The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the Sleuthathon, hosted by Movies, Silently from March 16-17 and showcasing great movie/TV gumshoes and other crime solvers. For a list of the participating blogs and the subjects under discussion, click here.
“Cause PIs are doomed, man,” Doc continuing his earlier thought, “you could’ve seen it coming for years, in the movies, on the tube. Once there was all these great old PIs—Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, the shamus of shamuses Johnny Staccato, always smarter and more professional than the cops, always end up solvin the crime while the cops are followin wrong leads and getting in the way.”
--Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice (2009)
The inside story, “These Gunns for Hire,” addressed the industry’s fascination with the crime genre (it was, at that time, second only to the western in airtime hours) and pointed out that four detective shows were debuting that season—Staccato, Philip Marlowe, Bourbon Street Beat and Hawaiian Eye. Of the four, only Eye would manage to stick around for more than a single season (though two of the characters from Beat, Rex Randolph and Kenny Madison, later migrated to 77 Sunset Strip and Surfside 6, respectively). But no one’s ever referred to Eye’s Tom Lopaka as “the shamus of shamuses,” as evidenced by the above excerpt from Pynchon’s critically-acclaimed novel.
Part of the appeal of the Gunn series was its protagonist’s base of operations: Pete hung out at Mother’s, a hipster jazz club where his gal, Edie Hart (Lola Albright), was the resident chanteuse. Staccato upped the ante on be-bop cool: the main character of John Staccato was a musician—jazz pianist by trade—and not someone just watching from the sidelines. This didn’t seem to impress the author of the Time article, who sort of dismissed Mr. S as “only Gunn at the piano, in a minor key.” In his defense, Peter Gunn had far more staying power than his Manhattan counterpart; Gunn would earn his fees on both NBC and ABC for three seasons…Johnny also made the rounds at both networks but disappeared in the first year.
|Noir icon Elisha Cook, Jr. plays a down-and-out drunk in the Cassavetes-directed "Evil"; John uses him again in another outing he helmed entitled "Solomon"...but as much as I love Cook he's a bit miscast as a criminal attorney.|
Shadows was released to theaters shortly after Staccato premiered in the fall, and Cassavetes made a concerted effort to break his contract. After NBC retitled the series Johnny Staccato (over the star’s objections), John stepped up his determination to escape the series by publicly criticizing the network at every opportunity (for example, he vociferously objected when one episode, “The Wild Reed,” was shifted from its scheduled Thanksgiving airing to a later date). The National Broadcasting Company eventually said “no mas” and cancelled the program after twenty-seven episodes…the bulk of which were repeated on ABC from March to September 1960.
|This show had me at Charles McGraw. (From the first of five episodes directed by star Cassavetes, "Murder for Credit.")|
The episode begins with an amazing two-minute sequence (sans dialogue) as we are introduced to John Staccato and his environs at a MacDougal Street hangout, Waldo’s, in Greenwich Village—a combo featuring Pete Candoli (trumpet), Barney Kessel (guitar), Shelly Mann (drums), Red Mitchell (bass) and Red Norvo (vibes) is the only thing heard on the soundtrack, with Cassavetes’ Staccato accompanying the musicians on piano. Johnny is waved away by a phone call, and he relinquishes his seat at the Steinway to future Oscar winner John Williams. He finishes his call, and collects his gun at the hatcheck (throughout the series, the girl working that concession is identified by the characters only as “Hatcheck”—sexist much?), and back from the commercial break he informs us:
Why did I leave the Village that night? Because I put my musician's union card in mothballs five years ago...when it dawned on me that my talent was an octave lower than my ambition…so while my heart is still on the bandstand, I pay for the groceries away from the piano...and when I get a business call these days even at two in the morning, I answer it…
(Okay, the show was filmed in L.A.—I’m just picking nits.) In “Truth,” Johnny’s jam session has been interrupted by a record producer (Robert H. Harris), who asks him to investigate a matter involving his newest sensation, Freddie Tate (Michael Landon). Freddie’s being blackmailed by a Confidential-like publisher named Templar (Stacy Harris), who responds to Staccato’s request to lay off Freddie by having his goon (Nick Cravat) icepick him while John enjoys a sauna. Staccato cashes in on one of his nine lives, however, when The Goon stabs and kills Freddie by mistake (hard to see in all that steam). There’s not much room left for further plot or nuance (the Staccato show was a half-hour, at a time when this was not uncommon); both Templar and his henchman attempt to take down Johnny but he manages to kill both of them…and winds up with Templar’s secretary (Ruta Lee) as his victory trophy.
