Universal in the ’60s & ’70s: The Television Factory

 

Universal logo, circa 1960s

In the 1960s and ’70s, Universal’s television division was like a TV factory.

Its shows had a certain look, a certain sheen. Universal’s TV operation would help launch the careers of people such as director Steven Spielberg and writer-director Steven Bochco (who both worked on the same episode of Columbo).

Universal developed the concept of “the wheel,” where different shows rotated in the same time slow, or a series that had rotating leads. Examples: The NBC Mystery Movie (different rotating shows) and The Name of the Game (rotating leads).

Universal, of course, still produces television shows. It’s now part of Comcast as is NBC, where many Universal shows were telecast. But it’s not the same because, naturally, television has evolved. Still, it’s a worth a look back.

Origins: Music Corp. of America, or MCA, was a talent agency. But MCA saw the potential of television. It formed Revue in 1950 as a television production arm. It acquired the studio lot of Universal (then known as Universal-International) in 1958 and eventually acquired Universal itself.

Revue produced all sorts of shows: Westerns (Wagon Train and The Virginian), comedies (The Jack Benny Program, Leave It to Beaver, The Munsters), crime dramas (M Squad), and anthology shows such as Alfred Hitchock Presents (hosted by Hitch), Thriller (hosted by Boris Karloff) and The General Electric Theater (hosted by Ronald Reagan).

Eventually, all of its TV series were under the better-known Universal brand. The boss of MCA-Universal was Lew Wasserman, who became a major figure in Hollywood. Writers Richard Levinson and William Link, when devising the Mannix television series, came up with a character named Lew Wickersham (Joseph Campanella) who was modeled on Wasserman.

The Universal mogul apparently didn’t mind. After Campanella’s Wickersham character was written out after the first season of Mannix, the actor ended up as one of the leads on “The Lawyers” part of The Bold Ones, another Universal “wheel.”

Glory Days: Universal was a major supplier of shows for U.S. television. As early as 1964, it embraced the idea of made-for-television movies. Its first effort, The Killers, directed by Don Siegel, was deemed too violent and got a theatrical release.

One of the early TV movies was 1966’s Fame is the Name of the Game, starring Tony Franciosa as an investigative reporter for a magazine.

This would be the basis for The Name of the Game (1968-71), an early example of “the wheel.” Franciosa, Robert Stack and Gene Barry rotated as the leads of the series, which concerned the magazine empire headed by Glenn Howard (Barry).

A key figure at Universal television, who is not remembered much today, was Richard Irving (1917-1990), a producer-director. He oversaw a Universal Western series (Laredo), which aired on NBC from 1967 to 1967.

Irving also produced and directed the 1968 television movie Prescription: Murder, where TV audiences were first introduced to Lt. Columbo (Peter Falk). The same year, he produced and directed a TV movie with international intrigue titled Istanbul Express, starring Barry, Senta Berger and John Saxon.

Irving remained a booster of Columbo. He directed another TV movie with the detective, 1971’s Ransom for a Dead Man, which finally sold Columbo as a series.

The Universal TV operation cruised throughout the ’70s. In the early 1980s, it had another hit with Magnum: P.I. But things got tougher that decade. Universal excelled at one-hour dramas and TV movies at a time things were changing.

In 1990, MCA sold itself to Japan’s  Matsushita Electric. It would be bought and sold over the years before being acquired by Comcast.

2017: Spielberg’s future arrives

Title card for The Name of the Game episode LA 2017

Title card for The Name of the Game episode LA 2017

Some time back, the blog examined the television series The Name of the Game, about a publishing empire.

It’s now appropriate to take a look at the show’s most unusual episode:  LA 2017, a dystopian tale about, what seemed in 1971, a far-off year in the future.

It was also one of the early directing credits for Steven Spielberg. LA 2017 originally aired Jan. 15, 1971, less than a month after the director’s 24th birthday.

The Name of the Game tackled current events as experienced by key personnel at Howard Publications, headed by Glenn Howard (Gene Barry).

For LA 2017, the production team decided to address the environment — but in a way the series hadn’t previously attempted.

Producer Dean Hargrove commissioned a script by science fiction writer Philip Wylie. As the episode begins, Glenn Howard is driving in Southern California. The publisher is planning a campaign across his magazines to highlight environmental issues.

As Howard drives, he uses a tape recorder to dictate a letter to the president. “Priorities have to be established or this may very well be the beginning of the end for Earth as we know it,” he says.

Howard has an accident, and ends up in a ditch. He also, seemingly, is now in 2017. An ecological disaster has forced people to live underground. National governments have been replaced by corporate ones.

Despite being a CEO, Glenn Howard doesn’t like what he sees and sides with those resisting the corporate order. The episode eventually ends with it being revealed that it (probably) was a dream. Spielberg’s last shot is of a dead bird. presumably not to let the audience off too easily.

The episode’s title card, primary actors and the writer, producer and director credits are in a font used a lot at that time because it seemed futuristic.

Wylie turned the story into a novel, Los Angeles: A.D. 2017. He died late in 1971 at the age of 69. Spielberg’s career, meanwhile, was still gearing up.

Frank D. Gilroy dies, playwright created Burke’s Law

The cast of

The cast of “Who Killed Julie Greer?” including Dick Powell as Amos Burke, first row, right

Frank D. Gilroy, a distinguished playwright, has died at 89, according to obituaries published in THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER, THE NEW YORK TIMES and THE WRAP.

Gilroy won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1964 play The Subject was Roses. Prior to that work, he did a teleplay that brought to life a TV character of note.

