[21 March 2014]
When you pay for Probe’s services, you’re not only getting the agent of the week but also a passel of experts with their tiny cameras, microphones, and zirconium-shelled “audio implants”.
“The Coolest Spy-Fi Show You’ve Never Seen!” is how the package trumpets this on-demand DVD set from Warner Archive. That may or may not be true, depending on what you’ve seen, but this lost one-season wonder has indeed surfaced from the ether’s nether regions for us all to enjoy 40 years later.
Hailing from the 1972-73 TV season, Search is a globe-trotting adventure centered on an organization called Probe: a private high-class detective agency, or the world’s most expensive Lost and Found. A division of World Securities Corporation, Probe is hired by companies or governments to locate missing people or information. Sometimes these are scientists who have the formula for some semi-science-fictional McGuffin of earthshaking import, but more often it’s a perfectly mundane McGuffin.
When you pay for Probe’s services, you’re not only getting the agent of the week but the whole apparatus of Probe behind him. A passel of experts monitor the agent’s progress via tiny cameras and microphones, and communicate with him through zirconium-shelled “audio implants” or “earjacks” in the ear.
The human monitors wear white lab coats and sit in a red-tinted room of uncertain proportions, known as Probe Control. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to have walls. It looks like a corner of the brain inspired by the bridge in Star Trek, complete with multi-ethnic technicians working in harmony and addressed by surnames. They use fancy words like “online”. They sit at huge consoles and consult various screens while machinery beeps and reels of tape twirl.
They play videotapes of uncertain origin, then zoom in and freeze on details while a computer voice yammers details. Names and numbers appear onscreen in the same nearly unreadable computer-y font used for the opening titles amid color-clashing computer graphics. It’s all super-mod and too technical for ordinary mortals to understand. (I’d wondered if this voice was John Forsythe because it sounds similar, but a late episode shows the narrator onscreen reading his text, and it’s character actor Vernon Weddle.)
The “captain” calling the shots is Cameron, the only character who appears in all adventures. As played by Burgess Meredith, he sounds like Burgess Meredith, avuncular and cantankerous at once in his crackling tones, now twinkling, now bristling, always crouching beneath his cowlick except for later episodes where he’s used a comb. He explains the story not only to his agents but to the audience, bridging certain plot points where he can, and bleating like Jiminy Cricket or an exasperated duenna when his agent dallies too aggressively in swimming pools and discos and limosines with this week’s Foxy Lady.
A convention borrowed from The Wild Wild West via James Bond, the Foxy Lady may be good, bad, or indifferent, but she’s always a modern gal swayed by the hero’s charms and ready to reward him for an assignment well done. It must be the liberated ‘70s. Good times! For those keeping score, as it were, the guests who get busy with our heroes include Capucine, Stefanie Powers, Barbara Feldon, Mary Ann Mobley (frolicking poolside after her father is killed!), Jo Ann Pflug, Louise Sorel, and Ina Balin. Some spoilsport put the kibosh on this oversexed convention before the series’ halfway mark.
Shall we walk you through it? Let’s say the agent must go to some glamorous and exotic foreign locale to secure the magic whatzis. He watches a bunch of tapes in the control room, and then we see a flurry of shots with airplanes cruising the sky and the agent relaxing with stewardesses (not called flight attendants then), and then establishing shots of some famous landmark like the Eiffel Tower or Parliament, and then we’re on the backlots and California mountain roads familiar from other TV shows.
The handsome masculine agent, turtlenecked and sport-coated, wanders around smiling and holding up his camera-ring, unless he wears it on a flashy medallion (not called a necklace). Signs are printed in a foreign language, or he wishes to eavesdrop on a conversation, and a magic voice in his ear translates for him. Someone tries to trip up his feigned expertise with a trick question, and another expert supplies the right response in time. It’s like carrying around the Internet in your head!
There’s always a beautiful woman who specializes in “medical telemetry”. She not only monitors the agent’s vital signs, in order to inform the room when he’s knocked unconscious, but can even monitor the signs of other people via remote control. In the first episode, the camera zooms in on a corpse emerging from a waterlogged car, and she’s able to declare “Pulmonary resonance does not indicate death by drowning.” Who needs an autopsy? Unfortunately, the “pulmonary response” wasn’t detailed enough to reveal that the victim had been shot, but it’s still handy.
