Essential Small Screen Noir: The Streets of San Francisco

TB: For the next four weeks Jlewis and I will be reviewing classic episodes of the 1970s police procedural drama The Streets of San Francisco. These may not be the best ones produced, depending on your opinion, but they are quite memorable.

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Overseen by Quinn Martin, The Streets of San Francisco ran on ABC-network television from 1972 to 1977. The first four seasons costarred veteran character actor Karl Malden alongside young Michael Douglas, with Malden getting top billing. The fifth and final season saw Douglas’ character written out in a special two-part episode (Douglas had recently earned an Oscar and was wanting to concentrate solely on feature films), with Richard Hatch taking over the sidekick cop role. We will cover two episodes with Malden & Douglas this month; as well as two episodes with Malden & Hatch.

To get things started, I have selected what tends to be regarded as the most famous episode of the show. It was originally broadcast on Thursday night October 3, 1974. According to the wiki description:

“A professional female impersonator (John Davidson) whose intense identification with one of the women he mimics — a fictitious 1930s movie star — creates an uncontrollable split personality and eventually leads to murder.” Key supporting players include Herb Edelman and Marianne McAndrew while John Fiedler and Bernie Kopell appear in minor roles.


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Mask of Death

Part 1 of 2

TB: As I wrote in the above introduction this Season 3 offering, with singer-actor John Davidson playing a female impersonator, is rather well-known. During the story, he does impressions of Katharine Hepburn and Carol Channing. He’s very funny, and he’s a great singer so the numbers he performs are spectacular. The character has a tragic side, a very tragic side. It is shocking how well Davidson does with such a complex and villainous yet sympathetic character.

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There are numerous references to old Hollywood in this story, since Davidson’s  impressionist character Ken Scott draws inspiration from a dead movie star of the late 1930s. Carole Marlowe is obviously a composite based on Carole Lombard. While gimmicky, I would say this give the story added value. Incidentally there is a photo of what is supposed to be the real Carole from 1939, but of course that’s John Davidson made up, with the photo a bit blurred to partially conceal the fact it’s him. We are told the real Carole had daddy issues, and it’s interesting that the first time we see Ken Scott on stage as Carole Marlowe, he/she is singing “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.”

JL: I also think of Marlowe as Philip Marlowe, a Raymond Chandler creation made famous in THE BIG SLEEP, FAREWELL MY LOVELY a.k.a. MURDER MY SWEET and THE LONG GOODBYE. Come to think of it, Karl Malden’s hat easily fits Humphrey Bogart and Dick Powell. The fact that our main leads played by Malden and Michael Douglas think they are initially pursuing an actual woman is also tied with the old Chandler stories with women who could be either side of the fence in crime investigations.

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If you drop the “e” in Carole, you get Carol as in Carol Channing, whom as you mention is impersonated in drag by our lead character…a lot, in fact. Not sure if she performed “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” with the key line of “and I know I could never be bad.”

TB: In terms of entertainment value, what did you think of the story? It held my interest throughout, mainly because I was waiting for Malden and Douglas to figure things out. When they first meet Ken Scott, it is to interview him, because he was a party seen talking to one of the murder victims. While they know Ken does a drag show, they don’t know initially that he stayed ahem, in character, to rub off a nice but married businessman (played by former Tarzan Denny Miller).

JL: Yeah, this is a somewhat enjoyable, if highly questionable, episode and I must note that much of its appeal for me comes from the additional guest stars here. Herb Edelman and John Fiedler (a.k.a. Piglet in Disney’s Winnie-the-Pooh franchise until his death in 2005) both appeared in Neil Simon’s THE ODD COUPLE and the later ’80s series The Golden Girls, although Fielder in just one episode there.

Oh…there are other photos of interest in Ken Scott’s dressing room. One could be Lombard. I think the other one is Gloria Swanson or a knock-off of her. Yes, old time Hollywood gets referenced a lot and John Fiedler’s dialogue mentions the old car featured in Swanson’s SUNSET BLVD.

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TB: Let’s discuss in a bit more detail how the dualism of John Davidson’s character plays out. We have scenes of Ken Scott trying to turn off Carole Marlowe. But then Carole takes over again. One reviewer on the IMDb felt Davidson was too over the top. But I think it was almost necessary, since Carole Marlowe is supposed to be an extreme being. As evidenced in the nightclub act, everything about Carole is over the top.

JL: In the first shot of “her” face, we are not terribly convinced this impersonator is an actual woman in the opening scenes due to Davidson’s somewhat masculine chin-line and husky voice. I am sure there are women who look like “her,” but the clothes are, yes, “over the top” and the music is presented in a strange, judgmental tone. Interesting that the first victim (Miller’s character Harvey Ross) is a jewelry salesman who is established to be heterosexual with a wife and kids. No kissing involved obviously.

TB: Yes, we see Harvey lean in for a kiss but just as their lips are about to lock, that is when Ken/Carole kills him. Talk about a kiss of death! Of course we don’t know a first what is motivating such a killing.

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JL: Both the actor Ken Scott and the character he plays, Carole Marlowe, are not happy in female disguise. Note how we see, in the big revelation that I already saw coming, how forceful he is in removing the long nails and wig as if it is all too gross for him. We learn more why later. Perhaps a dead actress may be taking over his body? Actually all she did years ago, according to Michael Douglas’ Steve Keller, was commit suicide.

Getting more to the point of Ken the actor borrowing her name, he is a total contrast to those featured in the landmark documentaries THE QUEEN (1968) and PARIS IS BURNING (1990) who genuinely enjoy what they do and incorporate their on-stage characters into their actual personalities with no shame involved. John Davidson’s Ken Scott is very shameful as revealed in his all important mirror scenes. When he suggests murders have been committed, he adds that they were “wrong” but the way he paraphrases it all suggests that his female impersonation is even more “wrong.”

TB: Interesting. Also, he is shifting blame. While his hands actually did the killing, he can assign blame to Carole.

JL: Note too that Ken is billed as an “impressionist.” In the rather curious final scene of the show, that word is removed from the marquee before the name of Ken Scott. Open to some interesting interpretation there.

One scene that made me instantly laugh occurred right after Ken tells his boss/agent Sam (Herb Edelman) that he wants this act to be “over” with and we get our commercial break. We suddenly switch to a swimming pool setting with a no-question-that-she-is-female, Anne Helm’s Bobo Stanfield, in a sexy blue bikini getting her back rub to emphasize a subliminal message of “we are still the TV show that you want us to be.”

