Great Moments in Classic TV 2019

25 Jan

In 2019, I saw 425 TV episodes, 325 of them American and 100 Japanese. I will focus here on highlights from classic American TV that I discovered this past year.

The single series I watched the most episodes from was “Perry Mason,” for a total of 70. I’ve been going slowly, but methodically, through the nine-season box set I purchased in 2017 and I watched from “The Case of the Renegade Refugee” (Season 5 / #13, Dec. 9, 1961) to “The Case of the Simple Simon” (Season 7 / #24, April 2, 1964).

In 2017, I did a post on a Perry Mason episode, above, focusing on Japanese characters, “The Case of the Blushing Pearls.”

In 2019’s viewing cycle, I spotted several more Asian characters on Mason. In “The Case of the Capricious Corpse,” Japanese actor Teru Shimada (YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE) plays a Japanese vegetable farmer who witnesses a character roll a car off a cliff with a “corpse” in it. Since the “corpse” turns out to be a suit of samurai armor taken from a local collector’s house, Mason uses the witness’s Japanese heritage to ask him some key questions about the armor. Shimada has three extensive scenes.

“The Case of the Weary Watchdog” has five speaking parts for Chinese characters, four played by Chinese-American actors and one by a Korean-American actor. The complicated plot involves a gallery specializing in Asian art and antiques and what happens after a worthless object is passed off as a rare Chinese antique and sold for $10,000 to an unsuspecting customer. Judy Dan plays an employee at the antiques firm; her boyfriend is played by James Hong, whose father, played by Keye Luke, is a local restaurant owner trying to return Chinese art objects to their homeland. Philip Ahn plays a Chinese art expert whom lawyer Perry Mason (Raymond Burr) consults. Beulah Quo plays a family member of Miss Dan, whose relatives in China are being victimized by a Communist-run slave/extortion racket.

The murder victim is the corrupt gallery owner (John Dall) who is seen early on forcing a kiss on Miss Dan at a party he’s throwing, an act witnessed by Hong, who is working as a waiter at the affair and is more furious at Miss Dan than at Dall. The climactic courtroom confrontation takes place in two courtrooms holding two different trials. While the jury is out deliberating on the verdict for Mason’s client (Mala Powers), Mason and his detective, Paul Drake (William Hopper) visit another courtoom where Mr. Luke is facing a hearing over a traffic violation hoping to get evidence from Luke’s testimony that will free Mason’s client. It’s all very unusual and quite a suspenseful jolt for Mason fans. I’ve seen Luke in dozens of TV guest appearances and this is easily one of the best such roles he’s ever played.

“The Case of the Floating Stones” has four speaking parts for Chinese characters, three played by Chinese-American actors and one by a Japanese-American actor. It features Irene Tsu as the defendant in a case involving diamonds smuggled from Red China to a Hong Kong antiques dealer, Tsu’s father, played by Richard Loo. James Hong plays Loo’s solicitor and is a key witness. Dale Ishimoto plays the man who brings Loo the diamonds. This was Tsu’s first TV acting job.

One thing I noticed in this year’s viewing of Perry Mason is the growing number of black actors with speaking parts in these seasons. In my earlier piece on the Mason episode, “The Case of the Blushing Pearls,” I noted the role of a security guard played by William Walker as the first speaking part for a black character in the series.

This year, I noted the following:

Maidie Norman as a hotel maid in “The Case of the Mystified Miner”:

Ivan Dixon as a state inspector who testifies in court about a pharmacy’s records of a specific poison used in the murder in “The Case of the Promoter’s Pillbox”:

Amanda Randolph as a family maid in “The Case of the Dodging Domino”:

Ken Renard as a divorce court judge in “The Case of the Lover’s Leap”:

In addition, William Hines played a hotel waiter in “The Case of the Capricious Corpse” and Ivan Dixon was back in a different role as a witness in “The Case of the Nebulous Nephew.” There was also a black judge, played by Vince Townsend Jr. in “The Case of the Skeleton’s Closet,” but he has no dialogue:

Incidentally, in “The Case of the Promoter’s Pillbox,” Ivan Dixon’s first episode, there is a reference to Rod Serling, whom Mason indicates is a friend of his. Serling was producing and hosting “The Twilight Zone” at the time, also for CBS, and Dixon appeared twice on that show.

Amanda Randolph, once a regular on “Amos ‘an Andy” and “The Danny Thomas Show,” also appeared in a Season 1 episode of “The Untouchables” that I watched last year, “The Dutch Schultz Story” (1959). In it, she plays Madame, a character based on Stephanie St. Clair, aka “Madame Queen,” who ran the numbers racket in Harlem in the 1920s and ’30s until Dutch Schultz (Lawrence Dobkin) tried to muscle in. She shed no tears when he was shot down by rivals in 1935.

