Monday, June 19, 2017

The Case of the Unlikeliest Charlie Chan

Ross Martin as Charlie Chan.
Mystery TV series were on the rise again in 1970 with NBC preparing to launch its NBC Mystery Movie franchise. That umbrella series would feature sleuths who were rumpled and sly (Columbo), married to mischievous spouses (McMillan & Wife), and transported from the West to the East (McCloud). All of which may explain why NBC was interested in a potential TV series about an Asian American police detective--and a famous one at that.

Produced in 1970, the made-for-TV movie The Return of Charlie Chan (aka Happiness Is a Warm Clue) was intended to introduce Earl Derr Biggers' venerable detective to a new generation. However, it appears to have encountered trouble from the outset with the unlikely casting of Ross Martin in the title role. The actor had amassed a reasonable amount of popularity as Robert Conrad's sidekick (and master of disguises) Artemus Gordon in The Wild Wild West (1965-69). He seemed poised for a series of his own.

It wasn't the first time a non-Asian actor had played Charlie Chan. Warner Oland, arguably the screen's most well-known Chan, was born in Sweden and moved to the U.S. as a teenager. However, Oland's films were made in a different era. There's no evidence that NBC shelved The Return of Charlie Chan due to concerns over a casting backlash. However, the network did promote the film in 1971 and then mysteriously decided not to broadcast it. It was eventually shown in Great Britain in 1973, but didn't make its U.S. premiere until 1979.

Suspect Richard Haydn and Martin.
For the record, Ross Martin isn't a bad Charlie Chan once one realizes he's not playing Artemus in another disguise. And The Return of Charlie Chan is a decent mystery about a Greek business tycoon, married to a younger woman, who narrowly survives a murder attempt. (I'm assuming any resemblance to Aristotle Onassis was intentional!) He convinces the "incorruptible, infallible, and unfortunately retired" Charlie Chan to take on the task of protecting him during his family's pleasure cruise off the coast of Vancouver. Charlie, accompanied by his daughter Doreen and No. 8 son Peter, makes little headway toward unmasking the culprit...until one of the tycoon's employees is found murdered in his stateroom.

There is no shortage of suspects, to include a physician, a winegrower, and an international playboy who may be a thief. All of their alibis eventually crumple under the power of Charlie's deductive reasoning, which still seems sharp despite ten years as a pineapple farmer. And, yes, Mr. Chan still offers wise sayings, such as: "Even a hair casts a shadow."

Leslie Nielsen as a Greek tycoon.
The film's "special guest star" is Leslie Nielsen, who has a grand time overplaying the role of the "richest man in the world." It's interesting that most people today think of Nielsen as a comedian because of his success in Airplane! and The Naked Gun  movies. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, he was one of the busiest actors on television and in films. He played everything from a police detective in The Bold Ones to the captain in The Poseidon Adventure to the voice of a powerful, but never seen, movie executive in the TV series Bracken's World.

Ross Martin never got his own TV series, though he remained in demand as an actor in the 1970s. He guest-starred on shows like The Love Boat, Hawaii Five-O, and Vega$. He provided voices for several cartoon series and even reprised Artemus Gordon for two made-for-TV movies. Ross Martin died in 1981 after suffering a heart attack following a game of tennis.


Bill O said...

Safe to assume, in any case, that there was pressure on NBC. Remember the Bernie Loves Bridget case....Tho tv didn't seem receptive to retreads by then.Sherlock and Nick Carter had failed pilots. Ellery Queen went a season. But those were shown prime time, not on the CBS Late Late Late Movie.

Caftan Woman said...

I love Ross Martin and Chan is a character that would certainly appeal to any character actor worth his mettle.

Unknown said...

As it happens, I saw this when it had its only network airing in 1979 - on ABC's Wide World Of Entertainment.
I was able to tape it; my father, a gadget man from way back, bought one of the early VHS models, a Zenith, with two speeds, no remote, and a keyboard that went ka-chunk.
My folks were out of town when The Return Of Charlie Chan was on, which made my taping a bit clandestine, but I did get it.
Several weeks later, my parents watched it on a Saturday afternoon.
It was during this same time frame that ABC used its Wide World slot to burn off the Nero Wolfe pilot they'd made a few years before, which became a moot point when Thayer David, who played Wolfe, died not long after making it.
My parents were home that night, so I wasn't able to tape that one (oh for my lost youth ...).

I've managed to find "independently-made" DVDs (if you know what I mean) of both of these TV movies, so there's that ...
I mainly recall Return Of Chan for the late-career appearance of Richard Haydn (leaving his trademark mannerisms at home), and for the fact that of all the TV-movies that were shot in Vancouver to save money, this one was actually set in Vancouver.

My favorite exchange, between Louise Sorel as the flighty wife of the Millionaire, and Ross Martin as Chan:

Sorel: " ... So tell me, Mr. Chan, what did the murderer have for dinner?"
Chan: "Probably the same things that you did ..."

Anonymous said...

Two other caucasian actors played Charlie Chan on the silver screen: Sidney Toler and Roland Winters. I always wondered why Chan's sons were played by Asian actors but Chan was not.

The Lady Eve said...

I don't even remember this series though I always admired Ross Martin's work.

Rick29 said...

Loved your remembrances! Though I typically watched THE CBS LATE MOVIE, I remember the WIDE WORLD OF ENTERTAINMENT and did watch a two-part adaptation of FRANKENSTEIN with Robert Foxworth and Bo Svenson. As for THE RETURN OF CHARLIE CHAN, I was delighted to discover a decent print on YouTube!

Silver Screenings said...

I had to do a double-take at Leslie Nielsen's photo. I almost didn't recognize him.

As for Ross Martin, thank you for the handy link that outlines his impressive accomplishments. A master of disguise, indeed! (IMDB says he spoke 7 languages? SEVEN?!)

Rush said...

Well, putting yourself in the shoes of the staff at Fox Film (later 20th Century-Fox) in 1931 when they needed an actor with some amount of star power back then to play Charlie Chan in a talking picture, whom would you have chosen, looking back at the available male Chinese (or other Asian) actors of the time? Please remember, they wanted to produce a successful, money-making series! The same question would apply to 1938 when Sidney Toler assumed the role after the passing of Warner Oland, and the same could even be asked in 1947 after the death of Toler with casting of Roland Winters as Charlie Chan at monogram Pictures! I respectfully ask anyone who thinks it was a "sin" to use non-Asian actors in the title role to read what Keye Luke, who portrayed Chan's Number One Son, Lee, had to say on the issue. In fact, I would add Victor Sen Yung (Number Two son, Jimmy), Benson Fong (Number Three Son, Tommy), Edwin Luke (Number Four Son, Eddie), Layne Tom, Jr. (who portrayed three different sons in the series), and any other actor of Chinese (or other Asian) decent to the list!