Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Brenner (1961)

The father-and-son police drama Brenner has one of the more unusual broadcast histories in television. The series originated as a summer replacement series based on a January 15, 1959 Playhouse 90 episode titled "The Blue Men," which was written by Alvin Boretz, produced by Herbert Brodkin, directed by John Frankenheimer, and starred Edmond O'Brien as Roy Brenner and Richie LePore as Ernie Brenner. In this Playhouse 90 episode, the elder Brenner is an idealistic crusader who jeopardizes his career when he refuses to arrest a youth for stealing a hi-fi speaker from a department store because he believes the youth who maintains his innocence. In the CBS TV series Roy Brenner is the voice of experience and his son Ernie, a rookie detective, is the one whose idealism is tested with the complexities of being a police officer. Originally Brenner ran for 14 episodes between June 6, 1959 and September 19, 1959, at which point it was not continued when the new fall season began. Two years later two more episodes were aired during the summer replacement season--"The Thin Line" on June 19, 1961 and "Good Friend" on September 11, 1961. During the summer of 1962 some of these original episodes were rerun. Two years after that 9 more unseen episodes, filmed at the same time as the earlier episodes, were aired, as well as a rerun of "The Thin Line," between May 17, 1964 and July 19, 1964. In all 25 episodes of Brenner were produced and aired over a 5-year period. Executive producer Brodkin would revisit the father-son generational dynamic very soon thereafter and much more successfully when he created The Defenders, which began airing in the fall of 1961.

Despite the popular characterization of the series as a generation-gap drama between the "hardened" 20-year veteran Roy Brenner and his "idealistic" rookie detective son Ernie, Brenner is more a study of the messy ethical challenges police officers face in their line of duty. Producer Arthur Lewis is quoted as saying in a June 6, 1959 article in the Fort Lauderdale News:

We're concerned with such questions as what is a man's problem as a person in being a cop? ...How does an honest man stay honest?...What about cops who abuse their authority?...Is there a difference between the pursuit of police work and the pursuit of justice?...

In the Season 1 episodes included in the Timeless Media Group DVD set, the show focuses more on the younger Ernie Brenner and the dilemmas and lessons he encounters in navigating his first year on the job as a detective. In the debut episode "False Witness" (June 6, 1959), Ernie is badgered by assistant district attorney William Thompson to give false testimony to get a conviction against a man accused of throwing lye into his girlfriend's eyes just so Thompson can uphold his reputation as a tough guy. In "Record of Arrest" (June 13, 1959) Ernie's partner Frank ignores the law by breaking into a suspect's apartment without a search warrant and trying to get him convicted of selling guns to kids based on evidence found outside the apartment. Like Thompson, Frank is pushing for the conviction to boost his own career, which has never seemed to gain traction, and Ernie has to push back when he finally uncovers testimony that exonerates Frank's suspect. "I, Executioner" (July 18, 1959) deals with Ernie's emotional response to having to shoot a mentally disturbed young man to save a fellow policeman from being stabbed to death. In "Small Take" (August 1, 1959) and "Thin Ice" (August 22, 1959) Ernie has to face the fact that some of his police brethren are on the take or are willing to look the other way. 

And in the one episode from the DVD set that aired in 1961, "Good Friend" (September 11, 1961), Ernie has trouble accepting that his longtime school friend Robby Matthews has resorted to theft to pay off loan sharks. As in several of the 1959 episodes, the role of his father Roy Brenner is not one of cynicism but the voice of experience offering his son advice that the younger policeman at first disregards, continuing to go to dinner at Matthews' apartment but unable to resist questioning him, thereby tipping off Matthews that he is under suspicion and prompting him to hide out to avoid arrest. The lesson is a painful one for Ernie because Matthews draws a sharp line between being a friend and being a cop, indicating that he believes the two are incompatible. This is another take on the problem faced by patrol officer Dave Robbins in "Thin Ice" in that Robbins is assigned to walk a beat in the neighborhood where he grew up and has a hard time believing the old married couple running a candy shop he frequented as a youth are running a small-time gambling operation. The goal of Brenner is to humanize and create sympathy for those who serve as policemen in an attempt to overcome the prejudice of citizens like Matthews who can only see the police as an adversary. 

