Given a choice between a show-biz centered story featuring Simon Brimmer and centered around an Irving Berlin-type composer and a testosterone-laden “let’s hide the witness before he testifies against the mob boss” story, you think you’d know which episode I preferred. Well, you’d be wrong. Presenting the last truly great episode in the series! But first . . .
EPISODE NINETEEN: THE ADVENTURE OF THE TYRANT OF TIN PAN ALLEY
(Written by Robert Van Scoyk ; original airdate 3/7/76)
Age before beauty . . . There probably wouldn’t have been a Sinatra without Rudy Vallee. He was the first crooner that the girls screamed over, so much so that he often had to sing through a megaphone to be heard. He drove them crazy with wild hits like “The Whiffenpoof Song” although his voice was actually rather high and weak. I knew him first as J.B. Biggley, the President of World Wide Wickets, in the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying(“Groundhog!”) His adorable public persona as an older man gathered him credits in films and TV; rumor has it he wasn’t really such a nice guy . . .
Polly Bergen was kind of a brunette Doris Day, who had a long career in film and on TV romancing the likes of Dean Martin and James Garner. She played the first female president (although the title – Kisses for My President – might clue you in that this was no political thriller.) She did star in a terrific thriller, the original Cape Fear, opposite Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, and she was, for five years, a regular panelist on To Tell the Truth. (Note: Wikipedia lists Bergen’s appearance on Murder, She Wrote but not her role in EQ. This, in a nutshell, is what’s wrong with Wikipedia.)
Ken Berry is one of those actors who probably flew under the radar for most of you, but his career spanned the shifting entertainment interests of the late 20th century. He wanted to be a musical star like his idols, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, but he came on the scene when musicals were on the wane. His likable persona seemed to attract the interest of a lot of big stars: while in the army, his sergeant – a guy named Leonard Nimoy – told him he should head to Hollywood after the service and wrote letters of introduction. Arthur Godfrey signed him to appear on his show. In Las Vegas, he was asked by Andy Griffith to sing and dance between Griffith’s set and another by Jerry Van Dyke. (Berry would make several appearances as Alan Brady’s choreographer on Jerry Van Dyke’s brother’s show, my favorite sitcom of all time.) Eventually, Berry would work for Griffith again in the final episodes of the star’s own TV show, which led to Berry leading the ensemble in the spin-off, Mayberry R.F.D.. Bad timing again because, despite its popularity, the show fell victim to CBS’ “rural purge” of bucolic-set sitcoms.
Michael Callan was one of the last set of Hollywood contract players. Like so many before him, he attracted the film industry through his work on Broadway, where he originated the character of Riff in West Side Story. Columbia Studios would not release him to repeat the role for the film; instead, he sang and danced in Gidget Goes Hawaiian. One wonders if this is the kind of thing that separates the big stars from the little ones because Callan, who’s still with us, was always a charming, talented man.
For twenty years, Norman Fell worked and worked in hundreds of roles on the big and small screen. He was always a presence, even in a small part – like the Berkeley landlord who becomes instantly suspicious of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. And then, fame struck when he was cast as another landlord, Mr. Roper, on the smarmy sitcom Three’s Company, where his award-winning performance garnered him his own spin-off, The Ropers. To me, however, both shows were unbearable, so I like to think of Fell for all those less famous parts where he made a movie or TV show just a little bit better . . . like his appearance on Perry Mason.
Albert Salmi had the snobbery about movies and TV possessed by many of the stage performers who had studied with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. He starred in William Inge’s play Bus Stop but refused to repeat the role for film (opposite Monroe yet!) Eventually, he caved in and made over 150 filmed appearances before shooting his wife to death and killing himself at the age of 63.
Whenever Ellery needs to take a break, he comes on down to Charlie’s diner and hangs out with the fry cook, a budding musician named Dan Murphy (Brad David). On this particular evening, Danny is bursting with news: he has shown a new song to Alvin Winer (Vallee), one of Tin Pan Alley’s great songwriters, and Winer has said the song is great. As Danny starts to hum the tune for Ellery, a familiar strain plays out of the diner radio. It turns out that Winer is the special guest of DJ Buddy Parker (Berry), who is doing a retrospective on Winer’s career. The songwriter introduces this new tune as his own, which sends Danny into a fury, and he rushes out of the diner.
Danny bursts into the radio studio as the program is going on, interrupting the proceedings with threats against Alvin. The two men rush out of the studio, followed by Buddy, singer Gary Swift (Callan) and Winer’s song plugger Herb Morrow (Salmi), who all head in different directions. Left behind are Winer’s wife, Broadway musical star Dinah Carroll (Bergen) and her daughter Penny (Renne Jarrett). Winer is found sometime later in the record library. He is dead and is found clutching a record pulled from the stacks – the hit tune “Danny Boy.”
Inspector Queen figures this dying message points to the hapless fry cook and puts out an all points bulletin for Danny. Meanwhile, Ellery hunts for clues to prove that his friend is innocent.
It’s not that this is a bad episode. It’s just that, by the 19th script, the series feels stuck in a formula with minute variations. The characters are a pleasant lot and nicely performed by the cast, although it’s a crowded list, and Norman Fell is in it for a minute as Callan’s agent. This is also the last episode to feature Simon Brimmer, and he hits all his marks, from self-aggrandizement to the smug presentation of a wrong solution. It all just feels a little bit . . . tired.
