When writer Evan Hunter passed away from cancer in 2005, it felt in a way like losing a family member. As Ed McBain, Hunter had written dozens of mystery novels about the detectives of the 87th Precinct, who solved crimes in the borough of Isola in a never-named city (though it was clearly supposed to be New York). I began reading the 87th Precinct novels when I was in junior high school and kept reading them as long as McBain kept writing them, which was right up until his death. I know his characters so well that it was painful to realize that I would never get to spend any new time with them. Sure, I can always re-read the books--they'll probably never go out of print--but there will be no more continuing adventures of the "bulls" of the 87th Precinct.
Happily, I was finally able to experience McBain's world in a different medium. In 1961, NBC premiered 87TH PRECINCT, a weekly one-hour TV series based on McBain's characters (and some episodes were even based on his novels). I've been wanting to see this series most of my life, and happily I wasn't disappointed. Not only was the executive producer Hubbell Robinson, an important figure in the early days of television who helped develop PLAYHOUSE 90 and THRILLER, but 87TH PRECINCT's casting, on paper, seemed to be dead on. Without even seeing the show, I felt actor Robert Lansing would be perfect as leading man Detective Steve Carella, and Ron Harper (Detective Bert Kling), Norman Fell (Detective Meyer Meyer) and Gregory Walcott (Detective Roger Havilland), from a physical standpoint, seemed yanked from the pages of a McBain novel.
One way to describe 87TH PRECINCT would be "DRAGNET with humor." Like the novels, the TV series was a police procedural that made time for banter between its characters that made them human, unlike the (intentionally) two-dimensional cops of LAW & ORDER. Their city was boiling over with waste and corruption and murder and human pestilence, but that didn't mean the detectives couldn't swim above it. They were sometimes weary of their jobs and the awful people with whom they had to be in contact, but they were always professional and never lost their humanity and hope for a better tomorrow.
In Donn Mullally's original teleplay "Man in a Jam," Cleve Thomson (guest star Lin McCarthy) appears to have committed the perfect murder by confessing to the crime. By claiming he murdered his fiance during a drunken blackout, but manipulating the crime scene to make it appear as though anybody else except him could have done it, Thomson hopes for a quick trial and acquittal, so that by the time Carella discovers the truth, double jeopardy will have already attached.
McBain's novel provided the story for Shimon Wincelberg's "Give the Boys a Great Big Hand." The discovery of a man's hand in a flight bag leads Carella and Kling on a search for a missing sailor, his stripper ex-girlfriend and the drummer she may be shacking up with. The conclusion is surprisingly lurid for network television, but remains faithful to McBain's book.
The 87th Precinct novels have provided inspiration for several feature films (including Akira Kurosawa's HIGH AND LOW) and made-for-TV movies (which miscast both Randy Quaid and Dale Midkiff as Carella), but Hubbell Robinson's NBC series must rank in the upper echelon. Unfortunately, the Nielsen ratings couldn't stand up to the one-two punch of MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY and THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW over on CBS, and apparently all the mystery fans were more drawn to the froth of SURFSIDE 6 on ABC than the hardnosed flatfooting on 87TH PRECINCT. The show was cancelled in 1962 after thirty episodes.