Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon: Mr. Lucky

This essay is the second of two of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contributions to the Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon (June 2-5) hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Click here to check out this blogathon's complete schedule.

Flush with the success of Peter Gunn, the jazzy detective series starring Craig Stevens that had become a Top 20 smash in its inaugural season, writer-director Blake Edwards set out on a separate TV venture in the fall of 1959 that was only tangentially related to the private eye genre.  The series sold without a pilot; CBS bought the show from Edwards’ Spartan Productions (which he co-owned with super-agent Don Sharpe) on the reputation of Gunn…though Blake did provide them with a sample script, which he co-wrote with Arthur A. Ross.  The primary inspiration for what ultimately became Mr. Lucky was a 1943 Cary Grant movie bearing the same name; that film had adapted a Milton Holmes short story, “Bundles for Freedom,” into a vehicle for the star by casting him as a heart-of-gold gambler who falls for a wealthy socialite (Laraine Day) during World War II.  The theatrical version of Lucky did quite well at the box office, and is fondly remembered by more than one classic movie fan as one of Cary’s most entertaining.

Apart from the likable gambler aspect, the TV version of Lucky carved out a new direction for the character; he didn’t even have a legitimate name (Grant’s character answered to “Joe Adams”).  In fact, a lot of the TV Lucky was cribbed from a character that writer Edwards had earlier introduced on Four Star Playhouse: Willie Dante, who operated a Frisco nightclub (appropriately titled Dante’s Inferno) that featured a little gambling in the back room.  Actor Dick Powell played Dante in eight episodes of Playhouse, and a series entitled Dante (with Howard Duff as the club owner) later appeared on NBC during the 1960-61 season for a short-lived run.

Edwards used many Gunn people on Mr. Lucky: directors including Lamont Johnson, Boris Sagal and Alan Crosland, Jr., and writers such as Tony Barrett, Lewis Reed, Lester Pine and Gene L. Coon.  (Coon wrote the bulk of the Luckys, demonstrating the light touch that he would later utilize on Wagon Train and Laredo; he’s best remembered as one of the creative minds on Star Trek, where his contributions of both the Prime Directive and Klingons earned him the nickname “The Forgotten Gene.”)  Film director Jack Arnold (Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Incredible Shrinking Man), also helmed a stray Gunn or two…and was rewarded with the role of producer on Lucky (Arnold would also direct fifteen of the show’s episodes).  Edwards directed the premiere episode (the script that convinced CBS to greenlight the series), “The Magnificent Bribe,” originally telecast October 24, 1959.

Lucky (John Vivyan) is an honest gambler who runs an honest casino in an unidentified country ruled by “El Presidente” (Nehemiah Persoff); he enjoys the hospitality of His Excellency because he graciously (without the ruler’s knowledge) loses $1,000 to him during a weekly poker game.  Lucky’s associate in his gaming venture is a revolutionary named Andamo (Ross Martin), who’s been running guns to his fellow rebels with the expressed purpose of toppling their benefactor’s regime.  Unfortunately for the two men, soldiers in El Presidente’s employ have stumbled onto the guns, and quickly inform their boss of the sown seeds of dissent.  The dictator cuts short his card game to rush back to the palace, leaving Andamo to bring his “compadre” up to speed:

ANDAMO: We are in trouble
LUCKY: We are?
ANDAMO: I am the one responsible for the gun smuggling…
LUCKY: Andamo, my friend…what you do in your spare time is your own business…you are in trouble…
ANDAMO: I used your boat…
LUCKY (after a beat): That makes a difference…
ANDAMO: And the lovely lady you asked me to inquire about?  She’s having dinner with El Presidente at eleven o’clock…
LUCKY: Well?  As I’ve always said, there’s no understanding women…
ANDAMO: This one is easy to understand…she’s an assassin…at eleven o’clock, she’s going to kill El Presidente…
LUCKY (after a pause): I should never have doubted you, Andamo…we are in trouble…
ANDAMO (downing his drink): I’ll start packing…

Even Captain Stubing had to start somewhere.  (Gavin MacLeod in "Bugsy.")
The boat described in the above passage of dialogue is the Fortuna, a yacht that would be Lucky and Andamo’s ticket out of the country (identified as “Chobalobo” in a later episode—though it’s not clear as to whether that was the island nation or the name of Lucky’s casino) were it not for the fact that El Presidente has had the vessel sunk.  As for the assassin (Ziva Rodann), she accomplishes her mission (dispatching the dictator with a knife cleverly concealed as a hair ornament) and leads El Presidente’s men on a chase, allowing Lucky and Andamo to escape in a boat they purchase from a fisherman (Francis McDonald) with their last $3,000.