One curio is two hunky guys in trunks walking together around the pool that could suggest something otherwise, but I don’t think so in this case since, if you look closely, they separate once a woman joins one of them…and, to make it all more amusing, just about the time that Bobo walks our stars Malden and Douglas’s Mike Stone and Steve Keller around the pool, Douglas glances briefly at the woman who just separated the bro-buddies and almost hits his head under a canopy!

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Back to Ken. He isn’t 100% against all he does on stage even if it is all self critical, quipping “I know my act is a little bit weird (interesting word here) but my nails aren’t” (cue the fact that he has yet to remove them in the same forceful manner we saw previously). Back at the dressing room, we meet his girlfriend Lori (Marianne McAndrew) and get our one and only kiss of the show, all nice and hetero.

TB: I’m glad you mention the hetero kiss. I felt that was probably put into the script, because when it was written, the role hadn’t been cast yet. And in order to get a big name guest star who probably is straight in real life, they can point to this scene and say “hey, the character might be off the wall, but you still get to kiss a girl!”

Incidentally, the trivia section on the IMDb for this episode says Dean Jones was first offered this role but turned it down. Honestly, while Jones could sing and was an above average actor, I don’t think he would have brought the sort of charisma and sex appeal that Davidson brings to it.

JL: John Davidson and Dean Jones have similar sounding voices and the former briefly sports a turtle neck not unlike Dean’s favored one in THE LOVE BUG.

TB: And ironically, both played rather wholesome roles in Disney live action flicks.

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JL: When Lieutenant Stone (Malden) and Inspector Keller (Douglas) arrive at the club to interview him, Ken plays stereotypical “gay” by saying he used to be with the marines (an old joke on William Haines and others with a taste for sailors, as well as Malden’s character referencing one marine later in the episode who had a Carmen Miranda act) until Lori corrects him about them being police-oriented. Then Ken says “Hope you don’t bust me, gentlemen. I’m clean! I’m clean!”

Afterwords…as Stone & Keller head to the car outside the club we get an interesting exchange.

Stone to Keller: Do you have the feeling you just came off another planet?

Keller: That’s show biz.

Stone: Show biz, huh? Well, Maybe I shouldn’t knock it. He plays to full houses every night and we come out empty handed.

TB: I agree the dialogue is fun in this episode, and with a pro like Malden, it is often delivered tongue-in-cheek. Especially in the scene you just referenced. But of course, at this point in the narrative, Stone & Keller haven’t figured out the connection that Ken Scott’s alter ego Carole Marlowe is the culprit they are seeking.

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JL: We are reminded of PSYCHO here. Norman Bates does not “dress like that” because he wants to be female or has any “gay” inclinations. He kills Marion Crane because “mother” made him on account of him “being aroused by her.” You mention Ken’s daddy issues, but I personally feel they didn’t milk that aspect of the story all that well to make it even worth discussing.

Quite often serial killers display alternative personalities in entertainment, which they can easily “turn off” in order to avoid getting caught. The dual personality is ultimately more important than the gender role switching in the long run. One key scene of interest: when Stone & Keller visit Ken a second time and he plays Carol Channing for them in the dressing rom, the real Ken reverts back once they leave and the door closes. “It is like dealing with a three headed monster. You don’t know which head to talk to.” No, Lieutenant Stone, just two.

TB: I’m really enjoying this discussion Jlewis. Tomorrow I will post the rest of our review. In the meanwhile, if any of our readers haven’t seen the episode, it may currently be viewed on YouTube.


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Mask of Death

Part 2 of 2

TB: Yesterday we left off in the middle of a discussion about Mask of Death, a third season episode of the classic crime show The Streets of San Francisco. In the story guest star John Davidson plays a troubled “impressionist” whose alter ego is a killer.

Let’s talk about the pacing of the episode. Lieutenant Stone (Karl Malden) and Inspector Keller (Michael Douglas) spend considerable time investigating the first killing.

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We cut from their investigation to Ken’s stage routines as Carole. It takes awhile (about 18 minutes into the episode) for the two detectives to cross paths with Ken, whom they don’t realize is the killer they’re seeking.

JL: The whole needle part, which is a key suspect item that Steve steals from the dressing room, is well integrated into the murder investigation.

For a brief period in viewing this, I wondered if they were cleverly fooling us viewers into thinking Ken is a killer when he is not. That is, only he himself wonders if he is because maybe he “blacks out” at times when in his Carole Marlowe persona. After all, he has a chauffeur too, played by Ivor Barry (? I think… please correct me), and sometimes the butler or chauffeur is the-one-who-did-it.


TB: Yes, Raymond the butler is played by Welsh actor Ivor Barry.

JL: We do see that the butler is rather eager to leave town. Then, of course, our initial suspicion, along with our lead investigators’ suspicions, prove correct and my reaction is one of…gee, they could have really wowed us here with a great, great “gotcha” ending. Oh well…

TB: Probably the goal of writer Robert Malcolm Young was to connect homicidal impulses with deviant behavior. Raymond the butler is not a so-called deviant. Ken Scott is. For awhile, I thought maybe we’d find out that Sam the manager (Herb Edelman’s character) was behind the murders, that he too dressed up.

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But the story does not go in that direction. However, I think it is vaguely hinted that Sam and Ken may have a more intimate relationship than Stone & Keller realize, despite the fact Ken is in a relationship with a woman (Marianne McAndrew). The woman, Lori, seems to be almost a hanger-on. Clearly Ken can function without her, since he has Sam and Raymond (and Carole Marlowe) to keep him busy!

Okay, let’s change gears a bit. What is your idea about camp as entertainment value? What makes it so entertaining? Especially in regards to the drag routines we see depicted in the episode. Plus the over-the-top stuff where Ken is questioned by Stone & Keller, but keeps falling back into the Carole Marlowe character.

JL: The acts may be labeled “camp” and ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW is often labeled the ultimate “camp” movie. However I feel this show is too sinister and serious in its subject matter. You need some humor and, yes, we get it in Davidson’s performance at times since he does enjoy the impersonations.

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Yet “camp” entertainment usually doesn’t suggest that cross dressing is “sick” as it is viewed here.

