Murder in Prime Time: The Story of the NBC MYSTERY MOVIE
By John C. Alsedek:
On Mystery Science Theater 3000, Joel and the Bots once did a bit where Joel was trying to get the Bots to stop saying “NBC Mystery Movie” every time they saw a flashlight in a movie . . . by giving them (and himself) electric shocks. For me, what was especially funny about the bit is just how spot-on it was. Because, if you’re of a certain age (as in OLD, like me), a flashlight may well trigger memories of The NBC Mystery Movie opening sequence: a man wearing a hat, silhouetted against a red sunset sky, walking toward the camera, flashlight beam probing ahead of him. And then BAM! The shot zooms in on the man and the flashlight beam as the titles come up. Coupled with one of the most memorable themes in TV history (courtesy of the great Henry Mancini), it’s something that’s stuck with me for almost half a century—even as I have trouble remembering what I had for breakfast most days.
The NBC Mystery Movie was an anthology series that ran on (of course) NBC from 1971 until 1977. But instead of being a true anthology like, say, The Twilight Zone (with a different story and characters every episode), it was what is known as a "wheel series," meaning there were a set number of individual programs in the series that took turns airing each week. The concept of the "wheel" came from a joint production agreement between NBC and Universal in 1966. The first series to follow this format was 1968’s The Name of the Game, a dramatic program set at a publishing company, with three rotating stars (Gene Barry, Tony Franciosca, Robert Stack) whose individual stories took the lead on alternating weeks; Susan St. James, as editorial assistant Peggy Maxwell, was the character who tied the show together. The success of The Name of the Game led to two more wheel series: The Bold Ones (1969) and Four in One (1970), with the latter being the direct predecessor of The NBC Mystery Movie.
Four in One consisted of four standalone shows that alternated weeks; the shows were San Francisco International Airport, The Psychiatrist, Night Gallery, and McCloud. The first two were pretty forgettable and went nowhere beyond their initial six-episode runs, but the other two . . . ? Night Gallery (a Rod Serling series I’ve mentioned in passing and will give its full due in a future column) ended up being popular enough to warrant a full-time series slot. And McCloud . . . well, it would end up being a mainstay of the next NBC wheel series.
The NBC Mystery Movie premiered in the fall of 1971, airing Wednesday nights from 8:30–10:00 p.m. Eastern. There were three shows in the "wheel":
McCloud, starring Dennis Weaver as a rural New Mexico lawman on temporary assignment to the New York Police Department (the show was a not-too-subtle copy of the Clint Eastwood film Coogan’s Bluff).
McMillan & Wife, starring Rock Hudson & Susan St. James as the titular characters, a San Francisco police commissioner and his sleuthing spouse, who would team up to crack cases.
Columbo, starring Peter Falk as a character previously introduced in the 1969 TV movie Prescription: Murder, a Los Angeles police detective whose seemingly inept persona was cover for a brilliant deductive mind.
The NBC Mystery Movie was highly successful, finishing #14 overall in the 1971–72 Nielsen ratings and winning four Emmy Awards (all for Columbo). Moving the show into the coveted 8:30–10:00 p.m. Sunday night slot the following season, a fourth show was added to The NBC Mystery Movie lineup: Hec Ramsey, starring Richard Boone as a retired gunfighter-turned-detective in the Old West who used then-new forensic techniques in his pursuit of justice.
At the same time, NBC and Universal decided to try to cash in and replicate the success of the initial NBC Mystery Movie by filling the now-vacated Wednesday night slot with The NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie. Three new shows were produced:
Banacek, starring George Peppard as a Polish-American insurance investigator based in Boston.
Madigan, starring Richard Widmark in an adaptation of the role he’d originally played in the 1968 film of the same name.
Cool Million, starring James Farentino as a former CIA operative who charged $1,000,000 per case in his new career as a P.I.
However, The NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie was never able to gain much traction with viewers. Madigan and Cool Million were replaced with three new shows (Faraday & Company, Tenafly, and The Snoop Sisters) for the 1973–74 season, and the entire series was moved to Tuesday nights in January 1974. The series was cancelled later that year.
As for The NBC Mystery Movie, it continued to chug along on Sunday nights until 1977. The original three shows lasted until the end, while Hec Ramsey was replaced after two seasons by a quartet of short-lived options: Amy Prentiss (an Ironside spinoff starring Jessica Walter), McCoy (with Tony Curtis as a thief/con artist), Lanigan’s Rabbi (with Art Carney and Bruce Solomon), and Quincy, M.E. (with Jack Klugman as a Los Angeles medical examiner). Of those four, only Quincy left a mark, as it ended up becoming its own weekly series that would run for seven seasons.
The NBC Mystery Movie as a wheel series was cancelled at the end of the 1976–77 season, a victim of slipping ratings and television’s shift toward cheaply produced situation comedies. Columbo continued on into 1978 as a series of five TV movies before it got the axe as well. However, while this was the demise of The NBC Mystery Movie, it wasn’t quite the end for two of its original three programs. Dennis Weaver returned in 1989 for a one-off NBC TV movie entitled The Return of Sam McCloud. And as for the bumbling Lt. Columbo, Peter Falk donned his disheveled trench coat again in 1989 as Universal Television took Columbo to ABC as one-third of a new wheel series, The ABC Monday Mystery Movie. Though The ABC Monday Mystery Movie only lasted for two seasons, Columbo continued on as fourteen solo TV movies between 1990 and 2003.
More than a decade before returning to TV as the lead in Hec Ramsey, actor Richard Boone was playing the urbane professional gunman Paladin on the hit series Have Gun - Will Travel. We’ll be taking a look at that series next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.