Thursday, June 16, 2011

Warner Bros. Classic TV Detectives Were the "Ginchiest" - Part 1

Roger Smith, Edd Byrnes, and
Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.
Warner Bros. was the kingpin of prime-time crime shows on television in the early 1960s. All its series featured the same formula: good-looking private eyes that worked in exotic locales surrounded by beautiful women and assisted by a kooky assistant or two. Warner's first series, 77 Sunset Strip, established the formula, became a cultural phenomenon, and ran for six seasons. Its creation and evolution form a fascinating backstory.

Franchot Tone as the
original Stu Bailey.
Writer (and future TV executive) Roy Huggins wrote several literary novels and short stories in the 1940s and 1950s featuring a private eye named Stu Bailey. Franchot Tone played Bailey in a 1948 film called I Love Trouble. In 1956, Huggins penned a pilot episode for a television series with Bailey called "Anything for Money" on the anthology TV series Conflict. The pilot, which starred Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., didn't sell, but it intrigued Warner Bros. enough to order a second pilot. However, the studio wanted the running time expanded to 90 minutes so it could be marketed as a feature film. Huggins and screenwriter Marion Hargrove came up with Girl on the Run (1958), with Zimbalist reprising his role of Bailey. It served as a second pilot episode for the 77 Sunset Strip TV series and was also released overseas as a theatrical film.

Warner Bros. picked up the series, but the show's convoluted creation led to a dispute with Huggins over royalties and who held the rights to any future film involving the characters. Huggins eventually left 77 Sunset Strip to devote more time to Maverick, another show he created. Huggins enjoyed a long and extremely successful career as a studio executive and TV producer, creating classic series such as The Fugitive and The Rockford Files.

Kookie combing his hair
(what else?).
En route from the movie Girl on the Run to the 77 Sunset Strip TV series, other changes occurred. Stu Bailey acquired a partner in Jeff Spencer (Roger Smith), a former federal agent (like Bailey) who was also a non-practicing attorney. In Girl on the Run, Edd Byrnes played a sociopathic killer named Kenneth Smiley, who had a propensity for combing his hair. During a screening of the film, the young members of the audiences reacted so favorably to Byrnes that he was added to the TV series cast--as a good guy. He played a valet named Gerald Lloyd Kookson III--"Kookie" for short--who still liked to comb his hair.

77 Sunset Strip debuted on ABC in October 1958 and was an instant hit. It climbed in popularity, peaking at #6 in th Nielsen ratings for the 1959-60 season (tied with Father Knows Best). It also became a cultural phenomenon with its hip theme song (complete with snapping fingers) and Kookie, who unexpectedly became the most popular member of the cast. His "Kookie-isms"--his personal slang expressions--appealed to the show's young viewers. Examples include: "a dark seven" (a depressing week); "headache grapplers" (aspirin); and the "ginchiest" (the greatest).

Edd Byrnes even parlayed his fame to a brief singing career, scoring a novelty hit with "Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb" (a No. 4 hit on the Billboard Top 40). At the height of his popularity, Byrnes demanded a larger part on the series and walked out. He returned after a short hiatus, though, and Kookie was promoted to partner in the detective firm.

Zimbalist moved from one
hit to another.
By its fifth season, ratings had declined significantly. Roger Smith had left after a blod clot was discovered in his brain and Richard Long became a new partner. In 1963, Warners hired Jack Webb and William Conrad to totally revamp the show. They first fired the cast, retaining only Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., and transformed Stu Bailey into a globe-hopping federal agent. The new 77 Sunset Strip never caught fire and show was cancelled in February 1964.

Zimbalist wasn't out of work for long. The next fall, he was headlining a new TV series, Quinn Martin's long-running The F.B.I. Roger Smith retired from acting in 1965 and became a full-time agent for his wife, Ann-Margret. Edd Byrnes never matched his "Kookie" success, but appeared in numerous TV series and films, include the musical Grease.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this profile of Warner TV detective series, to include Hawaiian Eye, Surfside 6, and Bourbon Street. And if you feel an urge to hear the theme to 77 Sunset Strip, click on the link below. And, yes, the Dino's Lodge that appears in the opening was owned by Dean Martin.

11 comments:

  1. Rick, What I remember most about "77 Sunset Strip"(snap,snap), besides the song.. was most of the bad guys lived glamorous lives. I would love to see "77 Sunset Strip"(snap,snap), again to refresh my memory..

    P.S.
    I think I have my Blogger problem fixed. Thanks for your help.

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  2. Sigh! You send me to YouTube where I spend hours and hours checking out vintage TV themes. The family doesn't get fed, the cats are chewing their own appendages.

    I have vague memories of "77 Sunset Strip". I know that it was a fave of my Mom's. She likes those sharp dressed fellas.

