Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sleuthathon: Johnny Staccato



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 October 26, 1959 issue of Time magazine proclaimed the 1959-60 TV season as “the year of the private eye” by featuring boob tube investigators Philip Marlowe (Phil Carey), Richard Diamond (David Janssen), Peter Gunn (Craig Stevens), Stu Bailey (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) and Perry Mason (Raymond Burr) on its front cover.  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.

Created by Dick Berg, Staccato—or Johnny Staccato (more on the two names in a bit)—followed in the wake of the previous season’s successful Peter Gunn, which starred Craig Stevens as the titular detective.  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.

Although the series was championed by a few critics at the time of its original run, its star—actor and budding independent auteur John Cassavetes—hated the show; he accepted the assignment only to pay off a few debts and to finance his first feature film, Shadows (1959), which at that time was being edited into its second “commercial” version.  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 series’ premiere, “The Naked Truth,” on September 10, 1959 immediately set the tone for what would eventually be heralded years after its cancellation as a show that was stylishly ahead of its time.  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…

It was never satisfactorily explained how Staccato was able to legitimately continue playing at Waldo’s with his “union card in mothballs”…but it was also a mystery as to why West Coast musicians like Kessel, Mann, Mitchell, et al., were hanging out in a Greenwich Village jazz club unless Waldo had some deep pockets to fly those cats in on a regular basis.  (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."
Landon (whose long-running stint on Bonanza would begin two nights after Staccato’s premiere) was only one of several future TV faces to turn up in installments of Johnny Staccato: Martin Landau plays a composer in “Murder for Credit” (which also features noir icon Charles McGraw); Elizabeth Montgomery a temptress in “Tempted”; Norman Fell a blackmailer in “The Man in the Pit”; Cloris Leachman a pacifist suspected of murder in “Solomon”; and Mary Tyler Moore a beauty contestant in “The Mask of Jason.”  Cassavetes also used the show to give some of his friends work: his Shadows leading lady, Leila Goldoni, is in “The Poet’s Touch,” as is John’s pal Nick Dennis.  Other Cassavetes cronies include Maurice McEndree (“An Act of Terror”), Rupert Crosse (“Collector’s Item”), John Marley (“Double Feature”), Tom Reese/Allen (“The Return”), and Paul Stewart (“The List of Death”).  Dennis Sallas, also in Shadows, had a recurring role on Staccato as the resident bartender at Waldo’s.

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.
The part of Waldo—who I’m guessing couldn’t afford a last name on account of all that West Coast-to-East Coast airfare—was played by character great Eduardo Ciannelli.  Both men shared a wonderful chemistry, similar to a father-and-son relationship; you can see the evidence of this in “The Only Witness”—not one of the stronger episodes, but a nice showcase for the two as Waldo shows genuine concern for Johnny when our hero witnesses the killing of a mobster.  (I always find myself amused by the fact that Waldo is actually not a fan of jazz—his musical tastes run more towards opera.)  Ciannelli was the only other regular on the series; though Dennis the bartender and “Hatcheck” were seen infrequently, as was a stoolie character named “Shad” (played by Frank London).  Unlike Peter Gunn’s Lieutenant Jacoby, Johnny Staccato had several contacts on the police force: Sergeant Sully Sullivan (played by Garry Wahlberg, later of The Odd Couple and Quincy) was seen most frequently, but Johnny also dealt with Sergeant Lou Bacas (J. Pat O’Malley) and Lieutenant Sam Baker (Wally Baker) on occasion.  All three men worked out of the “16th Precinct” and Staccato got along quite well with them…with the exception of Sergeant Joe Gillin (Bert Freed), a hardass who appears in both “A Piece of Paradise” and “Double Feature” (he works Johnny over while interrogating him in the latter).

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.)
The series’ music was supervised by Stanley Wilson but both of the show’s main themes were composed by Elmer Bernstein; the original Staccato theme was quite reminiscent of Bernstein’s contribution to The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) and was played over these credits:


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:


For an actor who didn’t care for the series, Cassavetes infused Staccato with an ingratiating charisma as well as the wisecracks essential for any P.I. (asked by a goon if he’s “alone” Johnny snaps: “Why?  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).

