Monday, March 19, 2018

The Westerner (1960)

Critically acclaimed by some when it first aired and now considered a cult classic of the western television drama, The Westerner owes its lofty reputation to being an early work of controversial and revered director Sam Peckinpah. Peckinpah's knowledge of the wild west was secondhand but perhaps more real than all the other directors and producers who churned out cookie-cutter horse operas in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He had grown up near Fresno, California where his grandfather ran a ranch that not only allowed the young Peckinpah to experience ranch life first hand but to also hear the stories of descendants of 19th century miners and ranchers who worked on his grandfather's spread. After a stint in the Marines in which he served in the Pacific and witnessed firsthand the brutality of war between the Chinese and Japanese, he enrolled at California State University, initially studying history until his first wife Marie Selland got him interested in theater and directing. He went on to earn a master's degree from USC, worked as a stage hand on local TV, and worked for director Don Siegel as a dialogue coach on several of his films. With Siegel's recommendation he began getting scriptwriting assignments for western TV series such as Gunsmoke, Have Gun -- Will Travel, and Broken Arrow. His script for an episode of Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theatre became the basis for the series The Rifleman, for which Peckinpah directed four episodes and wrote several others. His association with Powell's anthology series eventually led to The Westerner as his 1959 episode "Trouble at Tres Cruces" became the unofficial pilot for the 1960 series. The pilot revolved around a high-powered Winchester repeating rifle which is bequeathed to drifter Dave Blassingame (played by Brian Keith) and which he uses to exact revenge on the killer of the rifle's original owner. Initially the series was to be called The Winchester and focus strongly on the high-powered gun, much like Lucas McCain's trademark gun in The Rifleman.

While the Winchester does figure prominently in The Westerner's first episode "Jeff" (September 30, 1960) and "The Old Man" (November 25, 1960), it is not central to the theme of these two episodes and is rarely seen in the other 11 episodes. But the violence and brutality that earned Peckinpah the nickname "Bloody Sam" is very much a part of the series, though the intensity of the violent episodes is leavened by the series' three comic episodes--"Brown" (October 21, 1960), "The Courting of Libby" (November 11, 1960), and "The Painting" (December 30, 1960)--all three directed by Peckinpah and co-starring John Dehner as Blassingame's friend and foil Burgundy Smith. As film historians Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, David Weddle, and Nick Redman note in their commentary for the 2017 DVD release, The Westerner is a case study in Peckinpah's skill as a director and script writer even before he made his first feature film and an exploration of his demythologizing of the old west. Though he sometimes gets miscast as a promoter of graphic violence, these film historians point out that in The Westerner violence has real-world  and often tragic consequences, unlike almost all the other westerns from the era.

The standard formula for television westerns by 1960 centered around a mythic hero (sometimes a duo, as in Laramie and Lawman, or ensemble, as in Wagon Train and Gunsmoke) who was either bound to a place (again, Gunsmoke, Lawman, and The Rifleman) or wandered freely dispensing justice (Cheyenne and Have Gun -- Will Travel). In the single-location westerns, evil typically comes from outside the community. In the picaresque-style westerns, the hero encounters evil in the places he visits. In both cases, while the hero can be occasionally wounded, he is invincible and the agent for defeating evil or enabling the downtrodden to do so. Such a formula rarely allows for real tragedy because the villains get what they deserve. Though occasionally a character will begin as the embodiment of evil, we may learn that he is misguided and has a change of heart, allowing him to be redeemed in this life, or if his sins prove too severe, he is allowed to give his life to restore order and therefore achieve redemption in the next life.

But this is not how the narratives generally play out in Peckinpah's world, though "The Old Man" perhaps fits closest to the standard redemption trope when dying patriarch Tyler McKeen willingly gives up what short time remains for him to ensure that his estate passes to his grandson rather than to the vulture-like distant relatives who show up and demand that he bequeath his effects to them. McKeen even gives a dying speech to his grandson that he would not have wanted to go out any other way. But in the series opener "Jeff," Blassingame travels many miles to try to rescue his childhood girlfriend currently trapped in an abusive and exploitative relationship with a brutal former boxer named Denny Lipp. Though Blassingame nearly convinces her to come away with him and endures a violent shoot-out with Lipp's Indian bartender and a brawl with Lipp himself, Jeff ultimately decides to stay in her sado-masochistic relationship with Lipp because she cannot forgive herself for her descent into prostitution and she believes that no one else can either. Blassingame as savior is foiled and is forced to leave beaten and empty-handed. This is hardly the sort of "all's right with the world" ending that pervaded 1960s westerns.

