It was called “the wheel format”. It was a television show in which different dramas rotated.
Most people remember the “NBC Sunday Mystery Movie” because it included the classic “Columbo”, starring Peter Falk.
But the original didn’t have a name, and originated in 1966, when the NBC Television Network entered into an agreement with Universal Studios Television and Motion Pictures – the same two companies that now have the same owner, and is known as NBC Universal – for dramatic anthology productions.
The first series created under this agreement was “The Name of the Game”, a drama with three rotating stars, beginning with Gene Barry, of “Bat Masterson” and “Burke’s Law” fame, as Glenn Howard, head of a publishing empire, his business and political confrontations, and his flamboyant lifestyle – sound familiar for Gene Barry?
Another star was “The Untouchables” and “Unsolved Mysteries” star Robert Stack, who played Dan Farrell, a retired FBI agent who used his position as the editor of Crime Magazine to wage a literary war against organized crime. Finally, Anthony Franciosa, who would later star in a series called “Finder of Lost Loves” as Jeff Dillon, a crusading investigative reporter.
Another of these anthologies was The Bold Ones, which I discussed in a previous column.
The next one, Four in One, was the predecessor of the “NBC Sunday Mystery Movie” In the 10 p.m. Wednesday time slot on NBC, four dramatic series alternated: “McCloud”, “San Francisco International Airport”, “Night Gallery” and “The Psychiatrist”.
“McCloud”, of course, was the Taos, New Mexico lawman temporarily assigned to the New York City Police Department; “Night Gallery” was the new version, at the time, of the classic horror TV series “The Twilight Zone”, hosted by the same guy, Rod Serling; “San Francisco International Airport” was the story of Jim Conrad, played by “Rescue 8” star Lloyd Bridges, as the manager of the busy airport where problems arise daily, and “The Psychiatrist”, in which veteran actor Roy Thinnes plays an innovative LA psychiatrist.
After that season, “McCloud” was picked up for the new “NBC Mystery Movie”, and “Night Gallery” was made into a stand-alone series. The other two installments were canceled.
Finally, since all of the other efforts to this point were on the part of NBC, ABC decided to get into the act with “The Men”, which was three crime/adventure dramas aired on ABC as part of its 1972-73 lineup.
“The Men” was comprised of “Assignment Vienna,” “Jigsaw,” and “The Delphi Bureau”. The common element in each of these series was that its hero was a rugged individualist, a loner who worked with little or no supervision on matters of vital significance.
“Assignment Vienna” was “Wild, Wild West” star Robert Conrad as a more modern spy this time, Jake Webster. “Jigsaw” was actor James Wainwright playing Lt. Frank Dain, an investigator for the California State Police Department’s Bureau of Missing Persons who used alternative, but always effective techniques to find who he was looking for, and “The Delphi Bureau” was the adventures or government agent Glen Garth Gregory and his fantastic memory.
The NBC Mystery Movie
In the 1971-72 season, “The NBC Mystery Movie” premiered, with three dramas – “McCloud”; “McMillan and Wife”, a story about lawyer turned San Francisco Police Commissioner Stuart McMillan – played by the legendary Rock Hudson – and his young, beautiful wife, Sally, played by Susan Saint James, who tried to, and sometimes succeeded, in helping her husband with his investigations, and finally “Columbo”, the rumpled, mumbling “Can I ask one more question” LAPD homicide detective who badgered the guilty into admitting they did it. The series was inspired by a 1968, made-for-TV movie entitled “Prescription Murder”.
A fourth cog in the wheel, “Hec Ramsey”, starring “Have Gun, Will Travel” star Richard Boone as a frontier forensic detective who had been a gunfighter. It lasted only two seasons, 1972-74.
The first three were so successful they lasted six TV seasons, and enthused NBC to create a second group, “The Wednesday Mystery Movie” – led by that Polish proverb-quoting, Boston-based insurance investigator Thomas Banacek played by “The A Team” leader George Peppard; “Cool Million”, starring James Farentino as a former CIA agent turned private investigator whose fee per case was $1 million dollars, and “Madigan”, starring Richard Widmark reprising his 1968 film role as a streetwise veteran detective of the New York City Police Department.
“Cool Million” and “Madigan” were canceled after one season, and “Banacek” rotated with three new series: “Faraday & Company”, starring Dan Dailey as a private detective who returns to Los Angeles after a quarter century in a South American jail; “Tenafly”, starring James McEachin as an African-American private detective, and “The Snoop Sisters”, starring Helen Hayes and Mildred Natwick as two elderly sisters who routinely found mysteries which they solved.
Rescheduling to Tuesday nights as “The NBC Tuesday Mystery Movie” during January 1974 was not enough to help boost ratings, and the midweek series was canceled.
During subsequent years, these three rotated with a fourth series, which changed each year (1972–1977), including: “Amy Prentiss”, starring Jessica Walter as the fictional first female chief of detectives for the San Francisco Police Department. This series was a spinoff of “Ironside”; “McCoy”, starring Tony Curtis as a professional con-man and thief; “Quincy, M.E”., Jack Klugman’s post-“Odd Couple” effort as a medical examiner in the L.A. County Coroner’s office, and “Lanigan’s Rabbi”, about a small town police chief, played by Art Carney, and his best friend, a rabbi and amateur sleuth, played by Bruce Solomon, that was based on Harry Kemelman’s popular “Rabbi Small” mysteries.
