Monday, October 10, 2011

Johnny Staccato (1960)

Like much of his work in mainstream cinema and television, Johnny Staccato represented an opportunity for budding film trailblazer John Cassavetes to earn enough money to help fund his independent efforts. The show, a 30-minute private detective drama that first aired on NBC, seems like a direct rip-off of the more popular Peter Gunn, with Staccato set in New York and featuring the edgy Cassavetes in contrast to Gunn's L.A. backdrop and the laconic Craig Stevens in the titular role. Both shows feature a jazz soundtrack with regular appearances by real-life jazz stars and are often set in a jazz club that serves as home base for the respective private eyes--Peter Gunn hangs out at Mother's; Johnny Staccato, a jazz pianist who turned to private detective work when he realized he would never make it big in music, crashes at Waldo's, run by his elder friend of the same name.

But true to his independent streak, Cassavetes' Staccato is more of a lone wolf than Gunn--there is no Edie to come home to. And even though Staccato has a pretty young thing dangling on his arm at the beginning of some episodes, she is never a developed character, often not mentioned in the credits, more of an accessory than a living human being. The members of the police force Staccato deals with on a regular basis are a rotating cast of characters, while Gunn develops a friendly, though occasionally strained, relationship with Lt. Jacoby The other primary difference between the two series is that Gunn ran for three full seasons, 114 episodes, and was the defining role in Stevens' career (after the series ended he played the same character in the feature-length film Gunn in 1966), whereas Staccato ran for a single abbreviated season, 27 episodes (16 of which aired in 1959, the last 11 in 1960), and was only a payday for Cassavetes. Cassavetes also had a little more creative control in his series, even directing a few episodes, but reportedly grew irate when an episode about drug use was canceled and thereafter complained in the press about the producers and sponsors in the hopes of being let go.

As crime dramas go, it's no better or worse than others of the era. It's easy to imagine that Cassavetes must have bristled when forced to play in tired plots like that in "Double Feature" (January 28, 1960), in which Staccato has an evil doppelganger whose crimes land Staccato in jail. Or in "The Only Witness" (January 14, 1960), in which the sister of the murder victim turns out to have been the one who plotted the murder. In the last two episodes, the show also tried to broach political issues: in "A Nice Little Town" (March 10, 1960), Staccato is called to a friend's small hometown to help investigate the murder of her brother, who was a Korean War P.O.W. who succumbed to torture and was thereafter branded a communist. And in "Swinging Long Hair," Staccato befriends and tries to help an Eastern European defector who plays classical piano and is on the run from assassins sent from his home country. However, this last episode surprisingly seems to conflate the feelings of Cassavetes and Staccato when the latter utters his final monologue, "Killing. I kill; they kill. It seems it never ends. Now the bald-headed man has to be found, and someone will kill him. But not me, I've had it." Cassavetes had had his fill of formulaic crime dramas with their quota of dead bodies and ambiguous political statements.  He had his own chapter on American film to write.

The soundtrack for the series was written and conducted by the great Elmer Bernstein, one of the most prolific and gifted soundtrack composers of the 20th century. Bernstein wrote soundtracks to literally hundreds of films, received an Academy Award for the score to Thoroughly Modern Millie in 1967, and was nominated a total of 14 times. Other well-known scores he composed included The Ten Commandments, The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Ghostbusters. Johnny Staccato, along with the Darren McGavin-Burt Reynolds vehicle Riverboat, were his first television soundtracks, both of which aired during the 1959-60 season. Before Staccato he had cut his teeth in the crime jazz genre with the scores for The Man With the Golden Arm(1955) and The Sweet Smell of Success(1957). He passed away at age 82 on August 18, 2004.

The Actors

John Cassavetes

Cassavetes was born in New York City to Greek immigrants but spent his early years with his family in Greece before returning to New York at age 7. After high school, he attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and graduated in 1950. After small parts in films and TV, he began running his own workshop out of which grew his first film Shadows, which appeared in its initial form in 1957 and its final form in 1959. After his brief tenure as Johnny Staccato, he continued making guest appearances on TV shows and appeared in various studio films, such as The Dirty Dozen in 1967, which garnered and Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and Rosemary's Baby in 1968. From 1968 to 1977 he directed the films Faces starring his wife Gena Rowlands, Husbands with Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara, A Woman Under the Influence, for which Rowlands was nominated for Best Actress, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie with Gazzara, and Opening Night, again with Rowlands. He continued directing and occasionally acting into the 1980s but died February 3, 1989 from cirrhosis of the liver at age 59.

Eduardo Ciannelli

Ciannelli was born in Naples, Italy and originally trained to be a doctor but gave it up to sing opera as a baritone. He moved to American after World War I and began singing in Broadway musicals. He began appearing in American films in the 1930s, and his credits include Gunga Din, Foreign Correspondent, The Mummy's Hand, and Gilda. In the 1950s he appeared in a number of Italian films and began appearing on American TV shows beginning with I Love Lucy in 1956. Playing Waldo on Johnny Staccato was his only regular TV role, but he appeared as the character Pappas three times on Dr. Kildare and played Arturo "Fingers" Stilletto in two episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. He also continued appearing in feature-length films up until his death in 1969 at age 80.

