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Classic TV Revisited: The Untouchables

The Untouchables

Classic 1930s set gangster series The Untouchables starred Robert Stack as Eliot Ness’s and in which he and his men took on the gangsters of Chicago, including Al Capone. It ran from 1959-1963 and in the UK from 1966-1969.

Why was it so good?
Robert Stack summed up the fight against crime as legendary G-man Eliot Ness. It captured beautifully the Prohibition atmosphere. With drink banned, no wonder people were violent.

How did it begin?
US network ABC showed two-parter The Scarface Mob about how Eliot Ness put Al Capone in jail for non-payment of taxes.

Was it machine guns in violin cases all round?
It proved such a hit that ABC made 117 episodes.

Was it accurate?
Only to start with. Ness spent his time seeking out bootleg booze and the bad guys but the series strayed very far from his real life.

What were the inaccuracies?
Stories showed Eliot Ness rounding up crooks such as Ma Baker and Bugs Moran but he had nothing to do with them.

What about Bugsy Malone?
In fiction Ness would probably have nabbed him but I don’t know if he’d have used a splurge gun. In reality, after trapping Al Capone, Ness disbanded his group of agents and moved from Chicago to Cleveland to become director of public safety.

How bloodthirsty was it?
Made by the legendary producer Quinn Martin, its body count was so high, it became known as “the weekly bloodbath”. The reason why so many palookas ended up dying was a ratings war between the US networks.

Fans loved not just the violence but the sharp gangster suits, smart cars and scarred heavies. But like critics of The Sopranos, it was blasted by Italian-Americans for stereotyping.

Who was in it?
Eliot Ness was played by Robert Stack, who moved on to comic roles in the movies Airplane!, 1941 and Caddyshack II.

What happened to Stack and Ness?
Stack, who wasn’t the first choice for the role, Van Heflin and Van Johnson were asked before, returned as Ness in a TV special in 1991.

Ness met a sad end, collapsing over his kitchen sink aged just 54 in 1957 after failing to become Cleveland mayor.

The Untouchables

Was it popular?
Originally, it did a St Valentine’s Day-style massacre on rival shows but faltered badly after the third series and ended on US TV in 1963.

But the atmospheric script aided by the staccato-style voice-over commentary of Walter Winchell, with Robert Stack’s acting, has ensured that it’s repeated round the world. It was replaced on US TV by The FBI and Kevin Costner played Eliot Ness opposite Sean Connery in a 1987 movie.

Distinguishing features?
Scarfaces; broken noses; speakeasies; violin cases but no violins; corpses; no booze as it was Prohibition.

Do say:
“The best TV gangster series bar none.”

Do not say:
“It glorified violence paving the way for excesses we have to endure on TV today.”

Not to be confused with:
Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, The Godfather, gangsta rap; A Touch Of Frost; Goodfellas; Bugsy; Edward G Robinson.