Frank Converse as Michael Alden

Through the Fog of TV Amnesia: Remembering The Briefly Lived ‘Coronet Blue’

Coronet Blue seems to be TV's earliest incarnation of the amnesiac hero, and moreover the amnesiac spy.

A tall, blond, blue-eyed handsome young man skulks cautiously through the the halls of a luxury liner when a man he knows addresses him as Gigot (though it sounds like Chico) and says Margaret is waiting to see him on deck. The elegant Margaret, wrapped in furs and pearls and shades like mid-period Liz Taylor, says, “We know what you’re doing. You’re not really in this with us. You’ve been pretending all along.” Then her two henchmen beat him senseless, take his wallet and ring, and toss him overboard into the drink.

He manages to crawl up a ladder to a dock and chokes out the phrase “coronet blue” to the cop and ambulance driver who attend him. After a couple of weeks under a shrink’s care in hospital, he’s still unable to recall his name or anything of his life. He fabricates a new handle, Michael Alden, by combining his shrink’s first name with the name of the hospital. All he knows is the strange phrase and the fact that strangers want to kill him, so he goes forth into the world armed with only his ignorance and the gift for efficient violence he discovers when attacked, which is often. This is a world where secret agents only believe in attacking people in highly public areas.

Mike (played by Frank Converse) promptly lands a job working at “The Searching i”, a Greenwich Village coffee house decorated with eyes and filled with youngsters doing the frug to tunes on the jukebox. The title is evidently intended to remind us of the San Francisco cafe, “The Hungry i”; the dialogue keeps threatening to send Mike to San Francisco for various reasons but it never happens. In the end, we hear rumors about how much Mike travels but the show only rarely leaves Manhattan. The cafe is run by the bespectacled and generous Max Spier (Joe Silver), who cuts his frequently vanishing employee way too much slack.

Illustrious stage actor Brian Bedford appears four times as Anthony, a clownish sidekick who’s always picking up new girlfriends, perhaps because he’s more interested in hanging around Mike. He’s first seen as a novitiate monk who decides to throw off his robe when he recognizes Mike as the model for his church’s stained glass picture of St. Anthony. That’s a plot point reminiscent of Douglas Sirk’s A Scandal in Paris. His real name is Peter, but he keeps his new name in a strange parallel to his new buddy.

Larry Cohen created this series between Branded, starring Chuck Connors as a man wandering the West to clear his bad name when nobody believes him, and The Invaders, starring Roy Thinnes as a man wandering the country to prove aliens have landed when nobody believes him. You may sense a motif.

Sixties TV was crowded with loners. You couldn’t swing a hepcat without hitting another wandering hero running from someone or chasing someone or trying to find himself or all of the above. It was the era of The Fugitive and Route 66. Amid all these restless travelers, Coronet Blue seems to be TV’s earliest incarnation of the amnesiac hero, and moreover the amnesiac spy. That trope would become common after Alias, yet here it is 35 years earlier. How’s that for trendspotting?

Cohen had a keen sense of sociopolitical subtext in his melodramas of alienation and persecution. Coronet Blue expired before it could reveal its hero’s secrets, but Cohen has explained in interviews, like the brief one included as a bonus on this new DVD set, that Michael Alden was really a Russian sleeper agent who wanted to defect to America, and the members of his own cell, code-named Coronet Blue, left him for dead. He also expresses the opinion that the producers didn’t want to do a suspense series but a kind of anthology that “sunk down and became kind of flat”. Wikipedia quotes Cohen saying the series was inspired by “The Traitor”, an episode he wrote for The Defenders.

Our only hint of the Russian angle occurs in the premiere when someone randomly asks Mike if he’s heard of Yevtushenko and he spontaneously quotes a poem. Thus, it’s a Cold War story that makes the audacious choice of having its all-American hero be a Russian simulacrum, even though the audience never found it out.

This series has been something of a legend among TV cultists because of its unusual premise, because of the fond memories of those who saw it, and because it was gone in a blink of 13 weeks. According to Wikipedia, the 13 episodes were shot in 1965 and the schedule got delayed for two years, by which time Converse had moved on to a new series, N.Y.P.D., that premiered the week after Coronet Blue expired.

