Monday, October 09, 2006

That's CHELL-y, PetroCHELLi.

When is THE LAWYER coming to DVD? To the best of my knowledge, the 1970 mystery has never received any home video release, not even VHS, and I have only seen it on a long-ago A&E airing around 1989. It put Barry Newman on the map as a leading man, it spawned a television series spinoff (also starring Newman), and presumably made some dough for Paramount. With lawyer shows being all the rage on TV these days, it seems likely THE LAWYER could be a successful DVD.

It's been quite awhile since I've seen THE LAWYER, and I don't remember the details, but it was basically PERRY MASON MEETS RASHOMON. A woman named Wilma Harrison (played by future SCTV cast member Mary Wilcox) is murdered, and flamboyant defense attorney Tony Petrocelli (Newman) defends the man accused of the killing. The gimmick is in the way director Sidney J. Furie (THE IPCRESS FILE) tells the story: by having the various suspects narrate their account of the murder and showing it to us. Then, at the climax, we see the murder once again as Petrocelli describes the crime as it actually happened. I recall the movie as a decently played courtroom drama, and the cast is a good one, albeit TV-level: Robert Colbert (TIME TUNNEL), Diana Muldaur, Harold Gould, Ken Swofford, William Sylvester, Booth Colman as the judge.

I assume THE LAWYER must have been a hit, because four years later, it became an NBC series titled PETROCELLI. Newman returned to Arizona to reprise the title role (besides this and THE NEW DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, have any other prime-time network series filmed in Arizona?) with Susan Howard playing his wife and Albert Salmi as his comic-relief legman (about a year after PETROCELLI's cancellation, Howard and Salmi acted together in the drive-in classic MOONSHINE COUNTY EXPRESS with fellow TV stars John Saxon, William Conrad and Maureen McCormick). Lalo Schifrin composed the exciting theme for a title sequence that shows Petrocelli cruising through the desert in a sweet...camper?

PETROCELLI ran just two seasons, although it was a solid legal show with occasional action sequences and plenty of opportunities for Newman to play colorful. Among the series' guest stars were Rick Nelson, William Shatner and a young Harrison Ford.

Newman seems to have been an in-demand leading man in films before taking the lead in PETROCELLI. In those days, one either acted in features or in television, but rarely went back and forth the way actors do today. Newman followed up THE LAWYER with one of the greatest cult hits of all time:

VANISHING POINT was a hit both with action fans and the existential "head" crowd, and it likely made a mint for 20th Century Fox, which continued to play it in theaters more than three years later on a double bill with DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY. VANISHING POINT, about a speed freak cop named Kowalski (Newman) on a non-stop chase across the desert, is essential viewing for car buffs in particular and is out on DVD with a commentary by director Richard Sarafian.

After VANISHING POINT came FEAR IS THE KEY, an accurate adaptation of an Alistair MacLean novel that also features a kickass car chase, one of the best in a decade filled with them. Once again, Newman leads police on a dangerous chase filmed at high speeds. Suzy Kendall, John Vernon and a young Ben Kingsley (making his film debut) make up the supporting cast. Like THE LAWYER, FEAR IS THE KEY is also not on DVD. It was available on a now-OOP VHS from Key Home Video, but it's very difficult to find and often sells at a high price on eBay.

I haven't seen THE SALZBURG CONNECTION, Newman's next film, which is another adaptation of a spy novel, this one penned by Helen MacInnes. I'm not certain about FEAR, but I believe SALZBURG was not a box-office success. That, combined with the allure of a regular paycheck and an opportunity to have fun with the charismatic Tony Petrocelli role, may have been the incentive for Newman to jump into a regular TV gig.

Now approaching 70, Newman has retained his masculine good looks and continues to work regularly in supporting roles. He had a great role in THE LIMEY and landed decent screen time in Hollywood blockbusters BOWFINGER, DAYLIGHT and 40 DAYS AND 40 NIGHTS. Newman has also guest-starred on THE O.C. in a recurring role.

Recommended Barry Newman Viewing:
PETROCELLI (1974-76)
THE LIMEY (1999)

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