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'Johnny Staccato': A Detective on the Downbeat

What this show lacks in credible beatniks it makes for in the jazz references.

The Holy Grail for Hepcats of TV Crime Continues...

After "Collector's Item" and "Solomon", Whitmore's third and final script is "A Nice Little Town", directed by actor Paul Henreid (Casablanca). It's the bleakest, angriest episode, a suburban tale about the murder of an alleged communist. It ends with tragedy, speechifying, and a total lack of wrap-up. It's the last of several episodes striking the minor motif of the legacy of the Korean War, of which Johnny is a veteran.

Another of these episodes, "The Return", is either a late addition to stories of returning-vet syndrome (the decorated soldier has been in an asylum for five years), or an early glimpse of the psycho-vet story that would really flourish after Vietnam. Today the theme would be called post-traumatic stress. Johnny talks to the guy about what nobody else understands. It's one of the episodes to give Johnny an implied doppelganger for the road not taken and the grace of God, etc. This strand reaches its culmination in "Double Feature", where Cassavetes guests on his own show as a hired killer, leading to merry mix-ups (an idea also used in M Squad).

The series is decorated with cartoon beatniks. "Man, you are so frantic, you're starting to panic. You know you're starting to bug me?" says Shad (Frank London), a shady cat who shows up in several episodes peddling information. One beatnik adventure, "The Poet's Touch", has fun with a poetry recital presided over by a goatee'd figure who vaguely resembles Allen Ginsberg. That episode is directed by a distinguished Hollywood vet, Robert Parrish. It's scripted by Robert Hector and Hollis Alpert, their only listing on IMDB. I don't know who Hector could be, but Alpert was a well-known writer who started the National Society of Film Critics in his living room, so it's interesting that he has one screen credit somewhere.

What the show lacks in credible beatniks, it makes up on the jazz references. Many guest characters are supposedly musicians on their way up or down, usually the latter. One is about a post-breakdown sax man who's supposedly playing lousy but his crowd doesn't notice. Another show has a down-and-out old-timer who dislikes new trends and opines "Oh, those bopsters. They flat their fifths. We drink ours."

The band at Waldo's has varying personnel. Credited early are trumpeter Pete Candoli (a later episode names his character Pete Millikan), second pianist Johnny Williams (yes, the Star Wars composer), guitarist Barney Kessel, drummer Shelly Manne, bassist Red Mitchell, and vibes player Red Norvo (though vibes aren't common on the show). Some of these seem steady throughout the series but others appear as well and, alas, the show stops crediting the musicians after the first four episodes.

About halfway through the run, the title changes from Staccato, with an opening that shows him playing piano amid a design of keys that looks like something created by Saul Bass, to Johnny Staccato with an opening where he runs down expressionistic stairways and alleys, firing his gun into the camera and breaking a window. The producers must have decided to brand the thing aggressively as an action-packed crime show instead of a music show. This is a noticeably violent series, by the way, from an era when brutality was common on TV; within a few years, violence on the tube would be investigated by Congress.

Although many of the strongest episodes are from this latter half, strong and weak episodes are scattered throughout. This show demonstrates that there are four kinds of ending in TV drama. Some endings resolve things happily and some are downbeat, but that makes no difference in value. The difference lies in whether the ending, no matter its tone, feels natural or forced. It's just as possible for a "serious" ending to be as contrived and phony as some happy endings. All four combinations are here: natural upbeat or downbeat, and contrived happy or downbeat. We've mentioned the best, so it's fair to call attention to the other types.

"An Angry Young Man" is an example of the contrived happy ending so familiar from TV shows, with its story of a misguided delinquent who's a trial to his cuddly immigrant parents. Those seeking gritty realism will roll their eyeballs at this one. However, the series finale, about another pair of adorable foreigners, is marred by an equally contrived and far-fetched grimness as nobody in Waldo's seems concerned about a gunfight in the street except for one character who foolishly rushes toward death for our gratuitous ending. Indeed, the whole shoot-out reminds us of network TV's bag for tired conventions in action shows. It's a pity; that episode's mixture of classical and jazz music had been going so well.