While the film historians mentioned above consider the comic episode "Brown" to be an extended depiction of the kind of drunken bender that the notorious alcoholic Peckinpah himself experienced on many occasions, he shows the other side of the coin in how drunkenness can lead to pointless tragedy in "Line Camp" (December 9, 1960). In this episode Blassingame runs across a traveling company of horse wranglers and lands a job after finding one of their members dead along the trail. After joining them he learns that the group also includes someone he has worked with before, Ben Prescott, who is clearly an alcoholic and takes advantage of their foreman's absence to break company rules in buying alcohol from some traveling hunters and then getting drunk with the other wranglers, including Blassingame. But when the foreman returns and fires Blassingame and Prescott for breaking the rules, Blassingame accepts the decision and says he is guilty but he does not want to travel with Prescott because he knows what kind of man he is from their past acquaintance. This offends Prescott, still obviously intoxicated, who begins spouting off that Blassingame intends to kill him once they both leave camp, and even though Blassingame peacefully goes outside and tries to saddle up to leave alone, Prescott follows him outside with his gun, begins firing at him, and wounds him in the leg, forcing Blassingame to fire back and kill Prescott. Blassingame reiterates that Prescott's behavior was senseless as he posed no threat to him, and the foreman asks how he is going to explain to his company how he wound up with one wrangler dead and another one incapacitated due to his leg wound. There is no sense of justice at the end of this episode because even though Prescott behaved foolishly and proved to be a threat to Blassingame, he was not motivated by evil, only a paranoid obsession brought on by too much alcohol. Here Peckinpah strips away the myth of good triumphing over evil and shows the dire consequences of bad decisions, a much more realistic depiction of human behavior than is found in all the other westerns of the era.

The episode "Hand on the Gun" (December 23, 1960) paints a similar picture of someone taking things too far and receiving more than he bargained for. In this case, it is easterner Calvin Davis, who joins Blassingame's group of wild horse wranglers thinking that because he has read about the west and can do a few gun tricks that he can take on anyone. The greenhorn who gets in over his head is common trope in television westerns, but is usually played for comic effect. Peckinpah's version is grimmer because it shows that gunplay is not a kid's game. Besides feeling like he has something to prove, Davis also displays a racist streak in calling Blassingame's friend Oresquote Solera a "pepper gut," an insult because of Solera's Mexican heritage. After the group has delivered the horses they've captured and have been paid, Davis wants to continue in Blassingame's employ, but the latter doesn't want him because he has seen how reckless and hard-headed he is. Davis tries to strike back by repeating his insult to Solera and will not be satisfied with anything other than a showdown in the street. Earlier in the episode Blassingame tries to each Davis the real-world consequences of a gun wound by having Solera show him where a bullet entered his abdomen and then exited from a much larger hole in his back, a wound that laid Solera up for 8 months recovering. But Davis fails to heed the warning, and when he faces Solera in the street he gets off the first shot at point blank range but misses. Solera doesn't miss in returning fire, and Davis drops to the street in shock, still not believing that the duel didn't play out the way he imagined, as Blassingame and Solera ride out of town, leaving him to die. Here another life is wasted because someone failed to grasp the serious, tragic consequences of the violence that a gun can deliver. Rather than being a champion of bloodshed and violence, as he is often labeled, Peckinpah is unblinking and graphic in his depiction of violence to show the viewer what can really happen in the real world, which is nothing like the morality plays that pervaded the television airwaves in 1960.

