Monday, May 8, 2017

“The law is a hard taskmaster…”

Peter Falk as Columbo
Actor Peter Falk played his signature role of Lt. Columbo in the 1968 TV-movie Prescription Murder—and a follow up telefilm, Ransom for a Dead Man (1971)—before settling in as the rumpled, raincoated detective as one of the rotating “wheel segments” of The NBC Mystery Movie from 1971 to 1978.  Columbo became such a small screen favorite and so firmly ingrained in pop culture that over a decade later, Falk reprised the part in a brand-new series (The ABC Saturday Mystery) and multiple movie “specials” telecast until 2003.  The character would ultimately be responsible for four of Falk’s five Emmy Awards (he was nominated for Columbo ten times); his other trophy was for his performance in “The Price of Tomatoes,” which aired on The Dick Powell Theatre in 1962.

The Wikipedia entry on Columbo reads: “According to TV Guide, the original plan was that a new Columbo episode would air every week, but as a motion picture star, Peter Falk refused to commit to such an arduous schedule, which would have meant shooting an episode every five days.  The network arranged for the Columbo segments to air once a month on Wednesday nights.  The high quality of Columbo, McMillan & Wife, and McCloud was due in large part to the extra time spent on each episode.”  There was a time, however, when the actor did commit to a weekly series—a short-lived show that in many ways gave future Columbo fans a glimpse of the things to come: The Trials of O’Brien.

Falk as Daniel J. O'Brien
Created by Gene Wang, Trials cast Falk as Daniel “Danny” J. O’Brien—a hardworking NYC defense attorney renowned for his flamboyant courtroom style.  O’Brien was dedicated to his profession for various reasons…but chiefly among them was the inconvenient truth that despite his formidable legal acumen, his personal life was a mess.  He was in arrears where his landlord was concerned, incapable of staying up-to-date with the rent on his penthouse apartment.  His ex-wife Katie (Joanna Barnes) continually hounded him for unpaid alimony, and his loyal secretary Miss G (Broadway legend Elaine Stritch) was also owed a great deal in the back wages department.  Danny was a helluva attorney, and his services did not come cheap…but this mattered little in the grand scheme of things because the money went out faster than it came in.  You see, Daniel J. O’Brien also had a bit of a gambling problem (shooting craps, playing the ponies, etc.).

The women in O'Brien's life: Joanna Barnes (L) and Elaine Stritch (R).

Again, if Wikipedia is to be believed—and since there’s a “citation needed” after this statement on the Trials page, take it cumo graino salto—“Falk often said that he actually liked this financially unsuccessful series much better than his later smash-hit Columbo.”  It’s a series that I’ve been curious to see for many years; my earliest association with The Trials of O’Brien was its memorable catchy theme, which was a track on an LP I once bought at a library sale.  (The Sid Ramin-composed tune—which sounds like that of The Odd Couple’s—was recorded and released as a single by Al Caiola and His Orchestra, who had previously hit the Top 40 of the pop charts with the themes from The Magnificent Seven [#35] and Bonanza [#19].)  A recent discount coupon sent to me by Martin Grams of Finders Keepers prompted me to purchase a DVD with two episodes from the series, including the premiere installment, “Over Defence is Out” (09/18/65).

All that needs to be said about Danny O’Brien can be discerned by the close-up of the back seat of his car after the opening titles—piled high with bric-a-brac, legal papers/folders, and assorted crap.  But just as the disheveled Lt. Columbo fooled so many suspects, O’Brien equally possesses a razor-sharp mind (and in his favor, he’s a much better dresser).  We see him work his courtroom magic as he nimbly helps a female client beat a murder rap…and once back at the office, he is inundated by both a visit from his ex-wife (he owes nine months’ alimony) and a phone call from the landlord, demanding the rent.  Fortunately for O’Brien, salvation has arrived in the form of a client—or rather, a former client.  An ex-con named Eddie Hanover (Murray Hamilton) socked away $120,000 before doing his boardin’ with the warden (O’Brien handled his defense) and now he’s going to collect what he believes to be his due.  O’Brien wants nothing to do with this, but Hanover, arguing that Danny is technically still his lawyer, hands him an envelope with the name of the only other individual who knows where the loot is hid—a man named Paul Benedict (Bill Lazarus).  (No, Jeffersons fans—not the actor who played neighbor Bentley.)

Ned Glass...though at first glance I could have sworn it was Sid James.
Eddie has left something else with his attorney—his young daughter Dinah (a pre-Dark Shadows Kathleen Cody) for safekeeping.  O’Brien only learns of this as he’s putting on his hat and coat to head out for the track.  “Hey, you like the horses?” he asks the little girl.

“You wouldn’t dare…” admonishes his secretary.  “You’re fired,” he snaps back at her.

