Kolchak: The Night Stalker 1.9 – The Spanish Moss Murders

David Chase co-wrote “The Spanish Moss Murders” with Al Friedman, and I’ve always really enjoyed it, because this week’s cop who’s had it up to here with Kolchak is played by Keenan Wynn and he’s completely hilarious. Therapy has brought this former “mad dog” of a captain to a calm place, because this is the seventies, the era of “I’m okay, you’re okay.” Casting Wynn is a stroke of genius, because the man could rant and bellow better than just about anybody, and the inevitable moment when Kolchak undoes a year and a half of therapy and has Wynn completely losing his mind is wonderful. Wynn is joined by Severn Darden as a sleep researcher, and Richard Kiel as the monster for a second week running.

I remembered “The Spanish Moss Murders” so fondly that I watched it with my older children around 2005, when they were about eight and six. My friend David, who passed away a few months ago, had purchased the set and I asked if we could watch this episode after we had dinner at one of his favorite nearby places, Pasta Bella. My older son fell asleep. My daughter screamed bloody murder at the end. The scenes of Richard Kiel’s swamp monster rising out of the waters of the storm drains just did her in, and she bawled for hours and had to sleep in my bed when we got home. And no, she didn’t wake her older brother. He could have slept through a tornado.

Tonight, our favorite eight year-old critic split the difference and pronounced it “Terrifying, but I kind of liked it.” It’s a really memorable hour. Even that former client at my last job remembered Kolchak in the sewers… even if she misremembered the monster as being a vampire, she remembered that sewer.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker 1.8 – Bad Medicine

Our son hesitantly asked whether this morning’s episode of Kolchak would be a scary one or, like the UFO story, a silly one. I demurred, of course, because I think almost all of them are both scary and silly. “Bad Medicine” gave him a good case of the shivers, but he told us that he really liked it. This week’s beastie is a Diablero, a native American sorcerer who is under a centuries-long curse, and who can transform into a crow or a coyote.

But for all the scary monster business, “Bad Medicine” features two of the funniest scenes of the series. There’s a great bit in the office where Kolchak is trying to find a listing in the phone book, but every copy in the office has been vandalized, and the necessary page ripped out. It’s brilliantly funny, but it’s bettered by a hilarious scene in which Ramon Bieri, who plays this week’s cop who’s had it up to here with Kolchak, challenges our hero on the actual motive behind the strange killings, and Carl, for what must be the first time in his career, is left without a smart-aleck answer because he’s absolutely speechless.

Joining Bieri in the guest cast this week, there’s Richard Kiel as the Diablero, and of course our son still somehow failed to recognize one of the tallest actors in the business despite seeing him several times. The wonderful actors Alice Ghostley and Marvin Kaplan also have brief appearances. They definitely should have used both of them again. Kaplan plays a former fence who’s trying to go straight after seven years in the old Joliet Pen, but he still hears things, you know. If this show wanted a regular guy-who-knows-things for Carl to consult, Kaplan would have been terrific.

Barbary Coast 1.13 – The Dawson Marker

Well, here’s a pleasant surprise! The final episode of Barbary Coast was shown on January 9, 1976, meaning it was probably filmed in November or so. This was possibly Spencer Milligan’s first role since finishing the second season of Land of the Lost that summer. It’s not a large part – sadly, most of his roles until he retired were bit parts as toughs and heavies – but it’s impossible not to enjoy stories where one of the heroes replaces a villain in a secret meeting, only to have his identity blown. Even better, Barbary Coast went in for slightly more complex plotting than many adventure programs, and this complication, which could have been amusing enough on its own (see this fine episode of Buck Rogers for one satisfying example) turns into an even bigger mess.

There’s also this gag about the brass bell of a long disused school which guest star Udana Power ends up buying. Even if Barbary Coast had disappointed me, which it certainly didn’t, it was worth all thirteen episodes and the movie to get to that gag. Power didn’t make many television appearances in the seventies, but I note that like a couple of other actors on this show, she had appeared as a guest star the previous season in producer Cy Chermak’s prior show, Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

Sadly, Barbary Coast didn’t do well enough in the ratings to warrant any more episodes being ordered. It started the 1975-76 season on Monday nights, where it split the potential audience for lighthearted adventure shows with the David McCallum spy show The Invisible Man and both programs got clobbered by two top ten sitcoms on CBS: Rhoda and Phyllis. After episode seven, ABC made a curious decision and swapped Coast with another ratings-troubled show, a Jack Webb production called Mobile One, which had aired Friday nights at 8. There, the problem was on two networks: Sanford & Son on NBC at 8, and M*A*S*H on CBS at 8:30, but at least they weren’t splitting the audience potentially interested in an adventure show. ABC killed both Coast and Mobile One around November and they burned off their last episodes in January.

