87th Precinct - The Complete Series

87th Precinct: A Building Block in the Television Crime Drama

In 1956, inspired by the television police procedural Dragnet, author and screenwriter Evan Hunter published Cop Hater, the first of what would eventually be fifty-four novels in a series known as 87th Precinct. Hunter, whose previous novel Blackboard Jungle had been adapted for the movies in 1955 and who wrote the screenplays for such films as Strangers When We Meet (1960) and The Birds (1963), adopted the pseudonym 'Ed McBain' for these books...and also used an alias for the city that forms the setting in the adventures (Isola, loosely based on the New York City borough of Manhattan). McBain/Hunter (whose birth name was Salvatore Albert Lombino) died at the age of 78 in 2005 from laryngeal cancer, but his Precinct novels continue to be popular with both old fans and new generations of readers. The books have also provided grist for films and TV shows, the most famous being a NBC-TV series that ran a single season beginning in the fall of 1961. Cop Hater (1958) was brought to the silver screen two years after its printing, and it was followed by two more adaptations of Precinct novels, The Mugger (1958) and The Pusher (1960). (The last of these programmers featured actor Robert Lansing in the lead role of Detective Steve Carella, which he would reprise when the TV series premiered.) The exposure from the movies started to lay the groundwork for adapting the McBain stories to the small screen; two more novels were adapted as episodes of The Kraft Mystery Theatre in June of 1958. Producer David Susskind oversaw both episodes of the live series, and offered the two segments as a 'pre-test' for a regular Precinct series in a memo from his company, Talent Associates, to NBC. The show only got as far as the early casting stages and budgeting before the National Broadcasting Company nixed the idea; television historian Stephen Bowie speculates that because the network added a live weekly presentation of Ellery Queen to its schedule that fall (and that there were numerous problems associated with its production) it may have decided that was all the mystery it needed. But Stephen has uncovered some background that actor-producer Norman Lloyd had also expressed an interest in bringing McBain's cop squad to TV, sometime around 1960. Lloyd was the associate producer of Alfred Hitchcock Presents at that time, yet had his sights on loftier pursuits (a raise and a chance to develop a series) and expressed this in his contract negotiation with MCA at the end of Presents' fifth season. Lloyd was well acquainted with McBain/Hunter, having purchased two of his short stories to be adapted on the show and commissioning the author to write a teleplay based on a third. Studio executive Manning O'Connor was prepared to give the 'all systems go' to Lloyd's 87th Precinct concept but according to Bowie, 'someone higher up the food chain killed the deal.' Bowie never got the opportunity to find out the details (his attempts to interview Hunter were rebuffed because the author was working on a book about his relationship with the Master of Suspense) but speculates it could either have been Hitchcock, who didn't want to lose Lloyd, or MCA, who would ultimately hand the project off to producer Hubbell Robinson, an executive with considerably more clout. (Or it could have been both.) Robinson was a former CBS executive whose forte was live anthology dramas (Playhouse 90, etc.)-but the Tiffany network let him go when those presentations began to fall by the wayside. Hubbell ended up being hired by Revue (the television arm of MCA), who put him in charge of the prestigious series Sunday Showcase, and he later became one of the names associated with the Thriller series hosted by Boris Karloff (those others have argued that his input on these shows was minimal at best). It was under Robinson's banner that 87th Precinct became a reality as a series; for the boob tube, McBain's legion of cops (of which there were many in the novels) were willowed down to four detectives: Steve Carella (Lansing), Bert Kling (Ron Harper), Roger Havilland (Gregory Walcott) and Meyer Meyer (Norman Fell). As the nominal leader of the detective squad, Lansing played Carella as a dedicated cop whose demeanor echoed the stiffness of Dragnet's Joe Friday; he only occasionally demonstrated traces of humanity and a sense of humor. Still, the playful side of Carella would emerge in episodes featuring his deaf-mute wife Teddy (played by a young Gena Rowlands); Rowlands' performances as Teddy were first-rate, and some of that probably rubbed off on Lansing by osmosis (he didn't seem as much of an automaton when 'conversing' with her). But Rowlands only appeared in four episodes out of the thirty produced in that single season; her contract stipulated that she only appear in those installments in which her presence was integral to the plot. This produced a mild uproar with the show's viewing audience, who rightly took to her wonderful performance as Mrs. Carella; she appeared in three episodes (the first two, 'The Floater' and 'Lady in Waiting,' plus 'Occupation: Citizen') in the first two months...and then there was a long hiatus until her last one ('Step Forward') in March of 1962. The other married detective in the precinct was the oddly named Meyer Meyer-who, as played by Norman Fell, functioned as the program's wry comic relief...and as a testament to Fell's later success on Three's Company, was the most engaging and most human of the detectives on the show. Constantly kvetching about his job, his life and his wife Sarah (Ruth Storey), Norman maintained a deft balance between comedy and drama as Meyer, and episodes focusing on him ('The Guilt,' 'Feel of the Trigger') are often the highlights of 87th Precinct. One only need to contrast Fell's likeability with that of Ron Harper, whose Bert Kling often seemed to serve one solitary purpose: as handsome hunk bait for the female audience. Bert had a girlfriend in Claire Townsend (Margie Regan), but their relationship couldn't quite compete with that of Det. Adam Flint (Paul Burke) and Libby Kingston's (Nancy Malone) on Naked City (though both of which seemed rather superfluous at times).