The receipt for the missing money (Hanover stashed it in a storage shed) is not in the hotel room wall where Eddie left it; soon, O’Brien winds up having to defend Hanover from a murder rap when Benedict is croaked and Eddie is discovered hovering over his body with the murder weapon.  Add a shady insurance investigator (Ned Glass) and Hanover’s former cellmate (Vincent Gardenia) to the mix and you have a splendid introduction to what would appear to be a most entertaining series.  Danny O’Brien is Columbo with a law degree, in the second episode on this DVD he’s even shown in the courtroom complimenting on how splendid the prosecution’s witness’ testimony went.  “You know—I just don’t have any questions…oh…except one…”

The future's so bright, Vincent Gardenia has to wear shades.

Falk and Dolph Sweet
Also featured in “Over Defence is Out” is Ilka Chase, who plays Falk’s mother-in-law…and she seems to have quite the affection for her ex-son-in-law despite her daughter's divorce.  “Now, Margaret, get a grip on yourself and act like a mother-in-law,” O’Brien tells her at one point, “because if we all pull together we can make this divorce work!”  (I like how Katie and Danny also remain on good terms—though with the alimony he owes her, it’s probably in her best interest—and chuckled because she rarely refers to him by his first name.)  Chase would appear in a semi-regular capacity, as would character veteran Dolph Sweet (Gimme a Break!) as Sergeant Garrison, O’Brien’s contact on the force.

The two episodes on the Finders Keepers O'Brien DVD feature original commercials...including Mickey Freeman (Private Zimmerman on The Phil Silvers Show) lighting up a Roi-Tan Falcon...

...and Hal "The Great Gildersleeve" Peary (minus his moustache!) in a Gleem ad as father to Ken "Pugsley" Weatherwax.  (The kid is named "Chester," and though Peary gives it the old college try "Chessssster!" doesn't quite roll off the tongue the way "Leeeeeroy!" did.)
The other regular on Trials of O’Brien was David Burns as “The Great” McGonigle—who functioned in the same capacity as Paul Drake on Perry Mason, except he was a little on the seedier side.  “With your reputation, I’m in trouble if I’m seen on the elevator with ya,” O’Brien scolds his legman in the pilot.  Burns would receive an Emmy nomination as Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Drama for his amusing portrayal, and the series would also win a Writers Guild of America trophy for writer David Ellis and the episode “No Justice for the Judge” (with Burgess Meredith and Barnard Hughes).

Tammy Grimes, Reni Santoni
The second episode on this DVD is an October 30, 1965 outing entitled “A Gaggle of Girls” (written by Roger J. Crean and directed by Stuart Rosenberg, who also helmed “Over Defence”).  It’s a worthwhile watch—even though it’s not quite as good as the opener (and there are a few bad spots on the recording)—as our hero is pressed upon by both Katie and Miss G to take up the cause of a Sister Superior (Tammy Grimes) who’s trying to convince the owner (David Doyle) of a skeevy nightclub next door to donate both his building and garden to the church so that the nuns can expand their youth center.  One of those youths, played by a young Reni Santoni, will need O’Brien’s services before the hour is out when he’s suspected of murdering Doyle.  While the plot on this episode is paper-thin, it’s buoyed by a great performance by Grimes and an amusing presentation that the women in O’Brien’s life are just as endearingly eccentric as he is.  (Stritch threatens to report her boss to the “secretaries’ union” about her back wages if he refuses to help Sister Tammy, and when O’Brien reminds her there is no such animal she responds, “I’ll form one.”)

The episodes end with "scenes from next week."  I'm not so disappointed at missing out on "Dead End on Flugel Street" (with Milton Berle, Rita Moreno, Danny Dayton, Hal March, Conrad Bain, and Ann Corio) as I am the Columbo-Baretta meeting of "Bargain Day on the Street of Regret" with Robert Blake.  ("Bargain" also features Herschel Bernardi, Albert Dekker, Tony Musante, Philip Bruns, and Edgar Stehli.)

Slotted on CBS Saturday nights at 8:30pm when it premiered in the fall of 1965, The Trials of O’Brien faced stiff competition from both Lawrence Welk (ABC) and Get Smart (NBC), and a move to Friday nights at 10 in December didn’t do the show any favors either (that was where NBC’s popular The Man from U.N.C.L.E. held court, with ABC offering up Jimmy Dean and Rowlf the Dog).  Despite favorable critical buzz, the series was cancelled after 22 episodes, and while I’m always hesitant to offer up an opinion based on such a small sample…it’s a program I wouldn’t mind watching more of.  I don’t know if it ever became part of the Trio Network’s Brilliant But Cancelled lineup (it’s mentioned in the Brilliant But Cancelled documentary that aired in 2002) but I’d be willing to gamble that a DVD release would prove popular based on all the Columbo fans out there.  (With the number of classic television applicants for DVD-dom getting smaller and smaller with each passing year, maybe this will soon become a reality.)  I won't beat around the bush: as a lifelong Peter Falk fan, I enjoyed the hell out of this one.  If you’re interested in a purchase of what’s been discussed in this post, you’ll find it here.


hobbyfan said...

