Fidelity-Bravery-Integrity: The FBI’s 50th anniversary

Efrem Zimbalist Jr. in a first-season episode of The FBI

Efrem Zimbalist Jr. in a first-season episode of The FBI

The FBI, which celebrates its 50th anniversary on Sept. 19, was an idealized version of the real-life U.S. agency that symbolized the motto “fidelity, bravery, integrity.”

The series would go on to be the longest-running show for producer Quinn Martin. To do so, it would face challenges not faced by most television series.

According to the 2003 book Quinn Martin, Producer, the QM FBI endured a lot of scrutiny by its real-life counterpart.

Among those who underwent FBI background checks were star Efrem Zimbalist Jr.; William A. Graham, director of its first episodes (who served in U.S. Naval intelligence in World War II); Hank Simms, another World War II veteran and announcer for the show’s main titles; and Howard Alston, a production manager for the series.

What’s more, the bureau had veto power over guest stars, which cost The FBI the services of Bette Davis, a fan of the show.

Initially, the show emphasized the personal side of Zimbalist’s Inspector Lewis Erskine. He was a widower (his wife perished during an attack intended for Erskine) with a daughter in college. That fell off, in part because of audience reaction.

Quinn Martin & Co. quickly shifted to providing more detailed back stories for villains and other characters (not subject to the same scrutiny from the bureau), giving guest stars the chance to well-rounded characters.

It also helped that Martin paid about twice the going rate at the time for guest star roles ($5,000  versus the normal $2,500 for an one-hour episode).  Actors such as Charles Bronson (primarily a movie actor by 1966), Louis Jourdan, Gene Tierney and Karin Dor (a one-time James Bond actress) signed up to play guest stars on The FBI.

The show’s producer for the first four seasons, Charles Larson, frequently rewrote scripts (usually without credit), keeping the show on more than an even keel. Larson exited after the fourth season, with the slack picked up by Philip Saltzman for another four seasons and Anthony Spinner for the series’ final ninth season.

The FBI heavily featured espionage stories, especially in its second and third seasons, as Erskine and his colleagues tracked down foreign agents. That trailed off over time, with three espionage stories (out of 26 total) in the seventh season and only one in the eighth. There were no spy stories in the final season.

The show never had a big following in U.S. syndication. Still, the series had a fan base. Warner Archive began offering The FBI on a “manufactured on demand” basis in 2011. There was enough demand the entire series was made available by the end of 2014. The last two seasons came out after the May 2014 death of star Zimbalist at age 95.

For more information, CLICK HERE to view The FBI episode guide. The site is still under construction but reviews have been completed for the first five seasons.

The FBI Season 4 coming soon on DVD

"Identification branch? I want information on this Harrison Ford kid who's been cast in our TV show!"

“Identification branch? I want information on this Harrison Ford.”

It not official yet, but the Warner Archive division of Warner Bros. is planning to bring out season four of The FBI soon on DVD.

We don’t have a specific date. But we quizzed Warner Archive on Twitter if season 4 of the Quinn Martin-produced is coming out. The answer: “Soon, but not yet announced.”

The 1968-69 season has a number of highlights, including Caesar’s Wife, featuring Harrison Ford, then 26, as the grown son of a retired U.S. diplomat (Michael Rennie), who’s the target of a Soviet spy ring run by a deep cover agent played by Russell Johnson. Ford’s character gets the short end of a fight scene with the one-time Professor of Gilligan’s Island. Actually, it’s a good episode but from the Ford-Johnson fight will probably get a lot of 2013 viewer attention.

Other highlights of the season include Wind It Up and It Betrays You, the first episode of the season and another espionage story, which was plotted by Harold Jack Bloom (the only writer who scripted an episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and contributed to a James Bond movie with “additional story material” for You Only Live Twice) and has Louis Jourdan as the villain; The Runaways, featuring a post-Opie Ron Howard; and Conspiracy of Silence, which has some backstory of Efrem Zimbalist Jr.’s Inspector Erskine character and whose cast includes Gene Tierney.

The fourth season was the last to be overseen by producer Charles Larson, who had been with the show from day one. It’s also the final season where Inspector Erskine drives a Ford Mustang convertible in the end titles. Ford Motor Co., the lead sponsor and supplier of vehicles, wanted to promote other models starting with season 5.