With the exception of “Hec Ramsey” and “Banacek”, the others were all only on the air for one season. “Quincy, M.E.”, ended up outlasting the parent series itself. Midway through the final “Mystery Movie” season, “Quincy” was taken out of the wheel lineup and retooled into a one-hour weekly series that ran for seven more seasons, coming to an end in 1983.
Although the “Mystery Movie” series was canceled at the end of the 1976–1977 season, NBC kept “Columbo” in production. A seventh season consisting of five films premiered on November 21, 1977. After the fifth film aired in May 1978, NBC canceled “Columbo”.
One more try
With the continued popularity of “Columbo”, ABC decided to try its hand at the “Mystery Movie” format.
In 1989, Universal Television and ABC teamed up for “The ABC Monday Mystery Movie”, which consisted of “Columbo”; “Gideon Oliver”, starring Louis Gossett, Jr. as a crime-solving anthropologist, and “B.L. Stryker”, which featured Burt Reynolds as a private investigator in his native Florida.
“Columbo” and “B.L. Stryker” continued for a second season in the wheel’s second season as “The ABC Saturday Mystery Movie” with two other series in August 1989: the new “Christine Cromwell”, a San Francisco-based mystery starring “Charlie’s Angels” Jaclyn Smith, and a revival of CBS’ 1970s crime drama “Kojak”, with Telly Savalas still in the lead role. In 2005, another “Kojak” was launched with Ving Rhames in the lead role. But it lasted only nine episodes.
The wheel series ran irregularly from February 1989 until August 1990. After “The ABC Saturday Mystery Movie” ended, ABC kept “Columbo” in production and Falk starred in an additional fourteen episodes before the network discontinued the series in 2003.
All installments of “TV’s Greatest Hits” can also be found at accessnepa.com. Go to “featured content” and “screen time.”
TRIVIA THIS TIME
QUESTION: Peter Falk was not the first choice to play “Columbo”. Who was?
ANSWER: Bing Crosby turned the role down, and it went to Falk. But veteran character actor Bert Freed played the part first on the “The Chevy Mystery Show” in 1960.
Q. What film inspired “McCloud”?
Q. What comedy movie franchise did the “Airport” movies inspire?
Q. What famous John Wayne movie did Richard Boone play the bad guy in?
A. The 1968 film, “Coogan’s Bluff”, starring Clint Eastwood. Arizona Deputy Sheriff Coogan, played by Eastwood, is sent to New York City to escort an escaped fugitive back for trial. ‘
Q. Who is Helen Hayes’ son?
Q. What other TV series did Susan Saint James star in?
Q. Who is Susan Saint James married to?
Q. The made-for-television movie “Prescription For Murder”, made in 1968, was the first appearance of Peter Falk as “Columbo”. It is the the story of a psychiatrist who murdered his wife, and made it look like a burglary. Who played the psychiatrist?
TRIVIA FROM LAST TIME:
QUESTION: Was Jack Palance ever in his own TV series?
ANSWER: Yes. In the 1970s, cop shows were king. So for one season, Palance portrayed Detective Alex Bronkov of the Ocean City, California Police Department. The name of the series was “Bronk”. It was on the air in the 1975-76 season, His trademark was a classic Cadillac he drove.
Q. What movie franchise was Charles Bronson known best for?
A. “Death Wish” was a movie franchise that began in 1974 when Bronson played New York architect Paul Kersey, who becomes a one-man vigilante squad after his wife is murdered and his daughter raped. He goes out into the streets of New York and randomly shoots thugs. There are four more movies into the early ’90s.
Q. What war movie made Bronson famous?
A. He was one of the “Dirty Dozen” which were condemned men chosen for a suicide mission to kill a group of German generals at a villa. If they survived, their sentence would be commuted.
Q. What famous actors were in “The Dirty Dozen” with Bronson?
A. Lee Marvin was the commander, and Ernest “McHale’s Navy” Borgnine looked funny in an Army uniform playing a general. Some members of the unit were: Telly “Kojak” Savalas; 6-6 western star Clint Walker; Cleveland Browns NFL great Jim Brown; musician Trini Lopez, who passed away from complicantions developed from COVID-19 Aug. 11 at age 83; Donald “Hawkeye” Sutherland from the “M*A*S*H” movie; George Kennedy from the “Naked Gun” movies, and renowned actor John Cassavetes.
Q. Who are Ben Stiller’s parents?
A. Ben is the son of the husband and wife comedy team of Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara. His dad died in May at the age of 92, and also acted in several notable parts, like George Costanza’s father in “Seinfeld” and Kevin James’ character’s father-in-law on “The King of Queens.” Anne Meara died in 2015.
Q. What famous actress is Jonathan Frakes married to?
A. He is married to actress Genie Francis, Laura from “General Hospital”.
Q. Do you remember another, short-lived TV series Jerry Orbach was in?
A. How about “The Law and Harry McGraw” in which he played a private eye – spun off from a character he played on “Murder She Wrote” with Angela Lansbury – who worked with an attorney, played by TV veteran Barbara Babcock.
Q, What TV show made David Hyde Pierce a star?
A. He was Dr. Niles Crane, the psychologist brother of Dr. Frasier Crane, on “Frasier”.
Jim Dino is the business writer for The Standard-Speaker, Hazleton. Reach him at email@example.com.