1974: The FBI’s ‘backdoor pilot’?

Mary Frann

Mary Frann

As The FBI concluded its ninth, and final, season, it appears QM Productions attempted a “backdoor pilot,” where an episode is intended to be the start of a new series.

The episode in question was the next-to-last new episode aired for the 1973-74 season, Confessions Of a Madman. Star Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and sidekick Shelly Novack are joined by a woman FBI agent played by Mary Frann, who years later would be Bob Newhart’s co-star on his Newhart series.

Background: The FBI didn’t include women agents until the ninth season, which was the second season made after the death of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Until the last season, women were depicted as FBI employees, occasionally venturing into the field to assist agents. But there weren’t actual women agents until the final season.

In the episode, three women students at an unnamed college at a Maryland college have been brutally attacked. Two have been killed but the most recent victim survived. Frann’s character was a student at the same college and, more importantly, was a member of the same sorority as the three earlier victims.

During much the episode, Frann has as much screen time as either Efrem Zimbalist Jr. or Shelly Novack. At the very least, the episode is a major departure for the series. Three suspects emerge. This being 1970s television, care is made to ensure the least obvious of the three candidates (Elliot Street, Daniel J. Travanti and Robert Pine) is the killer.

The episode was directed by Philip Abbott, who played Erskine’s boss, Assistant Director Arthur Ward, throughout the series. Abbott also played a mentally disturbed killer in a 1964 episode of Kraft Suspense Theater, Once Upon a Savage Night, that was directed by Robert Altman. Just speculation, but perhaps Abbott drew upon that earlier television show while directing The FBI episode.

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