Saturday, June 17, 2023

Blasts from the past: Obscure nuggets

The television component of my two-volume series focuses on shows that successfully landed on network schedules … if only for a month or two, in some cases. With one exception, I didn’t even try to delve into unsold and/or unaired pilots that never made it to series. (I did briefly cite writer/director Blake Edwards’ failed 1954 attempt to turn Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer into a series, with Brian Keith in the starring role.)


Entire books have been written about such unsuccessful efforts, most notably Lee Goldberg’s 828-page Unsold Television Pilots: 1955-1989 and Vincent Terrace’s Encyclopedia of Unaired Television Pilots, 1945-2018. The latter — also published by McFarland — boasts a heart-stopping 2,923 entries.


All this said, a few have come to my attention during the past couple of years: well within my books’ brief, in terms of genre and jazz scoring.


The best of these — in terms of music — is Take Five, a 1957 pilot that aired on March 22, 1958, as the 18th episode of the fourth and final season of the anthology series Heinz Studio 57. It came to my attention thanks to fleeting mention in Jon Burlingame’s recently published Music for Prime Time (which readers of this blog should rush out and purchase).

The show features a terrific jazz score by Elmer Bernstein, very much like his work for the big screen’s Man with the Golden Arm and Sweet Smell of Success. If the episode’s IMDB entry can be taken as gospel, Bernstein’s studio band is stunning: Pete Candoli and Manny Stevens, trumpet; Milt Bernhart, trombone; Ted Nash, alto sax; Dave Pell and Champ Webb, tenor sax; Arthur Gleghorn, flute; Red Mitchell, bass; Shelly Manne, drums; and — wait for it — Johnny Williams, piano.


Dennis O’Keefe stars as Dick Richards, ostensibly the editor of a respected jazz magazine titled Take Five, but — unbeknownst to all but his cop buddy Pete Lonigan (Bart Burns) — also an “undercover man” for the district attorney’s office. (Bear in mind, this show was made two years before that title became synonymous with the Paul Desmond classic debuted by Dave Brubeck’s Quartet.)


As O’Keefe explains during lengthy, private eye-style voiceovers, Richards haunts New York’s club district after hours, because “the best music is made at night.” He has taken a personal interest in young singer Jen Bradley (Bethel Leslie), about to debut this particular evening at a posh club named for its owner, Monte (Nestor Paiva). Alas, Jen has fallen in love with Hap Gordon (Mike Connors), a slick-talking skunk with a serious gambling problem. When Jen refuses his plea for a “loan,” police subsequently find his car abandoned by a pier, with a suicide note inside. Jen collapses, believing his death to be her fault.

Ah, but it feels too convenient to Richards, who deduces that Hap’s so-called suicide is merely a ploy to get gangsters off his back.


It subsequently becomes a very busy night. In the space of what can’t be more than a few hours, Jen rebuffs Hap; police find his car and suicide note; Jen has a nervous breakdown, requiring a doctor; Richards starts asking around, trying to find somebody who might know where Hap would hide; the increasingly distraught Jen tries to slash her wrists; Richards finally gets a solid lead and finds Hap in an apartment with equally clueless second girlfriend Myra (Vivi Janiss), and drags him back to show Jen what a true louse he is … and she somehow composes herself and still hits the stage, on schedule, to briefly croon Louis Armstrong’s “I Got a Right to Sing the Blues.” To thunderous applause, of course. (Whew!)

Bernstein’s energetic title theme repeats a 6-5 motif on unison horns, with sparkling 1-1-1-3 brass counterpoints, all backed by rumbling percussion and a propulsive beat. Richards’ opening voice-over is heard over a cool, gently swinging cue; much later, when he shadows Myra as she hails a cab en route to joining Hap, her movements are shadowed by a saucy piano and drum riff.


Alas, director James Nelson lacks imagination; he relies far too heavily on tight close-ups that do his actors no favors. Set design is minimal; everything has the feel of a hasty shoot on a back lot. (The atmosphere of better shows, such as Peter Gunn, is wholly missing.) The bare-bones script is padded by an early evening visit to Club 25, where Richards watches as special guest star Dennis Day sings Nat King Cole’s “Almost Like Being in Love” (a sequence that seems to run forever). It’s easy to see why this pilot didn’t sell.


Even so, it has survived to this day, and can be found by the diligent and curious.


Regardless of the pilot’s failure, Bernstein obviously thought highly of his title cue; he included it on his 1962 album, Movie and TV Themes. This longer version adds generous solos on sax, bawdy brass and muted trumpet, all against a finger-snapping vamp.

A portion of this pilot can be viewed here.