On the visual side, I should add that the old style mansion setting of Ken’s and all of the curious costumes on display make for great gothic entertainment. Again, like Norman Bates’ house, Ken’s is investigated by Stone & Keller much like Vera Miles’ Lila Crane investigated Norman. Once again, we have Ken jump out like the bogeyman to attack Keller just like Norman Bates did. Note that Ken Scott is only wearing a ladies wig but still has a guy sports-coat on, ready to make his trip to Mexico to escape the law.

Again, for genuine camp entertainment, you are supposed to enjoy the “alternative” aspects of the story. But I don’t think viewers are supposed to enjoy them here. I think a huge slice of the viewing audience in 1974 were not into this kind of set-up like they would be today.

TB: Good point. I agree. And as we mentioned earlier, the hetero kiss is depicted to keep the audience tuned in, so that it is not “too gay” or “too alternative.” If the story was made now, we might not have the hetero kiss, and we would certainly see Ken/Carole kiss the first murder victim. At least that’s what I think.

Going back to how the story is written…does abnormal transformation mean homicide? That’s what the episode’s script writer seems to be suggesting. At one point Ken’s girlfriend Lori tells him: “Think about what you do. Every day you have to masquerade around so perfectly that people can’t tell what sex you are.”

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JL: It is interesting how the women in these shows are the voices that get through to men rather than other men. Is it “abnormal”…? The “transformation”…? Well, if you commit murder, it probably is. Then again, anything you do that is not popular with a mainstream patriarchal society will make you “abnormal” to others.

This episode aired two months before the theatrical release of FREEBIE AND THE BEAN (held up in its release for various issues not all related), which also involves a “female impersonator” presented in very suspect terms. The TV episode is better than the movie but the overall message is still muddled despite so much borrowed from PSYCHO here. I mean…on the plus side, the killer is at least “heteronormal” and not “gay” so we have that going for it in terms of social progress.

Sadly, today we are seeing a lot of transgenders as murder victims rather than the other way around. The numbers for 2020 are well above 2019 already even though the year is not over yet, according to The Advocate and other sources bothering to report them. Curious what all was happening back then with all of this ominous profiling in entertainment. Then again, you and I understand that we must accept films and TV shows as products of their time.

TB: True.

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JL: Once again, I must say something positive here about the character of Lieutenant Mike Stone. When Inspector Steve Keller discusses something “kinky” about the old actress Carole Marlowe whom Ken “embodies” as some spiritual take-over in old Hollywood references he is researching, Keller is corrected by Stone with the line of “Don’t believe everything you read on film people. They are human beings like everybody else.’

I also like the character of Sam played by Edelman. He tells Ken he is “nuts” for dropping his stage act because he thinks there is nothing wrong with drag. Why should there be? Entertainers, regardless of how they entertain, are human beings.


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TB: This weekend we are looking at another episode of The Streets of San Francisco which stars Karl Malden and Michael Douglas. This one features guest Dean Stockwell.

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It was produced during the show’s third season. Stockwell is great, at times heartbreaking to watch…he expertly straddles the fence between victim and victimizer and the result is ultimately a very sympathetic character we root for in the end.

The Programming of Charlie Blake was originally broadcast on Thursday night February 6, 1975. According to the wiki description:

“A supposedly reformed sex offender (Dean Stockwell) is being brainwashed by his psychiatrist (William Smithers) into believing he has committed murder.” Key supporting players include Sharon Acker and Lynne Marta. Dee Wallace appears in a minor role.

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Part 1 of 2

TB: Though Dean Stockwell is playing the most important character in this story, we also have a strong performance by William Smithers. During his long career, Smithers often played villains. In this episode, he’s cast as a Svengali-type psychiatrist named Dr. Norman Jessup. As the story unfolds it become very clear that he does not have the well-being of his patient Charlie Blake in mind. In fact he’s going to use Charlie to commit murder.

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We’re not supposed to enjoy a character like this. But I have to admit I sort of do. Mainly because Smithers has such a unique way of making villainy palatable. Of making it seem almost refined. It’s rather fascinating how the “good doctor” is able to control a patient like Charlie Blake for his own nefarious purposes. Wouldn’t you agree?

JL: Dr. Norman Jessup is the classic slick and oily controller we’ve seen many times elsewhere in entertainment like stepmother Lady Tremaine in CINDERELLA and Billy Zane’s Caledon in TITANIC. These personalities are confident that they are God and can control the world. It is not too challenging for them since many in this world would much rather be controlled by others than seek control of themselves.

Note how he makes Charlie feel “dirty.” My guess is that Charlie, who is rather unkempt in appearance and neurotic, has been talked down to all his life and lacks self confidence in himself. The “good doctor” is rather sneering in his tone when he says “I want to help you Charlie. You know that, right?”

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TB: Of course, Dr. Norman Jessup is most interested in helping himself…to his wife’s money. But he can only get his hands on the dough once she’s out of the way. So he will use Charlie to accomplish this.

We should mention the doctor’s wife Eleanor (Sharon Acker) calls him evil during their first scene together at his office. I sort of wondered why doesn’t she leave him.

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At one point later in the narrative, Norman says Eleanor bought his soul years earlier, when they married and she helped set him up in practice. Is he a victim in some way, or just manipulating the situation for sympathy? I guess the viewer can draw his/her own conclusions.

JL: Note how provocative she is when sitting on the sofa as her husband dials in Charlie’s obscene phone call recording. You can practically look up her skirt and this is network TV! The poor woman is desperate for affection and not getting it in this marriage.

TB: You’re right!

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JL: I think she still loved him despite how she behaved. I know…it didn’t seem like it if you judge her battle with him in the office. Yet she supported him financially and did not complain about it. I also noticed that his lawyer refuses to defend him in the end because he (the lawyer) was far closer to Eleanor than to Norman, suggesting that she was the one in that marriage who had a heart and “soul.”

This brings me to the “bought my soul” line. Not only did she help support him in his practice, but she may still be supporting him. His line seems to me a fit of anger because he is still struggling without her help. Mind you, he probably has some rich clients keeping him afloat since that is a mighty impressive BMW he drives. Yet Charlie is clearly not one of them. Note that Charlie said he is unemployed so…how is he able to afford his sessions? Dr. Norman needs Charlie far more than Charlie needs him.

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TB: Excellent point. I figured Charlie had been assigned to him as a court-appointed case that some psychologists take on in addition to their more lucrative private practice.