The other lesson Roy repeatedly tries to teach Ernie is the slippery slope when it comes to applying the law. The topic comes up in "Thin Ice" when Officer Robbins figures that looking the other way as the candy store proprietors make a few coins here and there on their gambling operation is not a big deal, but when Pop Davis gets beat up by a man named Logan, known as a medium-level operator, Roy Brenner hammers home the point that while the individual gambling profits at the ground floor might not add up to much, the take of the bigger fish can add up to a much larger sum. Likewise, Ernie's partner Frank in "Record of Arrest" cuts corners on what seem trivial matters, but his lax attitude leads him to arrest the wrong man. In short, the messaging in Brenner is somewhat straight-laced in upholding the sanctity of the law and the good intentions of the men in blue, though the series avoids the black-and-white dichotomy of many cop shows and takes care to show the many shades of gray present in trying to apply the law, a nuance that Brodkin and his team would work to greater effect in his next series, The Defenders. In many ways Brenner covers the same ground as Naked City, which was shot in New York like Brenner and pitted a more seasoned detective (Lt. Muldoon in the first season and Lt. Mike Parker later) against a younger, more progressive-thinking detective (Det. Halloran in the first season and Det. Adam Flint thereafter). The difference between the two series is that in Naked City the two main characters are not related and the younger detective is usually right, whereas in Brenner the father Roy Brenner has plenty of opportunities to say "I told you so" but is understanding enough not to.

Timeless Media Group has released a 3-DVD set containing 15 of the 25 episodes that aired in Seasons 1 and 2.

The Actors

Edward Binns

The youngest of six sons in a family of Quakers, Binns was born September 12, 1916 in Philadelphia. Even though his Quaker school staged theatrical productions, Binns didn't get serious about acting until his freshman year at Penn State. After graduation, he apprenticed at the Cleveland Playhouse before traveling to Mexico to act and direct there. After serving as an armament officer in the Army Air Force during World War II, Binns returned to the Cleveland Playhouse in the late 1940s, which proved to be his ticket to Broadway when their production of Command Decision was optioned for New York. There an assistant stage manager got him an audition for the then-forming Actors Studio, and Binns' role as a founding member opened doors to many more stage productions as well as live TV roles beginning in 1948. By 1951 he was also getting feature film roles with his first credited performance in Teresa. But during the 1950s his career was temporarily damaged when he was mistakenly blacklisted by the McCarthy-led anti-Communist machine simply because he had the same last name as a Brooklyn alderwoman to whom he was not related who ran as a member of the Communist Party. It took a $250 payment to a "slimy" agent with FBI connections to unravel the mystery and finally get his career back on track. When the era of live TV production evaporated, Binns relocated to California, though he was now considered a character actor rather than a leading man. He had dozens of guest spots on drama anthology series and amongst his biggest feature film appearances in the latter 1950s were Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, 12 Angry Men, and North by Northwest. His casting as Roy Brenner was his first recurring role in a TV series, but given the show's haphazard scheduling described above, he also found plenty of work as a guest star on other series such as The Twilight Zone, Perry Mason, Wagon Train, and Route 66.

In the 1960s his notable feature film appearances included Judgment at Nuremberg and Fail-Safe, while he also continued to rack up TV guest appearances on a number of shows including three times as Dr. Anson Kiley on The Doctors and the Nurses, three times as District Attorney Wolf on The Defenders, and four times as Peter DeGravio on Dr. Kildare. In 1969 he was chosen to replace Malachi Throne as Robert Wagner's new boss Wally Powers in the third and final season of It Takes a Thief, but also during this time he was suffering from alcoholism and eventually joined Alcoholics Anonymous to find a path to sobriety.  Later notable roles included appearances in Patton and The Verdict as well as the covetous General Korshak in an episode of M*A*S*H, but late in his career he also had to do more voicework for commercials as the acting roles diminished. He died from a heart attack at age 74 on December 4, 1990 while being driven from New York to his home in Connecticut.