Peckinpah's attempt to offer a more realistic depiction of western life didn't stop with the stories--the character of Dave Blassingame was far from the one-dimensional characters seen in other western series, where men tended to be bolt upright defenders of justice, irredeemable villains, or simple-minded comic foils. Blassingame generally tries to do what's right and doesn't go out seeking violence, but he is prone to bouts of drunkenness and delusion, thinking a woman like Libby Lorraine in "The Courting of Libby" would be a suitable partner for a penniless trail bum like him. However, he strikes a particularly poor figure in "Treasure" (November 18, 1960) in which he discovers U.S. Government saddlebags laden with golden coins hidden out in the desert after being stolen from an army payroll some years ago. He knows they are stolen because an old prospector wanders by shortly after his discovery, obviously looking for the same treasure, and tells him the tale of this missing payroll. When the prospector observes that Blassingame is acting oddly, he decides to stick around, hoping that Blassingame will make a mistake that will let him walk away with the coins. Neither man is willing to bargain with the other or admit to the other what they are after, so that when Blassingame finally nods off while guarding the hole in a rock formation where the saddlebags are hidden, the prospector makes his move and tries to kill him with a knife. Blassingame is able to fend him off and shoot the prospector dead, but in the process scares off the prospector's mule. He is then forced to ride back to town and the strain of the saddlebags finally does in his horse, which he has to shoot. He refuses to share his water with his dog Brown, another character who doesn't fit the mold of the heroic canine forged by Lassie and Rin Tin Tin, because he says there might not be enough for the both of them. In fact, he leaves Brown to die of thirst in the desert and makes it back to town, where he finds that the local Marshal Frank Dollar has not only found the dead prospector after getting a tip and rescued Brown from sure death, but he also has a pretty good idea of what Blassingame dragged back to town in his saddle bags. But rather than admit the jig is up, Blassingame takes the marshal at knifepoint and then gunpoint and forces him to drive him to the Mexican border with Brown and the gold coins so that he can sneak across the border and live high off the stolen treasure. So at this point he has allowed greed to justify killing another man, abandoned his dog in the desert, and kidnapped a law officer to escape with stolen money. Hardly a resume worthy a western hero. In the end he comes to his senses when he sees that Brown will not be able to make it across the Mexican desert, and he returns back to the U.S. and hands the money over to the marshal who is patiently waiting for him. It's not clear why this time he decides to stay loyal to Brown when he was not before, perhaps further reflection made him realize the payoff would not be worth the price, but he is allowed to ride off scott free after turning over the money to Dollar, thereby perhaps avoiding the karma visited upon characters like Calvin Davis and Ben Prescott in other episodes. Whatever his rationale, Blassingame is a highly fallible character who doesn't always do right, unlike the other western heroes of 1960s television.

However, Peckinpah was too far ahead of his time. A show like The Westerner would fit nicely alongside more recent television dramas like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, but in 1960 it was too dark and failed to connect with a public used to more shine and polish rather than grit. It didn't help being shown in the same time slot as the popular Route 66 and The Flintstones. The series was canceled after 13 episodes, and when shown in syndication thereafter was lumped with other more common fare such as Black Saddle with inane introductory commentary by Keenan Wynn. But Peckinpah's association with Brian Keith paid off because the latter got Peckinpah assigned as director for his next feature film The Deadly Companions in 1961. Peckinpah revisited The Westerner  in a 2-part episode of Dick Powell Theater in 1962. Now with its release on DVD, present-day viewers can finally see why this short-lived series has such a vaunted reputation.

Most of the music for The Westerner was composed by Herschel Burke Gilbert, whose biography can be found in the 1960 post for The Rifleman.

The complete series has been released on DVD by Shout!Factory.

The Actors

Brian Keith

Robert Alba Keith was born in Bayonne, New Jersey in 1921. His parents were both actors on the stage and they brought him with them during their performances. After they divorced, Keith lived with his father and stepmother, actress Peg Entwistle, in Hollywood, appearing in his first film at age 3 in the silent feature Pied Piper Malone. Entwistle famously committed suicide by jumping from the "H" in the Hollywood sign in 1932, and Keith would be raised by his grandmother in Long Island, New York, where he graduated from high school in 1939. He served in the Marines during World War II as an airplane machine gunner and received an Air Medal, but when he applied for an officer's commission with the Merchant Marine in 1945, he was turned down because of poor algebra scores. After his military service he worked in stock theater, on radio, and for carnivals before moving to Hollywood, where he made his first uncredited film appearance in 1947. By 1951 he was appearing on television series such as Hands of Mystery and Shadow of the Cloak. He made his first credited feature film in 1953's Arrowhead and continued to balance feature film roles and TV guest spots until landing his first starring television role as reporter Matt Anders in Crusader, which ran from 1955-56. He continued making numerous appearances on drama anthologies such as Studio 57 as well as feature films such as Chicago Confidential, Violent Road, Desert Hell, and Villa! through the remainder of the 1950s before being cast as Dave Blassingame on The Westerner.