JL: It is interesting that this episode aired… yes, I am taking yet another cultural trip down memory lane… shortly after Gerald Ford’s State of the Union address, famous for the line “I must say to you that the state of the Union is not good. Millions of Americans are out of work.” Thanks to changes with women’s liberation and new laws taking effect, an increasing number of households had the wife “wearing the pants” to make ends meet with so many industries laying off employees, a high percentage of them male.

In this episode, we have two men who are more dependent on women than the women are dependent on them. Not that Dr. Norman stays dependent on his wife for long. I have to bring up the strangling scene. It happens way too quickly and, therefore, doesn’t come off as believable. Where’s the struggle? Was this due to TV censorship?

TB: Or maybe it was due to the fact that this is a compressed narrative, where the writers have to get it all told and wrapped up in 48 minutes. Though chances are they didn’t want to get too graphic and have a battle with Standards & Practices.

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JL: Also…why exactly did Norman kill his wife? Yes, we can make assumptions here. Yet you wonder what he was planning to collect insurance wise, since money is often  a good motive. There are a few little plot holes in this show, but I blame the confinements of a prime time show’s running time with commercials interfering. This would have worked better as a two-parter.

TB: Okay. We’ll be back tomorrow with the rest of this review…there is much more to discuss. So please join us!


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Part 2 of 2

TB: We are back to continue our discussion about this great season 3 episode of The Streets of San Francisco.

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Let’s go over Dean Stockwell’s performance as the unconventional protagonist Charlie Blake. We are first introduced to him at the police station where Lt. Mike Stone (Karl Malden) is having Inspector Steve Keller (Michael Douglas) interrogate known sex offenders because of a recent rape and murder in the area. So we find out right away that Charlie has a criminal past, but he is now supposedly reformed. Of course, we don’t know how sympathetic he really is at that early stage in the drama.

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Stockwell seems to have a gentle way about him, despite the scruffy appearance and the character’s backstory. Still there are moments as the story progresses where we get to see Stockwell play Charlie a bit unhinged. Though he still mixes in sweet parts of Charlie’s personality…especially when he identifies himself later as a killer and needs to confess in order to feel better. It’s a very interesting performance.

JL: Yes. I think he plays his part well. As mentioned above, I get the sense that he has zero confidence in himself and is scared that his girlfriend will leave him. It is a very subdued performance but he shows off good sweat when under Dr. Norman Jessup’s interrogation. Unfortunately TV episodes only give a guest star so much time to develop enough character development.

TB: True. Despite the four-act structure for television, to enable commercial breaks, this story flows pretty smoothly and doesn’t feel as choppy as it might have under a different writer. This is the only episode credited to Rick Blaine, who has just two credits on the IMDb, which leads me to believe it might have been a pseudonym for an established writer. Incidentally, the episode is directed by Nicholas Colasanto who was also an actor, known for his role later on the sitcom Cheers.

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Let’s go into some detail about the long brainwashing scene where Dr. Norman Jessup records Charlie making a sexually harassing phone call. I had to ask myself if this was at all realistic. For instance, would this type of scene cause viewers to distrust psychiatrists? Maybe that was one of the goals the producers had in doing this episode! What do you think?

JL: They make it pretty clear that this man is less a psychiatrist and more of a Svengali type right away. However I could see the writing suggest that psychiatrists must not be trusted. Yet we do get a “genuine” psychiatrist assisting on the case briefly to make sure we the viewers know they are not all bad. Sort of like a show featuring both good cops and bad cops, good actors and bad actors a.k.a. ALL ABOUT EVE, etc.

A while back, there were many old time radio shows such as SUSPENSE that often featured crooked shrinks manipulating patients, so the concept here is not all that original. There is little question that the TV writers of the 1970s grew up with these classic shows in their youth and were greatly inspired by them. There is one 1946 episode of THE WHISTLER that, on the surface, was completely different than this one story-wise but also involved a 78 recording (instead of a tape recording as here) playing a role in a murder case.

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I think that one involved a radio announcer planning to be in two places at once: committing a murder while a recording of his voice was electronically rigged to play on cue at his normally scheduled time on the air so he had an “alibi.” Yes, this was totally different in story idea, but my overall sense is that one idea can develop into other ideas over time from writer to writer and show to show.

To make it simple: the writer here was inspired by past stories read and enjoyed, but took them to into newer territory to conform with the times. The seventies was a golden age for psychiatry as we see in many comedies of the era like The Bob Newhart Show and ANNIE HALL.

TB: Lieutenant Stone (Malden) and Inspector Keller (Douglas) note the odd coincidences that crop up in the case. But they do not initially suspect that Charlie’s being framed. It isn’t until Keller sees the tapes the doctor makes of patients that he starts to piece it all together.

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Any observations about the rapport between Malden and Douglas in this episode, and how they help sell this plot to the viewers…plus anything else you feel like adding..?

JL: They work very well as a team. Note that Mike Stone is the one who discovers the peculiar wiring of the lamps in Dr. Jessup’s home, getting Steve Keller to burn himself twice. They feed off of each other on this case.

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The final lines sum it up.

  • Keller: Jessup was so cool I thought we’d never get him.

  • Stone: Yes, the smart ones take it hard when they find out how dumb they’ve been.

  • Keller: When did you first make it?

  • Stone (instantly responding before Steve finishes): Same time you did!

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A couple minor interesting cinematic highlights–

I love the ticking clocks as the key objects of interest in this episode. It has that steady tick tick that plays even when Eleanor Jessup is yelling at her husband Norman. He breaks her clock just before killing her. I remember how Roman Polanski used a similar one, but mostly unseen, to great effect in ROSEMARY’S BABY. Sometimes the tick tick tranquilizes you and you suddenly feel vulnerable to control by others.

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As horrible as our opening scenes are with a woman (Dee Wallace) sexually assaulted and murdered in front of a poster reading “Love…nourishes all living things,” I should at least point out the great fashion sense on display. The victim’s hair-do resembles Toni Tennille’s of Captain & Tennille and the blue jean bell bottoms are wonderful.

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Also the mirror Dr. Jessup looks into when hypnotizing Charlie. He is upside down! My curious interpretation is that Dr. Jessup is talking to himself instead of Charlie.

This was a good show, but may be not the most inspired one. As you can see, I struggled a bit more being creative in my answers here than with the others. Either that or some of it felt a bit too familiar to me, due to…I guess…similar material in old radio shows and other entertainment.