The 1997 film, HOODLUM, dramatized the story of Madame St. Clair and her colleague Bumpy Johnson and starred Cicely Tyson as St. Clair, Laurence Fishburne as Johnson, and Tim Roth as Schultz.

The real Madame:

The episode also includes a dramatization of the shooting of Schultz in the Palace Chop House in Newark on Oct. 23, 1935. I was impressed with the follow-up sequence showing Schultz delirious in the hospital and featuring bits from his actual rambling death-bed monologue that lasted for 22 hours and was all taken down by a police stenographer and subsequently published in the newspapers for posterity. Schultz is heard in the scene speaking the most famous and mysterious line from the testament:

“A boy has never wept nor dashed a thousand kim.”

Schultz’s last words figure prominently in The Illuminatus Trilogy (1975) by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, which imputes various esoteric meanings and conspiratorial inklings to Schultz’s utterances. The book was the first time I’d heard about Schultz’s last words and this “Untouchables” episode was the first time I’ve seen this part of the saga dramatized in any way.

In “Dragnet 1969,” episode #3 “Community Relations: DR-10,” Sergeant Friday (Jack Webb) and Officer Gannon (Harry Morgan) are assigned by a black police lieutenant (played by Olympic athlete Rafer Johnson) to give a talk to the East Los Angeles Graduate Union to encourage the young men attending, mostly blacks, to join the police department. When the two officers have a tough time of it, they enlist a young black officer (Don Marshall) to speak to the group. One of the group, described as a “heckler” (Bill Elliott), denigrates their efforts.

Another participant seems more interested in police work and has one line, “I have a question: are the exams tough?” This one is played by none other than football star O.J. Simpson in his very first acting role!

Little did the LAPD know how much trouble he’d be giving them in 25 years.

A Season 7 episode of “The Virginian,” entitled “Stopover” (1969), features singer Herb Jeffries in the role of Frank Hammel, a notorious gunslinger who stops in Medicine Bow between stages. He’s an old friend of the Virginian (James Drury) and tells him he’s just waiting for the next stage, but the townsfolk quickly fan the flames of fear and spread rumors that he’s come for one of them, with numerous solid citizens nursing a guilty conscience and quaking in their boots. Even the Virginian wants the sheriff to jail his friend for his own safety.

Jeffries was known for playing a singing cowboy in a series of all-black westerns made from 1937 to 1939, with titles like THE BRONZE BUCKAROO, HARLEM RIDES THE RANGE, and TWO-GUN MAN FROM HARLEM, where he was billed as Herbert Jeffrey. He later achieved success as a singer of jazz songs and calypso.

Of mixed-race ancestry, Jeffries identified as black. This episode never establishes Hammel’s race, but Jeffries’ portrayal clearly codes the part as black. This is further emphasized by the way the townsfolk treat him, ostensibly out of fear of his reputation as a gunman, but they use the language of discrimination, e.g. “We don’t want his kind in this town,” turning the story into a metaphorical treatment of race. Eventually, we learn that Hammel is indeed in town to kill someone but it all gets resolved peacefully.

Jeffries acted only intermittently over the course of his long career, so I wonder if his appearance on this episode, in which he’s given top guest star billing, coincided with a rediscovery and revival of interest in his all-black westerns from 30 years earlier. He died at the age of 100 in 2014.

I also watched an episode of “The Virginian” with several Chinese characters and wrote about that episode in an earlier entry.

A Season 3 episode of “Tales of Wells Fargo,” entitled “Faster Gun,” features B-movie actor Tom Neal in his next-to-last acting job. The star of Edgar G. Ulmer’s low-budget film noir masterpiece DETOUR (1945) as well as the Japanese-themed WWII movies, BEHIND THE RISING SUN (1943) and FIRST YANK INTO TOKYO (1945), Neal plays outlaw Johnny Reno in the episode and gets the best of series protagonist Jim Hardie (Dale Robertson) in the opening scene, putting the wounded Hardie in the humiliating position of having to accept help in tracking down Reno from a hostile former bounty hunter (Robert J. Wilke) hired to take his place. Reno has found an ingenious way to get inside info about gold shipments from the El Paso office of Wells Fargo and Hardie has to figure out how he does it. Neal did only one more acting appearance—on an episode of “Mike Hammer” the following year (1959).

An iconic shot of Neal from DETOUR:

In the course of devotedly watching WWII films and documentaries last fall, I decided to alternate some lighter-hearted fare with the same theme, so I put in some episodes of the military sitcom, “McHale’s Navy” (1962) starring Ernest Borgnine. Set in the South Pacific, with lots of frontline activity, the series focused on a PT boat unit and the zany antics of the misfit crewmen in between bouts of combat with the Japanese. One episode I watched relied on the audience’s knowledge of wartime Hollywood movies that the men in McHale’s unit are eager to see on 16mm film prints shipped from the U.S., including ACTION IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC starring Humphrey Bogart, DAWN PATROL starring Errol Flynn, THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO starring Spencer Tracy, and an unnamed John Wayne cavalry movie.

