Friday, January 19, 2007

“The place—a city…the time—now…the story of The Felony Squad.”

Back in the 1970s, when I watched television shows like Charlie’s Angels and The Love Boat because I simply didn’t know any better, I remember seeing actor Dennis Cole in a number of guest-star roles and marveling at how he got the gig only because he was Mr. Jaclyn Smith…that is, I should say, because he was married to the Charlie’s Angels star from 1978 to 1981.  Suffice it to say, I was a bit cynical in my youth (I’m much better now) and I did not realize that he actually appeared in other series before he and Ms. Smith were betrothed, like Bearcats! and Bracken’s World.

Cole’s biggest TV hit was a 1966-69 crime drama called The Felony Squad, in which he played rookie detective Jim Briggs opposite partner Detective Sam Stone—who was essayed by none other than “the greatest private detective of them all,” Howard Duff (well, on radio, anyway).  The two men, mentor and protégé, worked the mean streets of an unnamed Western city (though filmed in Los Angeles) under the supervision of Captain Frank Nye (Frank Maxwell), and later Captain Ed Franks (Barney Phillips).  The other main character on Squad was Jim’s father Dan, a desk sergeant played by Dragnet veteran Ben Alexander.  (In fact, when Jack Webb revived the classic radio-television series in January 1967, he had wanted his old friend to rejoin him as Frank Smith—but since Alexander had already committed to Squad Webb was forced to call upon the services of Harry Morgan as Bill Gannon.)

Richard Murphy, a screenwriter who contributed to classic film noirs like Boomerang! (1947), Cry of the City (1948) and Panic in the Streets (1950), was the creator of Felony Squad and also wrote and directed The Wackiest Ship in the Army (1960), the TV adaptation of which was mentioned in a post by Jaime Weinman sometime back.  In its planning stages, Squad was originally titled Men Against Evil—which I have to admit, is a much dandier title.  The concept of the program was a sort of soap opera-ish look at the day-to-day routine of a police captain.  However, this idea was soon scrapped and the show was reworked into your standard police drama with the three main characters—and the title also went out the window when one of the show’s sponsors objected to the “Evil” part.  Squad premiered on ABC-TV September 12, 1966 and for two seasons was a Monday night viewing staple that, while not ruling the ratings roost, was a modest hit and had built a respectable following.  However, at the beginning of its third season in 1968, it was moved to Friday nights where it found itself pummeled senseless by CBS’ still-popular Gomer Pyle, USMC.  ABC then put the show out of its misery in mid-season on January 31, 1969.

Up until today, I had never seen an episode of Felony Squad—my curiosity in the series was, of course, sparked by the presence of OTR veterans Duff and Alexander—so I purchased an eight-disc set from one of those websites that advertise complete seasons of shows (I won’t sully the blog by mentioning the word…but it rhymes with “root peg”), thinking a series like Squad is going to be pretty far down the totem pole in seeing a proper DVD release anytime soon.  I didn’t pay very much for it but I will caveat emptor you right now: the source of these shows would appear to be old VHS tapes and while the video is watchable, the audio has an annoying hum that often makes it hard to hear the dialogue.  (I placed an order for this set back in November, and when I called five weeks later to inquire on its status, I couldn’t hear the person on the phone because it sounded as if she were working in a laundry at the time.  I guess that’s what they call in the writing bidness “foreshadowing.”)  Also, every site I’ve seen this set advertised trumpets it as “The Complete Series”; Squad aired seventy-three episodes during its three-season run but there are only fifty-two on the set.  Unless they’ve repealed some of the laws of mathematics that does not constitute “complete.”  (This is a shame, too, because the set doesn’t have the final episode of Squad, “The Law & Order Blues”—which guest-stars Carl Betz as attorney Clinton Judd in a “crossover” episode continued on Betz’s series Judd For the Defense.)

As for the show itself, it’s darned good television—it’s a shame you don’t see this one rerun much (I don’t know if FX ever showed it in its early days of operation but one of the shows features a portion of a commercial with Married with Children’s David Faustino touting Fox t-shirts…so I suppose it’s possible).  At the risk of sounding facetious, it’s sort of a Reader’s Digest version of Naked City, telescoping everything that was grand about that equally-neglected series (were it not for the DVD sets released by Image Entertainment, I would have never even caught that one) into an economical half-hour.  Squad’s other connection to Naked City lies in the fact that Walter Grauman served as the show’s executive producer; Grauman also directed one of City’s classic episodes, “Prime of Life.”  Many of Felony Squad’s episodes were directed by up-and-comers like Michael Ritchie and Richard Donner, but also featured turns behind the camera from series star Duff, future Cheers player Nicholas Colasanto and OTR veteran Lawrence Dobkin!

Duff, Cole and Alexander turn in exceptionally fine work, and of course there are plenty future stars in guest parts (Ed Asner, Charles Grodin, Ricardo Montalban, Beau Bridges, Carol Kane, Joan Van Ark, etc.).  I’ve only watched the first disc but have already viewed a couple of very good episodes: the series’ premiere, “The Streets are Paved with Quicksand,” guest-stars Darren McGavin as a sleazy attorney who accuses Jim Briggs (Cole) of brutality, forcing Stone to defend his partner in a nice little plot-twist.  “Flame Out” co-stars James Best as a slightly nutso punk (and believe me, when it comes to playing flakes, Best was…well, the best) who senselessly murders a manager in an all-night diner and then plots an extortion scheme against a married woman (Pippa Scott).  And of course, what dramatic series from the 1960s would be complete without an appearance from Robert Duvall?  Bob’s a police snitch (a real geek with Coke-bottle glasses) in “The Death of a Dream,” which finds Stone and Briggs on the hunt for a pair of muggers who commit crimes while in drag.  The lottery is at $25 million this week, so if I get lucky you may soon be able to see Felony Squad on an independent television station near you.

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