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TB: I don’t think every episode is entirely original, since they are turning out 24 of these babies each season. Some of them start with standard conventions of the genre (cheating spouse, jealous sibling, angry boss/employee, etc.) and they go from there. I agree that these TV writers are drawing on earlier narratives in the genre, whether it is radio suspense drama, or classic movies of the 30s and 40s, before television. Or even classic literature, which sometimes inspires a writer and sets a “new” plot in motion.

Despite the constraints of a 48 minute story, broken into four acts and an epilogue to allow advertising, the guest stars do rather well. Some excel more than others with this format. Plus their screen time is limited to an extent because the series’ stars (Malden & Douglas) need time to have their moments and for their characters to continue developing.

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Incidentally, William Smithers would get his defining role in the 1980s on the hit TV series Dallas playing slick oilman Jeremy Wendell. A role very similar in motivation to Dr. Norman Jessup here. Both characters cut from the same cloth, men that put their own careers and needs ahead of everyone else. Men that see life as a game; and they are determined to win. Etc.

I looked up Smithers online and he is in his early 90s now and remains quite active. He’s had a long and varied career. Dean Stockwell has also had a long and varied career.

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As you said, Stockwell does seem to play Charlie as a man that lacks confidence. I very much like your comment that Charlie and Norman are both reliant upon the women in their lives. One for spiritual and physical companionship. The other for financial benefits and social status. 

What I like most about this episode is that while it goes a bit psychological and sinister, we also get to see a tender romance occurring with Charlie and his girlfriend. It’s a relationship that has some lies, or omissions of fact, in it since Charlie was afraid to divulge his past to her. But they seem to get over that. 

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TB: This weekend we are looking at an episode of The Streets of San Francisco which stars Karl Malden and Richard Hatch. 

It was produced during the show’s fifth and final season. Hatch had replaced Douglas in a special two-part season premiere where Douglas was billed as a special guest star. After Douglas’ exit, the rest of the series focused on Lieutenant Stone (Malden) developing a working relationship with his new partner, Inspector Dan Robbins (Hatch). The writing was just as strong in the final season as it had been in the previous seasons.

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Who Killed Helen French? was originally broadcast on Thursday night February 3, 1977. According to the wiki description:

“An abused wife vanishes after a vicious attack by her drunken husband and all clues point to murder with the husband as the prime suspect, but he can’t remember if he did it or not.” Guest stars include Alan Fudge, Marlyn Mason & John Kerr.

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TB: The title for this episode is very misleading, deliberately so, which I think helps make it a classic. There’s an engaging opening sequence where drunken husband Doug French (Alan Fudge) abuses his wife Helen. Director Allen Reisner uses some camera trickery to keep viewers off balance and to partially conceal what Helen French really looks like.

Incidentally, the fifth season of the show has sightly changed the writing structure. We now have a teaser that sets up the main theme (in this case wife beating) which is labeled as Act I. Then we go into Act II which is longer. This is followed by Acts III, IV & V which are also longer. Then we have a brief Epilogue, like before. Lieutenant Stone and his young partner, Inspector Dan Robbins, never appear in the teaser/Act I unless they are directly involved in the crime. Typically they arrive on the scene at the beginning of Act II to begin their police investigation.

JL: The cameraman and editor(s) were a little TOO obvious in the way they hid her face, only showing enough of the hair-do for identification purposes later. The beating sequence is portrayed partially from the husband’s point of view under alcohol intoxication, being rather blurry much like a dream sequence later. Maybe he just imagined beating her? Of course not, since we learn she is an abused woman.

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I like the title usage here. Death means many things, not always physical death but also the death one can experience when all hopes and dreams are destroyed. This is the story of a woman who marries for love but is shattered when she becomes the victim of abuse. According to Mike Stone, spouse abuse is among the least reported crimes and unfortunately does not often get reported until after the abused person is dead. In this case, the death may not be literal but psychological. In the end…spoiler alert…psychiatric care is needed to be “born again.”

TB: Yes, indeed. Red herrings are important in this genre. The Frenches’ neighbor Betty Rollins (Ellen Geer) provides a red herring when Stone and Robbins show up to investigate. She is convinced that Doug French killed Helen French. Inside the home there are blood stains on the carpet and Stone finds a blood soaked towel in the bathroom. Plus there is additional evidence found in the Frenches’ car. Doug insists his wife just left, but she always comes back. However, it is beginning to look like Helen was killed and her body is missing. In this case, I feel the red herring is rather effective. It draws us into the story. Especially since Doug French is now a prime suspect.

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JL: Prior to this show, I never realized you could approximate the timing of a collision incident by looking at the damage of a car. Apparently “no oxidation on the first break metal” indicates it happened only a few hours ago. Although we are informed that “the lab men” will check “the rest of the house” and the blood type is revealed to be “O,” there isn’t a whole lot of investigation on screen there. Had this been an episode of CSI two decades later, DNA analysis would be involved but we are still in the seventies here when such examinations were more basic.

TB: True. But in spite of the times, the writers are bringing a bit of forensic science into the investigation scenes. And this enables a bit more realism to seep into the story.

JL: As highly entertaining as this episode was and, no, I wasn’t sure how it would be resolved until it was resolved, I was still pretty skeptical of Doug killing his wife early on. 

TB: Why do you say that?

JL: Too many characters, not just Betty, kept saying that he did it and we had yet to see any kind of investigation. When people tell you something over and over…and Dan seemed eager to fry the husband over this, it does not mean it is true. In fact, you start to doubt it. The fact that Doug is told by his girlfriend that he did something he could not remember also makes you suspicious, which is why he needed a lie detector test to help him determine for himself if he did anything at all.

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TB: I love the use of polygraphs in these stories. Stone always has to remind the audience that these things are not admissible in court. Yet, they still use them. What else?

JL: There was Doug’s dream sequence in which he wondered if maybe, just maybe, he did kill her since his memory was such a blur. It was all overly dramatic the way dreams often are.

I also found it strange that Dan was at the wharf at night when Doug went there and instantly asked him if he dumped his wife in there. Why was Dan there in the first place? Investigating a different crime? Note that they waited until broad daylight to do an actual investigation so it was pointless if Dan decided to look for any corpses underwater at midnight. Also how could he recognize Doug in the dark so quickly? I guess we can chuck that up as TV dramatic license.

