Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Longstreet: The Way of the Intercepting Fist

In the 1971 made-for-TV movie Longstreet, James Franciscus played a insurance investigator who lost his wife and sight during an explosion intended to kill him. Determined to find the criminals responsible, Mike Longstreet has to learn first how to live with his blindness. He gets ample support from his assistant Nikki (Martine Beswick), best friend Duke (Bradford Dillman), and Pax, a white German Shepherd that becomes his seeing-eye dog.

Marilyn Mason and Franciscus.
As was often ABC's practice, the movie doubled as a pilot for a prospective TV show. The regular series debuted that fall with Marilyn Mason replacing Martine Beswick and Peter Mark Richman taking over as Duke. Set in New Orleans, the premise had Longstreet investigating various cases, often for the Great Pacific Insurance Company (where Duke worked). Stirling Silliphant created the series, which was loosely inspired by a series of novels by Baynard Kendrick about a blind private detective.

A prolific script writer, Silliphant's best television work was on Route 66, which he co-created with Herbert B. Leonard. Silliphant's teleplays on that show featured some of the elegant (but far from realistic) prose ever written for the small screen. For the most part, Longstreet seems far too straightforward for a Silliphant series, but some episodes were exceptions and the best example is the first one: "The Way of the Intercepting Fist."

James Franciscus and Bruce Lee.
It opens with Longstreet being assaulted in an alleyway by a crooked longshoreman and his cronies. A young Asian man named Li Tsung (Bruce Lee) fends off the attackers with an impressive display of martial arts. Later, Longstreet seeks out Li, an antiques dealer, and asks to become his martial arts student. Initially, Li refuses by saying: "The usefulness of a cup is its emptiness." However, he eventually relents and not only teaches Longstreet how to defend himself, but also about himself. The episode ends with Longstreet confronting and defeating the longshoreman. That act, we're led to believe, will end the villain's influence and lead the police to the businessman behind a large-scale hijacking scheme.

As with many of Silliphant's Route 66 episodes, the plot is secondary to the characters. It affords Lee the opportunity to describe jeet kune do, his "system" of martial arts and philosophy. In 1973's Enter the Dragon, Lee describes it succinctly as "the art of fighting without fighting." Still, it's this episode of Longstreet that includes perhaps Lee's best analogy: "Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. Now, if you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. Put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow, or creep or drip or crash. Be water, my friend."

Lee in Marlowe (1969).
If there is much of Bruce Lee in "The Way of the Intercepting Fist," that's no surprise as he worked on the script with Silliphant. The two had becomne friends after Silliphant sought out Lee in the late 1960s to learn martial arts. In fact, it was Silliphant who had Lee hired as fight choreographer and henchman in 1969's Marlowe. (Lee isn't in much of the movie, but has a most memorable encounter with James Garner.)

Lee earned strong reviews for his guest appearance on Longstreet and reprised his role in three more episodes. Yet, despite a likable cast and interesting setting (though the show was not shot on location like Route 66), Longstreet only lasted one season. Television audiences just didn't seem that interested in insurance investigators. (Despite that, George Peppard played one the following year in Banacek, though it only lasted for two seasons totaling 17 episodes.)

Meanwhile, Bruce Lee--who had previously rejected offers to make Asian "kung fu" movies--signed a contract with Raymond Chow to make two films. The first one, The Big Boss (aka Fists of Fury), was released the same year as his Longstreet appearances. It became an unexpected worldwide smash and made Bruce Lee an international star.

James Franciscus starred in two subsequent short-lived TV series: Doc Elliot (1973-74) and Hunter (1976-77). Interestingly, he later played a crooked politician in Good Guys Wear Black (1978), one of Chuck Norris' first martial arts films. Franciscus worked steadily in film and television until his death in 1991 at age 57 due to emphysema.


  1. Banacek was slated for a third season. Peppard pulled the plug rather than give part of his salary to his ex-wife.

  2. When it premiered, Longstreet's opposition was Nichols, James Garner's new show, which was placed by NBC in the timeslot long occupied by Ironside.
    This is called "hammocking"; with Flip Wilson as lead-in and Dean Martin as lead-out, Garner's show was considered a shoo-in.
    What happened: the audience switched away from Nichols to Longstreet, apparently filling the handicapped-detective gap left by Ironside's move to Tuesday; said audience switched back to Dean Martin afterward.
    In January, NBC switched Ironside back to its old Thursday slot, and down went Longstreet; insurance-investigator-phobia didn't enter into it.

    As to Banacek, the story I heard was that George Peppard decided to leave when the showrunner, George Eckstein, told him he wouldn't be coming back.
    Ex-wife - which one was that? Peppard had several, as I recall ...

  3. Banacek's ex would be Elizabeth Ashley. He added his current gf to the show. Nichols was unique in that, in a deperate ploy for renewal, Garner killed off his own charater, to be replaced by his more macho, spaghetti western-like twin brother, NBC wasn't buying. Literally.

  4. The attempt to revamp NICHOLS always intrigued me. I seem to recall they retitled the show JAMES GARNER AS NICHOLS, so, you know, people would know it starred Jim. Neither LONGSTREET nor BANACEK cracked the Top 20 (the Sunday MYSTERY MOVIE did that year). So, it wasn't a good year for insurance investigators.

  5. It was to Garner's credit that he realized his mistake was still doing MAVERICK in the Age Of Eastwood. Even THE VIRGINIAN tried rebranding as MEN FROM SHILOH, with a Morricone theme.

  6. I don't recall ever seeing Longstreet but loved Banecek, interesting original stories plus the sexy Peppard for us ladies. Interesting to learn the real reason it folded.

  7. This really an informative classic movie review. I can't believe Bruce Lee was here. I just amaze to Bruce Lee. I hope I can still watch this classic film free.

  8. Essential parody of the last-name-only detective shows is Adam West's unsold pilot Lookwell. Name checks both of the above shows as well as most of the others.