The series bears a passing similarity to Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner, another short-lived spy drama full of paranoia and fake-outs, and which is loved by many as one of the best shows ever. The legend of Coronet Blue has only been amplified by the fact that it’s been impossible to see. Unlike McGoohan’s series, it’s never been rerun or put on video outside of bootlegs. Further, it seems that only 11 episodes were originally aired, so this will be fans’ first chance to watch two of them.

Now that we’re finally blessed with a DVD of bright shiny prints with only minor flaws, we can see that, while it’s not as daring a mind-bender as The Prisoner, Coronet Blue is a good, versatile, well-made show. Producer Edgar Lansbury (Angela’s brother) evidently wanted a protean series in which our wanderer finds himself in a variety of scenarios, genres, and tones. This makes the show inconsistent as well as unpredictable, and intriguing without always being completely satisfying. Executive producer Herbert Brodkin’s Plautus Productions, whose most illustrious series was The Defenders, handled this series from its New York studio.

The recurring element is the spy drama in which Michael Alden, often called “boy” or “kid”, periodically gets shot at in the street by guys in hats as he pursues tantalizing and elusive leads that provoke dreams and memories in gauzy slow-motion. His past is the show’s McGuffin, but it’s just as well when the show almost forgets about it and wanders into byways of character and plot that have little to do with solving the mystery. When it sticks too close to that backstory, as in the premiere, we have well-worn tropes like the doomed girlfriend who gets too close to our hero. Anyone who’d threaten to tie him down wouldn’t be long for this plot.

That said, this premiere has the sharpest dialogue, courtesy of Albert Ruben, and the most stylish direction, provided by Paul Bogart. He adopts a smooth, arty manner with transitions that pan invisibly from one scene to the next, while all the other episodes employ blunt and sometimes startling jumpcuts. The whole series is directed nicely with a mix of usually underplayed melodrama; attractive and colorful design; eye-catching outdoor locales; unobtrusive, graceful camera moves from prolific and illustrious cinematographer Andrew Laszlo; and flashes of expressionism from inside Mike’s mind.

The digressive episodes can be refreshing. For example, “Saturday” finds Mike spending the day in the park chatting with a boy (Doug Chapin) whose father has just died. Alvin Sargent’s script balances this human interlude with disorienting plot business, including scenes at a restaurant called The Ginger Man in apparent homage to J.P. Donleavy’s bawdy Irish novel. David Greene’s direction is especially good.

Robert Van Scoyk’s script for “The Rebels”, one of several episodes directed by Sam Wanamaker, is, fortunately, the only “relevant” or socially conscious outing, full of shrill yet vague speeches about campus protest as the situation is nuanced into an almost neutered ambiguity. But what a cast: Richard Kiley plays the concerned professor whose government-funded work allows him never to see any of the students in his cattle-call classes, while David Carradine, Jon Voight and Candice Bergen play the angry youngsters.

When ironically comparing the realities of campus life to late night movies, Carradine tosses off: “Fred Waring and half a hundred Pennsylvanians singing ‘Betty Co-Ed’ to Priscilla Lane while Jack Oakie warms up for the big game. Them were the days, buddy boy, the golden age of sis-boom-bah! Come on down to the sugar bowl, Harold Teen, and I’ll spring you to a rhubarb float.” That needed annotations at the time; at least today you can Google. Later he adds: “If there’s anything I do hate, it’s the kind of cookie cutter education that turns us all out in neat batches with raisins in our navels. I’m an individual with an individual appetite for learning. I don’t think of myself as part of a crowd, do you?”

Wanamaker also directed “Man Running”, scripted by Art Wallace as one of two episodes that comment on foreign affairs via fictional countries. This one is some kind of Caribbean island whose dictator reaches out to a dissident (Denholm Elliott) and his daughter (Juliet Mills). The episode introduces Joanie (Colleen Kelly), one of Max’s waitresses. She shows up a few more times, usually without lines or credit. This is also the only episode where Mike hangs out as house sitter in the well-appointed pad of a rich friend called Herbert, presumably an in-joke for Brodkin; otherwise, we have no idea where Mike is living.