James Broderick

James Joseph Broderick III was born March 7, 1927 in Charlestown, New Hampshire, the son of a highly decorated World War I veteran. After graduating from high school in Manchester, New Jersey, he attended the University of New Hampshire as a pre-med student but interrupted his studies to join the Navy as a pharmacist's mate in 1945. After being discharged in 1947, he resumed his pre-med studies until he auditioned for a theatrical part at the university and came to the attention of faculty advisor J. Donald Batchellor, who was so impressed by Broderick's talents that he introduced him to his friend, the actor Arthur Kennedy, who in turn recommended that Broderick enroll in the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York, which included legendary acting coach Sanford Meisner on its faculty. After graduating from theater school in 1949, Broderick began landing TV roles the following year, beginning with Nash Airflyte Theatre. Though Broderick's TV credits were not extensive through the early 1950s, he augmented his small-screen work with occasional theatrical productions such as Maggie on Broadway in 1953 and the title role in an off-Broadway production of Johnny Johnson in 1956. His first recurring TV role was playing Ernie Brenner on Brenner beginning in 1959.

When Brenner went on hiatus in 1960, Broderick landed his first feature film role in Girl of the Night and for the next several years balanced recurring roles on soap operas and appearing in off-Broadway productions. On television he played Joe Sullivan on The Secret Storm in 1960, Jim Norman on As the World Turns in 1962, and D.A. Nick Bryce on The Edge of Night in 1964. On the stage he appeared in Two by Saroyan in 1961, The Firebugs in 1963, and Rooms in 1966. In the late 1960s he continued to get regular if infrequent TV guest spots, as well as an occasional feature film role but found more success in Broadway productions of Johnny No-Trump in 1967 and The Time of Your Life in 1969. Also in 1969 he began a series of higher-profile feature film roles in Alice's Restaurant and in the 1970s The Taking of the Pelham One Two Three and Dog Day Afternoon. But the biggest role of his career would come in 1976 as family patriarch Doug Lawrence on Family, a part that garnered him an Emmy nomination in 1978. However, Broderick contracted cancer in the early 1980s, and he died from it on November 1, 1982 at the age of 55. His son Matthew Broderick also became an actor of some renown.

Notable Guest Stars

Season 1, Episode 16, "Good Friend": George Grizzard (shown on the left, starred in Advise & Consent, Comes a Horseman, and Bachelor Party and played Arthur Gold on Law & Order) plays Ernie's close friend Robby Matthews. Diana Van der Vlis (Susan Ames Dunbar Carver on Secret Storm, Kate Prescott on Where the Heart Is, and Dr. Nell Beaulac on Ryan's Hope) plays his wife Edith. Cynthia O'Neal (wife of Patrick O'Neal) plays Edith's cousin Nancy Fallon. Clifton James (appeared in Experiment in Terror, Cool Hand Luke, Live and Let Die, The Man With the Golden Gun, and Eight Men Out and played Silas Jones on Lewis & Clark and Duke Carlisle on Dallas) plays Robby's supervisor Mack. Sydney Pollack (directed They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, The Way We Were, Absence of Malice, Tootsie, and Out of Africa) plays police Det. Al Dunn. Dan Morgan (Riggs on Dark Shadows) plays informant Mulcahey. Albert Henderson (Officer Dennis O'Hara on Car54, Where Are You?) police Patrol Officer Franklin.

1 comment:

  1. A good write-up of this show!

    It's been a while since I've watched the DVD set, but I remember Gene Hackman appearing as an officer (uncredited) in the episode "Laney's Boy."