Besides getting Sam Peckinpah his first feature film directing job in The Deadly Companions in 1961, Keith starred opposite Maureen O'Hara and Hayley Mills in Disney's 1961 comedy The Parent Trap, showing that he could handle comic roles as well as drama. Thereafter he became a Disney regular, appearing in Moon Pilot(1962), Savage Sam (1963), A Tiger Walks (1964), and Those Callaways (1965). The following year made him a household name when he was cast as Uncle Bill Davis on Family Affair, though he also appeared in such notable features as Nevada Smith and The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! in 1966. Family Affair ran for 5 seasons, but Keith continued to maintain a steady workload in feature films such as Reflections in a Golden Eye, With Six You Get Eggroll, and Krakatoa: East of Java. Yet he is said to have turned down a role in Peckinpah's masterpiece The Wild Bunch because it conflicted with his work on Family Affair. Disappointed at the series' cancellation in 1971, Keith nevertheless was never out of work, landing the Hawaii-based doctor series The Brian Keith Show from 1972-74, followed by the very brief The Zoo Gang in 1974 and Archer in 1975. In 1975 he also played Theodore Roosevelt in the acclaimed feature The Wind and the Lion. He had four appearances on the TV series How the West Was Won and played Sheriff Axel Dumire on the mini-series Centennial to close out the 1970s. In 1983 he scored another major TV role as retired Judge Milton C. Hardcastle on the popular Hardcastle & McCormick, followed by the role of Prof. Roland G. Duncan on Pursuit of Happiness in 1987-88 and as B.L. McCutcheon on Heartland in 1989. Then came the role of Walter Collins on Walter & Emily in 1991-92 as well as a host of other TV guest spots on shows as diverse as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Touched by an Angel, and Walker, Texas Ranger as well as an assortment of minor feature roles. Suffering from emphysema and terminal lung cancer, Keith committed suicide on June 24, 1997 at age 75, two months after his 27-year-old daughter Daisy had committed suicide.

Notable Guest Stars

Season 1, Episode 1, "Jeff": Diana Millay (shown on the left, played Laura Collins on Dark Shadows) plays Blassingame's childhood girlfriend Jeff. Geoffrey Toone (Steve Gardiner in The Odd Man, Jacques Charlustin on Contract to Kill, Sergeant Baines on 199 Park Lane, and Von Gelb on Freewheelers) plays former boxer Denny Lipp. Michael Greene (Deputy Vance Porter on The Dakotas) plays abusive drunk Waggoner. Warren Oates (starred in In the Heat of the Night, The Wild Bunch, and Stripes and played Ves Painter on Stoney Burke) plays a drunk. Marie Selland (wife of director Sam Peckinpah) plays evangelist Glorie.

Season 1, Episode 2, "School Days": Margaret Field (mother of actress Sally Field) plays school teacher Eleanor Larson. R.G. Armstrong (shown on the right, played Police Capt. McAllister on T.H.E. Cat and Lewis Vendredi on Friday the 13th) plays her admirer Shell Davidson. John Anderson (see the biography section for the 1960 post on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp) plays her killer's brother Leth Ritchie. Richard Rust (Hank Tabor on Sam Benedict) plays local lawman Deputy Tyson. William Mims (see the biography section for the 1960 post on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp) plays posse member Ray Huff. Bill Quinn (see the biography section for the 1961 post on The Rifleman) plays posse member Ted Manning. Dub Taylor (starred in You Can't Take It With You, Bonnie & Clyde, and The Wild Bunch, played Cannonball in 53 western films, and played Wallie Simms on Casey Jones, Mitch Brady on Hazel, and Ed Hewley on Please Don't Eat the Daisies) plays posse member Walt Smith.

Season 1, Episode 3, "Brown": John Dehner (shown on the left, played Duke Williams on The Roaring '20's, Commodore Cecil Wyntoon on The Baileys of Balboa, Morgan Starr on The Virginian, Cyril Bennett on The Doris Day Show, Dr. Charles Cleveland Claver on The New Temperatures Rising Show, Barrett Fears on Big Hawaii, Marshal Edge Troy on Young Maverick, Lt. Joseph Broggi on Enos, Hadden Marshall on Bare Essence, and Billy Joe Erskine on The Colbys) plays con man Burgundy Smith. Harry Swoger (Harry the bartender on The Big Valley) plays South Fork Sheriff Tom Lacette. Conlan Carter (C.E. Caruthers on The Law and Mr. Jones and Doc on Combat!) plays his jail keeper Mead. Victor Izay (starred in Dr. Sex, The Astro-Zombies, and Blood Orgy of the She-Devils and played Judge Simmons on The D.A., Bull on Gunsmoke, and Dr. Matthew Vance on The Waltons) plays the bartender.