TB: I see what you’re saying. I think it definitely was a bit of dramatic license. There is no reason they couldn’t have searched for the body at night. But Dan was there, because he had been tailing Doug after hours, without Stone’s assistance.

Okay, let’s shift gears a bit. There is another character that pops up during the initial part of the investigation. Her name is Angela Somes and she is played by Marlyn Mason.

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We do not glimpse Angela Somes until Mike Stone visits her to get information about Helen French. Marilyn Mason gets top billing in the guest cast portion of the opening credits. So it seems odd that Angela Somes doesn’t appear until ten minutes after the story has begun. After Mike’s visit with Angela, she is off screen for lengthy periods. Later she becomes a key part of the plot’s resolution. 

JL: Intriguingly Angela allowed Mike into her apartment, carrying on a casual phone call while he was standing there, and yet she didn’t seem to know why he was there until the subject of Helen was brought up after various other chit chat. Although there was a joke about “some gentleman filing a complaint” on her so she knew he had connections with the police, we did not see him officially identify himself and needing her to answer some questions.

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Marilyn Mason was very good in her performance. Maybe a little too smooth and too different than the other character we relate her to later. This is a very tricky storyline to navigate here and, overall, the show did a pretty good job. Yet the results are not totally convincing. Nonetheless, I did not figure-it-out right away. Just was suspicious about Doug being a killer in a literal way.

I also liked Trish Stewart as girlfriend Susan Ross, convincing me the viewer as much as Doug that three thousand dollars was required for her to leave town because “I am doing this for you.” It sounded SO sincere in the way she expressed it!

TB: (laughs) Yes. She almost stole the show. A nifty little performance. Given her overall lack of screen time, the girlfriend makes quite an impression!

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Getting back to the Helen/Angela stuff, this plot resembles the one used in the season 3 episode we reviewed, Mask of Death, with guest star John Davidson. I would almost call it a “creative” re-write.

JL: As I hint in my previous comments, there are a few curious details overlooked either on purpose, so we are more surprised with the outcome, or by accident, since this is a TV drama and not a documentary and should be judged accordingly.

Yes, both shows have a few details in common. Wigs are an important aspect in an unveiling scene. Both shows have a main character who is a performer who uses a secondary personality to get lost in and/or escape from the harsh realities of life. The stage director who worked with Helen had a few insightful comments regarding this. Curiously, when he mentions that there are no more directors in New York but “only choreographers,” Dan looks at Mike and seems to giggle. Not sure what that was about.

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TB: I think it was an “inside joke” about directors staging spectacles instead of directing individual performances.

JL: In the earlier episode from season 3, John Davidson’s character talks to the mirror and confesses his crimes. But in this later story from season 5, Alan Fudge’s character is not sure if he committed any. I guess the dream sequence could be seen as some sort of parallel to the other episode’s mirror talk but I think it is nebulous at best.

TB: How do you think the red herring and the gimmicky nature of the revelation at the end ties in with the more serious social message about domestic violence?

JL: The overall message on domestic violence is a trifle lost due to the fact that we don’t see all of the “black and blue” that is discussed on screen. In the big revelation scene, I was expecting to see face make-up covering up something. Also I found it slightly…odd…that such a double personality could be so self assured in herself when posing as somebody else. There wasn’t much of a vulnerability displayed here with anybody but Doug and he is the one who is not supposed to be the vulnerable one. Actually I felt Alan Fudge played his role way too sympathetically since we never see him get angry except fleetingly in the opening scenes.

TB: I would have to agree with that observation. He should have been simmering a bit more under the surface. Anything else you care to add?

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JL: It was nice to at least see John Kerr, famous as a fifties icon a.k.a. SOUTH PACIFIC, here two decades later as D.A. Gerald O’Brien. Not much screen time despite his major billing over the titles. Barely three sentences spoken by his character.

TB: Kerr is playing a recurring character. D.A. O’Brien appears in various episodes across all five seasons. I guess because of Kerr’s stature (and probably his friendship with Malden as a fellow Method Actor) he gets prominent guest billing even if his character is only needed briefly.

JL: This is a fun episode despite its grim subject matter but, again, we can all be quite nit-picky about how realistic it is and whether or not Helen French’s stunt can be pulled off successfully without the San Francisco investigators figuring the answers out faster than they do. That is the nature of television prime-time drama.

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TB: Thanks Jlewis. Next weekend we will look at another Malden-Hatch episode from the fifth season of The Streets of San Francisco. It’s a groundbreaking story in many ways. So be sure to join us!


TB: This weekend we are looking at another episode of The Streets of San Francisco which stars Karl Malden and Richard Hatch. It was produced during the show’s fifth and final season. 

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A Good Cop…But was originally broadcast on Thursday night February 10, 1977. According to the wiki description:

“A cop-killer’s henchmen hunt the only witnesses to his crime, an officer and an informer.” Guest stars include Barry Primus, Robert Walden & Mills Watson.

TB: Of course that description is somewhat of an understatement, which we’ll get to in just a bit.

Part 1 of 2

I would like to start by analyzing the working relationship that Lieutenant Mike Stone (Karl Malden) has with his partner Inspector Dan Robbins (Richard Hatch). It differs from Stone’s previous relationship with Inspector Steve Keller (Michael Douglas).

Robbins and Keller were in a two-part episode together, where Douglas effectively handed the reigns over to Hatch. In that story, Robbins joined the team on what became Keller’s last case. Keller was shot and almost killed, and after he recuperated he decided to quit the force and take a job as a college professor in Berkeley. We never see Keller again in the series, but we are told that Stone stays in contact with him. While Robbins is dressed fashionably like Keller, his personality is a bit different and his relationship with Stone is more subdued. 

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JL: It does seem like, based on the few episodes we have seen here, that Michael Douglas really enjoyed his role. He is constantly smiling on screen, rather impishly at times, and working off “straight man” Karl Malden. Perhaps Richard Hatch was too much of a “straight man” himself and there isn’t room for two of them on this show. He has a nice mellow personality that would work well in other shows with other performers working with him.

TB: Yes. Okay, let’s take a look at the story for A Good Cop…But which in some ways feels like a time capsule. In terms of the cars, fashions, hairstyles, etc. Also in terms of the subject matter, which in this case is about a gay cop (played by Barry Primus) that is in the closet and gets outed.

