Sunday, May 27, 2012

TONIGHT'S PILOT: [The] Police Story - "Stakeout," starring Vic Morrow, Edward Asner, Diane Baker and Chuck Connors. Directed by William Graham.

(All images courtesy Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, unless noted otherwise.) 

OF all the genres creators of prospective new TV series have pitched to cable or broadcast networks, the hardest sell must be the anthology, which is why there weren't very many in the era of Cobweb TV. Because anthologies typically have no (or few) regular cast members, the kind of stories the creator(s) wish to show from week to week a week had better be attention-grabbing to programming executives, or it won't get green-lighted to the pilot stage.

Vic Morrow
In the case of Police Story (NBC, 1973-1978), it helped it was the brainchild of best-selling author Joseph Wambaugh (The New Centurions, The Blue Knight), who also happened to be a member of the LAPD at the time. He conceived PS as a crime drama that was part character study and part police procedural, depicting a variety of flawed individuals as they worked in law enforcement. To make the stories "gritty" and "authentic" (two words often used to describe the show) like his novels, the series' writers would have input from actual cops for script ideas and in the writing of same. To further draw viewers in, a "who's who" of veteran actors (along with rising stars and promising newcomers) would be utilized as guest-stars in each episode.

So it went NBC was sold on PS...nearly. Risky of a venture as it was (even if  the grittiness was watered down for '70s television), they decided to air the pilot as a TV movie, more or less leaving it up to Nielsen families to decide if it should be a regular series. On 3/20/73, "Stakeout" was broadcast, and TV critics and viewers paid attention, much to NBC's delight.

Chuck Connors
The primary action in "Stakeout" revolves around a special police unit who goes after problematic felons, their latest quarry being the tall, imposing Slow Boy (Chuck Connors). In-between moments of investigation, surveillence and pursuit, we get a glimpse of how working on the squad is taking a toll on the life of Sgt. Joe LaFreida (Vic Morrow). He's been divorced for a few years, and his superior, Lt. Dave Blodgett (Ed Asner), thinks lack of companionship may be affecting his work. As luck would have it, he soon meets Jenny Dale (Diane Baker), though it's under the most awkward of circumstances.

Chuck Connors and Diane Baker
Thanks to a lead from their regular tipster, Gonzales (Sandy Baron), the squad stops Big Boy and his accomplices from robbing a grocery store, but it doesn't go smoothly as he briefly takes Jenny as a hostage. LaFreida, armed with a shotgun, makes him surrender through bluffing to shoot him. Of course, she had no idea LaFreida was bluffing, so she expresses anger at his perfunctory apology, even calling him a "pig." A day later, a remorseful LaFreida tracks her down and gives a more thoughtful apology, and though their exchange gets heated again, Jenny comes around to understanding why he handled the situation the way he did. Eventually, they have dinner together and become a couple.

Vic Morrow and Ed Asner
Meanwhile, with his trial pending, Big Boy's out of jail on bail. Based on his history, the felony detail figures it's only a matter of time before he tries to commit another crime. Desperate to get him off the street, LaFreida tries to nab him by having Sgt. Solly Piccolini (Harry Guardino) pose as a wealthy man in hopes Big Boy may be attracted to the notion of robbing him or burglarizing his mansion (a "loaner" the unit has access to). Blodgett gets wind of this, and knowing the ruse would be seen as entrapment by any court, brings the sting to a halt and chews out LaFreida.

Sandy Baron
The monitoring of Big Boy's movements continues on, and one night, after several days of behaving, he calls in a false alarm that gets the cops watching him out of his hair long enough so he can slip out of his residence unseen. In short order, he kills Gonzales for being a snitch and schemes to attempt the robbery of another grocery store. Coincidentally, a prostitute LaFreida has befriended winds up spending the night with Big Boy, and when she hears about the upcoming heist, she tips him off. The night the caper's scheduled to go down, the squad quietly waits in the store for Big Boy's arrival. He doesn't fail to disappoint them....

Vic Morrow and Ina Balin

Generally speaking, as realism hit motion pictures in the 1960s, so it would on TV, but it took longer to find a foothold. Attempts at showing edginess and the human side of the police on cop shows were tried prior to PS (ABC's N.Y.P.D. is one example that comes to mind), but I think it took the success of The French Connection (1971) to spark network interest in trying out a newer breed of crime drama. (It also helped viewers were beginning to embrace realism by making All in the Family a hit, which also debuted in '71.) With PS, the innovations of showing cops making mistakes and living lives beyond the police station on a weekly basis were ones gradually incorporated into other crime series in the years ahead.

