Police dramas began when television began.
Network television began after World War II, when the National Broadcasting Co., known better by its initials, NBC, and the DuMont Network, began broadcasting an evening lineup in 1946.
Those two networks competed with each other until DuMont began to fade in the mid-1950s, when the American Broadcasting Co. (ABC) and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) began.
The first detective show dates back to 1950.
The biggest success of the DuMont Network was “Rocky King Detective” which was also known as “Inside Detective”.
The show was broadcast live on the DuMont network Sundays at 9 p.m. for five full years, from 1950 to 1954.
Roscoe Karns starred as the chief of homicide of Manhattan’s 24th Police Precinct. During the first three seasons, Earl Hammond portrayed King’s partner, Detective Sgt. Lane. During the final two seasons, Karns’ real life son Todd portrayed King’s partner Detective Hart. Rounding out the cast was Grace Carney as the voice of King’s oft-rambling but always off-camera wife, Mabel, who provided a sort of comic relief for the series.
At the end of each show, Rocky King calls his wife, Mabel, and says, “Case is closed Mabel, I’m coming home”.
The majority of DuMont shows were known for their austere budgets. This one was broadcast live from the actual corridors and offices of DuMont. Despite its low budget and limited nationwide audience – the DuMont network owned a limited number of stations – “Rocky King” was DuMont’s most popular and longest-running show.
But the big cop show of the ’50s was Dragnet, which had been adapted, as many early television programs were, from radio shows. The TV show used the same scripts and actors as its radio cousin. The show was 30 minutes long, and ran for the entirety of the decade.
Actor Jack Webb portrayed detective Joe Friday in both mediums, but didn’t want to appear on TV at first. Webb wanted actor Lloyd Nolan to play Friday on TV. But the network insisted on Webb, who also narrated both iterations of the TV show.
The early TV episodes were just like the radio dramas, except with pictures, and were directly adapted from the radio show.
Webb and his partner Barton Yarborough began the first season, but Yarborough suffered a fatal heart attack. Webb had the writers work his partner’s demise into the storyline, and Sgt. Friday rode with various partners until settling on detective Frank Smith, played by actor Ben Alexander. Most of the episodes available to viewers today feature Webb and Alexander.
The 1950s Dragnet episodes took a documentary approach, each story staged by Webb with newsreel-like authenticity, enhancing the visual action with extremely tight close-ups, which were unheard of in the days of tiny television screens; location photography, and unusual camera angles. Much of this inventiveness went unused in the 1960s revival. Although still using convincing dialogue readings, the new Dragnet lost much of the documentary appearance.
Most of the cast members were veteran radio actors who also starred in the second version from 1967-70. Webb used most of his ensemble players again and again in different roles: Jack Kruschen, Vic Perrin, Art Gilmore, Art Balinger, Barney Phillips, Kathleen Freeman, Stacy Harris, Virginia Gregg, Olan Soule, Herb Vigran, and Peter Leeds, and others. Martin Milner and Lee Marvin made one of their earliest TV appearances on the series; and at the time, going against type playing heavies, Raymond Burr (billed as Ray Burr) appeared in the series’ first episode, as Sgt. Friday’s superior, Captain Thad Mumford.
Just before the show took its final commercial break, the show’s announcer would inform the audience of the opening date written on the TV screen on which the perpetrator’s trial would take place in the Los Angeles County Superior Court. After the break the camera faded in for what was presumably the perpetrator’s mug shot, consisting of him standing uncomfortably against the wall, while the results of the trial, including the sentencing, were announced. The perpetrator’s name and fate were then superimposed over the screen. In most cases, this superimposed material specifically stated in what prison the perpetrator had been incarcerated, or, in the case of perpetrators deemed unfit to stand trial, to what state mental hospital or psychiatric facility they were committed.
In rare cases, where the perpetrator was found guilty of murder and the death penalty was applied, the place and method of execution was noted on screen. In even rarer cases, there was no trial.
While one early episode of “Dragnet” centered around a criminal who was found “not guilty” by a jury at the start of the episode, no episode ended with a perpetrator caught by Friday and his partner being found “not guilty” by a court.
Dubbed the most violent TV show in history where machine guns blazing is the norm,
“The Untouchables” was produced by Lucille Ball and husband Desi Arnaz’s Desilu Productions from 1959 to 1963.
“The Untouchables” was an unusually violent program for its time and its excessive violence and surprisingly frank depictions of drug abuse and prostitution were described by the National Association for Better Radio and Television as “not fit for the television screen”.
Based on the memoir by Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraley, the series originally focused on the efforts of a real-life squad of Prohibition agents employed by the United States Treasury Department, led by Eliot Ness, who helped bring down the bootleg empire of “Scarface” Al Capone. This squad was nicknamed “The Untouchables”, because of their courage and honesty; they could not be bribed or intimidated by the Mob. Eliot Ness himself had died suddenly in May 1957, shortly before his memoir and the subsequent TV adaptation were to bring him fame beyond any he experienced in his lifetime.
The book was later made into a film in 1987 by Brian De Palma, with a script by David Mamet, and a second, less-successful TV series in 1993.
The series won star Robert Stack an Emmy Award for Best Actor in a Dramatic Series in 1960.