We don’t have to wait too long to learn the fate of our heroes; the second episode, “They Shall Not Pass,” finds Lucky and Andamo ashore in an unnamed American port city…and because they are dressed as seamen (complete with duffel bags), a man dressed in a Devil costume (Norman Alden) welcomes them aboard a yacht where a Halloween costume party rages on.  The yacht is the property of Julius Rutherford-Shank (Conrad Nagel), a con man attempting to sell a mica mine (that isn’t his) to an investor (Ned Wever) in order to pay a debt he owes to a racketeer (Lou Krugman) with the colorful moniker “Twelfth Street.”  Unbeknownst to Lucky, he inadvertently spills the beans about the con to the investor (he’s recognized Rutherford as “Chicago Julius”) and because Mr. Street has promised to fit Julius with some concrete Oxfords if he doesn’t pay what he owes, the gambler finagles a stake out of Street and wins even more money shooting craps at Street’s club.  With his winnings, Lucky is able to buy Julius’ yacht and go back into the casino business; he christens his boat Fortuna II (always identified as “Fortuna the Second”) and he and partner Andamo venture out beyond the three-mile limit with the Oldest Established Permanent Floating Crap Game in…well, whatever city they were anchored off of (never referred to by name).

Maggie (Pippa Scott), Lucky (John Vivyan) and Andamo (Ross Martin) react to the world's most hideous painting in the hilarious "Aces Back to Back."
“They Shall Not Pass” introduced one of Mr. Lucky’s recurring characters in “Chicago” Julius’ daughter:  Margaret “Maggie” Rutherford-Shank, played by the wonderful Pippa Scott.  Scott’s Maggie only appeared in eight episodes of the show; although she was technically the gambler’s girlfriend, the creative minds behind Lucky apparently wanted to use her sparingly so as not to tie down their leading man with just one woman (if that was the case, he could always get married).  That leading man was actor John Vivyan, who beat out thirty actors for the part; Vivyan claims his obvious resemblance to Cary Grant was never noticed because most of his earlier acting work was in westerns, where his Cary-like features were disguised with longer hair and a beard.

Scout's honor...I'm not supposed to be Cary Grant.

Be that as it may, Vivyan was perfect for the part and never self-consciously imitated Grant but did project an air of sophisticated suave and unruffled cool.  Viewers didn’t learn much about Lucky beyond that—though in one episode (“Aces Back to Back”) it’s revealed he served a hitch in the Navy; indeed, he seemed to have an extensive familiarity with weapons and often disposed of foes with a well-timed judo chop.  One thing Vivyan’s Lucky didn’t have that Cary did was an actual name; his real handle was never revealed on the series.  In “Vote the Bullet,” Lucky runs for city council because two of the former candidates for the seat have been disposed of by a political machine content with the way things are run in that district as is.  This bothered me because I was curious as to how he got on the ballot as just “Mr. Lucky”—in fact, how did he manage to get a driver’s license for that Chrysler New Yorker convertible he tooled around in on occasion?

"They call him Luck-y..."
As Lucky’s associate Andamo, acting veteran Ross Martin had the showier, more flamboyant role (no doubt due to the character’s Latin American origins) but provided solid support as the comic relief…which had the benefit of often bestowing upon Martin the best lines.  (In “I Bet Your Life,” Lucky is puzzled as to why an assassin wants to kill him; Andamo explains there are three reasons why someone would take another man’s life: “A woman…money…and a woman with money.”)  The chemistry between Vivyan and Martin was first-rate, and a genuine affectionate feel was present between the two characters as they often referred to one another as “compadre” while frequently citing the odds of extricating themselves from situations.

Ross Martin is fondly remembered among couch potatoes as master-of-disguise Artemus Gordon on The Wild Wild West; in "Cold Deck," he begins his lengthy career of mimicry by passing himself off as a country club bartender.

The third episode, “Bugsy,” introduced the fourth recurring character on Mr. Lucky: Lieutenant Rovacs (Tom Brown), Lucky and Andamo’s friendly police nemesis.  Similar to the “feud” between Lieutenant Jacoby (Herschel Bernardi) and the titular sleuth known as Peter Gunn (and even stretching back to the badinage between shamus Diamond and Lt. Walt Levinson on the radio series Richard Diamond, Private Detective), Rovacs’ interactions with the gambling duo were cordial for the most part (Rovacs grudgingly liked Lucky—though the jury was still out on Andamo) even though he was often driven to distraction by Lucky’s refusal to let the police handle many of the situations in which the gambler found himself entwined.  To be honest, except for the fact that Lucky didn’t have a singing girlfriend the two Edwards shows (Peter Gunn and Mr. Lucky) were practically indistinguishable; the music on both series came courtesy of Henry Mancini, who parlayed the gig into two best-selling albums, Mr. Lucky and Mr. Lucky Goes Latin.