Johnny has several contacts on the police force. Seen most often is Sgt. Sullivan, called Sully (Garry Walberg), with a couple of episodes each assigned to Sgt. Lou Bacus (J. Pat O'Malley), Sgt. Sam Baker (Wally Brown), Sgt. Jack Thomas (Jimmy Joyce), and the unpleasant Sgt. Joe Gillen (Bert Freed).

The most regular character besides Waldo (Eduardo Ciannelli) is his bartender Dennis (Dennis Sallas), although he’s only credited once. Seen frequently is the buxom blonde hatcheck girl and sometime cigarette vendor, who’s called Hatcheck and never receives a credit. She has a certain arch look to her eye, as if mentally chewing gum. She’s not the same hatcheck girl as the first episode (who’s a little older) or the second (a brunette) but she appears the most often.

IMDB falsely claimed that the hatcheck in the first episode was an uncredited Monica Lewis. Lewis was a singer with quite a visible career; she wouldn't do a walk-on as an extra. In fact, she guests in an episode called "The List of Death", where she sings. It's not the same woman. To prove this, Monica Lewis, now in her late 80s, has a website from which she's selling her memoirs! I contacted her and she confirmed that she was only in the one episode and never played a hatcheck girl.

Meanwhile, there's a website called Classic Television Archives (CTVA) put together by fans who comb through old TV listings, including the UK and Canada. Guides sometimes listed actors who weren't billed on screen; the info came from the studio's publicity. At one time they listed a Jane Burgess as Hatcheck for a later episode ("The Only Witness"), but they no longer list any cast for this episode. If I hadn't chanced to copy that unofficial info a few years ago, I wouldn't have it now. But is it true?

According to IMDB, Burgess had a run of TV shots in the late '50s and early '60s with character names like "Blonde". More significantly, she had a small role as a cigarette girl named Sheila in a Twilight Zone called "The Prime Mover" with Buddy Ebsen. Popping that episode in the player, I declare that she looks for all the world like the same actress who plays Hatcheck in most of Staccato. I'm persuaded to my own satisfaction if I couldn't stake my Pulitzer on it. This is one reason why it's important for these old shows to be available. The standard reference books are still full of contradictions and omissions on shows that haven't been seen in decades.

Among the guests, besides those already mentioned, are Michael Landon (as a pop singer), Shirley Knight (a pregnant wife), Susan Oliver (a songbird), Dean Stockwell (an uptight young nut), Mary Tyler Moore (a beauty contestant), and Jack Weston (a department store Santa in the Xmas episode where Johnny wishes the viewers a merry Christmas). Other familiar faces include Robert Harris, Ruta Lee, Nick Cravat, John Hoyt, Nobu McCarthy, Vladimir Sokoloff, Lloyd Corrigan, Mike Kellin, Harry Guardino, Len Lesser, Walter Burke, Marc Lawrence, Nita Talbot, Norman Fell, Geraldine Brooks, Frank DeKova, John Marley, Paul Stewart, Maxine Stuart, Sig Ruman, Arthur Batanides, Vito Scotti, Bert Remsen, George Voskovec, and Celia Lovsky.

Other directors are Bernard Girard (of M Squad), Sidney Lanfield (ditto), Boris Sagal, Joseph Pevney, James Hogan, Richard Whorf, and Jeffrey Hayden. Additional writers are Richard Berg, Douglas Taylor, Sidney Michaels, Henry Kane, Gerald Orsini, Hal Biller, Austin Kalish, James Landis, Shirl Hendryx, Jameson Brewer, Shimon Wincelberg, Michael Fessier, and Sam Gilman.

The series was produced by Everett Chambers (later of Columbo) and executive producer William Frye, who moved on to Boris Karloff's Thriller. The main director of photography was Lionel Lindon, with various episodes shot by John F. Warren, Bud Thackery, Ray Cory, William F. Sickner, John L. Russell, Ray Rennahan, Benjamin H. Kline, Neal Beckner, and Irving Lippman--all M Squad alumni except Lippman (future DP of The Monkees). I feel compelled to mention all these people because their work contributes immeasurably to the show.

The three-disc box has no extras, but frankly, stumbling across all 29 episodes of this lost series in such excellent shape already feels like a big fat extra. Dig it, baby.

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