It was Gilroy who created the character of millionaire police detective Amos Burke, who made his debut in the first episode of The Dick Powell Theatre, Who Killed Julie Greer?

In that 1961 episode, Powell himself played Amos Burke, who proceeded to the crime scene in a chauffeur-driven limousine. The show has a brief exchange between a police sergeant and a reporter (Alvy Moore).

The reporter asks how Burke had become rich. “The smart way,” the sergeant replies, “he was born with it.” The sergeant informs the reporter that Burke started as a rookie cop and worked his way up to being the top detective on the police force.

“You mean he loves crime that much?” the reporter asks.

“Crime in general, murder in particular,” the sergeant replies.

Two years later, after Powell’s death, the concept was picked up as a series, Burke’s Law. This time, Gene Barry played Burke. After two seasons, the show got a major makeover, turning Burke into a secret agent. The series was renamed Amos Burke, Secret Agent. It was canceled midway during the 1965-66 season.

Throughout the series, Gilroy got a credit during the end titles that the show was “based on characters created by” the playwright.

Who Killed Julie Greer? included a lot of snappy dialogue, something that carried over to the series. For Gilroy, Amos Burke wasn’t the main highlight of his resume, but Burke still has his fans today.

Gone (and mostly forgotten): The Name of the Game

Robert Stack, Gene Barry and Franciosa in a publicity still for The Name of the Game

Robert Stack, Gene Barry and Tony Franciosa in a publicity still for The Name of the Game

Over the weekend, on a Facebook group, there interesting give and take about a television series that doesn’t get much attention these days: The Name of the Game.

The 1968-71 series consisted of 90-minute episodes dealing with three major figures at a magazine publishing company: its proprietor, Glenn Howard (Gene Barry); a top reporter/writer, Jeff Dillon (Tony Franciosa); and Dan Farrell, an FBI agent turned journalist (Robert Stack). Universal dubbed this the “wheel,” with rotating leads. Susan St. James as Peggy Maxwell would end up assisting all three.

The “wheel” concept would become a staple at Universal with the NBC Mystery Movie in the 1970s.

There’s a bit of spy connection. During the series, there was an episode that revealed Glenn Howard worked for the OSS during World War II. The episode concerned accusations by a Washington politician that Howard used an OSS operation to obtain the funds he’d use to start his publishing empire.

Essentially, Glenn Howard was a younger, handsomer version of Henry Luce (1898-1967), who founded Time, Life, Fortune and Sports llustrated. Like Luce, Glenn Howard was an influential man and traveled the globe.

The series had its origins with Fame Is the Name of the Game, a 1966 TV movie starring Franciosa as Jeff Dillon.

That TV movie also included George Macready as Glenn Howard, Dillon’s boss. But when NBC decided on a series, either Universal, NBC, or both, decided they needed a better known actor. As a result, Gene Barry, who had already done at least two Universal TV movies by this point, got the nod.

The Name of the Game attempted to deal with contemporary issues: the environment, race relations, corruption.

Over time, the 90-minute format fell out of favor for television syndication. The preferred formats are either 30 or 60 minutes or two hours. As a result, The Name of the Game is not seen very much these days. The show ran 76 episodes — hardly a flop, but syndicators usually prefer at least 100 episodes.

Nevertheless, a number of talented people worked on the show. Among them was Steven Spielberg, who directed a third-season Glenn Howard episode about environmental dangers. That episode, LA 2017, has a Twilight Zone quality. Did Howard really travel into the future or what it just a dream?

Other crew members included Norman Lloyd (producer of some Franciosa episodes), Dean Hargrove (a writer-producer who worked on Glenn Howard episodes), Steven Bochco (who was story editor for the Robert Stack episodes the last two seasons) and Leslie Stevens, creator of The Outer Limits who produced the first-season Franciosa episodes.

The show also featured a snappy theme by Dave Grusin, seen below:

Gene Barry dies at age 90

Gene Barry passed away Dec. 9, according to an Associated Press story carried on The New York Times Web site.

In February, we had a post that discussed how his Burke’s Law series was abruptly changed into Amos Burke, Secret Agent in the fall of 1965. Barry often cut a dashing figure in multiple TV series as well as starring in the 1953 version of The War Of The Worlds. He’ll be missed.

UPDATE: Here’s the conclusion and end titles of an episode of Amos Burke, Secret Agent:

1965: Amos Burke (abruptly) becomes a secret agent

The fall of 1965 was quite a time for television spy shows. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. on NBC was entering its second (and most highly rated) season, with the network adding I Spy to its schedule. And, over on CBS, The Wild, Wild West was about to mix spies with cowboys.

ABC didn’t want to be left behind. But it made the most unusual move of the three networks. Instead of commissioning a new show, it opted to revamp Burke’s Law, an escapist show about a millionaire policeman, into Amos Burke, Secret Agent.

The show had its origins as an episode of the anthlogy program The Dick Powell Show, where its namesake host portrayed Amos Burke, an ace police detective. The series debuted in 1963, with Gene Barry cast as Burke, going to crime scenes in a Rolls Royce limousine. Burke’s Law also featured a lot of guest stars, including former movie stars. It was a formula that the show’s producer, Aaron Spelling, would re-use in other series.

With the new format, Barry remained (as did a faster tempo version of the show’s theme music by Herschel Burke Gilbert) but little else. Suddenly, Burke was reporting to a mysterious chief known only as “The Man” (Carl Benton Reid).

The move didn’t work. Amos Burke, Secret Agent got canceled in early January 1966. However, if you want to get a sense of what the revamped show looked like, a compilation of clips from an episode is below.