Monday, December 14, 2009

Friday Nights at 8:30, 1963

It was with great sadness last Friday that I heard the news that Gene Barry had died. To most people, Gene Barry was a middling television actor and probably not widely remembered. But he meant a lot to me, and it took his passing for me to figure out exactly what that was.

His career had many high points. He starred in the original The War of the Worlds in 1953. He was the first murderer Peter Falk outsmarted in the original TV movie featuring Lt. Columbo, Prescription: Murder. He originated the role of Georges, the nightclub owner in La Cage Aux Folles, on Broadway. And he had the distinction of having three hit television series in three different decades: Bat Masterson in the 50s, Burke’s Law in the 60s, and The Name of the Game, which ended its three-year run in 1971.

The middle one was the one that endeared Barry to me. I was eight years old when it premiered on September 20, 1963, and watching it became a Friday night ritual that required very specific refreshments: a big bottle of root beer and a Sugar Daddy every single week (no wonder I had so many cavities as a child). A lot of shows at that time had to have a gimmick — The Addams Family was macabre and Bewitched had magic — but Burke’s Law had more than its share.

Ostensibly, it was about the Los Angeles Police Department’s chief of detectives, a man who just happened to be a millionaire. Amos Burke lived in a big house in what was presumably Beverly Hills. He had a Rolls-Royce equipped with mobile phone and driven by a Filipino chauffeur named Henry. Burke was a highly eligible bachelor, and in fact, the opening of the show followed a set pattern — first, the discovery of the body, and then Burke being interrupted in the middle of a date with a beautiful woman.

When the DVDs of the first season were finally released last year, my wife squinted at some of the episodes from under furrowed brow and said, "Of course you liked it — beautiful girls, fancy cars, big house — it's every eight-year-old boy's fantasy."

Was I really that shallow? Reflecting about it this weekend, I realized there was more to it. The show also had a wonderful wit, with frequent in-jokes. When Buster Keaton appeared, his character had laryngitis, so just as in silent-movie days, his voice was never heard (except for one off-screen line). When a murder occurred in the re-creation of an Old West town, Burke did a double-take at a headstone that read, "He Called Bat Masterson A Liar."

But for his first big hit, producer Aaron Spelling added another gimmick: every suspect was played by a Hollywood name. For a television junkie like me, this was delightful, even though I had only a vague concept of the greatness parading before me in the form of silent film stars such as Keaton, Gloria Swanson, and ZaSu Pitts, not to mention contemporary celebrities such as Broderick Crawford, Annette Funicello, Paul Lynde, Jim Backus, Zsa Zsa and Eva Gabor, and Don Rickles.

It must have been a great deal of fun, because the show frequently riffed on Los Angeles as the land of fruits and nuts. At least one — and sometimes all — the suspects were usually wildly eccentric. One episode included Telly Savalas as a Muslim fakir who sleeps on a bed of nails, Wally Cox as "the world’s only living vampire," and Gloria Swanson as a proponent of free love who believes she's the reincarnation of the goddess Venus (remember, this was before hippies).

I realize now that what resonated with me about the show were not the toys Burke had, but the laissez-faire attitude Burke exhibited toward these people. And why not? Burke was every bit as eccentric as the suspects he interrogated. Why else would a millionaire become a civil servant?

What a great lesson for a socially awkward eight-year-old — that no matter how out-of-step you felt, you lived in a place called California where you could be offbeat and even somewhat outrageous without regard for the judgment of others.

Thanks, Gene Barry, for playing such a debonair eccentric so well.

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