Season 1, Episode 4, "Mrs. Kennedy": Paul Richards (appeared in Playgirl and Beneath the Planet of the Apes and played Louis Kassoff on The Lawless Years) plays poor dirt farmer Marsh Kennedy. 

Season 1, Episode 5, "Dos Pinos": Jean Willes (shown on the right, appeared in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Ocean's 11, and Gypsy) plays cantina owner Sal. Adam Williams (appeared in Flying Leathernecks, The Big Heat, Fear Strikes Out, and North by Northwest) plays cattle worker Pauk. Warren Tufts (voiced Captain Fathom on Captain Fathom, and worked on animation for Space Angel, Jonny Quest, The New 3 Stooges, Sealab 2020, Challenge of the Superfriends, and Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends)  plays his accomplice Gator. Malcolm Atterbury (starred in I Was a Teenage Werewolf, The Birds, and The Learning Tree and played John Bixby on Wagon Train and Grandfather Aldon on Apple's Way) plays Dos Pinos sheriff Andy. Marie Selland (see "Jeff" above) plays an injured man's wife Jenny. Marianna Hill (appeared in Roustabout, Paradise, Hawaiian Style, The Godfather: Part II, and High Plains Drifter and played Rita on The Tall Man) plays saloon girl Cora.

Season 1, Episode 6, "The Courting of Libby": Joan O'Brien (shown on the left, starred in Operation Petticoat, The Alamo, It Happened at the World's Fair,  and It'$ Only Money) plays Blassingame's love interest Libby Lorraine. John Dehner (see "Brown" above) returns as Burgundy Smith. 

Season 1, Episode 7, "Treasure": Arthur Hunnicutt (starred in The Red Badge of Courage, The Last Command, The Cardinal, and Cat Ballou) plays an old prospector. Malcolm Atterbury (see "Dos Pinos" above) plays Dos Pinos Marshal Frank Dollar. 

Season 1, Episode 8, "The Old Man": Sam Jaffe (shown on the right, starred in Lost Horizon, Gunga Din, The Asphalt Jungle, and Ben-Hur and played Dr. David Zorba on Ben Casey) plays dying patriarch Tyler McKeen. Frank Ferguson (Gus Broeberg on My Friend Flicka, Eli Carson on Peyton Place, and Dr. Barton Stuart on Petticoat Junction) plays his son Stuart. Dee Pollock (Billy Urchin on Gunslinger) plays his grandson Billy. Robert J. Wilke (appeared in Best of the Badmen, High Noon, The Far Country, and Night Passage and played Capt. Mendoza on Zorro) plays covetous relative Murdo McKeen. Michael Forest (starred in Ski Troop Attack, Atlas, and The Glory Guys and was the voice of Capt. Dorai on Street Fighter II: V and Olympus on Power Rangers Lightspeed Rescue) plays his partner Troy McKeen. Marie Selland (see "Jeff" above) plays distant relative Addie McKeen.

Season 1, Episode 9, "Ghost of a Chance": Joseph Wiseman (shown on the left, starred in Detective Story, Viva Zapata!, Les Miserables (1952), Dr. No, and The Valachi Papers and played Manny Weisbord on Crime Story) plays Mexican bandito Serafin. Roberto Contreras (Pedro on The High Chapparal) plays one of his henchmen Pedro. Katy Jurado (appeared in High Noon, Arrowhead, Trapeze, and One-Eyed Jacks and played Rosa Maria Rivera on a.k.a. Pablo and Justina on Te sigo amando) plays bar hostess Carlotta Jimenez. 

Season 1, Episode 10, "Line Camp": Karl Swenson (Lars Hanson on Little House on the Prairie) plays camp foreman Ben Potts. Robert Culp (shown on the right, starred in Sunday in New York, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and Breaking Point and played Hoby Gilman on Trackdown, Kelly Robinson on I Spy, Bill Maxwell on The Greatest American Hero, and Warren on Everybody Loves Raymond) plays wrangler Ben Prescott. Slim Pickens (starred in The Story of Will Rogers, Dr. Strangelove, Blazing Saddles, The Apple Dumpling Gang, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, and The Howling and played Slim on Outlaws, Slim Walker on The Wide Country, California Joe Milner on Custer, and Sgt. Beauregard Wiley on B.J. & the Bear) plays camp cook Oscar Hudson. Hari Rhodes (Mike Makula on Daktari, D.A. William Washburn on The Bold Ones: The Protectors, and Mayor Dan Stoddard on Most Wanted) plays wrangler Jones. Hank Patterson (Fred Ziffel on Green Acres and Petticoat Junction and Hank on Gunsmoke) plays hunter Sample.