JL: I feel that all TV shows and movies that escape nitrate decomposition are time capsules, there was plenty that I could “date” it by. After all, I have absorbed a lot of pop culture referencing, probably all useless information, over my life time. Yes, a few cars are vintage ’77 models, the technology of phones with actual extension chords and an audio cassette recorder playing a key role in the story are all interesting throw-backs to a pre-digital world. Plus there are other little details such as a mostly white demographic on screen despite at least two representative “black friends” at a birthday party, and the women all playing “understanding” wives and friends rather than members of the police force (apart from a secretary level).

The times were changing but they were still changing gradually during the seventies. Plenty of smoking going on too, which is a rare sight on network TV today. More importantly, being a “homosexual” was quite a big deal back then.

TB: Indeed. It is commendable that the show was trying to include different walks of life on screen. Not just the scenes that take place out on patrol but within the precinct as well.

JL: A quick check-up with the actual air-date makes for a most interesting pop culture referencing. February 10, 1977 was right about the time that Anita Bryant’s infamous “Save Our Children” campaign got launched and started making the national news, she being one of many agitated “devout Christians” reacting harshly to gay liberation and, especially, the Miami-Dade County (Florida) decision to eliminate discrimination against gays in the workforce in late January 1977.

She and other conservatives were fearful that children may be damaged by coming into contact with men who are not married to women and leading an immoral life as she defined it personally. Although there would be backlash against her in the coming months, famously with a pie in her face that fall, the courts inevitably took her side and the gay rights movement was pushed back a bit much as slightly less conservative but still conservative Phyllis Schafly was succeeding in preventing the Equal Rights Amendment from pushing forward. In addition, there continued to be residue (if that is a good analogy word to use) of Anita’s movement for decades to come. Remember that the Supreme Court only officially over-ruled all that Anita rallied for in 1977 on June 15, 2020, a full forty three years later! 

I won’t get into all of the politics here, but it again does make the timing of this particular episode most interesting.

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Officer Lambert, played by Barry Primus, is forced to keep his sex and romantic life a total secret from everybody he works with, including his best friend Ernie, played by Robert Walden. In this case, he should not be too terribly worried about losing his job since the San Francisco Police Department is described in one scene involving Karl Malden’s Stone and his boss as “not discriminatory.” Nonetheless it is discussed a lot both at the workplace and later in the courtroom that Lambert being gay still “poses a problem.”

TB: Barry Primus’ performance as the gay cop sort of drew me in. First of all, I think he gives a very precise and layered performance. He almost underplays it in the beginning. But we are gradually pulled into the story and his character’s specific conflict(s). I felt there were certain nuances that made his character believable and his struggle about his sexual identity most credible. Actually, it’s a brilliant and daring performance for the era, especially for network television in 1977.

JL: I did find the two brief scenes involving children quite interesting in light of the whole “Save Our Children” campaign. The gay cop is with both his heterosexual boss and a nun at a Catholic school in the first one as children walk in well-supervised pathways around them. Later, he is seated at the other end of a car when a girl talks to him and Richard Hatch’s heterosexual (supposedly since he has no secrets) inspector Dan Robbins, being the one closest to her.

TB: What are your thoughts about the way Lieutenant Mike Stone is written and played within the parameters of this particular story?

JL: We don’t see Mike Stone struggle at all over Officer Lambert being gay. In fact, he is completely OK with it as long as Lambert is a good worker with the force. If somebody looks and acts like you, you are more likely going to listen to what (s)he has to say. Had both the actor (Primus) and his character been a bit younger and more “hip” (and certainly not as “hippy” like those in San Francisco’s Height Ashbury), then the story would not succeed in getting the older viewers to watch this show and to at least ponder for themselves that maybe…just maybe…being gay is not the worst thing in the world.

TB: Excellent point. So to some extent, an episode with a daring theme is presented, but it still codified in a way that will not alienate the show’s core audience. Makes sense!

Anything you care to mention specifically about Barry Primus here?

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JL: Ordinarily it should not matter at all whether an actor’s private life resembles or differs from that of the characters he plays, but I do feel it matters in this case. With the primary exception of Lance Loud playing himself in AN AMERICAN FAMILY, virtually all of the pioneering “gay” roles on American TV during the seventies were handled by heterosexual men who were confident enough that none of their peers or fans would consider them “gay” just because a character they played was gay. According to his Wikipedia profile, Barry Primus was happily married back in 1976-77 to the same woman he is married to now. I guess it was still a trifle challenging to play a “gay” role back at that time and he should be praised to some degree for his courage.

TB: I have to admit I did look up Primus’ bio after I viewed the episode. But mainly, because I remembered him on Cagney & Lacey in the mid-80s– another cop show that featured two lead female detectives. In that case, Primus was in a supporting role as a policeman who was involved romantically with Sharon Gless’ character.  While he may have worked within the same television genre, he obviously was not typecast.

Anyway, it was interesting to me to see Primus play this kind of role earlier in his career. Again I think he conveyed the complexity of Officer Lambert’s sexual orientation quite well.

JL: I am not saying we needed to SEE Lambert with another guy to prove he is what he is accused of and claims to be. Yet the lack of anything substantial to go by here does render a final “joke” emphasized in the last scene as rather pointless. Earlier his buddy Ernie reacted with anger “don’t ever touch me” even though Lambert never does on screen. Later he comes around to accepting Lambert for who he is. That is, he sort of does…if not completely.

When Lambert teases ever so slightly with the line of “Hey, we were made for each other,” this prompts a still slightly homophobic remark of “You had to say that, heh?” as Ernie hastily goes inside the building. Lambert, Stone and Richard Hatch’s Dan Robbins all chuckle, which supposedly indicates that they all understand that Ernie will stay Ernie regardless.

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Yet something felt off to me about that scene. Was it the fact that the cast was acting “straight” in their behavior both on screen just as they all did off in their “normal” off screen lives? Had one of them been gay, there might have been a bit more sensitivity involved here. Although I felt this scene was not particularly realistic, you may disagree with me here.

TB: I think the writer was trying to end the episode on a lighter note, but I agree the joke in the last scene was not needed. Unless the point was to show that Ernie was still not entirely accepting of Lambert, if Lambert was going to be pining after him. And to some extent, I do think that is what Primus was embedding into the character though nothing explicit along those lines was in the script. 