There's always a beatnik episode...but Mr. Lucky had two.  Grant Williams plays a psychotic hipster in "Stacked Deck:...
...and Yvonne Craig is a runaway heiress in the earlier (and superior) "Little Miss Wow."  I say superior because...
..."Wow" features an original Paisley.
Blake Edwards may have been the father of Mr. Lucky…but he would soon wind up giving up his television child for adoption.  In “The Sour Milk Fund,” Lucky confides in Andamo that he has big plans for the floating casino—he shows him a sketch of the yacht in which the former “dice” sign has been replaced with one reading “Lucky’s” (adorned with the black cat symbol prominently featured in the opening/closing credits and the show’s bumpers).  He’s going to turn House of Lucky into a private supper club, and not a moment too soon—the following episode, “The Brain Picker,” finds Rovacs on board to arrest Lucky under a still-on-the-books ordinance that dictates all crew members of sailing vessels must attend services at a seaman’s chapel every evening.  (It’s a political ploy; the mayor is under pressure to shut down Lucky’s “den of iniquity.”)  “If I had your luck, I’d rather have it than a license to steal,” cracks Rovacs, relieved that he doesn’t have to put the gambler in the pokey.

Another TDOY favorite is "The Gladiators," featuring Nita Talbot as a baby-voiced sexpot named "Kitten Conner."  (Kitten participates in a fistfight by leaping onto a hood and yelling "I'm going to snatch you bald!"...then lifts up his hat to reveal someone's beaten her to it.)

What seems like fortuitous timing on Lucky’s part was actually a dictate from the show’s sponsors (Lever Brothers and Brown & Williamson) that the show had to ixnay the amblingay; with the fallout from the quiz show scandals (and investigations into “payola” working its way through the broadcasting industry) the pressure was on to make Vivyan’s Lucky more respectable.  “By so ordering it seemed that the soap company was taking a big gamble itself,” wrote Dwight Whitney in the “Television Diary” column of TV Guide.  “By taking the bite out of the character, it was running a very real risk of transforming one of the season's big hits into a big flop, to say nothing of fumigating the air so thoroughly that even soap suds might seem astringent after that.”  (Viewers were indeed fortunate that this clean-up campaign didn’t spread to other network shows…like Maverick, for instance.)

They had me at Percy Helton...but "Big Squeeze" also features Dick Bakalyan, Frankie Darro, Kevin Hagen, Irene Tedrow (as a drunken mystic) and the one-and-only Jack Elam.

Actor Vivyan went on record as not being particularly disturbed by the change in format.  (“With gambling as the main angle, it meant Lucky was always involved with gangsters.  That was limiting,” he told a newspaper reporter in May of 1960.)  But Edwards bristled at what he perceived to be “interference,” and beginning with the February 27, 1960 episode (“The Tax Man”) “Entire Production Supervised by Blake Edwards” had been scrubbed from the closing credits.  While Edwards’ pique at The Powers That Be is certainly understandable, the series really didn’t suffer all that much creatively; Lucky and Andamo still matched wits with unsavory characters, ostensibly due to their former careers in the casino industry.  But one wonders why they kept the Mr. Lucky credits (with roulette wheel, dice and playing cards) intact; it would have made much more sense to feature knives and forks.  And fingerbowls.  And placemats.

Is there a doctor in the house?  (Richard Chamberlain in "Operation Fortuna.")

Viewers didn’t seem fazed by the changes, either; Mr. Lucky wound up being one of CBS’ most popular shows of the 1959-60 season, finishing at #21 in the Nielsen ratings.  (Oddly enough, Mancini’s Mr. Lucky theme wound up at the same position on Billboard’s Hot 100 charts.)  Vivyan reportedly had to back out of a movie role opposite Ingrid Bergman because filming would have interfered with the program’s second season.  And then the other shoe dropped: Broadcasting announced in its April 11, 1960 issue that Mr. Lucky had been given its walking papers by the Tiffany network.

So why did a hit show—which could easily have been picked up by NBC or ABC (who wound up adopting Peter Gunn when NBC kicked it to the curb at the end of its second season)—finish out with reruns until that September?  In those halcyon days of television, sponsors ruled the roost; it didn’t matter how well your show was doing in the ratings, if no one was bothering to pay the bills your stay on television was destined to be nasty, brutish and short.  Both Lever Brothers and Brown & Williamson said no to sponsoring a second season of Mr. Lucky…and since CBS was unable to locate any other takers, a sheet was placed over the program’s head as it was wheeled off to the morgue.

Yes.  It's the Uncle Fester Mob.  (Finger snaps...)