Season 1, Episode 11, "Going Home": Virginia Gregg (starred in Dragnet, Crime in the Streets, Operation Petticoat and was the voice of Norma Bates in Psycho and was the voice of Maggie Belle Klaxon on Calvin and the Colonel) plays wanted outlaw's mother Sabetha. Mary Murphy (appeared in The Wild One, Beachhead, The Mad Magician, The Desperate Hours, and Junior Bonner) plays outlaw's wife Suzy. Jack Kruschen (appeared in The War of the Worlds, The Apartment, Lover Come Back, and Freebie and the Bean and played Tully on Hong Kong, Sam Markowitz on Busting Loose, Papa Papadapolis on Webster, and Fred Avery on Material World) plays lawman Rigdon. 

Season 1, Episode 12, "Hand on the Gun": Michael Ansara (shown on the left, appeared in Julius Caesar, The Robe, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and Harum Scarum, played Cochise on Broken Arrow and Deputy U.S. Marshal Sam Buckhart on The Rifleman and the Law of the Plainsman, and voiced General Warhawk on Rambo) plays Blassingame's fellow wrangler Oresquote Solera. Ben Cooper (appeared in Johnny Guitar, The Rose Tattoo, and Support Your Local Gunfighter and played Waverly on The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo and the Director on The Fall Guy) plays eastern tenderfoot Calvin Davis. John Pickard (Capt. Shank Adams on Boots and Saddles and Sgt. Maj. Murdock on Gunslinger) plays disgruntled wrangler Mazo. 

Season 1, Episode 13, "The Painting": John Dehner (see "Brown" above) returns as Burgundy Smith. Madlyn Rhue (shown on the right, played Marjorie Grant on Bracken's World, Angela Schwartz on Fame, and Hilary Mason/Madison on Executive Suite) plays painting subject Carla de Castiliano. Paul Sorensen (Andy Bradley on Dallas) plays painting seeker Walker.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Dick Tracy Show (1961)

As mentioned in our post on the 1960 episodes for The Mr. Magoo Show, the UPA animation studio was in dire financial straits after its failed Mr. Magoo feature film 1001 Arabian Nights in 1959. The Magoo disaster prompted then UPA owner Steve Bosustow to sell the enterprise to producer Henry G. Saperstein, who attempted to reverse the studio's financial fortunes by focusing on television, first with The Mr. Magoo Show and the following year with a series based on comic-strip hero Dick Tracy. But what UPA wound up producing bears little resemblance to the comic strip on which it was supposedly based because the Tracy character (voiced by respected character Everett Sloane in a complete waste of his talents) basically serves as a dispatcher and clean-up man who delegates each case to one of his four subordinates--a British bulldog named Hemlock Holmes who sounds like Cary Grant, the cartoon equivalent of Mickey Rooney's Mr. Yunioshi named Joe Jitsu, an overweight policeman named Heap O'Calorie who sounds like Andy Devine, and a low-budget version of Speedy Gonzales named Go Go Gomez. Tracy has no role in bringing the criminals, all but one taken from the original Tracy comic strip, to justice, as if he has been kicked upstairs to a desk job after decades on the street.

The savage reviews the series has received on are well-deserved: the episodes, like those for The Mr. Magoo Show, appear as if written by the 5-year-old audience for which they are intended and are based on the premise that repetition and slapstick are the foundations of humor. Thankfully each episode is just under 5 minutes in length, but UPA churned out a staggering 130 episodes for the 1961-62 season. As a syndicated series, these episodes could be aired at the station's discretion, presumably collated with cartoons from other sources on a single children's program with a local host. Each of the four crime-fighters has a signature gag that is repeated in every episode. Hemlock Holmes is "assisted" by a group of bumbling policemen dubbed The Retouchables (an obvious dig at the popular Untouchables) who behave like the Keystone Kops, always dashing off on their assignment without Holmes who has to run after them pleading with them to stop, grab on to the back of the car or helicopter they are using, and then crashing through the window of said vehicle when they finally do heed his call to stop. Joe Jitsu's gag is to use his jujitsu skills to slam villains on the ground while saying "Excuse please" and "So sorry." Heap O'Calorie constantly tries to steal fruit from Tony's market before consulting nonverbal beatnik Nick for the location of the criminals he is after, and then subdues the crooks by bouncing them with his large belly. Go Go Gomez, who did not appear until the 62nd episode in the series, simply runs fast.