There were scenes early in the episode where Ernie was trying to match-make Lambert with one of his single sisters. The sister seemed to know Lambert was gay and accepted him as a friend. Ernie wanted to feel connected to his work buddy in a way that stretched into the personal and family realm. Lambert wanted that too, but in a romantic way which Ernie has to acknowledge at the end of the episode.


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Part 2 of 2

TB: We’re back with the rest of our discussion about a fifth season episode of The Streets of San Francisco called “A Good Cop…But” which originally aired in 1977.

JL: Curiously we have another gay character referenced as Moonshine, played by Don Calfa. We know he has an active sex life based on a conversation with his landlady, claiming he is doing (in her opinion) something questionable with “every Tom, Dick and Harry.” Yet, unlike the very abstinent Lambert (at least on screen since we have no idea if he has ever been in cahoots with a Tom, Dick or Harry), Moonshine is presented as sleazy. He is both a frightened victim of a homophobic world (like some characters in the landmark 1961 classic VICTIM) and also connected with criminals, becoming a suspect in a murder investigation.

Moonshine is also presented as a “freak” hiding in a clown outfit and later getting lost in a carnival “freak” show among wax dummies. Although the whole point of his character is to keep the police investigation going, something didn’t feel all that right about how he was presented. It was as if Lambert gets the pass as the more “moral” character here because he doesn’t practice all the stuff that Anita Bryant considers “deviant” like Moonshine does.

TB: My impression of Moonshine was that the writer was depicting the fact there are different expressions of homosexuality. Also that homosexual behavior is not to be defined in any one specific way. So for every Lambert, there is a Moonshine. Or, to reverse it, for every Moonshine, there is a Lambert. As well as the other “types” that fall between in the spectrum.

Of course, as we’ve discussed, the heart of this episode involves the relationship between Primus’ character, Inspector Dave Lambert, and his partner, Detective Ernie Bell.

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It runs parallel to the relationship that exists between Stone and Robbins. In both situations the law enforcement “couple” has much familiarity with one another. They spend many hours in close proximity, in cars out on the streets and at the precinct. On some occasions, they socialize together after hours. Of course nothing sexual is meant to be inferred with the Stone-Robbins relationship. But I do think there are sexual undercurrents in the relationship between Lambert and Bell.

In the meantime, we go from police procedural to “buddy film” to courtroom drama with elements of gangster and noir added into the mix. But on top of it all there is a same sex romantic vibe. At least that’s how I read it, the Lambert-Bell portion of the story.

JL: One major flaw with many TV shows is that a major character or characters may only appear in one episode rather than multiple ones and, therefore, are not fully fleshed out on screen. All we have to go by are the key four or five scenes with conversations.

The very first conversation we hear in this episode involves Ernie trying to play matchmaker because he feels Lambert needs a good woman. Lambert changes the subject by asking for something to eat. He never lies to his friend, but just avoids certain topics he can’t address. Later after Lambert admits the truth to Ernie, we get the angry “don’t touch me” remark. This is why Lambert hesitated. “I kept it quiet because I’m just knew what effect it would have around here.” Lambert then tells Stone about the loss of friends by his “outing.”

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TB: Yes. I am glad you mentioned this. Stone sort of takes all this in, and he another person to filter the situation through. I felt Malden played his part extremely well here, showing Stone to be approachable, fair-minded and a good listener, as well as sympathetic. Another sympathetic character is Ernie’s sister, whom I’ve already mentioned.

JL: Ernie’s sister Connie (Amy Levitt is excellent in her few minutes of screen time) explains to him that Lambert is the same guy he always was even if he is now revealed to be “gay.” This seems to work wonders on Ernie so he eventually accepts his friend in the end. Not that we see him debate with his sister on the issue or try to debate with himself. Everything resolves itself rather compactly to fit the TV show’s running time, with commercial interruptions included.

TB: Final thoughts about the story itself– where Lambert is blackmailed by a crook who knows his “secret.” How would you rate it dramatically?

JL: It made for good police drama. Plus we saw the standard drugs, gun fights in the streets, a murder investigation and even an apartment blowing up. Yet I didn’t feel any of the cop material added anything other than to showcase Lambert being good at his job and handling his great secret being exposed with the usual anxiety involved. The villain exposing him, Arthur Devoe (Mills Watson), is confined to just three key scenes and the screenwriters don’t develop him beyond his basic role as a criminal who retaliates by embarrassing the cop trying to rat out his schemes.

I did like the tape recorder, a birthday present from Ernie, playing a key prop in the story, including the courtroom scene.

TB: Would you say this episode was “ahead of its time” and did the so-called happy ending ring true?

JL: I liked the emotional reaction that Primus the actor expresses in the court scene when his whole private world is exposed and he fears the worst. He is a good actor who expresses himself well in his facial expressions. Not that this scene lasts all that long and we see him actually experience many of the things he dreads. After the commercial break, everything is hunky dory between him and Ernie, Mike Stone and Dan Robbins.

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It should also be added that we don’t see Officer Lambert in any future episodes. He served his purpose as a curiosity for the show, making it trendy with the times when the word “homosexual” was being discussed in the news a lot in 1977. After this, we see no further appearances by Barry Primus or his character as the show continues, like most shows of the seventies, along its “straight” and narrow path. Of course, the times were changing gradually as Soap was to start that fall with one of the few continuously shown gay characters, again played by a “don’t worry, I am straight and this is just a role I play” actor (Billy Crystal).

What I thought was rather ahead of its time was Karl Malden’s Stone accepting Lambert without any hesitations at all. We never once see him bat an eye when he learns the truth. There is little question that all of us would love having such an understanding father figure who accepts us all unconditionally regardless of what we do when away from our jobs. Yes, Lambert is a good cop… but…he is still gay.

TB: Even though we do not see Lambert and Ernie again on this show, I sort of wondered if this particular episode was a “backdoor” pilot where the producers were hoping to spinoff this pair and give them their own weekly series. That would have been groundbreaking, especially if the duo was ever intended to become romantic later on.

We have to keep in mind that this was still dicey material for network TV. Most likely the Standards & Practices department at ABC went over the script for this episode with a fine tooth comb. Then after it was filmed and edited, they probably screened it in some executives’ office before deciding it was okay to be scheduled for broadcast. I am sure it had many hurdles to overcome, given this was still 1976-77.

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TB: Well, that’s it for our look at The Streets of San Francisco this month. All four episodes may be watched on home video. A bit later, we are going to review some episodes of a classic western TV series. So don’t miss those!

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