The man who assembled the ‘QM Players’

John Conwell's title card in a second-season episode of 12 O'Clock High.

John Conwell’s title card in a second-season episode of 12 O’Clock High.

One of an occasional series about unsung heroes of television.

In the 1960s and ’70s, shows produced at QM Productions had the feel of a repertory theater as many of the same guest stars appeared on various Quinn Martin shows.

As noted in the book Quinn Martin, Producer, there was an even nick name for this: the “QM Players.” The informal group consisted of performers such as Leslie Nielsen (star of the first QM series, The New Breed), Peter Mark Richman, Louise Latham, Jessica Walter, J.D. Cannon, Lynda Day George, Bradford Dillman and many others.

The QM executive responsible for this was John Conwell, who headed the company’s casting operation. He was a former actor, appearing in such productions as The Twilight Zone pilot, Where Is Everybody? and as a guest star in a Ray Milland series, Markham.

Conwell moved from in front of the camera to behind it, including the fourth season of The Twilight Zone, when the show aired in a one-hour format. He became part of QM Productions with that company’s second series, The Fugitive.

For most of his time at QM, however, Conwell’s titles in QM show credits didn’t really give the audience an idea of what he did.

Conwell was initially credited as “assistant to producer,” then “assistant to the executive producer.” Finally, by 1977, he was credited as “in charge of talent.”

In any case, Conwell became one of producer Quinn Martin’s key lieutenants. Martin paid more for guest stars ($5,000 for a one-hour episode compared with a going rate of $2,500). So that helped raise the interest of performers to be on QM shows.

Still, it was Conwell who ran the QM casting operation, which also had casting directors for individual series. That may help to explain why actors kept coming back.

Conwell even stayed at the company after Martin’s departure following the sale of QM Productions to Taft Broadcasting. He died in 1994 at the age of 72.

QM’s The FBI vs. J. Edgar’s FBI

One of the more talked about (if not financially successful) movies this fall was the Clint Eastwood-directed J. Edgar, a “biopic” about J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), who was director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for 48 years until his death in 1972. We were particularly interested because we enjoy the Hoover-sanctioned 1965-74 television series produced by Quinn Martin.

The QM FBI is an idealized version of the real life agency, which by various reports spied on civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and performed other less-than-heroic acts. interestingly, producer Martin was initially hesitant to do a series based on the FBI because he and Hoover were different politically.

But the show, produced in association with Warner Bros. (which released Eastwood’s J. Edgar plus the heavily pro-Hoover movie The FBI Story in 1959) proceeded anyway. It would end up being Martin’s longest-running television series, running nine years. In real life, the FBI might be accused of going easy on the Mafia, at least prior to John F. Kennedy becoming president. But on QM’s The FBI, the bureau was vigilant against organized crime, even in episodes LIKE THIS ONE or LIKE THIS ONE, where the mob bosses had names like Mark Vincent or Arnold Toby and avoided the word “Mafia.” And, of course, the QM FBI never failed to catch spies working against U.S. interests.

However, if you catch certain episodes of QM’s FBI, the Hoover influence is unmistakeable. In many episodes, you can spot a photo of Hoover in an FBI office. In EPISODES LIKE THIS ONE, a character comes out of Hoover’s office (we never see the Director, of course) obviously moved to put their scruples aside to aid the cause of law and order. The real-life Hoover’s influence extended to having approval of the casting of Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Inspector Lewis Erskine, the lead character of the television series.

Enough of this heavy thinking. Here’s a complete second-season episode of The FBI, along with its original commercials (the Ford Motor Co. logo appears in the main titles). Towards the end, you’ll see a promo for the next episode, the first of a two-part episode called “The Executioners,” in which future James Bond villain Telly Savalas appears as, what else, an organized crime figure. That two-part episode would be released outside of the U.S. AS A MOVIE.

UPDATE: Oops moment in the epilogue. The suspect shoves a guy into the water. But agents Erskine and Rhodes (Stephen Brooks) are so intent on arresting the suspect (J.D. Cannon), they never check back on the innocent guy who got shoved into the water. What if he drowned?

UPDATE II: One connection between this episode of The FBI and Clint Eastwood. The assistant director of the television episode was Robert Daley, who’d serve as producer on a number of films for Eastwood’s Malpaso Productions, including being executive producer of Dirty Harry and producer of Magnum Force.