Westerns weren’t in vogue in 1975. Even the mighty Gunsmoke and The Virginian had ended by then. Coast was soon forgotten, not even serving as the butt of very many jokes. I’m very glad that I gave it a try, because I enjoyed every episode, and think that about three of them were completely terrific. Our son of course was pretty unimpressed. He liked this one, to the point of getting worried enough by the complications to temporarily leave the room with alacrity, and he liked episode ten, but overall he found this confusing and old hat, and greeted the news that we were watching the final episode of this show with a heavy sigh of “finally!”

I have assured him, however, that he is certain to love the next Western that we show him, starting in July. Stay tuned!

Barbary Coast 1.12 – Mary Had More Than a Little

The previous episode of Barbary Coast took an uncharacteristically serious tone, but this one was back to its lighthearted and silly and very busy self. Judy Strangis guest stars as the daughter of one of Cash’s oldest friends, in town ostensibly looking for a new home and a job. Actually, she’s got a rough boyfriend in tow, played by Kaz Garas. Their basic plan, after Strangis shows off her card-shuffling skills, is for her to identify marks leaving her table for Garas to mug outside.

But this plan goes up in smoke when the corrupt police chief, noting the increase in street crimes and people getting clobbered outside the Golden Gate, figures that Cash is himself in on it. This leads Jeff Cable to do a little snooping and not only does he identify the secret boyfriend, but following him in one of his disguises, he stumbles upon a much more meticulous and careful crime than a hotheaded tough like him could possibly plan…

I thought this one was terrific, but it required quite a few pauses for explanations. Our son was very attentive and inquisitive, starting with the opening scene. The camera breezes past a map on the wall of the Transpacific Shipping Company showing North America in the center. He’d never seen a map like that before and asked me to wind it back and explain it because “it looks backward!” (Of course, it makes perfect sense that a shipping company in San Francisco would want to show direct routes to Asia, which you can’t easily do on a map with North America on the far left.) But this is a very visual episode, with quite a lot of information provided through knowing glances and nods, and the camera tracking what characters see without spoken explanations. And Cable’s two disguises were so convincing that he had absolutely no idea who either character was!

Interestingly, this is the very last credit that IMDB shows for the veteran writer Winston Miller, who’d been working for films and television since the 1920s. He co-wrote the original Dick Tracy serial for Republic in 1937, contributed dozens of scripts for westerns and cop shows, and worked as a producer on The Virginian for a couple of years. Heck of a good script to retire on, I’d say. He died about twenty years later.

Barbary Coast 1.11 – The Day Cable Was Hanged

This evening’s episode of Barbary Coast guest stars the awesome John Dehner as a frankly insane general who has become convinced that John Wilkes Booth wasn’t killed five years previously (the episode takes place around the time of Robert E. Lee’s death in October 1870), and he has set his sights on an actor who is Booth’s doppelganger to mete out some belated justice. It’s an interesting story, particularly when the actor starts to spin a very convoluted alibi about his secret life and where he actually was the night that Lincoln was killed. But it’s a little unsatisfying in the end, possibly because there’s at least one twist too many, and possibly because Dehner’s comeuppance is left offscreen even after we’d met a lieutenant in his command who has figured out that the general is not doing things by the book. We were waiting for that guy to show up and save the day.

So the story isn’t very lighthearted at all, although it’s certainly twisty, and the lack of any wit or humor marks this as a very off-key installment of the show, and we weren’t surprised that our son was much more restless than usual and very disappointed and bored with the hour. Well, there was one tiny bit of humor, and a great gag: Cash spots an old flame that he’d rather never see again in his casino. “That’s Tequila Lil. I spent five years with her one day.” That’s such a great line that I almost wish there was somebody in my own checkered past that I could say that about.

Barbary Coast 1.10 – Sharks Eat Sharks

So this morning’s episode of Barbary Coast featured Bernard Fox playing an Irishman, and Henry Gibson playing an Englishman. I wonder whether Gibson asked Fox for a pointer or two to get his mockney mobster accent right.

Happily, at last, our son really enjoyed an episode of this show, volunteering “that was great!” at the end of it. The plot was still just a shade more complex than he could tackle by himself, but we caught him up pretty easily. The Barbary Coast is having one problem with a protection ring and another problem with a pair of con artists soaking suckers for shares in a diamond mine, and our heroes decide to sic these two opposing forces on each other. It’s actually a very, very clever plot and really amusing, and it also has enough dopey kid-friendly slapstick to keep our kid happy. At one point, shown above, one of Gibson’s henchmen gets stuck in a barrel and can’t get out, and of course the climax sees all the bad guys dunked in the harbor.