As has been documented elsewhere, not only does the Hemlock Holmes character mimic Cary Grant, but several of the villains also impersonate well-known Hollywood voices: Flat Top resembles Peter Lorre, B.B. Eyes imitates Edward G. Robinson, and The Brow is a vague James Cagney. But the spoofs on popular culture on The Dick Tracy Show seem rote compared to other programs like The Flintstones and Rocky and His Friends--they provide little entertainment for adults other than a glint of recognition and lose their punch by being repeated in every episode. Even one-time gags such as a jewelry store named Tiphoney's instead of Tiffany's seem to be throwaways.

Trying to make a comedy out of the comic-strip Dick Tracy is an odd choice. Though Tracy would grow to be a favorite with young readers, the original Chester Gould strip could be graphic and somewhat realistic in its depiction of violent criminals. In Gould's prototype for the strip, Plainclothes Tracy, the mob boss uses a blow-torch to burn the feet of a double-crosser in order to get him to talk, and in the initial story that debuted in 1931 Tracy and his fiance Tess Trueheart witness her father murdered by a pair of robbers who invade the Trueheart delicatessen. But in the UPA cartoon, no one ever dies despite being blown up repeatedly, tossed off high buildings, or involved in head-on collisions. Bullets never penetrate flesh. Like any other children's cartoon of the era, violence has no permanent consequences, suggesting to impressionable minds that violence is only a gag in which no one ever gets hurt. Tracy and comedy also failed to gel in Batman creator William Dozier's unused 1966 live-action pilot, though Dozier insisted the series would not have the camp factor that made the Caped Crusader so popular.

The other element working against the animated Dick Tracy is the brevity of each episode, which prevents any real plot development and constricts the episode to a series of slapstick gags. While series such as The Flintstones had its share of gags, its 30-minute format allowed for some semblance of story development, and Rocky and His Friends, later renamed The Bullwinkle Show, used a serial format that broke a longer story into bite-size installments that were sequenced through multiple 30-minute episodes that included shorts with their other rotating cast of characters Dudley Do-Right, Sherman and Peabody, and Fractured Fairytales. In short The Dick Tracy failed to take advantage of any of the original comic strip's strengths and settled for cheap laughs that became cheaper through constant repetition. Gould's upright crime-fighting hero deserved better.

The opening and closing theme for The Dick Tracy Show was composed by Carl E. Brandt, who was profiled in our 1960 post on The Mr.Magoo Show.

The entire series has been released on DVD by Sony/Classic Media.

The Actors

Everett Sloane

Born in Manhattan, the son of an insurance broker and cotton merchant, Everett H. Sloane caught the acting bug at age 7 after playing Puck in a school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. After completing high school, he attended the University of Pennsylvania for two years before dropping out to join the Hedgerow Theatre repertory company led by Jasper Deeter until unfavorable review notices comparing his acting to Harpo Marx led him to leave the theater and take a job as a runner for a Wall Street stockbroker. He worked his way up to the position of assistant to the managing partner at a salary of $140 per week until the stock market crash of 1929 resulted in his salary being cut in half, so he returned to acting, this time on radio. As a voice actor Sloane progressed from playing villains on The Shadow and Buck Rogers to having regular roles on The Goldbergs and Bulldog Drummond. But his future would forever be altered when he joined the stalwart cast of the historical-based series The March of Time on which he played a variety of characters, including Adolph Hitler. Working on this series was where Sloane met Orson Welles and would later join his Mercury Theatre on the Air and appear in the famous War of the Worlds broadcast of 1938. But before that his success in radio allowed him to resume acting on the stage as well, making his Broadway debut in Boy Meets Girl in 1935. Sloane's association with Welles led to his being cast in the latter's first feature film Citizen Kane in 1941, portraying the title character's right-hand man Mr. Bernstein. Immediately after filming Kane, Sloane appeared in Welles' landmark Broadway production of Richard Wright's Native Son. Sloane would appear in three more Welles features--Journey Into Fear, Lady From Shanghai, and Prince of Foxes--but he reportedly quit Welles' production of Othello, in which he was to play Iago, because the filming was taking too long, and the two never worked together again, with Welles making disparaging remarks about Sloane on several occasions thereafter, even after Sloane's death. During the 1940s he also continued to appear on radio programs such as Inner Sanctum Mysteries and The Mysterious Traveler as well as more Broadway theatrical productions such as A Bell for Adano. Despite his break with Welles, Sloane was never at a loss for work. In the 1950s he added television to his repertoire, portraying the painter Vincent Van Gogh in an episode of The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse as well as appearing on a number of other drama anthology series. He received an Emmy nomination for his appearance in Rod Serling's drama Patterns, which was presented on Kraft Television Theatre in 1956. He also began making guest appearances on a number of shows, including Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Joseph Cotten Show, and Climax! In 1957-58 he had a recurring role as an investigator on Official Detective and appeared as Andres Felipe Basilio in four 1959 episodes of Zorro. He reunited with Serling in the Season 1 episode of The Twilight Zone titled "The Fever" and also appeared in episodes of Thriller, Route 66, and The Loretta Young Show in 1960. That same year he tried out his skills as a lyricist by writing the words to The Andy Griffith Show theme "The Fishin' Hole"; though they were not used on the TV show itself, Andy Griffith sang them on the soundtrack LP that was released in conjunction with the program. Given his extensive experience as a radio actor, it is no surprise that he was chosen to voice iconic detective Dick Tracy on the 1961 animated program. He would reprise the role in an episode of the 1965 Mr. Magoo reboot The Famous Adventures of Mister Magoo.

