Six of the Best: The NBC Mystery Movie (1971-1977)

The roots of NBC’s hugely successful Mystery Movies series of individual series lay in two earlier shows World Premiere Movie which saw the debut of shows such as Ironside and a first try out for Columbo and a movie called Who Killed Miss USA which would serve as a pilot for McCloud; Secondly there was Four In One which four hour long rotating episodes of shows such as San Francisco International Airport, Night Gellery, The Psychiatrist and McCloud.

After both of these formats proved successful NBC expanded the concept to introduce the Mystery Movie strand which again includes McCloud (with episodes now extended to 90 minutes) as well as McMillan and Wife and Columbo. All three shows would be major hits prompting NBC to introduce more shows into the format including the likes of Banacek, Madigan, Amy Prentiss and Quincy M.E. Only really Banacek and Quincy M.E. caught the public interest though, Quincy long out lived it’s Mystery Movie origins too and continued as an hour long series until 1985. In fact some such as the long forgotten Cool Million and The Snoop Sisters only lasted a few episodes

As a whole though the Mystery Movie are all supremely well made glossy, star studded slices of entertainment. Check out six of the best of them below.

McMillan and Wife (1971-1977)

This entertaining series detailed the usually murderous cases of Commissioner Stewart McMillan (legendary movie star Rock Hudson) who usually managed to get his wife Sally (Susan St James) involved (although to be fair it was more often than not Sally who got McMillan involved).

This light-hearted and mostly fun series probably had its roots in the Nick and Nora Thin Man films of the 1930’s and 1940’s and featured much of the same banter between the leads that characterised those films. Also heavily involved in the series was Mac’s right hand man Sgt Charles Enright (John Schuck) and their none too polite housekeeper Mildred (Nancy Walker).

The show was one of three debut Mystery Movie segments (along with McCloud and Columbo) and appeared on a rotating basis with them.

Although Susan Saint James was handpicked for the role by Hudson the pair didn’t in fact get on off screen, especially as Saint James was nominated for an emmy for four years running.

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Banacek (1972-1974)

Banacek was a series with a slight twist in the premise in that Thomas Banacek (played with effortless style by George Peppard) actually worked as an investigator for insurance companies winning back their stolen property and taking 10% of its worth as his fee. Banacek only took big cases and unusual ones at that too such as tracing paintings stolen from a sealed truck and so on.

Of Polish-American descent Banacek drove both a 1973 Fleetwood Cadillac and a 1941 Packard Darrin and also lived in Boston’s upmarket Beacon Hill area. Regulars in the show included Banacek’s chauffeur Jay Drury (Ralph Manza) and his confidante Felix Mulholland (Murray Matheson) who ran an antiquarian bookshop.

The show’s creators Richard Levinson and William Link were also behind two other biggies with Columbo and Murder She Wrote. The show also marked George Peppard’s TV lead debut.

Quincy M. E. (1976-1983)

Medical crime drama series Quincy, M.E. was initially only part of the NBC Mystery Movie cycle of shows before moving to a Friday night weekly spot from it’s second season.

Quincy, a widower, (superbly played by Jack Klugman) has given up his private medical practice become part of the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office as a Medical Examiner where he quickly learns that many supposedly normal deaths showed evidence of foul play. Emerging in the mid 1970’s Quincy is just fantastic, a clear fore runner to all the medical detective shows clogging up the airwaves today but with a better heart and better sensibilities of what makes good television than any of them.

Klugman as Quincy is craggily excellent and Quincy himself is never afraid to speak his mind, often brushing up against the by the book Dr Robert Asten (John S. Ragin) in the process. Being heavily involved in the investigation process (Quincy was often more like a detective than the detectives) he also came up against the cops themselves.

The nonconformist Quincy (who was helped in all his cases by unsung hero Sam Fujiyama (Robert Ito), Quincy’s right hand man in the office) lives on a houseboat and seems to spend much of his free time in the local bar Danny’s Place and in early episodes his main squeeze is the long suffering Lee Potter.

Incidentally Quincy’s first name is never revealed although at one tage a shot of I.D. card reveals that it starts with the letter R. In the 1983 series Quincy married a woman called Emily (who was actually played by Anita Gillette – the same actress who played Quincy’s first wife Helen.

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Columbo (1971-1996)

Creators: Richard Levinson, William Link / Executive Producers: Richard Levinson, William Link, Roland Kibbee, Dean Hargrove, Richard Alan Simmons

Pretty intelligent detective drama Columbo was another show that grew out of the NBC Mystery Movie series and featured disheveled, raincoat wearing, go it alone Lt Columbo. Columbo (brilliantly played by Peter Falk) had an unusual premise for a tec show, we (the viewers) saw who committed the murder right from the beginning with Lt Columbo somehow always knowing who the guilty partty was but somehow having to use his skills and persistence to work out how the deed was done.

Columbo was married to Kate but she was never seen (although there was a cheeky spin off called Mrs Columbo using this character). Columbo drove a run down Peugeot and had a basset hound called Dog.

Bing Crosby and Lee J. Cobb were both offered the chance to play the role but the character was actually first seen on screen played by Arthur Freed in a 1961 edition of Sunday Mystery Hour. Directors on the early editions included both Steven Spielberg and Jonathan Demme. Apparently the inspiration for the character was Petrovich from Feodor Dostoyevsky’s mammoth novel Crime and Punishment

Lanigan’s Rabbi (1977)

Lanigan’s Rabbi is one of the more obscure entries in the NBC Mystery Movies (in fact it was the final one produced) and featured Art Carney as Police chief Paul Lanigan and Bruce Solomon as Rabbi David Small who team up to solve crimes in the small town of Cameron in California. Based on the novels by Harry Kemelman and Art Carney’s real life daughter Barbara appeared as local journalist Bobbie Whittaker.

McCloud (1970-1977)

McCloud was a somewhat unusual series that had its genesis in the 1968 film Coogan’s Bluff, the series became part of the NBC’s Mystery Movie series (although it had originated as part of a collection called Four In One – the others in that being The Psychiatrist, Night Gallery and San Francisco International Airport). The premise saw Deputy Marshall Sam McCloud (Dennis Weaver) from Taos, New Mexico being seconded to the NYPD, working in Manhattan’s 27th Precinct.

McCloud’s new boss, Chief Peter B. Clifford (J.D. Cannon) was often infuriated by McCloud’s western ways especially as Sam also always wore his Stetson, cowboy boots and sheepskin jacket on duty. Diana Muldaur and Sharon Gless were also semi-regulars during the show’s run.

Alastair James is the editor in chief for Memorable TV. He has been involved in media since his university days. Alastair is passionate about television, and some of his favourite shows include Line of Duty, Luther and Traitors. He is always on the lookout for hot new shows, and is always keen to share his knowledge with others.