Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2018 October 12 • Friday

American television of the 1950s has always interested me in a general way. Two volumes of rare programming from that time have recently come out on DVDs and have some content that interests me in a more specifi way.

Television's Lost Classics Volume Two Featuring Four Rare Pilots was the first to appear in my mailbox and I went straight to the 1959 pilot for a Nero Wolfe series that was never picked up.

We lost our chance to have the best Nero Wolfe movie ever when the cast of John Huston's adaptation of The Maltese Falcon was never assembled for such a project.

Sydney Greenstreet would have been the best Wolfe ever and in fact did end up playing him superbly on radio. Humphrey Bogart would have the perfect match as Archie Goodwin, Mary Astor could have been a great Lily Rowan or any other character. Peter Lorre, too, could have played any part but would have deserved more screen time than being cast as Fritz or Theodore would have given him.

That never happened, though. Marlene Dietrich apparently tried to drum up interest in a Nero Wolfe movie with a circa-Touch of Evil Orson Welles as Wolfe and herself as a female Archie. I would have loved to see that, too.

But we're left with the attempts we have, and this 1959 pilot is pretty decent.

It begins promisingly with a cool opening credits sequence that has some similarities both in music and image to the original opening credits of The Avengers.

It's no surprise that the music is so good since it turns out to be by the great Alex North.

Whoever put the show together certainly knew the books. We start in the famous Wolfe townhouse on W. 35th St. Archie brings Wolfe breakfast in bed, Fritz is mentioned along with Wolfe's appreciation of his adding sage to his breakfast dish.

Wolfe is lazy and motivated by a need to pay several large bills. He casually decides that a death by natural causes reported in the newspaper is a murder, announces it publicly, gathers all the suspects in his office, demands that they all hire him as clients with fees prorated based on their incomes and solves the case more or less on the spot, having sent Archie out already on a fact-finding mission and then employing a typical bit of chicanery to flush out the guilty.

It's very true to the structure of the books, though I believe this particular story is original to the television program.

The writers wanted to get Wolfe's love of orchids in there but instead of taking the time and money to show us his orchid collection on the top floor they take Wolfe out of character to show him standing and holding an orchid while playing it Scarlatti, which he says he believes will improve its colors.

The young William Shatner is an excellent choice as Archie, though he's a bit too much the standard-issue stereorypically wolfish and devil-may-care freewheelin' guy. Certainly some of that is in Archie and the writers do also manage a neat moment near the end that demonstrates Archie's own intelligence and deductive skills.

Kurt Kaznar does a fine job as Wolfe and although he doesn't look like my idea of Wolfe, he has a good voice for the role.

It's a shame that there weren't more of these. I would have enjoyed them.