, just mutual respect and friendship.

Other series I watched multiple episodes from in 2017 included “Laramie,” “Wagon Train,” “Bonanza,” “Star Trek,” “Adam-12,” “Police Story,” “The Rockford Files,” “Ironside,” “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” and the one 2017 series that I watched in its entirety, “Power Rangers Ninja Steel.”

I watched lots of Japanese television during the year, including two entire series, “Sailor Moon: Sailor Stars” (1996-97) and “Ressha Sentai Toqger,” the train-themed 2014 sentai season, which I watched in Japanese without subtitles—47 episodes worth! Plus about 30 episodes of “Pokémon the Series: Sun & Moon,” the latest season in that long-running franchise, which switched from Cartoon Network to Disney XD in 2017.

I also watched numerous episodes from Shout Factory’s continuing line of Super Sentai shows being released for the first time in the U.S. on DVD with English subtitles. Two such series came out in 2017: “Gekisou Sentai Carranger” (1996) and “Denji Sentai Megaranger” (1997), the series that provided the action and effects footage, along with some storylines, for “Power Rangers Turbo” (1997) and “Power Rangers in Space” (1998), respectively.

But more on these in a future blog post.

2 Responses to “Great Moments in Classic Television from 2017”

  1. Ted Hicks January 8, 2018 at 9:32 PM #

    Boy, I thought I watched a lot of stuff. You see way too much television. Excellent!

  2. Jeff Flugel February 7, 2018 at 5:18 AM #

    Great rundown, Brian! Enjoyed reading your thoughts on some classic TV shows (particular the westerns and crime shows). And I thought I watched a lot of TV!

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