That’s not all. The writers come up with clever ways for the monitors to be helpful, or sometimes thwarted. They can use infrared and sonic scanning to pick locks or disarm bombs. They use microwaves to detect radioactivity. They use facial-recognition scans and comb rapidly through international data records as smoothly as any hackers, apparently with unlimited access. With the power to magnify sounds and images, the agent almost has what would soon be called “bionic” powers.
You can see why the premise of this show hasn’t dated, even if the plots and styles and bulky techno-furnishings have. This series could easily be remade today, since none of the gadgetry seems truly implausible. In fact, it kind of is remade today as another Warner Brothers production called Intelligence, and 20 years ago there was a short-lived series with a similar premise, Fortune Hunter. You can’t keep a good idea down.
One problem with Search is that despite the high concept, the basic plots are very much of their time, which means often ramshackle affairs evenly divided between expository dialogue and setpieces with much screeching of tires, swinging of fists, and random running and jumping to the sound of Dominic Frontiere’s pulsing, blasting music. Disposable polyester goons run around saying things like “It’s got to look like an accident!” When it’s time to shut it down, our hero cowboys it instead of waiting for help, and it ends with bad guys pointing guns at him and patiently explaining the last plot points until they get distracted. Cue another physical workout to more blasting music, and that’s a wrap.
Ironically, the worst scripts are often written by series creator and executive producer Leslie Stevens, who sets the tone in the first four episodes. For example, the premiere involves a racket for high-class gambling and political blackmail in which the surprising revelation of villainy isn’t surprising at all, but makes up for it by being senseless. That’s the story where the pulmonary response didn’t indicate drowning. One smart detail in that script is that Lockwood informs the villain that his actions are being broadcast and recorded. That revelation would take the wind out of most confrontations, and that must be why this tactic is never used again.
So we’re reminded that the standard for action fare on American TV wasn’t that high in 1972, scriptwise. Most stories relied on formulas conveyed with attractive players amid sleek and pretty designs. At least this is true for the first half of the season, but we’ll notice an improvement later, so hold that thought.
Stevens was an intelligent figure in the biz. A playwright as well as producer and director, his projects included The Outer Limits and the early episodes of It Takes a Thief. Here, you can see that his insights into the possibilities of high-tech spying and the power of information are solid, even brilliant, and this was created before Watergate. The pilot movie, Probe, aired in January 1972, and by the time the series premiered in the fall of the same year, “bugs” were all over the news. The pilot has previously been released by Warner Archive and reviewed on PopMatters, here.
Most importantly, the show’s ingenious premise creates a “doubling” quality such that even if this week’s search is mediocre, the self-conscious element is always fascinating. The Probe monitors are not only a shadow team in the background but even surrogates for the audience, and sometimes offer unsolicited punditry in the manner of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. This often comes in the form of snarky comments from the female monitors, who themselves may be the subject of inappropriate banter.
The series rotates the adventures of three agents who are virtually interchangeable, or at best exhibit minor distinctions. Hugh O’Brian plays Hugh Lockwood, a former astronaut code-named Probe One. Carried over from the pilot movie, Lockwood is the swingingest lady-killer, although it’s a close call. He’s always smirking under a bush of dark curly hair and bodacious sideburns. He’s furry chestwise, too, and shows it often enough, as do the other Probes.
Tony Franciosa, who previously worked with Stevens on ‘60s TV series, The Name of the Game, plays Nick Bianco, sometimes called Omega Probe (because he’s the last?). He’s an ex-cop and therefore the swingingest fist-wise, Mike Hammer style, always ready to rough up some shmoe who gives him any lip. He’s got what we now call “street cred”, and his sideburns are more modest.
His most interesting of the early episodes is Don Balluck’s “Let Us Prey”, not because it’s the thousandth rip-off of The Most Dangerous Game (every adventure show did one), but because it demonstrates the flipside of being audio and visually monitored at all times. In order to hunt him, the villain (Albert Paulsen) lures him to a private island, takes his scanner, rewires his earjack, and turns him loose where his every step is observed. This is one of the episodes where Probe Control is out of contact for most of the show, because their presence was otherwise supernaturally convenient.
