Friday, November 29, 2013

Ellery Queen ( 1975-1976 )

The tinkling of piano keys and the brassy boozy sound of muted trumpets in an opening intro beckoned us into the world of New York City in the 1940s...a city abound with clever criminals and puzzling murder cases. It's no wonder the city police had such a great detective like Richard Queen as their chief inspector. They needed him. What they did not suspect however, was that he relied upon his son, mystery author Ellery Queen, to solve these puzzles for him! 

In the mid-1970s middle-aged viewers got to sit back, relax and enjoy a sprightly-paced hour watching Ellery Queen and his pop solve murder cases in an entertaining series brought to NBC by the creators of Columbo and Murder She Wrote.  

History of a Mystery Duo


Ellery Queen has long been considered one of America's greatest fictional detectives. In fact, he has been regarded by many as the successor to Sherlock Holmes. Queen first appeared in 1927 in the mystery novel, The Roman Hat Mystery. Two American cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, had always been fans of mystery fiction and decided to team up and write a story for a writing contest for McClures Magazine. Every author had to enter the contest using a pseudonym so that professional writers would not have an advantage over the other entrants. They decided to write collectively under the name "Ellery Queen" and dubbed their sleuth the same name. 


The characters and the cleverly written stories, which always featured a "gathering of suspects" at the end of the tale as well as a Challenge to the Reader, quickly became a sensation. "Ellery Queen" went on to become one of the most successful mystery novelists of the 20th century, having penned dozens of novels and short stories in a period of 42 years. The duo also created Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in 1941, considered to be one of the most influential English-language crime fiction magazines of the last sixty-five years. 

Dannay and Lee liked to remain anonymous and during the 1940s often made public appearances donning masks. Some critics thought that the great wit S. S Van Dine was one of the team. They did, however, make appearances on radio, where they could be heard but not seen. 

In 1939 The Adventures of Ellery Queen was brought to radio and aired on three different networks over the course of nine years. Hugh Marlowe provided the voice of Ellery Queen during the first three years and then, when the program moved to NBC radio, Carleton Young took over. 


In the early 1940s Ralph Bellamy starred as the absent-minded sleuth in a series of - ahem, lackluster - films for Columbia studios. Charley Grapewin portrayed Inspector Queen and Margaret Lindsay was second-billed as a tagged on love-interest, Nikki Porter ( actually, this character first appeared in the radio show...but not in the books until after 1943 ). William Gargan replaced Bellamy in two of these films when Bellamy walked out. These series were entertaining in themselves, but really had nothing to do with the Ellery Queen books and were capitalizing solely on the character's popularity. 

One of the first Ellery Queen series to be brought to the tiny tube was The Adventures of Ellery Queen by Dumont in 1950. This series ran for two years, with ABC taking the helm during the second season when it won the TV Guide Award for Best Television Mystery. Debonair actor Richard Hart, sporting a Flynn 'stash portrayed Ellery Queen with Florenz Ames co-starring as his grumpy papa, the Inspector. Four months into the series, Hart died of a heart attack and within two days was replaced by Lee Bowman...a bit older and slimmer but since television was scarce in homes and rather fuzzy at that, many viewers probably didn't notice the change. In a sprightly 25 minutes Ellery would find a case to be solved, organize the clues, and gather together the suspects for his unveiling of the culprit's identity. Some of these cases included a murder at an art gallery, an opera, a ballet and one at a Shakespeare festival..."We were just getting round to a murder at a rare book shop when they took the show off the air" recalled scriptwriter Helene Hanff. 

Two years later TPA, Television Programs of America, brought back the series, this time with Hugh Marlowe as our beloved sleuth. Both Marlowe and Florenz Ames were old hands at Ellery Queen and tried their best at giving the show some power juice, but the production values were poor and the scripts bad...as bad as the critic reviews for the series. 

NBC decided to give ol' Ellery another chance in 1959, this time in a series called The Further Adventures of Ellery Queen. George Nader was given the role of Ellery while the series was telecast live but then Lee Phillips took over once they switched to videotape. Actual Queen stories were used as basis' for the first six episodes but once again the stories were lost in translation. 

In 1971, the writing and producing team of William Link and Richard Levinson - both avid Ellery Queen fans - approached NBC with a proposal for ( oh no! ) yet another Ellery Queen series. They too had been disappointed with the previous television adaptions and wanted to see a show created that contained the same unique twists and intellilectual clues as the book series. Link and Levinson, having made a success of their popular Columbo series, decided to see Ellery Queen brought faithfully to the screen. 

