Monday, May 9, 2022

Petrocelli: Night Games

Barry Newman as Petrocelli.
There are few instances of an actor reprising a character from a theatrical film in a television series. Richard Widmark and Richard Roundtree first played Madigan and Shaft in theatrical films and then revived the characters for TV. However, in both cases, the shows were part of an umbrella series and therefore required few episodes. Gary Burghoff famously played Radar O'Reilly in both the 1970 movie version of M*A*S*H and the long-running TV series that started two years later. However, Radar was a supporting character.

That brings us to Barry Newman, who introduced audiences to passionate attorney Anthony "Tony" Petrocelli in the 1970 film The Lawyer. Based on the Sam Shepard murder case, it follows the Harvard-educated Petrocelli, who has relocated from Boston to a small community out West. He soon finds himself defending a physician (Robert Colbert) for murdering his sexy socialite wife. Produced by former actor Brad Dexter (The Magnificent Seven), The Lawyer was a modest box office hit. 

Susan Howard.
Four years later, NBC broadcast Night Games, a pilot movie for a weekly TV series starring Newman as Petrocelli. Susan Howard replaced Diana Muldaur as Tony's wife/legal secretary. Albert Salmi also joined the cast as Tony's "leg man." The location was shifted to the Southwest, but Tony still drove a truck, lived in a camper with his wife Maggie (renamed from Ruth), and outhustled every other lawyer in the region.

The plot finds Petrocelli defending an attractive, wealthy woman (Stefanie Powers) accused of killing her husband. Although the evidence against her is weak, her alibi could be more convincing. She claims to have slept through the night of the murder after taking sleeping pills. With the district attorney (Henry Darrow) pushing for a quick trial, Petrocelli has his work cut out for him. He also receives some unexpected personal news: Maggie is pregnant with their first child.

Barry Newman is well cast as the aggressive lawyer whose expensive three-piece suit (his only one)  and courtroom theatrics clash with his simple lifestyle. While Tony and Maggie try to establish his practice, they live in the camper as he builds their ranch-style home twelve bricks at a time. Both he and Susan Howard would earn Emmy nominations for their performances in the follow-on Petrocelli TV series.

JoAnna Cameron.
The challenge with Night Games is that it tries to pack too much content into its brief 74-minute runnin time. One of the casualties is the strong supporting cast. Actors like Stefanie Powers, Henry Darrow, Ralph Meeker, and Anjanette Comer never get enough time to develop their characters. Even Susan Howard fades into the background as Night Games hurls toward its climax. The lone exception is JoAnna Cameron, best known for her Saturday morning TV series The Secrets of Isis. As a flight attendant who had an affair with the dead man, she projects a calculating coldness behind her innocent girl-next-door demeanor.

Still, Night Games serves as a solid introduction to the Petrocelli TV series, which ran for 44 episodes over two seasons. NBC cancelled it due to low ratings opposite Starsky and Hutch (a top 20 show in the Nielsen ratings in 1975-76). Susan Howard joined Dallas in 1979, where she played Donna Culver Krebbs for eight years. Barry Newman did not return as a regular in a TV series until the short-lived medical drama Nightingales in 1989.

Here's a short scene from Night Games, courtesy of our YouTube channel:


  1. Petrocelli was my favorite show at the time, and I was bummed when it was canceled. I enjoyed how Petrocelli would brilliantly recreate the actual circumstances of the crime before the court each week. Very emblematic of its time, when society still rooted for the underdog, and TV defense lawyers were hard-working champions of beleaguered innocent people.

  2. I caught one episode of Petrocelli, but never saw Night Games, so it sounds like it is worth watching as an introduction to the series even if it does pack in too much content ( a common TV Movie practice ).