Television

Prime Time Larceny: It Takes a Thief

Al Mundy (Robert Wagner) enjoys a reputation as a world-class thief, a glamorous burglar, a pickpocket's pickpocket. Too bad he landed in prison.

Trumping Reason

Still, the lighter larks with wackier guests tend to be produced by Gene L. Coon, fresh from a distinguished run on Star Trek. His episodes include the one where Mundy spends the whole show crossing paths with a competitive former colleague (Bill Bixby) who complicates the assignment, the one with Suzanne Pleshette as an opera diva (!) and Harvey Lembeck as her effeminate hairdresser-cum-assassin (!!), and the one where Lynda Day (before she was Lynda Day George) is a dizzy jet-set kleptomaniac who lifts a crown jewel that Mundy must surreptitiously return.

It was Coon who got Larson onto the show as a writer and story editor, his first regular role in the medium he'd been trying to break into while touring as a member of The Four Preps. Larson was on his way to being a major force at Universal TV in the '70s and '80s. His scripts are marked by a decided unpredictability, which he clearly values more than credibility or any overwhelming compulsion to seal every plot hole.

His episodes are looser in several meanings of the term, and at best, their ability to amuse and distract the viewer trumps our sense of reason. A perfect example is his first script, "Birds of a Feather". It begins with Mundy disguising himself as a military officer to sneak into a prison in some Eastern European hellhole to rendezvous with an inmate (Strother Martin) with a microdot in his tooth, then shifts direction until he breaks into an embassy in Washington DC and drops a ring down the sink, later to return as the plumber with a carrier pigeon. This is a ramshackle farrago of elements when you think about it, but you don't think about it because you have no idea what's coming next. You sense Larson trying to surprise himself in order to surprise the viewer.

Season Two: What to Do

Gordon Oliver took over as executive producer of Season Two. He was a veteran of the Blake Edwards series Peter Gunn and Mr. Lucky, which are essentially the origin of TV's love affair with dashing, well-dressed heroes at ease mingling with the demi-monde or drinking cocktails in jazz clubs. He must have understood the joie de vivre and savoir faire and je ne sais quoi of such a tone, and he let Coon produce most of the season. Coon gets a few episodes off for good behavior thanks to pinch-hitting from producer-writer Mort Zarcoff (normally the associate producer) and prominent TV action director Leonard Horn (Mission: Impossible, Mannix) in his only stint as a series producer.

The first thing Coon and Oliver did was establish Mundy in a ritzy Washington DC apartment -- at the Watergate! Too bad he didn't masquerade as a plumber in these episodes. The old mansion with the cameras is only seen in a couple of early episodes apparently left over from the Price era. Mundy now has almost complete freedom and steps out on dates. Isn't it ironic that he lost the 24-hour surveillance when he moved into the Watergate?

Larson got his next big break with the 13th episode of the season, "Guess Who's Coming to Rio", his first effort as producer as well as writer. Mundy is on vacation far from Noah when he stumbles into a world of cross-purposes and redundant assassination plots. Showing his personality, Larson throws in comic support from Terri Garr and a pair of fellows who imitate Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre for no reason but a wink and a nod. (The Greenstreet clone is called Demetrius in reference to the film The Mask of Dimitrios.)

This episode introduces an even angrier boss than Noah, the tall and shiny William Dover (John Russell, who looks a bit like Jack Palance); he returned several times in Season Three. Larson also brings back Garr's character, Maggie Philbin, once more in Season Three. He likes to keep track of his details and recycle them as part of the show's world.

Something interesting happens after Coon's finalé as producer, a comic but imploding and protracted two-parter that takes place behind the scenes at a movie studio where Joey Heatherton plays a talent-free starlet while future Brady Bunch boy Barry Williams plays her genius brother. That was directed by Hollywood veteran Jack Arnold, who made great science fiction films in the '50s. He must have liked the show and the feeling must have been mutual, because he takes over as executive producer for the last third of the season under now full-time producer-writer Larson (and a few by Zarcoff), and the show hits its stride. There will be good shows later, but it will never again be so consistently good as this string of episodes.