Alas, by the time production began, their script, based on the novel "Cat of Many Tails", had been given a complete face-lift while they were sent away on a vacation to Europe and it was scarred beyond recognition. Levinson and Link were ashamed of the final result and requested to be credited as "Ted Leighton". This made-for-tv movie pilot, entitled Don't Look Behind You, featured an Ellery Queen that bore no resemblance to the book character. Instead, Queen - played by Peter Lawford - became an overaged swinging bachelor, who is helping his inspector uncle ( Harry Morgan ), solve a mystery in London. Coleen Gray and Stefanie Powers also starred. 



The King of Queens


In 1975 Levinson and Link persuaded NBC to do another Queen pilot episode, this time in keeping with their original vision for the series. Frank Price, head of Universal television at that time, suggested that Jim Hutton be cast as Ellery Queen. Link thought the suggestion good but had his doubts to whether Hutton could play a dramatic role as well as he handled comedy. Well, he needn't have doubted. Hutton's charm and good-natured manner played beautifully against David Wayne's crusty Old Man. This series became the best adaption of Ellery Queen to be brought to television ( or film ). Frederic Dannay himself considered Hutton to be excellent in the role of Queen and the entire series "right on target". 

On March 23, 1975, the pilot movie "Too Many Suspects" premiered. This film featured the Inspector and Ellery solving the murder of a famous fashion designer who left a baffling dying clue. The film garnered positive reviews and launched a fantastic series that sadly, was canceled after only one season.

What made Ellery Queen so entertaining was the audience participation involved. Every episode would begin with a teaser wherein we see the victim and the suspects, usually amounting to 6-7 people, while the following would be announced by veteran voice-over actor Bill Woodson:

" This famous composer stole his last song. Who killed him? Was it the bereaved widow? His loyal business partner? His shiftless son? The floozy nightclub singer? The enraged conductor? Or was it somebody else? Match wits with Ellery Queen and see it you can guess WHODUNNIT "

A stellar opening credit sequence of typewriters and chess men ( and an unforgettable theme song by Elmer Bernstein ) drew us into a nostalgic world of mystery. Before we, the audience, have time to figure out the character's names, Ellery has the mystery solved, and then - in the most unique technique found in any mystery program - he would break "the fourth wall" and face the television camera to ask us if we have solved the mystery too. Queen's methods of solving the crime were always by deductive reasoning, and he would continually astound this father by arriving at a correct solution with a minimum amount of clues to work with. The clues are all there for us - somewhat scattered sometimes - and getting the chance to help solve the crime was the key element that made this series the winner that it was. 



Unfortunately, critics didn't agree with this. Some thought the 1940s setting of the series distracting, while others put down Hutton's portrayal of Ellery as "lackluster", and ultimately viewers neglected to tune in every week. Levinson and Link believed the mysteries may have been too difficult to solve, hence in subsequent series, such as Murder She Wrote, they threw in a few simple mysteries to boost up viewers pride in their own deductive abilities. 

"Why does everything in this house end up in the fridge?"



Queen and His Pawns 


Ellery Queen - Jim Hutton

Hutton portrayed Ellery Queen as a gangling - and a bit bumbling - young man that was quite different from the book character. But, like Columbo, his clumsiness never distracted us from the case at hand and only added to Queen's charm. Sporting a tweed coat and his favorite eske hat, Ellery approached every suspect without suspicion but would not rest until he gathered all the pieces of the latest puzzle and could lock them into place. 

Jim Hutton made a name for himself in the early 1960s when he shot to stardom as the leading man in a series of romantic comedies ( The Horizontal Lieutenant, Where the Boys Are, Bachelor in Paradise, The Honeymoon Machine ) where he was often paired with Paula Prentiss. At 6'5 he was one of the tallest contract players in Hollywood and his lanky appearance reminded many of James Stewart. He was considered by some to be his successor, and right so...Hutton had a marvelous flair for comedy and like Stewart, often read his lines with a touch of absent-mindedness. A consummate professional, Hutton diligently applied himself to the role of Ellery Queen and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunities the part provided. Today he is remembered most for this role. Hutton died in 1979, at the age of 45, from liver cancer. His son is actor Timothy Hutton. 



Inspector Richard Queen - David Wayne

The Ellery Queen mysteries just wouldn't be as beloved as they are today without the irascible Inspector Queen. Despite his frustration with his son's forgetfulness he clearly enjoyed having him along on his cases and would often take great strides to lure Ellery away from his writing assignments to do so.