The Probe agent with the smallest cred is C.R. (for Christopher Robin) Grover, an easily distracted, smooth-chested, dirty blond California beach bum who at one point indicates special military training. His cases are the most played for laughs, or so we suppose by the mugging of Doug McClure, whose goofy double-takes get on at least one reviewer’s nerves. Although McClure was famous for TV’s The Virginian, he’d starred on an earlier high-tech crime show, Checkmate, a spiritual ancestor to Search.
The most amusing of his early outings is “A Honeymoon to Kill” with Luciana Paluzzi as an heiress and racing driver who steals his little yellow Stingray and hightails it for Luxembourg. It ends with a nice switch on the tradition of assuming he’ll get laid. This is one of four scripts by S.S. Schweitzer, who co-created the previous season’s cancelled Hal Holbrook drama, The Senator.
Meanwhile, back in Probe Control, Cameron is flanked by lovelies. Keach (Ginny Golden), a beautiful Anglo woman with big black hair, sits to Cameron’s right and consults computer records. On Cameron’s left is usually Murdock (Amy Jones) or some other equally blonde specialist in medical telemetry. Mary Cross shows up twice as June Wilson. On three episodes, it’s one Amy Love, as played by Cheryl Stoppelmoor, soon to change her name to Cheryl Ladd on her way to a gig as one of Charlie’s Angels.
Speaking of an Angel: In the premiere, Angel Tompkins occupies the telemetry chair as the inappropriately saucy Gloria Harding, whose leering dialogue implies she used feminine assets to get a promotion. She was never seen again until her second and final appearance in the 11th episode, “The Gold Machine”. Oddly, both episodes spotlight her as a regular in the opening credits, but it clearly didn’t work out. Those assets don’t always pay off, unless they were her ticket out of there.
That second adventure sends Gloria to help Lockwood in San Francisco after he loses his hearing, and she’s no help at all. It makes no sense that after he regains his ears, he stays saddled with her—literally so in the horseback segment, which at least isn’t as endless as the scenic helicopter segment. When she’s not shamelessly vamping him with kisses and suggestive comments, she’s uttering lines like “There’s nothing in woman’s lib that says a girl can’t be scared out of her britches.” That’s a mixed signal of the era’s sophistication, when pop culture was so giddy to announce people having sex that it crossed into today’s lawsuit territory.
This is a typically random Stevens script. There’s a bunch of caucasian actors being Chinese (“We’re not Chinese, we’re Eurasian”, announces one emphatically to explain the lousy makeup) and one clever cameo by Kurt Kazsnar as a bookseller with a map. By the way, in the telemetry chair for this episode is the only male to hold the spot, one Arthur Burrell (David Gilliam), who’d appeared in a previous episode as a full-fledged Probe who gets kidnapped in the field (“One of Our Probes Is Missing”, another Stevens special). He supposedly got promoted at the end of that one. It doesn’t look like it, unless he requested a desk job.
Returning to Probe Control: Sitting in what we might call Sulu’s chair is Kuroda (Byron Chung), a Japanese name played by a Chinese actor, and monitor of all trades. To his left is Griffin (Albert Popwell), a patrician African-American or possibly West Indian who translates all languages. To Kuroda’s right is one Hispanic or another, either Ramos (Tony De Costa) or the one billed as Carlos (Ron Castro)—although Cameron often calls him Valdez, so maybe we know his full name. Or maybe the old guy gets confused.
A funny thing happened at mid-season. The show got better. This isn’t unusual, since shows not only take time to find their stride, but disappointing ratings often lead to changes and sometimes a sense of going for broke. Many one-season wonders improve notably by the time it doesn’t make any difference, since nobody’s watching anymore.
In this case, Robert H. Justman (late of Star Trek and Then Came Bronson ) had been producer for 15 episodes, with Anthony Spinner as something called “executive story consultant”. Spinner was a longtime TV writer (including Checkmate ) whose production experience included The Invaders and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.. Suddenly Justman departed and Spinner got his chair, employing several writers and directors from his previous job at the short-lived Burt Reynolds cop show Dan August.