Trials of O'Brien was one of those rare Filmways birds in that it was a drama, and Filmways' track record with dramas wasn't that good. The only one that was a real winner was the last one, Cagney & Lacey, which came before Orion bought out Filmways and their final logo.....

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

hobbyfan revealed:

Trials of O'Brien was one of those rare Filmways birds in that it was a drama, and Filmways' track record with dramas wasn't that good.

The logo appears at the end of both of these episodes, but only the second one features a voiceover by Falk -- which is unfortunately garbled, so you can't get the gist of what he's saying. I was hoping it would be along the lines of "I hate to bodder ya, but this has been a Filmways presentation..."

Unknown said...

You have to be At Least My Age (ALMA - I'm thinking of trademarking that) to remember this:
In the early part of his career, Peter Falk's typecast was the opposite of what it eventually became.
Essentially, Falk was the Joe Pesci of the early '60s: fast-talking, gesticulating, kind of loud, in-your-face - the opposite of Columbo, in other words.
I was in high school in '65-'66, when O'Brien was in CBS first-run; I didn't see many of the Saturday shows (Dad liked Get Smart), but saw it regularly on Fridays (Dad hated UNCLE).
The whole family were Falk fans, from his many other TV shots of that era, so this series's short run was one of our TV tragedies.
I think my favorite character on the show was David Burns's Great McGonigle; that voice, once heard, can never be forgotten.
As it is, my only souvenirs from Trials Of O'Brien are the paperback tie-in novel, by Edgar-winner Robert L. Fish (original, not an adapted script), and an early bootleg DVd which contains the two shows you mentioned, plus the Robert Blake boxing show (also starring Herschel Bernardi), plus a double-length episode from the end of the run that was filmed in color, for European theatrical release (guest stars included Britt Ekland and David Carradine). I don't think this one is available anymore; as it is, I'm going to be spending much of the rest of today at my DVD Wall trying to find it (organization is not one of my strong suits).
Will get back to you, if and when ...

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Mr. Television reminisced, and then left us with this parting thought:

as it is, I'm going to be spending much of the rest of today at my DVD Wall trying to find it (organization is not one of my strong suits)

I hear you, brother -- though in my case it's more like a DVD drawer, and it's currently a work in progress.

Andrew Leal said...

Obviously, I would have watched an episode in which O'Brien has to defend Rowlf for biting Jimmy Dean, but a cross-network/production company event would have been unlikely in them days.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Grover mused:

Obviously, I would have watched an episode in which O'Brien has to defend Rowlf for biting Jimmy Dean, but a cross-network/production company event would have been unlikely in them days.

Not to mention the possibility of Rowlf having to be put down.

Andrew Leal said...

Only if he had been eating Miracle Whip at the time.

Unknown said...

It is now if and when...

Good fortune was with me at the DVD Wall; I found my crappy bootleg DVD of Trials Of O'Brien on the second try.

Four black-and-white episodes, two with the original commercials, all looking as though they'd been kept in the basement, next to the water heater.

The two-hour (more or less) color feature, bearing the title Too Many Thieves; the TV version, which aired in B/W in two parts, had a different title.
Funny how memory works; I remembered Britt Ekland and David Carradine, but forgot Nehemiah Persoff and George Coulouris.

The other episodes are "Bargain Day on the Street of Regret", the boxing show with Robert Blake and Hrrschel Bernardi, and "Charlie's Got All The Luck", which I didn't take time to watch all the way through, so I can't say what it's about.
I can tell you that the guest stars are Martin Sheen and Jack Albertson, who were starring on Broadway at that time in The Subject Was Roses.
Also, briefly, as a deli owner, was Joe Smith, late of Smith and Dale - he would have been at least 80 at the time of filming (correction welcomed).

There a couple of those Filmways callouts in the closing credits, and I'm 80-90% sure that the voice is David Burns - his growl is pretty distinctive.
That is Peter Falk's voice in the trailers :
"Next week - Trials Of O'Brien! OK? OK!"
By the bye, there's another trailer in here, with O'Brien defending an avant-garde film maker: the guest stars include Alan Alda, Claude Akins, and John Randolph.

I got this DVD from Denny Thomas at Thomas Film Classics; he has since withdrawn it from sale.
Denny usually does this when he's found a better-quality copy of the film in question. I've been monitoring his site since; no reissue so far, but we (and I'm sure Denny) live in hope.

All from here for now.

rnigma said...

The "O'Brien" theme, according to Jon Burlingame, had lyrics by Johnny Mercer, that were never used.

Todd Mason said...

I've seen a chunk of the Alda as filmmaker episode--impressive cast didn't stop with those Mike mentions--in a battered upload on YouTube.
Joanna Pettet, Charles Grodin, Jessica Walter and Harold J. Stone also in the cast, all but Stone Real Early in their careers...

Toby O'B said...

I'm watching the Finders Keepers DVD now. I wish the episode with Burgess Meredith would surface somewhere.....