Since I spent all of the 1970s and much of the 1980s working with 16mm film prints…

…I was happy to see the emphasis on this format in this episode.

Late in the episode, when they’re stationed on a Japanese-held island and ordered to cause a diversion, they splice together the combat scenes from the four war movies and play them on the projector with improvised speakers to make the sound loud enough so that the lone Japanese sentry on their side of the island will hear the noise and alert the main Japanese force to bring their big guns down to fend off an “invasion,” allowing an American convoy to pass the island without being shelled by the main force. They safely flee the island, although the projector and the film prints are destroyed by the Japanese shell blasts.

There are four Japanese actors in the episode, including series regular Yoshio Yoda as Fuji, the jovial Japanese prisoner-of-war whom McHale and his men hide from the Captain and rely on for various tasks.

The Japanese major on the island and his aide are played by Lloyd Kino and John Fujkoka.

The lone sentry who gets fooled by McHale’s ploy is none other than Mako, a distinguished Japanese actor who had a 48-year career in Hollywood in both film and television and would get nominated for an Oscar for his role in THE SAND PEBBLES (1966) and would appear in many well-known films, including THE KILLER ELITE, CONAN THE BARBARIAN, RISING SUN, MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, and Michael Bay’s PEARL HARBOR, in which he played Admiral Yamamoto.

I got to see dwarf actor Michael Dunn in two TV appearances filmed a year apart in 1967 and 1968. He had already achieved TV fame in his frequent appearances on “The Wild, Wild West” in the role of mad genius Dr. Loveless, which he would play throughout the series run. In film, he’d already gotten an Oscar nomination for his role in SHIP OF FOOLS (1965).

In “The Wax Men,” a Season 3 episode of “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” Dunn played a mad scientist dressed as a malevolent clown who slips aboard the Seaview with a shipment of wax dummies of the crew which he then controls robotically to take over the Seaview for some nefarious purpose. (The crates containing the wax dummies were supposed to have held ancient statues from Atlantis.) The clown’s motivation is explained very vaguely at the end, but it made no more sense than the rest of the episode did. Most of the cast (all except David Hedison) play the wax dummies for most of the episode, with makeup giving them a waxy glare. Hedison’s character, Captain Crane, is particularly stupid here, never locking the doors behind him and never thinking to look in the crates that the dummies came out of to see if the real crew are in there. However, Dunn makes his character compelling and the spectacle of a gaudy little clown taking over an advanced nuclear submarine makes the episode worth watching.

In “Plato’s Stepchildren,” a Season 3 episode of “Star Trek,” Dunn plays a court jester on a planet modeled on Ancient Greece, where the rulers, played by Liam Sullivan and Barbara Babcock, have psychokinetic powers that enable them to force outsiders to do their bidding, including the members of the Enterprise crew who have come to respond to a call of medical emergency. Dunn is the only member of this planet’s civilization who doesn’t have the power to resist, so they use him as a buffoon to entertain them. For instance, they force Captain Kirk (William Shatner) to give Dunn a ride on his back. They force Spock (Leonard Nimoy) to dance and he ends his dance by breaking out into laughter next to Dunn, who can’t restrain his own spontaneous laughter either. In a private moment, Dunn pleads with the visitors for help in being freed from this constant humiliation. He wants to live a life of dignity and freedom and has several very good dramatic scenes, which save the episode from complete mediocrity.

In the course of my TV watching this year, I discovered two instances of actors marrying each other in real life after playing characters in TV episodes who get married. Here’s my Facebook post on the subject:

Last Wednesday (Jan. 9), I watched the final episode of a Japanese superhero TV series that ended with the wedding of the hero and heroine (the equivalent of the Red Ranger and Pink Ranger in Power Rangers). In researching the actors, Kotaro Tanaka and Rika Kishida, I learned that the two of them did indeed get married after the show finished production and remain married today, almost 30 years later. (I’m leaving out the name of the show to avoid spoilers for anyone reading this who shares my interest in Japanese superheroes.)

It doesn’t end there. Today (Jan. 14), I watched an episode of “Death Valley Days” from 1954 about the son of a mining tycoon forced by his father to learn the business by working in the mines. He gets bullied and has to prove himself and in doing so wins the love of the young woman running the dining hall where the miners eat. I wasn’t familiar with the two actors, Ray Boyle and Jan Shepard, so I looked them up and was surprised to learn that the two of them got married right after shooting the episode and remain married—65 years later! (They’re both in their 90s and still alive as of this writing.)

Wow! Discovering two such instances in a week! What are the chances?

Finally, one last shot from Perry Mason. In “The Case of the Absent Artist,” Victor Buono plays a beatnik sculptor who seems, in one nighttime scene, to be sharing a joint with his sidekick (Carl Don).


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