Notable Guest Stars

Season 1, Episode 17, "The Man in the Pit": Pete Candoli (real-life west-coast jazz trumpeter) plays jazz trumpeter Pete Millikan. Norman Fell (Det. Meyer Meyer on 87th Precinct, Sgt. Charles Wilentz on Dan August, and Stanley Roper on Three's Company and The Ropers) plays theatre manager Bill Lentz. Nita Talbot (Marya on Hogan's Heroes, Judy Evans on Here We Go Again, Delfina on General Hospital, and Rose on Starting From Scratch) plays showgirl Narcissa.

Season 1, Episode 18, "The Only Witness": Garry Walberg (Sgt. Edward Goddard on Peyton Place, Speed on The Odd Couple, and Lt. Frank Monahan on Quincy, M.E.)  plays police Sgt. Sullivan. Geraldine Brooks (Angela Dumpling on The Dumplings) plays Karen Buford, whose brother is murdered. Frank London (Charlie on Peyton Place) in a recurring role plays Staccato's stoolie Shad.

Season 1, Episode 19, "Night of Jeopardy": Frank De Kova (Chief Wild Eagle on F Troop and Louis Campagna on The Untouchables) plays counterfeiter Eddie Waynewright. Mario Gallo (Tomaso Delvecchio on Delvecchio) plays Waynewright's confidant Dave Roman. Frank London (see "The Only Witness" above) reappears as Shad.

Season 1, Episode 20, "Double Feature": John Marley (starred in Cat Ballou, Love Story, and The Godfather)) plays harassed business owner Oliver Keely. Bert Freed (Rufe Ryker on Shane) plays police Sgy. Joe Gillen. Frank London (see "The Only Witness" above) reappears as Shad.

Season 1, Episode 21, "The List of Death": Paul Stewart (starred in Citizen Kane and Champion) plays dying thief Joe Alieto. Monica Lewis (real-life jazz/pop vocalist) plays singer Millie Collins. Charles Seel (Mr. Krinkie on Dennis the Menace and Tom Pride on The Road West) plays mob informant Blind Willie. Lewis Charles (Lou on The Feather and Father Gang) plays mobster Charlie Taxi. Maxine Stuart (Maureen on Norby, Ruth Burton on Room for One More, Mrs. Hewitt on Peyton Place, Marge Newberry on Executive Suite, Amanda Earp on The Rousters, and Eleanor "Gram" Rutledge on The Pursuit of Happiness) plays Alieto's former girlfriend Velma Dean. Wally Brown (Chauncey Kowalski on The Roaring '20's) plays police Sgt. Baker.

Season 1, Episode 22, "Solomon": Cloris Leachman (Ruth Martin on Lassie and Phyllis Lindstrom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, and Phyllis) plays professed pacifist Jessica Winthrop, accused of murdering her husband. Elisha Cook, Jr. (starred in The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, The Great Gatsby (1949), and The Killing and who played Francis "Ice Pick" Hofstetler on Magnum P.I.) plays her defense attorney Solomon Bradshaw.

Season 1, Episode 24, "An Angry Young Man": Warren Berlinger (Larry on The Joey Bishop Show, Walter Bradley on A Touch of Grace, Chief Engineer Dobritch on Operation Petticoat, and Herb on Too Close for Comfort) plays angry young man Carl Humboldt. Sig Ruman (starred in A Night at the Opera, To Be or Not to Be, House of Frankenstein, and Stalag 17) plays his father Otto. Arthur Batanides (Sgt. Sam Olivera on Johnny Midnight) plays bookseller Louis Sacorro.

Season 1, Episode 25, "The Mask of Jason": Mary Tyler Moore (Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary Brenner on Mary, and Annie McGuire on Annie McGuire) plays beauty contestant Bonny Howard. Vito Scotti (Jose on The Deputy, Capt. Gaspar Fomento on The Flying Nun, and Mr. Velasquez on Barefoot in the Park) plays her manager Carlos. Bert Remsen (Mr. Pell on Gibbsville, Mario on Making a Living, and Jack Crager on Jack Crager on Dynasty) plays disfigured Jason Eldridge.

Season 1, Episode 26, "A Nice Little Town": Christine White (Abigail Adams on Ichabod and Me) plays Staccato's friend in trouble Royal Purvis. Glenn Cannon (Manicote on Hawaii Five-O) plays her brother Joe. Rayford Barnes (Ike Clanton on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp) plays local war hero Ray Farragut.

Season 1, Episode 27, "Swinging Long Hair": George Voskovec (starred in 12 Angry Men, The Iron Mistress, and The Iceman Cometh and who played Peter Skagska on Skag and Fritz Brenner on Nero Wolfe) plays Eastern Bloc defector and classical pianist Stanley Kaye. Real-life musicians Fred Katz, Paul Horn, and John Pisano play themselves.

1 comment:

  1. I started out not liking Cassavetes because he seemed selfish about his show, but I like the way he ended it. I really like the guest start recap - it's fun!