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  3. Rick, this review was the ginchiest, a word I have never uttered before. The person whose work I knew best from your review would have to be Roy Huggins, because of his other work, especially "The Fugitive." I have an urge to snap snap, however. How kooky is that? This was a fun read!

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  4. Superb and incredibly informative write-up, Rick! I missed this show when it first aired, and I've not been able to find it for rental or any viewing online. Maybe some network will start running episodes so I can see it. This is the ginchiest post I've ever read on 77 SUNSET STRIP, sort of a cyber-headache grappler to brighten my dark seven. Stephanie Zimbalist of REMINGTON STEELE fame is, I believe, Efrem, Jr.'s daughter. Great job, Rick!

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  5. Great post! I certainly do remember watching all the Warner Bros. detective shows once upon a time. Good memories.

    Wasn't Huggins also the executive in charge of a whole bunch of tv westerns as well? CHEYENNE and LAWMAN are the only two that spring immediately to mind, but there were a couple of others as well.

    I watched all this stuff faithfully for years. It's a wonder I ever grew up. Ha!

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  6. I remember 77 Sunset Strip so well! That song, all those handsome men, the excitement and great locale. I was a little odd for a young teen - I always liked Efrem Zimbalist the best! I guess older men appealed to me! Roger Smith was obviously a doll, and Kookie was very handsome, but kind of annoying with his constant haircombing and comebacks. I thought his song was really dumb, even at that age!

    I didn't know anything about the history of the show, and found that to be so interesting! Did Huggins do Cheyenne, because I always liked that a lot.

    Great look-back at an important detective series in TV history. I was so disappointed tha the Youtube clip was no longer available, at least when I tried to pull it up just now, but I remember it well. Great post, Rick!

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  7. Rick, I'm delighted that you're covering the 1950s/early '60s Warner Bros. detective shows, because they're much beloved here at Team Bartilucci H.Q.! When we first moved from NYC to PA, we were overjoyed to discover the American Life Network was airing 77 SUNSET STRIP (*snap snap* Yes, we do that at home among ourselves :-)) and the other private eye shows produced by William T. Orr, whose name was spelled onscreen as "Wm. T. Orr" -- or as Vinnie immediately and phonetically dubbed him, "Wumtor!" :-) One season, there was a writers' strike, and the Warner Bros. writers kept recycling scripts with slight changes in guest characters, locations, etc., with the scripts credited with the whimsical nom de plume "W. Hermanos." :-) Alas, they've been replaced with other vintage TV series, but oh, they were awesome! Why hasn't someone put 77 SUNSET STRIP out on DVD yet?! Great post, Rick; I look forward to your upcoming WB private eye posts!

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  8. "Huggins eventually left 77 Sunset Strip to devote more time to Maverick, another show he created."

    And also got seriously fucked over for, IIRC.

    I wrote a blog post a while back about how 77 Sunset Strip got around Kookie being killed in the pilot - Zimbalist literally came on screen and said "Let's all just pretend that never happened."

    If more shows took that view of stuff that didn't work, the world might be a better place.

    "On how sometimes, the Kookie Solution is the way to go." - http://40yearoldfanboy.blogspot.com/2009/04/on-how-sometimes-kookie-solution-is-way.html

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  9. Rick, a tremendously entertaining and very informative post. I was a devotee of this show, watching it every Friday night (followed by "The Twilight Zone"). I anxiously watched the beginning of each new season to check out the new Ford convertibles Zimbalist and Smith drove. I recall that Zimbalist always had a new Galaxie and Smith a new Thunderbird. Years later I saw a rerun which featured Mary Tyler Moore in a large role (in an episode that seemed to be inspired in part by "Touch of Evil"). I checked her credits on IMDb and found she appeared in other episodes of "77" as well as its cousins "Surfside 6," "Bourbon St. Beat," and "Hawaiian Eye." These and other Warners TV shows sort of replaced the studio's B-movies as training grounds for young actors they were grooming for bigger things, and many young actors who later became better known were featured in episodes of these series.

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  10. Thanks everyone for the wonderful comments. Part 2 of this post (running later this month) highlights all the other stars-to-be that were in the these shows. R.D., you're so right about Warners TV being a "training ground." Roy Huggins didn't create CHEYENNE, but did other fine Westerns (with a comic flair), including MAVERICK and the underrated ALIAS SMITH AND JONES. Stephen J. Cannell considered Huggins his mentor. If Cannell's name sounds familiar, it's probably because he created a host of popular TV shows, including THE ROCKFORD FILES, THE A-TEAM, and WISEGUY (which I currently re-watching). I added a new clip of the opening to 77 SUNSET STRIP; the quality isn't as good, but it's still snappy (pun intended). Sark and Toto, I told my wife she was the ginchiest the other day. She took it as a compliment!

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  11. Well, that really takes me back! (Yeah, I watched all those shows- what else was on?) How about a piece on the classic WB westerns, which were omnipresent on 60's TV?

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