Monday, October 09, 2017

Great TV Episodes: 5

September 20 - October 18, 1963
Writer: Harry Essex
Producer and Director: William Conrad

77 SUNSET STRIP was one of television's most influential drama series of the late 1950s. Based loosely on the 1947 novel THE DOUBLE TAKE by Roy Huggins and the film GIRL ON THE RUN, written by Marion Hargrove (MAVERICK) and directed by Richard L. Bare (GREEN ACRES) from Huggins' story, 77 SUNSET STRIP was the first and likely the best of Warner Brothers' formula private eye shows for ABC.

Starring Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (later Special Agent Lew Erskine for nine seasons on THE FBI) as Stu Bailey and Roger Smith (young Lon Chaney Jr. in MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES) as Jeff Spencer, 77 SUNSET STRIP was set - duh - along Los Angeles' fabulous Sunset Boulevard. Working of a posh office at Number 77, Bailey and Spencer solved a number of way-out cases, sometimes with the aid of Kookie, the hip parking attendant working at Dean Martin's nightclub next door. Edd Byrnes, who played Kookie, quickly became the show's breakout star and eventually joined Bailey and Smith as a full-fledged private eye.

The series was a smash hit, and ABC and Warner Brothers copied it ad nauseum. HAWAIIAN EYE starred Robert Conrad and Anthony Eisley in Hawaii, BOURBON STREET BEAT starred Richard Long and Andrew Duggan in New Orleans, SURFSIDE 6 starred Troy Donahue and Van Williams in Miami. Of course, none of these shows ever left the Warners backlot. And not all of the copies were private eye shows. THE ALASKANS with Roger Moore and Jeff York was set in Alaska during the 1890 gold rush. They all were basically the same show, to the point where scripts shot for, say, 77 SUNSET STRIP were recycled for another show two or three years later. Just erase the names "Stu" and "Jeff" and type in, say, "Sandy" and "Ken", and you have a "new" SURFSIDE 6 episode.

Ratings eventually waned until 77 was the only show left. To give its sixth season a kickstart, Warners gave it a radical reboot. Everyone but Zimbalist was fired, and Bailey moved into a new office in the Bradbury Building as a solo act. New producers Jack Webb (DRAGNET) and William Conrad (KLONDIKE, which was NBC's ripoff of THE ALASKANS) made the series less glossy and more noirish. While the new approach didn't work -- the series was cancelled after 20 episodes -- it did give 77 a creative shot in the arm.

To begin the sixth season, producer Conrad hired screenwriter Harry Essex (credited with CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, and I, THE JURY) to concoct an ambitious five-part story that Conrad would also direct. The result was "5," which aired on consecutive Fridays in September and October 1963. Loaded with guest stars ranging from Richard Conte and Cesar Romero to Diane McBain and William Shatner, "5" yanks Bailey out of L.A. to New York and even all the way to Israel to solve the case.

"5" opens arrestingly enough with a man dressed as the Devil run down by a car on a wet New York street. The man's brother, an antiquities dealer played by Burgess Meredith (BATMAN's Penguin), hires Bailey to right his sibling's wrongs. With police detective Richard Conte (OCEAN'S 11) working to solve the murder, Bailey's assignment is to take the dead brother's $9000 and "buy Andy's way into heaven" by making amends to those he has wronged over the years.

Essex's dialogue is tough and terse. Zimbalist narrates in first person like Phillip Marlowe. His path takes him to several of Andy's acquaintances, including storekeeper Ed Wynn (MARY POPPINS); finicky landlord Wally Cox (MR. PEEPERS); priest Herbert Marshall (THE FLY), who died a few months later; estranged wife Patricia Rainier (THE DAREDEVIL); angry stable boy William Shatner (STAR TREK); dancer Gene Nelson (OKLAHOMA!); poet Victor Buono (BATMAN's King Tut); and gypsy Peter Lorre (THE RAVEN). Zimbalist does a nice job playing annoyance around all these eccentrics. Even though Huggins was no longer involved with 77, Zimbalist's Bailey has a bit of James Garner's Jim Rockford in him (Huggins co-created THE ROCKFORD FILES with Stephen J. Cannell).

Eventually, Bailey strikes up a friendship with the mysterious blonde who has been following him around (played by THE MINI-SKIRT MOB's Diane McBain), Rainier is found murdered, and Conte puts Bailey on the hook for it. Essex's plot becomes sprawling from here, sending Bailey to Italy, the Netherlands (where he meets with monk Telly Savalas), Paris, and finally Tel Aviv before ending his quest back where he started in the Big Apple.

Conrad goes in for a lot of tight closeups, which is likely a Webb influence. In fact, each episode opens in an arresting fashion with each of that week's guest stars introducing themselves to the audience in tight closeup. Essex hasn't quite enough story for five parts, so Conrad pads "The Conclusion" with Bailey flashing back to various plot points.

As enormously popular as 77 SUNSET STRIP was in its heyday, nothing lasts forever. Webb and Conrad's experiment was a flop with viewers, and ABC cancelled the series before it could finish its sixth season. Everyone made out okay though. Webb brought DRAGNET back to weekly television a few years later, Conrad produced and directed films and starred in CANNON for five seasons, and Zimbalist launched a nine-season run on ABC's THE FBI in 1965.

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