Under Spinner, Probe Control got a makeover and most of its monitors got the pink slip for the remaining eight episodes. The new white-walled area is now lit brightly so they can see what they’re doing. Cameron is still in charge, though now he sometimes shows up in the outside world, dressed in street clothes and looking uncomfortable. His old Control crew has been replaced by two people who handle all functions: Harris (Tom Hallick), a standardly attractive and youthful white guy, and Miss James (Pamela Jones), a standardly attractive and youthful black female with Afro. Extras try to look busy in the back, but they don’t count. (Two of the Justman shows with the old crew were held back and aired at the end of the season.)
Ford Rainey had occasionally appeared, usually on video screens, as Dr. Barnett, the gruff, bushy-browed CEO of World Securities. Under Spinner, Barnett was now played by lean, silver-haired Keith Andes, who seemed to have even less to do but at least showed up in person.
However, the most important change is with the scripts, not a one by Stevens. Jack Turley’s “The 24 Carat Hit” is directed by Barry Shear as a tense, gritty urban crime plot that seems dropped in from a random cop show, and not a great one, but it plays to Franciosa’s strengths. A guest Probe agent (Dane Clark) races against time and his bullet wound to save his kidnapped daughter (Annette O’Toole) amid a grim, downbeat atmosphere. This one throws in a stunt-cameo from Wally Cox as a preacher running a soup kitchen.
For the most part, Spinner has Franciosa specialize in domestic tales that often feature organized crime, since his character investigated the mob as part of New York’s Crime Commission. He travels to exotic Texas for one such trackdown (“The Mattson Papers” with prominent African-American roles, including Terry Carter and singer Nancy Wilson) and to Washington DC for political blackmail (“The Clayton Lewis Document”). That episode is most notable for glamorous guests Craig Stevens (Peter Gunn ), Julie Adams, and Rhonda Fleming.
Franciosa’s last episode is his best and a series highlight. “Ends of the Earth”, written by TV crime vet Robert C. Dennis and helmed by Ralph Senensky, is what the show should have been all the time: swanky and surprising, with a good story that doesn’t preclude the wildly far-fetched. This time Bianco gets out of the country and winds up in Tanzania. He adopts a fun, playful alter ego and infiltrates another expensive, well-run organization that provides an exclusive service. This one employs such dapper, style-conscious figures as Sebastian Cabot (who formerly ran Checkmate !) and Diana Muldaur. Also present is Jay Robinson, best remembered as Caligula in the Cinemascope epics The Robe and Demetrius and the Gladiators.
Surprisingly, Spinner only allotted O’Brian a single adventure. “Countdown to Panic”, from writer Judy Burns and director Jerry Jameson, is a race-against-the-clocker, this time a star-studded (for TV) variation of the classic movie Panic in the Streets, where an unstable person with a contagious virus is running about on a personal vendetta. Ed Nelson is the guy (an astronaut buddy of Lockwood’s), Anne Francis his frantic wife, Robert Webber the top-secret government hard-ass who wants to take everyone down, and Howard Duff the secretive scientist. This taps into the Vietnam/Watergate era’s paranoia about cover-ups and biological tests, but in the end it can’t quite go there. However, it concludes on the most downbeat note of any episode.
The Spinner regime treats McClure with respect. First he gets his classiest show yet in “Numbered for Death”, a gift from writer Schweitzer and director Allen Reisner. After he’s alerted by his cousin (Joanna Miles), who married an English peer (improbably played by Bert Convy), that her husband’s Swiss bank account has been compromised by a blackmailer, Grover flies to Zurich and confronts a well-cast list of suspects: Luther Adler, Peter Mark Richman, Whit Bissell, Ramon Bieri. As a bonus, Lauri Peters plays an entirely competent female Probe who also has interesting plot details. Aside from the requisite fistfights and car screeches, the story has real cleverness and so does its hero.
Alas, McClure’s next case is hands-down the silliest and most absurd, with the most worthless ingenue and most obvious villain. Feeling like a lost dossier for The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., “Goddess of Destruction” is the old chestnut about restoring the Indian Thuggee cult, with lots of peregrination about a golden statue of Kali. At least it’s consistent with the show’s attempts to find new directions, or old directions yet untaken (and rightly so).