The first Arnold/Larson outing is "Catspaw", the aforementioned plot with Lamas, the moat, and the tiger. Then comes an unusually tight Larson script that still lets him juggle the plates. "Boom at the Top" unrolls virtually in real time. The dialogue references the series' title as Mundy throws a party for DC bigwigs in order to snare a pickpocket. There turn out to be two independent thieves working the room (Carol Lynley and Roddy McDowall) but the real zing is provided by a courier (Barry Sullivan) who crashes the affair handcuffed to a suitcase that will explode in less than an hour -- the same time the show will end! Mundy's navigating of these elements builds absorbing suspense and creates one of the most memorable hours so far.

A Zarcoff episode, "Rock-Bye, Bye, Baby" emphasizes the unpredictability of character as plot motivation. Mundy recruits an alcoholic old-time thief (Edmond O'Brien), who promptly screws up the mission so that Mundy must manipulate the dumb goon (Gavin MacLeod) who wants to kill them all. This is a good example of how the show, at its best, keeps viewers guessing about how a caper can be pulled off as it becomes increasingly impossible. Like a cat burglar dangling from a skylight, the show seems to operate without a net or a formula-plot guidebook during episodes like this. Look for Sterling Holloway in a cameo as the shop owner who keeps piranha.

The high mark is "The Great Chess Gambit". It's not only a strong example of a Larson production (co-written with Bruce Belland) but, possibly because of director Jeannot Szwarc, has a tone, visual sense and rhythm that resembles nothing in the show before or later. The cuts between scenes occur on rhyming bits of dialogue or visual motifs that emphasize the gamesmanlike theme; in the pre-credits sequence, three separate scenes are connected by footage of a football game whose announcer seems to be calling the plays on the action. This juggling feels almost radical for TV and is reminiscent of a Richard Lester movie. Nehemiah Persoff (unusually restrained, with an upper class accent) and Stuart Margolin (seething) are outstanding as Russian colleagues. If you see only one episode, perhaps it should be this one.

Szwarc would direct a couple more episodes in the final season. They have a few minor flourishes but nothing so structural. He established himself solidly as a stylish TV director, doing good work on Night Gallery and Kojak, before floundering on the big screen with a few bombs (Jaws 2, Supergirl, Santa Claus: The Movie) and one possible classic, Somewhere in Time.

TV understandably doesn't emphasize directorial style but rather a generic "house style", which in the case of this series was laid by its most prolific director, Don Weis. He'd had a brief reputation for light, colorful fare when he worked at MGM in the '50s. He found his career in TV, where critics Christopher Wicking and Tise Vahimagi in The American Vein praise him as one of the most professional and distinctive in shaping a series.

Season Three: Over and Out

The third and last season brought great changes, the most decisive being cancellation. It remained under the Arnold/Larson regime at first, and production values were higher than ever thanks to location filming in Europe for several episodes. The first two seasons had been set all over the world while being shot all over Los Angeles. It had been the same with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Mission: Impossible, of course; that was TV's cheapness. I Spy raised the bar in terms of international location filming, so it was nice when this show stopped faking it (although some episodes still faked it).

Noah was gone; Throne left the series because they wouldn't bring him to Europe. He was replaced by a rotating circus of angry superiors, usually Wally Powers (Edward Binns), sometimes chubby bulldog Fred Devon (George Murdock), the aforementioned Dover and a few others. Joseph Cotten makes a few appearances as Mr. Jack, head of the SIA, with nobody remembering that he'd played an East German spymaster in a two-parter the previous season; that's a heck of a defection. Only Powers gets mentioned in the standard reference books.

There are fans who think the show lost something when Throne left, and apparently Throne thought so. Certainly the bosses are dull characters, but Noah had always been a downer, a nagging chaperone and near-bully who kept harshing Mundy's buzz. His rulebook persona had a sly aspect, as he was the kind who could be flexible or tolerant with admitting it. I'm not sure the show needed his ballast, although his absence might make the show's inherent inconsistencies more obvious.

Still, the show feels much freer without Mundy's keeper, and it's partly because Season Three kept exploring ways to drop its hero into alternate formulas and fresh variations. This is especially true during the latter half, when Paul Mason came aboard as primary producer and Larson became almost a special guest.

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