Harry Guardino and Kim Hamilton
Smartly directed by William Graham (who went on to helm the 1980 Emmy-nominated TV movie Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones), "Stakeout" is only dated by the era in which it was filmed. Today, a lot of E. Jack Newman's script comes across as formulaic after the fact, when compared to those of more recent crime dramas (in fact, some of it seems cliched by '70s standards), but it still works because the screenplay has good structure, good characterizations and a suitable (if predictable) ending.The one part I find fault with is the subplot where Piccolini, who had previously stated he still hates black people after six months of lectures in community relations, changes his tune after talking with a black policewoman (Kim Hamilton) who's selected to pose as his date when he goes undercover as the rich man; the conclusion is implied, but the outcome still doesn't ring true. Aside from this misstep, the story held my attention, from the quiet moments to the action-packed ones.

After the script, "Stakeout" stays compelling through great acting, which you don't always get in a pilot, but considering the involvement of Wambaugh, the actors evidently brought their "A game" to the production.

Vic Morrow and Diane Baker
I'm sure any actor could've played LaFreida, but if somebody else did, I think the pilot would never have sold, that's how important Vic Morrow is to the success of "Stakeout." His energy propels the narrative along, and in turn, the enthusiasm he has for the material seems to have rubbed off on his fellow thespians, to positive results. At times, you swear he's acting without acting, and you believe him, even if his dialogue is lacking in four-letter words. As one of the best character actors of his day who should've been a bigger star than he was, Morrow never fails to disappoint me, so my discovery of his work in "Stakeout" was time (and money) well spent.

left to right: Vic Morrow, John Bennett
Perry, Chuck Connors and Diane Baker
Unlike the cops on the felony squad, there are no nuances to the character of Big Boy, so Chuck Connors doesn't have to do much except be a bad-ass, but he does it well without overplaying the part. He even gets to do some stunt work, showing he was in pretty good shape for a guy (then) in his early fifties. Best of all, having the six-foot-five Connors get taken down a peg by the five-foot-nine Morrow makes for a fun variation of David versus Goliath.

To be fair, Ed Asner's performance as Blodgett doesn't seem much different than his portrayal of Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (and Lou Grant), but by being off the screen for all the time he is, he's believable enough as a lawman when he is on. Then again, playing a boss and yelling at his subordinates is something Asner can do in his sleep.

Barbara Rhoades
As for the rest of the ensemble, standouts include Diane Baker as Jenny (she and Morrow have great chemistry together as their relationship evolves from hostile to romantic); David Doyle as an assistant DA; Ina Balin as LaFreida's ex-wife; Sandy Baron as Gonzales; Ralph Meeker as the deputy police chief, and Harry Guardino, Mel Scott and John Bennett Perry as members of the special unit. Hands down, the biggest surprise in casting is Barbara Rhoades (best known for playing Sheldon Leonard's girlfriend on the Sanford & Son three-part "The Hawaiian Connection") in an atypical role as Gonzales' girlfriend; looking anything but glamorous, she displays a range in her acting I never knew she possessed. (I am now in awe of this lady.)

(Shout! Factory)
"Stakeout" is included as a bonus feature on Shout! Factory's  Police Story Season One DVD set. (For whatever reason, the movie is called "Slow Boy" in Shout's packaging but not on the actual film.) Audio quality is fine, while the video is erratic from show to show, but as a whole, they look and sound better than the reruns shown on A&E in the '90s. For the inaugural season, the majority of episodes are winners, including Morrow's second (and last) appearance in the two-part "Countdown" (where the Mob tries to kill LaFreida) and "The Gamble," starring Angie Dickinson in what became the spin-off pilot to Police Woman. The other bonus feature of note is a new interview with Joseph Wambaugh.

Kevin Dobson

One more point of trivia about "Stakeout": there's a cameo by Kevin Dobson as a patrolman. Twelve days prior to the airing of "Stakeout," the TV movie The Marcus-Nelson Murders premiered. Subsequently, it became the pilot for Kojak, which Dobson joined as a cast member months later.


Cobweb TV! ranking for "Stakeout": three and a half stars (out of four).
Cobweb TV! ranking for Police Story Season One: three stars.


(DC Comics)

Keeping it trivial....


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