David Wayne had a long career on stage and screen before taking on the assignment of Inspector Queen. He got his start in Cleveland when he joined a Shakespearian repertory company in 1937. After a brief stint as an ambulance driver in North Africa during WWII he went on to become a reliable supporting player in numerous Hollywood films of the 1940s and 50s, films such as How to Marry a Millionaire, The Tender Trap and The Three Faces of Eve. It was on Broadway that he gained his fame however. Wayne won the very first Tony award for Best Actor in 1948 for his performance in "Finian's Rainbow" and earned another in 1954 for "The Teahouse of the August Moon". During the 1960s and 70s he appeared in many television shows, notably in Batman as The Mad Hatter. 

Sgt,Velie - Tom Reese

Velie was your typical loyal gumshoe sidekick, big burly and always ready to lend a helping hand to the Inspector and "maestro", his nickname for Ellery. 

Tom Reese was a familiar face on television, having guest-starred in numerous westerns throughout the 1960s. After a stint with the Marines during the 1950s, he entered the world of acting, studying under Lee Strasberg.  He got his start in television and then had some small supporting roles in films such as Flaming Star, 40 Pounds of Trouble and The Money Trap. One of his most memorable TV appearances was in The Twilight Zone episode "The Midnight Sun" where he played The Intruder. 

Simon Brimmer - John Hillerman

Simon Bremmer, host of a popular mystery radio program, was a character created solely for the Ellery Queen television series to act as a rival sleuth for Ellery. Brimmer would often be found lazily conversing with the suspects before the Inspector would arrive on the scene. But in spite of his high opinion of his own fame and deductive skills he often fingered the wrong criminal during his "unveiling". 

( Interestingly enough, in later years Willliam Link bore a remarkable resemblance to John Hillerman ). 

Hillerman is often confused to be a British actor, due to his clipped accent and his most memorable role, Higgins,  in Magnum P.I, but in fact he born a proud Texan. He gained fame in films such as Blazing Saddles and Chinatown ( 1974 ) and on television in the 1970s on the series The Betty White Show, The Love Boat and One Day at a Time. Today he spends his retirement in Texas. 

"Brimmer. Simon Brimmer. THE Simon Brimmer....perhaps you have heard of me?"



A Line-Up of Suspects


In the 1970s television shows geared towards the older generation were a dime a dozen. Columbo was one of the first series to feature Hollywood has-beens in leading guest roles every other week, but it was Ellery Queen that combined a cast of former film stars together all in one episode. Each mystery would have a cast list that read like a A picture of the 1950s, with guest stars such as Don Ameche, Roddy McDowall, Eva Gabor, Vincent Price, Donald O'Connor, Dana Andrews, Troy Donahue, Rhonda Fleming, Sal Mineo, Vera Miles, Cesar Romero, Anne Francis, Kim Hunter, Signe Hasso and Jimmy Lydon.

This appealing format of luring in audiences eager to see their favorite film stars - now aging - gained popularity in later shows of the 1970s and 80s such as The Love BoatFantasy Island and Murder She Wrote, but none compared to the amount of talent that gathered together as suspects on Ellery Queen. 



"Dad, you think you could take care of that for me?"
"Ellery! You want me to fix a parking ticket? Pay the two dollars"

Best Episodes


Now this is one show that is really hard to choose "bests" on....mainly because every episode is entertaining and can be watched again and again. After some deliberation however, we narrowed it down to these Top 5, not only because of their clever mystery, but for the cast choices and the wittiness of the script. 



1. The Adventure of Auld Lang Syne ( Ep. 1 )

Joan Collins, Ray Walston, Farley Granger, Barbara Rush, David Doyle, Barbara Rush. 

Everybody who is anybody is having a ball at the New Year's Eve party at the Astor Hotel. Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians are providing the peppy music while Inspector Queen is dodging Mrs.Velie's dancing shoes and millionaire Marcus Halliday is chewing out his relatives at his private table. He announces that he is going to cut them all out of his new will...but within an hour is found stabbed in the telephone booth. He died just before he was able to make a call to a man he doesn't know. The police commissioner wants the case solved before the midnight bells chime, and Ellery can't be found to help!


2. The Adventure of the Blunt Instrument ( Ep. 11 )

Eva Gabor, John Dehner, Dean Stockwell, Joanna Barnes. 

Mystery author Edgar Manning just won the coveted Blunt Instrument Award, a heavy statuette given to the author who has written the best mystery novel of the year. While talking on the phone to Ellery he is bashed on the head with this award. The guests who attended his cocktail celebration party are all under suspicion.....each one hated him enough to kill him....but all deny doing so. Ellery hunts down the killer..and a cure for his head cold. 


