Over three decades before shows like Profiler and Law & Order: Criminal Intent showed law enforcement agents trying to prevent crimes through criminal profiling, there was Checkmate. A new crime drama for the fall 1960 season that ran for two seasons, a total of 70 episodes from 1960-1962, Checkmate followed the exploits of Don Corey (Anthony George) and Jed Sills (Doug McClure) along with their consultant, British criminologist and professor Dr. Carl Hyatt (Sebastian Cabot) who together run the company Checkmate, Inc., located in San Francisco. Rather than a detective agency that solves crimes after they happen, Checkmate's purpose is to prevent crimes before they happen. Dr. Hyatt explains more specifically in episode 12, "The Murder Game," their belief that premeditated crimes (as opposed to crimes of passion) can be detected and stopped because the criminal will reveal his or her intention through behavior or speech. Some clients come to Checkmate because they cannot be helped by the police if no crime has yet been committed. In many cases, there is a precipitating crime that suggests a second, related crime will be committed--sometimes the first crime is a petty crime to set up something more serious; other times the first crime is the reason for the expected second crime, as in a case of revenge.
The methods used by the Checkmate team often seem crude by today's standards--after all, they don't have computers to search databases of criminal records, DNA testing hasn't been invented yet, and forensic science in general is much less developed. So instead we see them occasionally drag in pseudo-scientific tools like faux Freudian psycho-analysis or handwriting analysis. And more often, their success seems based on pure luck--clues just seem to fall into place and they are mentally able to put the pieces of the puzzle together before catastrophe strikes. But this is no more unrealistic than some of today's crime shows, where magic computer programs can pull things together without much effort by the protagonists. All in all, though, it's a better than average crime drama for the era and was relatively popular in its first season, placing 21st in the ratings, ahead of such shows as The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, The Rifleman, Peter Gunn, and Route 66.
Checkmate also marks the first television show with a soundtrack composed and orchestrated by Johnny Williams, better known today as multiple Oscar-winning composer John Williams. Williams had previously cut his teeth in the crime jazz style working with Henry Mancini on the soundtrack for Peter Gunn and with Benny Carter for some of the episodes of M Squad, but Checkmate was the first series that he led. The soundtrack album has been reissued on CD, along with another Williams album of orchestral jazz titled Rhythm in Motion, by Film Score Monthly.
All 70 episodes of Checkmate have been issued on DVD in a 14-disc boxed set by Timeless Media Group. For those who want a smaller sampling, Timeless Media has also issued a pair of 3-DVD sets featuring the best of season 1 and the best of season 2.
The son of Italian immigrants, George came to Hollywood at age 23 with no prior acting experience or training. He was selling men's furnishings at a department store and taking acting classes when a woman who was staging a play at the Laguna Playhouse saw him and cast him in the production. From there he moved on to film work but had a nervous breakdown brought on by flu and fear of failure while filming the Dick Powell picture You Never Can Tell. He figured his career was finished and retreated to New York, but there found work on the stage and television. He returned to Hollywood in 1956 and was picked for an episode of the TV show G.E. Theater by none other than Rosalind Russell. From there, he landed a one-time appearance on the show Hawaiian Eye, which caught the eye of talent agent Monique James. James signed him and had him cast as Cam Allison in The Untouchables. However, he asked out of his contract after only 13 episodes because the offers were flying in so fast and furious, and producers agreed to let him go, killing off his character in the process. Checkmate was his next stop.
After Checkmate, he made a only a few guest appearances on other TV shows in 1962-63 until being cast as Jeremiah Collins on the vampire-themed soap opera Dark Shadows in 1967. He continued his work on soaps with a 5-year stint as Dr. Tony Vincente on Search for Tomorrow from 1970-75 and a 7-year run as the third Dr. Will Vernon on One Life to Live from 1977-84. He died March 16, 2005 at the age of 84.
Blonde, toothy, and eternally young, Doug McClure appeared on scores of TV shows, starting in 1957 until his death in 1995. He is best remembered for playing the character Trampas for 9 years on The Virginian (1962-71), but he also had regular roles as Frank "Flip" Flippen on Overland Trail (1960), C.R. Grover in Search (1972-73), as Cash Conover on Barbary Coast (1975-76), and as Kyle X. Applegate on Out of This World (1987-91), in addition to playing Jed Sills on Checkmate.
British born Sebastian Cabot began appearing in films as early as 1935 and added TV work to his resume starting in 1951. He will, of course, always be remembered as Mr. French on Family Affair (1966-71), but he also had a regular role as Commissioner Andrew Crippen on The Beachcomber in 1962 and as Winston Essex on Circle of Fear (1972), in addition to his role on Checkmate. He also did voice work as the voice of Bagheera the Panther in Disney's The Jungle Book and narrated a few Winnie the Pooh movies in the 60s and 70s. He dropped out of school at age 14, and before he took up acting he worked as a chef, professional wrestler, chauffeur, and garage mechanic. And last, but probably least, at the height of his Family Affair fame, he released an album titled Sebastian Cabot, actor/Bob Dylan, poet in which he spoke the words of Dylan's songs while accompanied by innocuous classical-sounding music that did not match Dylan's melodies. He died August 22, 1977.
Notable Guest Stars
Episode 1: Anne Baxter (All About Eve; Olga, Queen of the Cossacks and Zelda the Great on Batman) plays Beatrice Martin Kipp, who believes someone is trying to kill her.
Episode 2: Robert Vaughn (Napoleon Solo on Man From U.N.C.L.E.) plays Abner Benson, an escaped convict.
Episode 3: Dean Stockwell (Admiral Al Calavicci on Quantum Leap) plays Roddy Stevenson, who appears bent on revenge for the killing of his fraternity brother.
Episode 4: Jane Wyman (the first Mrs. Ronald Reagan) plays Joan Talmadge, who believes she will be murdered for testifying against a murderer. Mary Tyler Moore also appears as a secretary.
Episode 5: Joseph Cotten (Citizen Kane, The Third Man) plays Dr. Joseph Mallinson, who appears intent on killing former Nazi Louis Roche.
Episode 6: Anna Maria Alberghetti (Ten Thousand Bedrooms, Cinderfella) plays Trudy Lombard, an heiress trying to escape her family.
Episode 7: Charles Bickford (John Grainger on The Virginian) plays Whitney P. Thorne, an oil tycoon who believes his former partner is trying to kill him.
Episode 8: Margaret O'Brien (Jane Eyre, Meet Me in St. Louis, Little Women) plays Angela Kendricks, a military widow who believes that someone connected to her dead husband is trying to kill her.
Episode 9: Barbara Rush (Marsha Russell on Peyton Place) plays Margaret Russell, whose life appears to be in danger from someone named Nikki Garnett.
Episode 10: Martin Landau (Rollin Hand on Mission: Impossible) plays Lt. Diaz, who believes Jed Sills has murdered Rita Alvarez. Also Victor Buono (King Tut on Batman) plays Carlos Rodriguez, a man who stages bull fights.
Episode 11: Cloris Leachman (Phyllis Lindstrom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, and Phyllis) plays Marilyn Parker, roommate of Elena Nardos, who appears to be hunted for accidentally killing a Chinese student.
Episode 12: John Williams (Dial 'M' for Murder; Nigel 'Niles' French on A Family Affair) plays Emory Olivant, a fatally ill former defense attorney who says he plans to kill a former client whom he acquitted but who was actually guilty.
Epsiode 13: Terry Moore (Come Back Little Sheba; Connie Garrett on Empire; Venus on Batman) plays Claudia Warren, an heiress whom someone is trying to kill, probably for her inheritance.