The pilot for the series was a two-part episode entitled “The Untouchables” originally aired on CBS’ “Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse” on April 20 and 27, 1959. Later retitled “The Scarface Mob”, these episodes, which featured Neville Brand as Al Capone, were the only episodes in the series to be more-or-less directly based on Ness’s memoir, and ended with the conviction and imprisonment of Capone.
CBS, which had broadcast most of Desilu’s television output since 1951 beginning with “I Love Lucy”, was offered the new series following the success of the pilot film. Chairman William S. Paley rejected it on the advice of network vice president Hubbell Robinson. ABC agreed to air the series, and “The Untouchables” premiered on October 15, 1959. In the pilot movie, the mobsters generally spoke with unrealistic pseudo-Italian accents, but this idiosyncratic pronunciation was dropped when the series debuted.
The weekly series first followed the premise of a power struggle to establish a new boss in Capone’s absence. For the purpose of the TV series, the new boss was Frank Nitti, played by actor Bruce Gordon, although this was contrary to fact. In the 1987 film, Nitti was portrayed as a nit-wit who brought a gun into a courtroom. As the series continued, there developed a highly fictionalized portrayal of Ness and his crew as all-purpose crime fighters who went up against an array of gangsters and villains of the 1930s, including Ma Barker, Dutch Schultz, Bugsy Moran, Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll, Legs Diamond, Lucky Luciano, and in one episode, Nazi agents.
The terse narration by gossip columnist Walter Winchell, in his distinctive New York accent, was a stylistic hallmark of the series, along with its ominous theme music by Nelson Riddle and its shadowy black-and-white photography.
Aside from its violence, the show drew harsh criticism from some Italian-Americans, including Frank Sinatra, who felt it promoted negative stereotypes of them as mobsters and gangsters. The Capone family unsuccessfully sued Desilu Productions and Westinghouse Electric Corporation for their depiction of the Capone family.
In the first episode of the first season, the character of “Agent (Rico) Rossi”, a person of Italian descent who had witnessed a gangland murder, was added to Ness’s team.
An organization that identified themselves as “The Federation of Italian-American Democratic Organizations”, expressed displeasure with the program, which to them vilified Italian-Americans, stereotyping them as the singular criminal element.
Desi Arnaz – who had attended high school with Capone’s son Albert – said there would be no more fictional hoodlums with Italian names in future productions; There will be more stress on the law-enforcement role of “Rico Rossi”, Ness’s right-hand man on the show, and there will be an emphasis on the “formidable influence” of Italian-American officials in reducing crime and an emphasis on the “great contributions” made to American culture by Americans of Italian descent.
The series also incurred the displeasure of the powerful director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, when the fictionalized scripts depicted Ness and his Treasury agents involved in operations that were actually the province of the FBI. The second episode of the series, for example, depicted Ness and his crew involved in the capture of the Ma Barker gang, an incident in which the real-life Ness played no part. The producers agreed to insert a spoken disclaimer on future broadcasts of the episode stating that the FBI had primary responsibility for the Barker case.
“TV’s Greatest Hits” can also be found at accessnepa.com, under “featured content” and “screen time”.
TRIVIA QUESTIONS THIS TIME:
QUESTION: Aside from Neville Brand, name three other actors who played Al Capone.
Q. What “Unsung Hero of TV” was one of “The Untouchables”?
Q. Who played Eliot Ness in the 1987 film?
Q. Who were the rest of “The Untouchables” in the film?
Q. What other series did Lloyd Nolan star in?
Q. What other series was Ben Alexander in?
Q. What part is Kathleen Freeman best known for?
TRIVIA FROM LAST TIME:
QUESTION: Who was Sam the telephone operator on “Richard Diamond, Private Detective”?
ANSWER: Although we only see her legs and hear her voice when Diamond calls in, it is none other than Mary Tyler Moore, before her big break as Laura Petrie in “The Dick Van Dyke Show”. Moore was a dancer by trade, something she did often on “Dick Van Dyke” – including when Laura met Rob when he was in the Army. And she was known for wearing slacks – perhaps the first – but being a dancer is why she had the legs for “Diamond”.
Q. What was Robert Urich’s first TV series and stage name?
A. Urich played police officer Jim Street in “S.W.A.T.”, the series about a special weapons and tactics team, in 1975-76. His name on the screen in the beginning of that series was Robert York.
Q. What other TV series did Urich star in after “Spenser”?
A. Urich was the captain of “The Love Boat: The Next Wave” in 1998-99.
Q. Who starred in “The Molly Maguires” with Zerbe?
A. Sean Connery, who celebrated his 90th birthday earlier this year, played the role of Jack Kehoe, the leader of the Mollies who was executed for his crimes and is buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery in Tamaqua. Richard Harris played coal and iron undercover detective James McParland, who passed himself off as miner James McKenna to infiltrate the Mollies, and Samantha Eggar played Mary Raines, who runs the boarding house where some miners stay. McKenna/McParland and Raines fall in love in the film. Zerbe is 84, Eggar is 81, and Harris died of Hodgkin’s Disease at the age of 72 in 2002.
Jim Dino is the business writer for The Standard-Speaker, Hazleton. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.