I very much appreciate the truth behind the dying message, since I was all prepared to think this was a retread from “The Black Falcon.” However, I have to say that figuring this one out was perhaps the easiest time I’ve had since Episode One, not out of any cleverness on my part but because the clues leading to the killer are delivered in the script with the subtle finesse of a cascade of whipped cream pies. I’m serious! There are ways to present even the most obvious clues, and we’ve seen it handled much better on this very program. One fears someone was tired this week or just being lazy.
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EPISODE TWENTY: THE ADVENTURE OF CAESAR’S LAST SLEEP
(Teleplay by Rudolph Borchert, story by Michael Rhodes; original airdate 3/14/76)
Edward Laurence Albert, the son of comic actor Eddie Albert, was a sensitive performer. I remember him playing a blind man opposite Goldie Hawn in Butterflies Are Free. He never quite claimed leading man status but worked steadily until his early death from lung cancer.
I had to look up Michael Gazzo, who began as a playwright (A Hatful of Rain) and in his later years turned to acting. He was nominated for an Oscar for his work in The Godfather 2. Kevin Tighe has enough credits to merit a second page on Wikipedia, but all I know him from is Emergency, a show I . . . never watched.
Jan Murray was a golfing buddy of fellow comedians Jack Carter, Jerry Lewis and Joey Bishop. You might remember a couple of posts ago that I confessed I didn’t care for Carter’s shtick. Well, the same goes for Jan Murray, and if Lewis or Bishop had appeared in an episode of Ellery Queen, you might start to wonder if I had a prejudice against Borscht Belt child-men. I do.
Stuart Whitman emerges as the big star here. It took a while for his tough guy persona to find traction, but by the end of the 1950’s he was appearing in one film after another, usually wearing an army helmet or a cowboy hat. Hedda Hopper dubbed him “the new Clark Gable.” I wouldn’t go that far, but to his credit, neither would the affably modest Whitman. He guested on lots and lots of television but never managed to score larger than a recurring role. He was offered the roles of Mannix and Judd for the Defense, two shows I very much enjoyed, albeit with other actors playing the parts.
Special prosecutor Erwin Murphy (Whitman) calls a press conference to announce that he is declaring war on crime in New York City and intends to bring down the big bosses. He plans to accomplish this feat with the aid of a secret witness: Ralph Caesar (Murray), who works for mob boss Benny Franks (Gazzo). While Murphy has the strong support of the Police Commissioner and the loyal devotion of his assistant, Lee Marks (Albert), other people – Inspector Queen included – consider Murphy’s announcement a stunt in his big plan to run for governor.
At the same time as the press conference, Caesar’s wife Ruth (Elizabeth Lane) is visiting with her neighbor when there’s the sound of an explosion from the Caesars’ living room where Ralph had settled in to listen to the baseball game. The neighbor sees a man running from the house who is later identified as Jay Bonner, an assassin-for-hire (Timothy Agoglia Carey). What nobody knows is that the baseball game was rained out, and a disappointed Caesar went into the kitchen to fix himself a drink, thus saving his life.
On the recommendation of the Commissioner, Murphy pulls Inspector Queen off Homicide and assigns him the job of protecting Caesar until he can testify the following morning. The Inspector insist that he have two men assigned to him: Velie and another Detective-Sergeant, newcomer Jim Millay (Tighe). With great care, the three cops drive Caesar to a hotel set up by Marks, and they check him into Room 610 – unaware that Jay Bonner has followed the car and checked himself into Room 710, directly above Caesar.
Ruth Caesar brings a suitcase of clothes and sundries for her husband and then leaves with Inspector Queen, while the two detectives spend the night guarding their witness. Caesar, who is used to following a set routine, craves a meal but is unable to order anything to eat or drink. In desperation, he accepts a stick of chewing gum from Sergeant Millay and then locks himself in his bedroom. The next morning, when Inspector Queen comes to collect him, Caesar does not respond. The cops break down his bedroom door and find him lying in bed, dead by poison.
A furious Murphy investigates and learns that Velie’s brother-in-law owns a clamhouse that was funded by Benny Franks. Between this fact and Sergeant Millay’s gift of the gum to the dead man, suspicion falls back and forth between these two men, especially when a book about athletes that Caesar was clutching at his death opens to a page about a famous football guard. Thus, this case becomes a personal matter for the Inspector and his son. Can they figure out who killed the snitch, and how it was done?
I have one complaint, but other than that, this is a gripping episode. For one thing, it’s a showcase for David Wayne. I can’t say Tom Reese was much of an actor, but Wayne’s portrayal of his fierce loyalty to Velie is an object lesson in fine acting. And because Inspector Queen is both defending the honesty of two members of his force and trying to deal with his shame in letting Caesar die under his nose, it brings out Ellery’s fierce protectiveness of his father, making this episode the perfect example of Wayne and Hutton’s great chemistry.
This is also a locked room mystery in that it seems impossible for Caesar to have been poisoned. (The gum does contain brief traces of poison, making Millay the main suspect – except there is no earthly way he could have made sure Caesar chewed this stick.) And it contains a dying message that is resolved in an even more satisfactory way than the one in “The Tyrant of Tin Pan Alley.” (See spoilers.) The choice of culprit is fine because it’s easy to suspect everyone this time; nobody sticks out as an “impossible” killer.
The only problem? It’s one of those puzzles that gives you the one resounding clue about fifteen seconds before Ellery turns and challenges the audience – and that clue is not hidden at all. This is the second episode in a row where things are too easy, but at least this is in every other way a good episode. And since it’s David Wayne who gets the glimmer and is allowed to make the whole explanation at the end, I think I will subtitle this one – Inspector Queen’s Own Case.
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