Every once in a while I wonder why I went into this business…then I remind myself: Waldo—he rotates the talent...he hires the greatest musicians in the world...I have low overhead...and I meet the most interesting people in the world right here...
|Mary Richards and Phyllis Lindstrom! Mary Tyler Moore guest-starred in the episode "The Mask of Jason" while Cloris Leachman has an acting tour de force in "Solomon."|
|Who was that lady I saw you with? Nepotism rears its ugly head as Mrs. John Cassavetes (Gena Rowlands) guest stars in "Fly Away, Baby" - a tense episode nicely leavened with some amusing moments.|
|Paul Stewart as a priest? Seriously? I'd be keeping an eye on the collection plate. (From "The List of Death," a nice little character piece that also features Maxine Stuart.)|
With the change to “Johnny Staccato,” the credit sequence featured Cassavetes scampering down a fire escape and then ducking and dodging in and out of alleys until he breaks a glass window with his firearm and squeezes off a shot, staring at the audience with a look of terror on his face:
Have you got a girl for me?”) John Staccato had style and an endless reservoir of cool as he moved through a personal world populated by, in the words of critic J. Hoberman, “creeps, junkies, and show-biz bottom feeders.” Staccato gave viewers a look at a endearingly seedy Manhattan (and had solid noir bona fides, mostly taking place at night and featuring many actors who worked in the style) as the hero (again, despite his show being filmed in L.A.) would wander about such familiar sights as the Bowery, the Deuce and the Polo Grounds (thanks to the second unit folks).
I’m a fan of “Evil,” an outing in which Johnny helps a mission director (Lloyd Corrigan) wrest his congregation back from a charlatan played by Alexander Scourby (the actor’s status as a narrator of Bible stories kind of made me giggle throughout this), but I also enjoy “Night of Jeopardy,” where a mobster (F Troop’s Frank de Kova) gives Staccato two hours to locate a missing “package” (containing counterfeit plates) before he and his gang start picking off the folks at Waldo’s.
|More noir influences: movie bad guy Marc Lawrence appears in "The Unwise Men," a Yuletide-themed episode that also features Jack Weston (as a department store Santa) and Marge "Sister Jacqueline" Redmond.|
|TDOY fave Mike Kellin has one of his wildest roles as a beatnik in "The Poet's Touch"; that's Sylvia Lewis on the left as Mike's fellow counterculture compadre...while Cassavetes demonstrates how not to look directly into the camera.|
Cassavetes would receive critical plaudits upon the release of Shadows and would follow it up with Too Late Blues (1961) and A Child is Waiting (1963)…but then the realities of being an independent filmmaker became all too apparent and the actor (in the fashion of Orson Welles) would use the money he made from appearances in such films as The Killers (1964), The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) to finance productions such as Faces (1968) and Husbands (1970). (I’ll never forget tuning into Me-TV one night and seeing John turn up in “The Peacemaker,” a repeat of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.)
The only remnant of the show was a pulp novel tie-in published in 1960 and written by Frank Kane (under the pseudonym Frank Boyd), a one-time OTR scribe who penned scripts for such series as The Shadow, Gang Busters and Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons. Fans of the series collected and traded 16mm copies and videotaped bootlegs, and even SCTV paid homage to the program with a spoof entitled Vic Arpeggio (played by Joe Flaherty), whose protagonist was a saxophonist who P.I.’d as a sideline until his musical career got back on track.
Timeless Media Factory released the entire series to DVD in October of 2010; I don’t know if the better-than-usual visual quality of these shows (I love the Timeless folks, but oftentimes they have to make do with the tools that they’ve got) is a result of the program’s Trio exposure but I was really impressed with the solid presentation on disc. It’s a show that you need to make an acquaintance with if you’re only familiar with just its reputation.
“Yeah, but nowadays it's all you see anymore is cops, the tube is saturated with fucking cop shows, just being regular guys, only tryin to do their job, folks, no more threat to nobody's freedom than some dad in a sitcom. Right. Get the viewer population so cop-happy they're beggin to be run in. Good-bye Johnny Staccato, welcome and while you're at it please kick my door down, Steve McGarrett. Meantime out here in the real world most of us private flatfoots can’t even make the rent.”