The fourth member of the detective squad was Roger Havilland, played by cult favorite Gregory Walcott (Plan Nine from Outer Space). Havilland underwent quite a transition from the novels to TV show; on the series, he was a tough guy encased in a hard shell of cynicism-in the novels, he was a bit of a brutal thug. Making him a goon on the TV version might have actually enlivened the proceedings some; Walcott was extremely limited as an actor (and had a Southern accent that was difficult to explain, even in the fictional Isola) and often functioned as merely an empty suit. The minds behind the show started to steer more of the stories toward Roger as Precinct edged toward winding up its first season, something that admittedly defies explanation. A couple of the episodes even get him romantically involved with female guest stars, and it can be rough sledding watching the unappealing Havilland flirt with the opposite sex. For many years, access to 87th Precinct came in the form of fans who acquired the series' episodes on VHS, culled from 16mm copies obtained by serious collectors. Timeless Media Video did classic TV buffs old and new a favor by releasing all thirty episodes to DVD in June of 2012, which allows past fans to reminisce with a series that was cancelled prematurely and a new generation to see one of the programs that would later influence future crime drama hits like Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue. (Evan Hunter held a grudge against the Hill Street Blues people for apparently swiping his concept, conveniently forgetting that he took a lot from Dragnet for his creation.) Precinct holds up much better than many have argued. True, it can't quite match the dean of 60s police shows, Naked City, but it still had a respectable batting average between good episodes ('Line of Duty,' 'The Last Stop') and bad ('Killer's Payoff,' 'The Pigeon'). The best of the bunch might just be 'The Heckler,' with future Man from U.N.C.L.E. star Robert Vaughn as a criminal genius masterminding a bank vault robbery (Vaughn's character is clearly based on McBain's Professor Moriarty-like creation, The Deaf Man). You'll spot a lot of familiar character actors and future stars in these episodes, notably Robert Culp, Dennis Hopper, Leonard Nimoy, Peter Falk, Charles McGraw and Lee Tracy. 87th Precinct had tough competition in its solitary season on the air; it was scheduled opposite ABC's Surfside Six (which was in its final season anyway) and CBS' powerhouse one-two of the Danny Thomas and Andy Griffith sitcoms. Surprisingly, Precinct wasn't sacrificed to the cancellation wolves due to poor ratings (it was actually meeting NBC's expectations)-office politics did the show in. Producer Hubbell Robinson returned to the network (briefly) that had ousted him in 1959 (CBS), and NBC saw no good reason to keep paying him for a show on the network at which he no longer worked (his other hit, Thriller-which followed Precinct on Monday nights-would get its pink slip as well). Naysayers have questioned whether the show could (or should) have gone on for a second season; the argument goes that the creative minds had exhausted all of Hunter's novels for source material and much criticism has been leveled at the studio-bound sets of the series along the lines that its realism was compromised by not filming on authentic NYC locations like Naked City. (This is kind of petty, particularly since Precinct's city was fictional to begin with.) The verdict ultimately lies with the viewer who's curious to check out the program to see what all the fuss is about. It's not perfect...but there's more there than meets the eye. Ivan G. Shreve, Jr is the associate editor at ClassicFlix...because he's the only one who'll associate with the editor. He blogs about classic film, vintage TV and old-time radio at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.