For the better part of the past several weeks I have been binge-watching four seasons of a TV show that has recently become available on DVD. And in a year that has brought such pleasures as the last season of “Breaking Bad” and the first season of “House of Cards,” I’ve found a drama series I’ve liked every bit as much as those gems. Remarkably, it’s a TV series that’s more than 50 years old!
It’s a series set in New York, my all-time favorite city. New York is also the subject of one the best essays I’ve ever read, E.B. White’s “Here is New York,” which first appeared in Holiday magazine in April 1949.
Wrote White, “New York is the concentrate of art and commerce and sport and religion and entertainment and finance, bringing to a single compact arena the gladiator, the evangelist, the promoter, the actor, the trader and the merchant. It carries on its lapels the unexpungable odor of the long past, so that no matter where you sit in New York you feel the vibrations of great times and tall deeds, of queer people and events and undertakings.”
Being 1949, White used queer to mean unconventional. Later in his essay, White talks of how “the collision and intermingling“ of the millions of those living in New York City represent “so many races and creeds [as to] make New York a permanent exhibit of the phenomenon of one world.” White adds, “The Consolidated Edison Company says there are eight million people in the five boroughs of New York.”
That fact was also noticed a year earlier in a movie that began with a daytime shot of Manhattan from an airplane and this narration by the film’s producer, Mark Hellinger, who informed the audience that this movie was going to be different from most because “it was not photographed in a studio. … The actors played out their roles on the streets, in the apartment buildings, in the skyscrapers of New York itself. … This is the city as it is — hot summer pavement, the children at play, the buildings in their naked stone, the people without make-up.” He then begins the narration that was written by screenwriters Albert Matz — who was later blacklisted — and Malvin Wald:
EXT. MIDTOWN MANHATTAN – NIGHT
It’s one o’clock in the morning now —
EXT. WALL STREET – NIGHT DESERTED
And this is the face of New York City —
The movie, about two policemen trying to solve a murder, was called “The Naked City,” and is as famous for its narrative semi-documentary style as it is for being filmed, in vibrant black & white, on the streets of New York. At the very end of the film narrator Hellinger said, “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”
Close to a decade after the movie came out a young TV producer saw it. According to the 2008 book “Naked City: The Television Series” by James Rosin, “‘The Naked City’ was part of a feature film package acquired by Columbia for television release in 1957. This caught the attention of Herbert Leonard, an independent producer who worked with Screen Gems, Columbia’s television subsidiary.” Bert Leonard was 35 in 1957, and had had a big TV hit three years earlier with “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin,” which was still on the air on ABC. Leonard contacted the widow of the producer of “The Naked City” and acquired the TV rights to the film. With tobacco giant Brown and Williamson agreeing to co-sponsor the show with Quaker Oats, ABC and Columbia’s Screen Gems agreed to make “The Naked City” as a weekly half-hour cop drama.
The show premiered on ABC on Tuesday, Sept. 30, 1958, at 9:30 p.m. ET/PT, following another new show, “The Rifleman.” Using some of the same overhead footage of Manhattan that was in the film version of "The Naked City," a voiceover by Leonard repeated many of the same lines Hellinger said when he introduced the movie as its narrator. And at the end of the episode Leonard’s voice was heard once again as he said, “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”
In Rosin’s book, Mark Alvey, a media historian, says that Leonard told Variety in 1958 that the idea of the TV version of “The Naked City” was “an attempt to tell anthology-style stories within the framework of a continuing character show. It was, [Leonard said], a ‘human interest series about the city and people of New York, told through the eyes of two law enforcement officers.’ Leonard’s agenda for the show’s setting was equally unique: It would be shot completely on location in New York, duplicating the trend-setting realism of the 1948 feature film. This was an ambitious, if not radical move at this moment in television history. New York retained a presence as the site of variety and quiz shows, plus live anthologies. But no weekly TV film dramas were being produced there at the time.”
Leonard hired writer Stirling Silliphant to pen the pilot of the show. He went on to, astonishingly, write 31 of the show’s first-season order of 39 episodes. According to Alvey, Screen Gems didn’t like the anthology nature of the show, and wanted it to be more conventional, but Leonard stuck to his guns. The two main characters in season one were played by John McIntire, as a police lieutenant, and James Franciscus as his younger detective partner.
John McIntire (right) and James Franciscus on the half-hour version of "The Naked City"
I think Franciscus was miscast. I liked McIntire, but, in a move practically unheard of for the time, he was killed off midseason, when he decided he wanted to leave the show.
Susan Orlean, for her 2011 book “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend,” did extensive research into the life of Leonard, and wrote: “For the first season [of ‘The Naked City’] Silliphant wrote an episode in which James Franciscus’s character watches an inmate being executed. ABC was outraged, but Bert insisted he wanted to use the episode; the network responded by canceling the show.”
I’m not surprised that the series was canceled. While somewhat interesting, I don’t think “The Naked City” really worked well as a half-hour drama.
But clearly Leonard was onto something. The show generally did about a 20 rating, not far behind the 21 or so that Red Skelton was doing on CBS. Bob Cummings’ sitcom on NBC was competitive as well.
On the sponsorship side, Quaker Oats had quit its half-sponsorship of “The Naked City" about halfway through the season. Brown and Williamson picked up the slack. And they liked Leonard’s vision of the show. So they convinced ABC to bring back the series, now just called “Naked City,” as an hour-long drama starting a year later, in September 1960.
So the show ran as a half-hour drama for the 1958-’59 season, sat out the 1959-’60 season, and came back as an hour-long drama for the 1960-’61 season. It ran for two more seasons after that in its hour-long length.
