Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Lawless Years (1960)

Some writers have tried to suggest that The Lawless Years provided the blueprint for the more successful and longer-running series The Untouchables. And while it is true that the former series debuted on April 16, 1959 and the latter didn't begin its first regular season until later that October, the pilot for The Untouchables, "The Scarface Mob," appeared on Desilu Playhouse with Robert Stack playing Elliott Ness also in April 1959. Given the amount of time required to write, shoot, and edit a television production, it is virtually impossible for either of these similarly themed series to have prompted the creation of the other. What their nearly simultaneous beginnings indicate, however, was a renewed interest in the roaring '20's (a term used as the title for a true Untouchables wannabe the next fall), perhaps as a chronologically different, though thematically similar, alternative to the omnipresent western. Instead of the wild west, where men shot first and asked questions later, viewers were treated to shoot-outs between G-men and gangsters during the age of speakeasies and 23 skidoo. (Perhaps coincidentally, roaring '20's music returned to popularity in Britain in 1961 as groups like Kenny Ball & His Jazzmen and The Temperance Seven topped the charts with ragtime music.) It could be argued that The Untouchables took its convention of naming episodes after a particular character (e.g., "The Frank Nitti Story") after The Lawless Years, which did the same, though not religiously. However, episodes of Wagon Train, which debuted in 1957, used the same convention. 

Like The Untouchables, The Lawless Years was based on the memoirs of a true-life crimefighter from the era, in this case, New York policeman Barney Ruditsky, played in the series by James Gregory. However, Ruditsky isn't always the central lawman who puts the criminals behind bars, unlike The Untouchables' Elliott Ness, who is depicted busting gangsters he never dealt with in real life. Ruditsky does, however, narrate each episode, usually shown in a darkened room with a slide projector. In the one episode from 1960, "The Prantera Story," he is also shown taking an anonymous phone call from the title character, though otherwise he is uninvolved in the proceedings. Also, like The Untouchables, the law does not always seem to get its man. In "The Prantera Story," we see the title character convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to 10 years in prison at the beginning of the episode, and after he is released he is a destitute bum in the Bowery. But after being put back on his feet by an ambitious but short-sighted mob lawyer, he returns to the top of the mob world by the end of the episode, with no epilogue about him eventually being arrested or gunned down.

Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of the series was the air dates for the 47 episodes that spanned three years. The series began as a spring replacement in April 1959 and ran 18 episodes through the end of August, which considers its first season. It continued running when the fall 1959 season began in October, with 8 more episodes aired through mid-December. Then "The Prantera Story" ran on January 19, 1960, but no other episodes ran the rest of that calendar year; by's reckoning, these 9 episodes comprise the second season. But the series was resurrected in 1961, with 20 episodes running from May 12 through September 22, a sort of extended summer replacement series, what calls its third season. The DVD release from Timeless Media Group, however, contains the first 27 episodes--all those aired in 1959 plus the one from 1960--and calls them The Complete First Season. Regardless how the seasons are divvied up, The Lawless Years specifically and roaring '20's-themed shows generally had a relatively short burst of popularity. The Roaring 20's lasted but two seasons, ending in 1962, and even the heavyweight Untouchables lasted only four seasons, finishing its run the following year.

Since this post was originally written, the entire series has been released on DVD by Timeless Media Group.

The Actors

James Gregory

Born in Brooklyn, NY, Gregory got the acting bug early and was voted president of his high school drama club in New Rochelle. After a brief stint as a runner on Wall Street shortly after the crash of 1929, he took up acting full-time as part of a traveling theatre troupe before making it to Broadway in a production of Key Largo in 1939. After three years in the military during World War II, he returned to acting, landing his first movie appearance in an uncredited role in The Naked City in 1948 and began appearing in live TV dramas in the early 1950s. He was adept at playing tough-talking, hard-nosed types, first in serious roles, such as the Joseph McCarthy-like Senator John Yerkes Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate, belligerent ape General Ursus in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and as Barney Ruditsky on The Lawless Years, though later he played this type for comic effect, such as his role as Inspector Frank Luger on Barney Miller and as Dean Martin's boss MacDonald in the first three Matt Helm spy-spoof films. He also had a regular role as Nick Hannigan in the 1979 TV series Detective School and appeared in lightweight fare such as The Love God? and The Million Dollar Duck before retiring from acting in the 1980s, his last appearance being on an episode of Mr. Belvedere. His wife of 58 years, Ann Mittner, was an occasional member of the vocal group The Chordettes, who recorded the hit version of "Mr. Sandman."

Gregory retired to Sedona, Arizona, where he died of natural causes at age 90 on September 16, 2002.

Notable Guest Stars

Season 2, Episode 9, "The Prantera Story": Robert Strauss (shown on the left, starred in Sailor Beware, Jumping Jacks, Stalag 17, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, The Seven Year Itch, and Girls! Girls! Girls! and played Sgt. Stan Gruzewsky on Mona McCluskey) plays once and future mobster Nick Prantera. Bartlett Robinson (Frank Caldwell on Mona McCluskey) plays mob lawyer Clay Mason. Dayton Lummis (Marshal Andy Morrison on Law of the Plainsman) plays an unnamed judge.

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