Staccato also allowed Cassavetes to flex his directing muscles…and I’ll admit somewhat of a bias here (because I love the man’s work) but many of the episodes he helmed are amongst the strongest in its run.  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.
Other Staccato favorites include “The Parents” (Shirley Knight is an old flame of Johnny’s who’s great with child…and said bundle is going to be bought and sold by a rat bastard played by John Hoyt), “The Poet’s Touch” (TDOY fave Mike Kellin is a riot as a beatnik in this one), and “An Act of Terror”—a genuine WTF outing about a ventriloquist who hires Johnny to locate his missing wife (noir and OTR veteran Ted de Corsia is in this one, and June Foray is the voice of the female dummy).  Toward the end of the show’s run, the minds behind the show started to get desperate; I thought there was none worse than “Double Feature” (which trots out the old doppelganger trope with a hit man who’s a dead ringer for Johnny) but the nadir is “A Nice Little Town,” an outdated Cold War paranoiac trip that ends embarrassingly with Cassavetes’ Staccato lecturing the inhabitants of the titular hamlet.  (“An Angry Young Man” is also painful…though it does feature character great Sig Ruman, which helps a little.)

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.

At the end of the final episode, “Swinging Long Hair” (a mildly interesting character piece with George Voskovec as a classical pianist moonlighting at Waldo’s) both Staccato and Cassavetes appear to have just given up—“I’ve had it,” he intones in the concluding narration in a show that lets the bad guy get away (and Johnny intimates someone else will have to collar him).  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. 

But Johnny Staccato was resurrected from the dead when the cable network Trio featured it as one of several series repeats under its Brilliant But Cancelled umbrella (a DVD collection of “BBC” crime shows also featured a Staccato episode, “Tempted”).  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.

The last word comes from Pynchon’s Inherent Vice:

“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.”

10 comments:

Jeff Flugel said...

Loved this very detailed piece on JOHNNY STACCATO, Ivan! I came to this show late, picking up the Timeless set a while back, and I've been slowly digging into it over the past months. I think it's a strong show and find it arguably better than PETER GUNN, mainly thanks to Cassavetes edgy, confident and energetic performance. Unlike you, I've never seen any of Cassavetes independent film work, but have always enjoyed his "for the money" assignments, like THE DIRTY DOZEN, tangling with Peter Falk in "Etude in Black" on COLUMBO, etc.

Agreed that this is one of the absolute best-looking of all Timeless releases. I find I really enjoy these short-lived "new to me" series they (and others, like VCI, Shout, etc.) put out...like TATE, THE WIDE COUNTY, STONEY BURKE, etc. One season wonders, great fun to finally see and savor on DVD, without worrying about having to fork over wads of cash for umpteen seasons.

Caftan Woman said...

I only had one encounter with Staccato, sometime in the 80s, but the style of the show always stayed with me. Man, that's my idea of "cool". PI fans will do without a lot of substance, as long as they give us style.

Your detailed and very funny look at the series has me wanting to dive into that seedy world. If nothing else, I know I'll like the music.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Thanks muchly, Jeff! I've got pieces on both Wide Country and Stoney Burke in my inbox right now and hope to have both shows finished soon...they'll probably turn up eventually at one of my sideline gigs at ClassicFlix.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Our Lady of Great Caftan pointed out:

PI fans will do without a lot of substance, as long as they give us style.

Because Staccato was just a half-hour show, they didn't get a lot of time for character development...and some of the plots are kind of cookie-cutter, so you make an excellent point. I still think it's a cut above the usual crime drama, and I definitely preferred it (like Jeff) to Peter Gunn (though I am a fan of Gunn, too).

Fritzi Kramer said...

Greatly enjoyed the review and all the background information you were able to dig up. it's funny how talented actors and directors could sometimes put out excellent work in shows and movies they hated. I guess that's what makes them talented.

girlsdofilm said...

I really enjoyed this review. I've seen very little TV from the 50s and 60s, in my head it always comes a poor second to 'the movies'. Having read your post (and Caftan Woman's) I see it's a genre I've sorely neglected. That TIME cover is wonderful, that's a whole lotta private eye for the cover price, and really captures how popular the genre must have been.

Thanks for sharing all your insights, I can't wait to do some more research myself!

Operator_99 said...

Nicely done.

Silver Screenings said...

Oh boy. Not only have I never seen "Johnny Staccato", I've never even heard of it! Thanks for providing such a comprehensive overview – and historical context – for folks like myself who are unfamiliar with this series.

Joe Thompson said...

I have to look for the DVD. I love John Cassavetes as a director and an actor. I also love jazz. When you gave the lineup in the opening of the show, I wondered why they had all those West Coast players. Thanks for sharing with all of us.

actionsub said...

Revue Studios made two or three attempts to capture the buzz of Peter Gunn, going so far as to create a Western "Shotgun Slade" with a cowboy detective and a jazz soundtrack. (Note: it's actually better than the description makes it sound...)

Another was Johnny Staccato. As others have mentioned, the twitchy antics of Cassavetes gave this show an energy that Gunn never had. And like "Naked City", though much of it was filmed on LA sound stages, NYC was a supporting character in its own right.