I had wondered the other day whether we were going to see a fourth red-haired dealer at the Golden Gate, and the answer, amazingly, is yes. Brooke Mills has blink-and-miss-her appearances in episodes 7 and 9 as a character called Rusty. She has a few more lines in this, her third and last episode. This is so odd. I wonder why they couldn’t find a single actress to commit to a regular part, and why they kept giving what’s effectively the same character different names.

Barbary Coast 1.9 – Arson and Old Lace

Happily, for those of you noting our son’s disinterest in this western, tonight’s episode does indeed have some fights. As ships and cargo are being torched by a protection racket, our heroes have several suspects and the location of the payoffs. Since all the suspects are fans of boxing, all that’s necessary is to arrange a big prize fight that will draw them all out while Jeff ransacks the bad guys’ safe.

Anyway, while our son was distracted by the brawls and by the stock footage of a ship going down in San Francisco Bay, I thought it was cute, and it’s always nice to see Gretchen Corbett. She had a recurring role in The Rockford Files at this time. This episode was probably filmed in October 1975. According to Ed Robertson’s book on Rockford, that show was really rushing production on its second season, because the producers decided that the first several episodes they filmed were not up to scratch and they needed to speed up work on several more installments and drip out the ones they didn’t like throughout the rest of the year instead of running six lousy ones in a row. I mention this because I’m enough of a geek as to be curious about which of Corbett’s Rockford stories this was made between, and the answer is… I have no idea!

Barbary Coast 1.8 – An Iron-Clad Plan

Well, how nice! Last month, when we watched episode six of Barbary Coast, I noted that Francine York had a blink-and-miss-it part as one of Cash Conover’s employees, and hoped she’d have more to do in her next outing. Indeed she does. York and Aldine King are both critical to tonight’s mission as inside agents while Jeff Cable orchestrates the theft of some stolen submarine plans from a local bigshot criminal.

Obviously, Barbary Coast didn’t last long enough to develop a semi-regular supporting cast, but I do think there was a missed opportunity here to keep York and King along for undercover work when needed. York basically plays the same role – if not strictly the same character, you understand – as Bobbi Jordan and Sherry Jackson in the first three stories. If a fourth red-haired actress turns up in any of the next episodes as a different dealer in the casino, I’m going to have something to say about it.

On the other hand, our son wasn’t thrilled to see this returning to the lineup after its short break, and he just sat stone-faced as it played out. There wasn’t even a fight scene this time, and I was probably more amused to see Severn Darden turn up in a small role than he was when the sound of an alley cat conveniently convinces the bad guy that there wasn’t any nefarious noise in the alley behind his house. He might need a brawl and an explosion next time, so fingers crossed.

Barbary Coast 1.7 – Sauce for the Goose

The poker aspect of Barbary Coast is a little less prominent in most of the episodes than this one, which is why this had our son utterly lost. “Sauce for the Goose” guest stars Joseph Campanella as a filthy rich mover-n-shaker with hooks in every politician in northern California, and Burr DeBenning as his main henchman. He and Cash lock horns at a poker match when the baddie tries cheating and Cash, too slick for him, cheats him right back. But the governor wants the baddie’s little green book, which details all his hooks, and so they execute a very amusing con game. It involves Jeff disguised as a gypsy, because it turns out the baddie is even more superstitious than Cash. And there are runaway horses, dynamite, and a “bug” trap under a poker table that’s meant to be uncovered.

I thought this was terrific fun, a great story of cheating a cheater with very high stakes. It’s a great sting that was sadly lost on our son, even with three pauses to explain the plot. He liked the fight in Cash’s casino about ten minutes in, and it was all downhill from there for him!

We’ll give our poor kid a break and return Barbary Coast to the shelf for a few weeks to keep things fresh, but we’ll look at the final six episodes in April, so stay tuned!

Barbary Coast 1.6 – Irish Luck

Our son wasn’t too wild about this one, other than a raucous chase-slash-fight through the Golden Gate. Jeff and Cash use the old Mission: Impossible trick of convincing their mark, played by William Daniels, that he’s spent two full days unconscious to get some intel from him, but there’s a political angle to the story which I thought was utterly unnecessary to understand what was happening, but our kid got hung up on it and was hopelessly confused. I’d have to agree it isn’t one of the stronger episodes, but it does have Francine York in a criminally tiny part as one of Cash’s employees. Fingers crossed they find a little more for her to do when she shows up again in a later story.