But whoa! In a bit of creative whiplash, McClure next bags the Best Episode Ever, or at least a Very Special Episode. Curiously, he’s almost superfluous, since “Moment of Madness” belongs to Cameron. It opens with a careful, virtually wordless sequence of Cameron being kidnapped out of his office by a man who scales the building on a window-cleaner’s scaffold. Clearly World Securities’ own security leaves much to be desired, as we’d already learned in an early episode where a lunatic (Jeff Corey) who helped design the place tried to plant a device in the basement.
While Grover runs around with Cameron’s only relative, niece Virginia Carr (Brooke Bundy), Cameron proves capable of handling the situation even when locked in a cell with drive-you-crazy lights and sounds out of The Prisoner. All this gives the composer and director excuses to get freaky and psychedelic, and there’s another fine lengthy wordless sequence of detailed preparation on Cameron’s part.
Cameron’s captor (Patrick O’Neal) is a Korean war veteran and ex-POW, who’s been in the loony bin for years and blames Cameron, his former military trainer. He’s not exactly of the burgeoning Vietnam psycho-vets who would soon be all over TV, but he belongs to the strand by which Korea served as a psychic displacement for the ongoing Vietnam conflict. This type of character became a tiresome cliché while serving the hopeless symbolic burden of reflecting America’s ambiguous feelings of guilt, anger and sadness.
As cued by his casting, O’Neal’s is a patrician, civilized craziness, and Cameron is determined to help him and assuage his own conscience by giving him the reassurance and apology he never received. The finale is ham-handed (partly to give Grover something to do), but otherwise the show is solid, and incidentally conveys the bustling, far-reaching World Securities machine as basically helpless in the face of history’s personal shadows, which must be confronted by the isolated individual.
This episode is important to the show’s mythology because characters give the boss’ name as V.C. Cameron for the only time, and a printout seems to indicate his name is V.C.R. Cameron, which is now how he’s referred to on websites and the DVD packaging.
The script is by Richard Landau, a TV vet whose long, diverse credits include minor noirs, horror, the classic The Creeping Unknown, and John Wayne’s Back to Bataan. Director George McCowan, a subject for further research, came up in Canadian TV during the 60s and went back in the 80s to handle the entertaining Seeing Things, a comedy-adventure about a gabby psychic journalist. In between he did lots of U.S. TV, including some offbeat items, and the cult goodie Frogs.
Russ Mayberry is the primary director of a series that really ought to have a smoother style than it does. He showed more pizzazz in the pilot movie, but then pilots have bigger budgets. Other directors, besides those already mentioned, are Philip Leacock, William Wiard, Marc Daniels, Nicholas Colasanto, Robert L. Friend, Joseph Pevney, Paul Stanley, and Michael Caffey. Additional writers are Irving Pearlberg, Norman Hudis, Brad Radnitz, Michael R. Stein, John Strong, and Lou Shaw.
As the reader has noticed, episodes are populated by a phalanx of notable guests, some of them familiar from other spy antics. Among those we haven’t mentioned are Maurice Evans, David White, Allen Garfield, Milton Selzer, Larry Linville, Ann Prentiss, Leslie Charleson, Torin Thatcher, Martin Kosleck, Mary Frann, Edward Mulhare, James Gregory, Abraham Sofaer, Malachi Throne, Logan Ramsey, Bill Bixby, Deanna Lund, G.D. Spradlin, Linda Cristal, Joanna Cameron, Hurd Hatfield, Mark Lenard, Diana Hyland, Antoinette Bower, George Coulouris, William Smith, Michael Conrad, Nehemiah Persoff, George Murdock, Anitra Ford, Ahna Capri, Anjanette Comer, Alfred Ryder, John Vernon, Reggie Nalder, Cameron Mitchell, Tim O’Connor, John Kerr, Jeff Morrow, James Sikking, Mel Ferrer, Dabney Coleman, Paul Mantee, Byron Morrow, and Michael Pataki.
Michael Barrett is a San Antonio-based freelance writer who tries not to leave the house. He has degrees from Trinity University in San Antonio and University of California at Davis. He watches one film a day. In addition to his features and reviews on PopMatters, see also his PopMatters column, Canon Fodder. Since the early '90s he has written a monthly video column for the San Antonio Express-News, and his national publications include Library Journal and the Chicago-based Nostalgia Digest.