3. The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party ( Ep. 8 )

Rhonda Fleming, Jim Backus, Larry Hagman, Edward Andrews, Julie Sommars.

Ellery boards a train to Greenhaven Estate, the stately home of Spencer Lockridge, a theatrical producer, to spend the night as a guest and discuss the possibility of having one of his novels turned into a play. He arrives to find Lockridge, his family, and guests all donning costumes for his son's birthday celebration, each being a character from Alice in Wonderland. The next morning Lockridge is missing...still donning the costume of The White Rabbit..and one by one clues from articles within the house are arriving by an anonymous visitor. This episode is considered to be one of the most faithful adaptions of any Ellery Queen story and we consider it one of the best of the series. 




4. The Adventure of the Eccentric Engineer ( Ep. 14 )

Dorothy Malone, Ed MacMahon, David Hedison, Bobby Sherman, Arthur Godfrey. 

Lamont Franklin, a famous inventor, was shot at point blank while playing with his model train set in his private workshop. For the last few months his family and friends thought he was going insane, but was his insanity a cover to give him an opportunity to work on a top-secret project in solitude? This was one of the easy episodes for viewers to solve but still managed to contain some surprise elements. It is the "atmosphere" of this episode that is most appealing.



5. The Adventure of the Disappearing Dagger ( Ep. 22 )

Walter Pidgeon, Mel Ferrer, Dana Wynter, Ronny Cox.

Ellery Queen managed to wrap-up two murder cases in this episode. One, the death - by stabbing - of former private investigator ( Pidgeon ) and the other of a five-year old case of a similar stabbing on board a private flight. A stellar cast makes this episode highly entertaining. 

To read more about Ellery Queen and the film and television shows the stories inspired check out the Ellery Queen website. 

4 comments:

  1. "In the mid-1970s middle-aged viewers got to sit back, relax and enjoy a sprightly-paced hour watching Ellery Queen and his pop solve murder cases..." Just a doggone minute! I was a teenager at the time and absolutely in love with Ellery and Co. It's the only show I ever wrote a letter to the network over when it was cancelled. TV Guide's Cleveland Amory was a huge fan of the show, especially of Simon Brimmer. "Ellery Queen" had style.

    Tough for me to single out favourites, but I do have a soft spot for "The Adventure of Col. Nivin's Memoirs" and "The Adventure of Miss Aggie's Farwell Performance". "The Adventure of the Blunt Instrument" is a particular favourite and I think you have mixed up the plot synopsis with "The Adventure of the Chinese Dog".

    A very thoughtful and thorough look at EQ on screen.

    Have you ever seen "The Grand Old Lady", a season 6 episode of "Murder, She Wrote". It most definitely was a leftover Queen episode. You can feel it.

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  2. Well, blow me down! You could easily match wits with Ellery Queen! I was going to choose The Chinese Dog as a favorite but then changed my mind and thought...oh heck, I'll make supper first and then fix it up, no one is going to notice. ;-) We haven't gotten around to watching Col. Niven nor Miss Aggie's Farewell Performance but those do seem to be fan favorites for many, so you may just see another episode summary change soon.

    I was imagining the younger viewers ( like you! ) tuning in to watch Jim Hutton and try and solve the mysteries while the middle-aged crowd sat back and enjoyed seeing their Hollywood favorites like Dana Andrews ( sigh... ) and Signe Hasso. Quite truthfully, don't you appreciate the series more today than you did then? EQ certainly gathered together the best celebrities. It's just as fun spotting the talent as it is solving the mysteries.

    I like how William Link thought that Murder She Wrote did better because the clues were simpler to follow. I think he underestimated Angela Lansbury's appeal. I'd tune every week for twelve years even if I didn't guess the culprit not once! In this case, Ellery really should have went on for another season, the show had everything - a great cast, a great lead actor, wonderful setting and witty scripts.

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  3. I used to make a chocolate cream pie for my kid sisters and myself every week for Ellery. As movie buffs we did appreciate the guest stars, but you are right that today it's an even bigger treat to see the assembled favourites.

    If the show had continued (in a perfect world), I would have liked to have seen a repeat appearance for Richard Jaeckel as Nick McVey in "...Blunt Instrument".

    PS: Until I switched it up for a Christmas theme, my background image on facebook was a street scene from Ellery Queen. It speaks to me.

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  4. It's great to know there are such loyal fans of Ellery. Only recently did I discover this show and now I know what I have been missing all these years!

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