When it came back in the fall of 1960, Franciscus was gone, replaced by Paul Burke. The difference was night and day. Franciscus’s Detective Jim Halloran was full of the piss and vinegar of youth. Burke’s Detective Adam Flint was at once older, more worldly, warmer and more sympathetic. Furthermore, when John McIntire was killed off in season one he had been replaced by Horace McMahon, whose lieutenant character was — appr
opriately — more gruff than the one McIntire had played. McMahon returned for the hour-long version of the show.
Paul Burke (left) and Horace McMahon in the hour-long version of "Naked City"
Also added to the cast was Nancy Malone as Burke’s girlfriend, and they had terrific chemistry as well.
More importantly, Silliphant had moved on to another show Leonard created, “Route 66.” He was replaced as the story editor on "Naked City" by Howard Rodman, who later would write such movies as “Coogan’s Bluff,” “Madigan” and “Charley Varrick.”
Plus, Rodman and Leonard hired a stable of top-flight writers who transformed "Naked City" into a compelling weekly anthology series that, for my money, was as good as most of what I’ve seen from TV’s Golden Age of live drama. The show was good enough to be nominated for the Best Drama Emmy for each year it was on, from 1960 to the end of the 1962-63 season.
I urge you to buy this DVD set of 138 episodes and check it out for yourself. It’s put out by RLJ Entertainment. To start, you can get seasons one and two on Amazon’s streaming service.
Another persuasive reason to watch this series is to see the wonderful work of Abram S. Ginnes. He’s a writer I had never heard of before I started watching this DVD set. He wrote a total of 13 episodes of “Naked City,” all in seasons three and four. One of them, titled “The One Marked Hot Gives Cold,” which was originally broadcast in season three on March 21, 1962, is one of the finest hours of episodic drama I have ever seen on TV. The primary guest stars were Robert Duvall, Edward Andrews and a little girl played by an actress named Laurie Heinman.
A number of Ginnes’ "Naked City" teleplays included characters who were either kids or teens. In "The One Marked Hot Gives Cold," Duvall plays a man who is having trouble finding himself, who befriends a 12-year-old girl played by Heinman. I don’t want to spoil anything about this episode — at some point you should try to see it. In total, Duvall guest-starred in four "Naked City" episodes, playing different characters in each one.
All I could find out about Ginnes on the Internet was a May 22, 2006, obituary about him written by film and TV historian Stephen Bowie. Here’s an excerpt:
“Abram S. Ginnes, an enormously talented writer whom I had the pleasure of knowing during his last years, died Saturday in Los Angeles following a long illness. He was 91.
“Ginnes was nominated for a Writers Guild Award for his only screenplay, ‘Gaily Gaily’ (1969), an adaptation of Ben Hecht’s memoirs. Before that he wrote extensively for radio, television and the theatre, specializing in cop shows and flavorful tales of New York City life that drew upon his own Brooklyn upbringing.
“Ginnes was an unapologetic radical for his entire life, and as a result he was blacklisted for several years during the 1950s. Like most artists who ran afoul of the McCarthy-era witchhunts, Ginnes found himself out of work just as his career was beginning to gather momentum.”
The obituary adds, “Ginnes’ comeback from the blacklist took the form, primarily, of a baker’s dozen of hour-long scripts for the New York-based police drama ‘Naked City.’ ‘Naked City’ was always an anthology in disguise (the writers struggled to get the cops into their stories), and Abe’s contributions were all perfectly polished gems that reflected his wry, offbeat, and optimistic outlook on life. They were obsessively psychoanalytical, deeply interested in folklore and outsider communities, and dabbled in a surrealism that was highly unusual for TV at the time. I could go on about these amazing, largely unknown works, but most of them are on DVD and I encourage anyone who’s interested to seek them out.”
I agree wholehearedly with this assessment of Ginnes’ first-rate work on "Naked City."
The hour-long “Naked City” episodes made for such an absorbing, enthralling and exciting series because the stories were smart, original, tightly written teleplays about people who, in less than an hour, you were able to come to know and care about.
In Rosin’s book about "Naked City," James Sheldon, who directed a number of episodes, nailed it when he observed, “An important factor of the show and the way it was structured was that the series regulars never competed with the guest cast. They were there to complement and support them, and it made for a very effective weekly ensemble.“
And Burke told Rosin, “I had a metaphor for our show, which was a pie with three slices. One slice was the regular cast, another was the guest cast, and the third slice was the city of New York.”
Finally, here are a few of the actors who guest-starred on “Naked City”:
Lee J. Cobb, Claude Raines, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Maureen Stapleton, Diahann Carroll, George Segal, Lois Nettleton, Gene Hackman, Rip Torn, Tuesday Weld, Martin Sheen, Anthony Zerbe, Luther Adler, Nina Foch, Nehemiah Persoff, Akim Tamiroff, Mickey Rooney, Jack Lord, Piper Laurie, Sylvia Sidney, Gladys Cooper, Richard Conte and Dan Duryea.
And that’s just a partial list. Kudos to Marion Dougherty who, along with Jeff Kimmel, cast the guest stars every week.
And thank you, producer Bert Leonard. He died, in debt, at age 84 on Oct. 14, 2006. But what a legacy he left. "The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin," "Route 66" and another baby-boomer TV favorite that he produced, "Rescue 8." Plus, of course, "Naked City." In Hollywood there are also eight million stories. And how lucky for us that we can celebrate Leonard’s one-in-a-million success.