Monday, September 07, 2015

RIP Martin Milner

I wanted to write a few words about Martin Milner, who died over the holiday weekend at the age of 83.

During the first stage of his career, Milner was, frankly, a competent, solid, but thoroughly uninteresting actor who often played the "square" among a cast of crazies or at least more colorful characters. He was an Earp brother in GUNFIGHT AT THE OK CORRAL and a journalist in COMPULSION. His blandness actually made him stand out in the execrable SEX KITTENS GO TO COLLEGE amid weirdos like Mamie Van Doren, Jackie Coogan, Conway Twitty, John Carradine, and Vampira.

After 13 years in Hollywood, he finally became a bonafide television star in ROUTE 66, which teamed him with George Maharis (and later Glenn Corbett) in a groundbreaking one-hour drama about two handsome young men driving around America in a Corvette and having adventures.

But I want to talk about Milner's second television series.

Milner first worked with maverick television producer/director/star Jack Webb in several DRAGNET episodes in the 1950s. When Webb and Robert Cinader created ADAM-12 in 1968, they pegged Milner to star alongside a young, inexperienced actor named Kent McCord as a pair of uniformed police officers patrolling Los Angeles in a squad car. Milner was the veteran officer, Pete Malloy. McCord played rookie Jim Reed. On and off the screen, Milner was something of a mentor and friend to McCord, and their chemistry helped ADAM-12 run for seven seasons on NBC.

I loved ADAM-12 when I was a kid. It ran weeknights at 6:30 p.m. right after the 6:00 News on WCIA-TV in Champaign, Illinois, and I tried never to miss it. Like DRAGNET, ADAM-12 was based on actual LAPD cases, and each half-hour episode featured two to three different stories, so the pacing was quick. The show featured action, drama, violence, humor. Best of all, it seemed real. McCord was green as an actor when the series started, which actually worked in his favor playing a green patrol officer who is seen in the first episode making a grave error that could have killed him and his partner. With Malloy's (re: Milner's) steadying influence, Jim Reed grew to become an excellent policeman and his partner's equal in every way.

I caught up with ADAM-12 a few years ago and watched all 174 episodes. It holds up. It holds up because the stories are good. It holds up because the stories are told well -- not flashy -- but well by workmanlike directors like Hollingsworth Morse and Dennis Donnelly and Christian I. Nyby who knew pacing and drama and stayed out of the actors' way.

It holds up because it respects police officers. Do you realize that literally every cop show on the air today shows police officers routinely breaking the law? Trampling citizens' private rights. Ignoring due process. Think about it. They're supposed to be the heroes. Yet routinely -- every week -- you see Benson or Rust Cohle or McGarrett or the Mentalist or Vic Mackey or Raylan a cop show, and the cops are routinely breaking the law, often hurting the citizens they're sworn to protect.

On ADAM-12, the cops were good people. To protect and to serve. And they did. ADAM-12 wasn't naive. It knew policeman weren't always good. That there was corruption and graft in the ranks, that some cops were violent or untrustworthy. But they weren't the good guys and weren't to be rooted for. Malloy and Reed knew this, and I think so did Milner and McCord.

Would ADAM-12 have been successful without Martin Milner? Probably not. He was likable, strong, authoritative, and absolutely completely 100% believable. It was a great show. And Martin Milner was great in it. TV Land misses him already.


Dick said...

Excellent write-up. I too grow up with Adam-12 and recently watched them all again - and your right it does hold up today. I remember watching it as a kid and being fascinated by the fact that you really didn't know what was coming next with the little stories within each episode. I love that B&W Dragnet episode where Marty plays a high school student pushing porn (and he was great in his little part in Mister Roberts).

I had the chance to meet Martin and Kent McCord years ago at a Dragon Con in Atlanta and they were both really nice guys. Once again thanks for your great tribute.

Grant said...

I'm afraid I never got VERY familiar with his shows, but I've always liked him regardless. He was very good in COMPULSION, and he even got to play a comical kid role very early on in the movie LIFE WITH FATHER.

Grant said...

He also played the victim in the very first COLUMBO episode (not counting the pilots), where he and Jack Cassidy played a writing team. Speaking of his being good at playing team members, they were a sort of odd couple, because Cassidy's character was a flashy celebrity who did almost none of the writing, and his character was a down-to-earth celebrity who did almost all of the writing. So it seemed like very good casting in each one's case.