77 Sunset Strip’s experiment with film noir for TV

A cast shot of 77 Sunset Strip. All except Efrem Zimbalist Jr., would be gone for the sixth season.

77 Sunset Strip is one of those shows that, despite being popular in its time, doesn’t strike a chord with a lot of people today. It was one of Warner Bros.’s first hits on television and spawned three similar detective shows (Bourbon Street Beat, Hawaiian Eye and Surfside 6). Even more obscure is 77’s final season, which did a drastic makeover and began with an experiment of producing film noir for television.

William Conrad, producer-director of “5.”

A new producing team of Jack Webb (yes, that Jack Webb) and William Conrad (yes, that William Conrad) fired the entire cast except for star Efrem Zimbalist Jr. The actor’s Stuart Bailey character was now a hard-boiled, lone wolf private eye worried about paying his rent. The catchy Mack David-Jerry Livingston song was gone as well, replaced by an instrumental by Bob Thompson.

To kick off the new format, Webb and Conrad began with a five-part episode simply titled “5,” written by Harry Essex and directed by Conrad. The producer-director also made a cameo toward the end of the conclusion.

The show enlisted a large roster of guest stars. Some were key characters in the story, others eccentric cameo roles. The group included two actors who either had or would play James Bond villains (Peter Lorre and Telly Savalas) and others who’d play villains on the ABC Batman show (Burgess Meredith, Cesar Romero, Walter Slezak and Victor Buono). And being a 1960s event, of a sort, it wouldn’t be complete without William Shatner in the mix.

Anyway, “5” recent showed up online (but unofficially). It comes across as very ambitious for its time with some attempts at innovation but with some flaws as well.

Positives: At the end of part I, Bailey is caught off guard by an attack by a thug and rolls down a stairway. Conrad and his crew came up with some kind of rig so the camera in a point-of-view shot seems spin, matching the PI’s fall. Also, there’s some pretty good tough-guy PI dialogue. (“Did I hit a nerve?” asks New York City detective played by Richard Conte. “You couldn’t find one in a dental college,” Bailey replies.)

Negatives: At the start of the final part, the story runs out of a gas a bit and there’s a long recap of the first four installments. Also, it seems improbable that Bailey would lug a big 1963 tape recorder around. The tape recorder is merely a device to justify first-person narration by Zimbalist. It might have been better to just go with the narration and not worry about the recorder.

In any case, “5” nor the new format was a commercial success. Only 20 episodes were made at a time 30 or more episodes made up a full season. ABC showed reruns from previous seasons to fill out the 1963-64 season according to the show’s entry in Wikipedia.

Still, “5” was an interesting experiment and fans of film noir ought to check it out as Stuart Bailey travels from Los Angeles to New York to Europe to Israel and back to New York on the marathon case. We’ve embedded part one below. If interested, you can also go to PART TWO, PART THREE, PART FOUR and THE CONCLUSION. Warning: you never know who long these things will stay on YouTube.

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5 Responses

  1. I was born in 1960 and vaguely remember seeing re-runs of this show. My mother was a huge fan and even named me after the main character Stuart Bailey.

  2. Wow, I haven’t thought of this show in a very long time. I’m old enough to have watched it when it first aired. Alas, all I remember is the theme song with the finger snaps and Kookie and his comb. This will be fun to watch. Thanks for letting us know about it.

  3. […] first five seasons included a snappy theme song and a mostly lighter take on the proceedings. The sixth, and final, season had a drastic makeover where Zimbalist was the only cast member […]

  4. I love what you guys are up to. Such clever
    work and coverage! Keep up the great works guys I’ve added you guys to
    my blogroll.

  5. […] Sunset Strip: The show’s final season (1963-64) began with a *five*-part episode, simply titled “5.” Jack Webb, who had taken command of Warner Bros. television unit, ordered up a major revamp of the […]

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