In the years after The Dick Tracy Show, Sloane continued making guest appearances on TV shows such as Perry Mason, Dr. Kildare, Rawhide, Gunsmoke, and Bonanza. He did some voicework for Jonny Quest in 1964 and appeared in a pair of Jerry Lewis features The Patsy and The Disorderly Orderly in 1964. However, in 1965 he feared that he was going blind and took his own life by overdosing on barbiturates at the age of 55 on August 6, 1965. He had just completed filming an episode of Honey West which was aired posthumously.

Benny Rubin

Born in Boston on February 2, 1899, Rubin attended a reform school in Shirley, Massachusetts and by 1914 was performing at an amateur night where he knew legendary comedian Fred Allen. He had learned to tap dance by watching children performing on the streets while growing up. He was part of a touring group for a year, worked on a showboat, and also worked in burlesque before teaming up with Charlie Hall for a vaudeville act. In 1923 he began performing solo at the Alhambra with a routine that included tap dancing, a trombone solo, and a stand-up shtick that was a broad Jewish stereotype that some found offensive but nevertheless proved very popular. However, he was apparently difficult to work with, getting fired from a 1925 Ziegfeld revue. His first film appearances came in 1928 in the short Daisies Won't Yell and the feature Naughty Baby, and in 1929 he moved to Hollywood, though he still performed in New York, serving as M.C. at The Palace and performing in a duo with Jack Haley. In 1932 he was afflicted with appendicitis and had to skip a performance with Haley at the last minute. A young comic named Milton Berle was nabbed to fill his place, and the rest is history. From 1928-32 he appeared in dozens of shorts and features but reportedly missed the chance for a lucrative contract with Fox when he refused to get a nose job. By 1938 with the Nazis rising in Europe he was pressured to abandon his Jewish stereotype routine, but he continued to find work playing ethnic characters on film, though over the years his parts declined to playing unnamed cab drivers, waiters, and the like. 

His first television appearance came in 1949 on the Oboler Comedy Theatre but his best-remembered role was as an annoyed help-desk employee on The Jack Benny Program whose catch-phrase was "I dunno!" He was also a regular comic foil on The Red Skelton Hour and had bit parts in dozens of TV comedies from The Bob Cummings Show to The Joey Bishop Show to I Dream of Jeannie. Likewise he showed up in several silly feature films such as The Patsy, The Disorderly Orderly, The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, and How to Frame a Figg. On The Dick Tracy Show he provided voices for Joe Jitsu, Pruneface, and Sketch Paree. His last feature film was the 1979 sex comedy A Pleasure Doing Business which also included comedians such as John Byner, Tommy Smothers, and Phyllis Diller. He died of a heart attack on July 15, 1986 at the age of 87.

Jerry Hausner

Hausner provided the voice for Hemlock Holmes and for villains Stooge Viller, Itchy, The Mole, and The Brow. See the biography section of the 1960 post for The Mr. Magoo Show.

Mel Blanc

Blanc provided the voice for villains Flat Top and B.B. Eyes. See the biography section of the 1960 post for The Flintstones.




Paul Frees

Frees provided the voice for Heap O'Calorie and Go Go Gomez. See the biography section of the 1960 post for Rocky and His Friends.