One of the best episodes is the only openly comic one: “A Charade for Murder” directed by David Pressman and written by Andy Lewis, an Oscar nominee for Alan J. Pakula’s 1971 film Klute. The title is probably meant to evoke Stanley Donen’s Charade (1963), and the larkish plot crosses no less than three impostors. Anthony pretends to be Mike and gets mixed up with parodic characters played by Jack Cassidy and Brenda Vaccaro. This episode is Old Home Week, as it brings back the deadly Margaret (Bernice Massi) and her henchman Vincent (Robert Burr) from the first episode. They’re never seen again.

“The Presence of Evil” flirts with the supernatural as a supposedly demonic magician (Joseph Wiseman) exploits a clairvoyant assistant while his distraught wife (Viveca Lindfors) wrings her hands. With Wanamaker directing a script by Robert J. Crean, it’s one of those episodes that end in a bit of a fizzle as everyone just stops behaving in an overwrought manner. However, Anthony does get to make an in-joke reference to James Bond’s Doctor No, a character played by Wiseman.

Stanley R. Greenberg’s “Six Months to Mars”, directed by Greene, flirts with science fiction as Mike is drafted to an outer space project with psychological torture and fancy machinery. Dialogue suggests it should have been placed earlier in the series, and Wikipedia’s listing of episodes in production order confirms this. Patrick O’Neal and Alan Alda star, with Billy Dee Williams glimpsed as a tech who pushes buttons. Greenberg, a Defenders alumnus like Cohen, would cross officially into sci-fi with Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green (1973).

The last batch of episodes are increasingly heavy and irrelevant. Ruben’s “The Flip Side of Tommy Devon”, directed by Greene, is a none too credible music industry tale with Dick Clark, Sally Kellerman and Murray the K. More music is heard in Edward DeBlasio’s “Where You From and What You Done?”, directed by Wanamaker, with a waifish songster (Laura Devon) and an ominous pursuer (Vincent Gardenia), and the audience is ahead of our hero on this one.

The martial arts setting of “Tomoyo” provides the spectacle of young Daniel J. Travanti in dark glasses while Keye Luke utters lines like “The dangers you fear may be of your own making.” Greene directed, and writer Waldo Salt was on his way to Oscars for Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Coming Home (1978), with a nod for Serpico (1973). According to Wikipedia, these last two episodes were pre-empted and never aired.

Laurence Rosenthal’s score mixes jazzy and garage-rock idioms with spiky jabs of modernism when things get intense. As of the second episode, Lenny Welch performs an unprepossessing title song as if imitating Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man.” The opening and closing credits seem to use different mixes of the song, with the opening being muddier, unless it’s just the added sound effects. A few original folk and rock songs are dropped into other episodes.

We’ve mentioned the show’s attractive look, so let’s apply kudos to art director John Robert Lloyd, on the cusp of a busy theatrical career that included Midnight Cowboy. His sets frequently include good-looking modern art, which I presume is the work of “master scenic artist” Ben Kasazkow. Costume designer Joseph Fretwell III avails himself of fashion from Ohrbach’s; the woman are always styling and look just as great today.

Finally, among the reliable pleasures of shows from this era is the parade of guests. The series didn’t blow money on big names but mixed old reliables with up-and-comers. Among those we haven’t mentioned yet are Susan Hampshire, Donald Woods, Chester Morris, James Noble, Jon Cypher, Janet Margolin, Signe Hasso (as a woman who claims to be Mike’s mother and then throws herself at him), Edward Binns, Howard Vernon, Lynda Day (before she was Lynda Day George), Donald Moffett, Hal Holbrook, Phyllis Thaxter, Michael Walker, Mitchell Ryan, Roy Scheider, Bramwell Fletcher, Neva Patterson and Dennis Patrick.