RGJ at Television Obscurities also notes that Mr. Lucky was what was referred to in the industry as a “hammock show”—a program that does well in the ratings because it’s sandwiched between two bigger hits.  In this case, it was Wanted: Dead or Alive (#9 for the season that year) and Have Gun – Will Travel (#3).  Whatever explanation you believe (Vivyan later observed in the following fall: “…I can’t understand why they killed a show with good ratings to put on so many bad series this year”), the series stepped aside for another show that burned brightly with promise before flaming out in Year 2: Checkmate, produced by Jack Benny’s JaMco Productions.  Mr. Lucky was later sold for syndication to Official Films, which also acquired Edwards’ Peter Gunn; both shows air Sundays back-to-back on MeTV (Gunn at 2am EST, Lucky at 2:30).

From top left clockwise, some recognizable faces: Jack Nicholson ("Operation Fortuna"), R.G. Armstrong ("I Bet Your Life"), Frank Gorshin ("The Last Laugh") and Lee Van Cleef ("Dangerous Lady").

Mr. Lucky saw a few of its episodes released to VHS in the late 1990s (via Diamond Entertainment)…and in October 2012, Timeless Media Group brought all thirty-four episodes of the show to a 4-DVD set (with a bonus CD of Mancini’s Mr. Lucky album).  The show has aged remarkably well; it’s an excellent example of how a half-hour was at one time all that was needed to present good dramatic television entertainment (since nowadays hour-long dramas rule the roost).  The writing is quite good, leavened with a nice tongue-in-cheek insouciance that echoes Peter Gunn (and radio detectives like Richard Diamond and Sam Spade), and viewers will get a chuckle seeing familiar stars such as Warren Stevens, John Marley and Yvette Mimieux, plus TV favorites like Gavin MacLeod, Edward Platt, Barbara Bain, Yvonne Craig, Ted Knight and David White.  (And there are more character actors and old-time radio veterans in these shows than Carter has little liver pills.)  To quote Andamo: “That’s it…and that’s all.”


Rick29 said...

Ivan, I confess I didn't know much about MR. LUCKY (though I knew it sorta derived from Cary's movie, which I have seen). But, based on your post, I definitely need to check it out. The talent in front and behind the camera is pretty darn impressive. I mean, Ross Martin was the best thing about TWW and I always thought Pippa Scott was underrated. Jack Arnold and Gene L. Coon are both favorites. It was intriguing to learn about the sponsor's influence, Blake's reaction, and possible reasons why the series was axed.

Toby O'B said...

Thanks to ME-TV, I finally got the chance to check out this show (primarily for Ross Martin) but my interest flagged once the change-over to the supper club came about. There's also a nice reference to Ellery Queen as though they shared the same world:

Thanks for spreading the word about the show!

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

His Toobness wrote:

my interest flagged once the change-over to the supper club came about

I think the show was able to maintain the same standard of quality after the change, but I am in 100% agreement that it did sort of take the edge off the program. (Tonight: Lucky and Andamo investigate sunflower seed abuse at the salad bar...)

Anonymous said...

Ivan wrote:
"Scott’s Maggie only appeared in eight episodes of the show; although she was technically the gambler’s girlfriend, the creative minds behind Lucky apparently wanted to use her sparingly so as not to tie down their leading man with just one woman."

Interesting. The same thing happened to her in "The Virginian" when the producers killed off her character Molly so the Virginian could have other love interests.

Great review, Ivan.


Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Barry remembers:

The same thing happened to her in "The Virginian" when the producers killed off her character Molly so the Virginian could have other love interests.

And in both cases, I think the producers made a serious error in judgment. Scott is a fine actress.

Joanna said...

LOVE LOVE LOVE the theme music. Thanks for writing this--you've inspired me to check this series out this summer on MeTV.

Amanda By Night said...

Holy cow. Why am I not familiar with this series?!? Ross Martin... Nita Talbot... Gavin McLeod?!? This looks wonderful. Thanks for giving me the heads up!

Jeff Flugel said...

Terrific review, Ivan! I have this set waiting for me at the 'rents' place back in the States...can't wait to get my hot little hands on it when I'm back there this August. Appreciate the preview!

By the way, back when you reviewed JOHNNY STACCATO, you mentioned you had reviews of THE WIDE COUNTRY and STONY BURKE in the pipeline. I know you always have 47 different irons in the fire at once, but was just curious if you managed to cover those titles yet...would like to read your take on those two shows, whenever you do get to them.

Unknown said...

eventhough these 50-60s detective shows are b/w and a bit less complicated than tom cruise in mission impossible. they are very worth watching as a window into hollywoods golden age.And the commercial times are shorter than new-fangled tv . . . mannix , richard boone in paladin , james garner in anything , hitchkock , & rod serling will live in Rerun Heaven Forever !!!!