Friday, September 14, 2012

Great TV Episodes: Tempest In A Texas Town

This post introduces a new feature to this blog: reviews of outstanding episodes of classic television series.

Tempest in a Texas Town
September 8, 1967
Story: Paul Monash
Teleplay: Harold Gast and Leon Tokatyan
Director: Harvey Hart

JUDD FOR THE DEFENSE ran only two seasons on ABC from 1967 to 1969. Why wasn’t it more popular?

Its timeslot wasn’t bad—Fridays at 9:00pm Central facing THE CBS FRIDAY NIGHT MOVIES both seasons and NBC’s THE BELL TELEPHONE HOUR/NBC News Specials the first season and the weakly rated STAR TREK in its third and last season during JUDD’s second season. It received a decent amount of acclaim, earning an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Dramatic Series and star Carl Betz an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Dramatic Series in its second year. And it opened each week with an exciting animated main title anchored by Alexander Courage’s theme, one of only two he wrote for a TV drama (STAR TREK being the other).

Judging just from JUDD’s first episode, it wasn’t the quality of the drama that kept viewers away. “Tempest in a Texas Town” takes flamboyant defense attorney Clinton Judd (Betz) back to his hometown to defend a young man on charges of murdering two teenage girls. The script by producer Harold Gast and Leon Tokatyan (LOU GRANT) from a story by JUDD creator Paul Monash (PEYTON PLACE) won the 1968 Edgar Award for Best Episode on a TV Series. Chock-a-block with strong characterizations and a twisty plot, “Tempest” was a fine choice.

Judd, a slick-talking combination of Texas-bred Percy Foreman and F. Lee Bailey, is not roundly welcomed back in little Amos, Texas, where his sheriff father was murdered on the town square by a man who was acquitted of an earlier killing. The man’s attorney was Clinton Judd.

Judd’s client is Brandon Hill, played by the enigmatic and charismatic Christopher Jones, who had recently essayed the title role in ABC’s single-season THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JESSE JAMES. Jones, whose brief Hollywood career included a starring turn in WILD IN THE STREETS and a brief marriage to actress Susan Strasberg, vanished from the public eye after co-starring in David Lean’s RYAN’S DAUGHTER. Hill has a beef against Amos because of his late father, an inventor who was laughed at by the town for being a crackpot. He’s insolent and brash, and Jones plays him on the edge so that it’s not clear whether or not he’s also a killer.

Hill’s crime is the murder of two teenagers, which allegedly occurred by beating them with a shovel and then burying the bodies with it. However, the girls were never found, which doesn’t deter District Attorney Ed Tanner (Pat Hingle, burdened by a foot cast and cane that may be from a real injury) from putting the young Hill on trial for their deaths. And it seems as though Tanner may have a strong case after an eyewitness, an elderly ranch hand named Aldo Reese (Russell Thorson), testifies that he saw the entire crime take place.

Judd, whose sense of fair play dictates he must give his client, guilty or innocent (“I’m a lawyer, not a judge.”), his best, tears apart Reese during cross-examination—an action that scars Judd, because Reese was the only man in town who came to his father’s aid after he was shot down. Even better for Judd’s case is the mid-trial appearance of one of the alleged victims, Terry Ann Brendler, played by Fox contract player Patti Petersen, who later changed her name to Heather Young and became a regular on ABC’s LAND OF THE GIANTS.

Gast and Tokatyan have more twists up their sleeves, but I won’t give them away except to say “Tempest in a Texas Town” ends on an uncharacteristically bleak note for 1967 episodic television. Harvey Hart (BUS RILEY’S BACK IN TOWN) directs with strength, pushing in tight on Betz during the star’s juicy monologues. Betz, fresh off eight years as Donna Reed’s husband on her eponymous sitcom, obviously relished the chance to sink into dramatic material.

“Tempest” was the first JUDD FOR THE DEFENSE filmed and aired. Stephen Young (PATTON) joined the series as Judd’s young legman, Ben Caldwell, and the two men tackled cases involving racism, draft dodging, parental rights, heart transplants, snake pits, witchcraft, mental retardation, and other hot-button issues of the late 1960s. None of these helped the ratings, and it’s possible asking viewers to immerse themselves in controversial subjects contributed to the series’ low ratings.

Nonetheless, JUDD FOR THE DEFENSE was a triumph for Carl Betz and executive producer Paul Monash. And “Tempest in a Texas Town” is an hour of television both could be proud of.

1 comment:

VoyagerG said...

Cool review. This sounds like the precursor to the Law and Order franchise.