A look back at NBC’s original ‘Ironside’ — the pilot (‘NBC Tuesday Night At The Movies,’ March 28, 1967) Part I

[With the Blair Underwood remake officially slated for NBC’s 2013-14 lineup, Reveal Shot begins a series on the original “Ironside” with a look at the network landscape as it existed when the pilot aired, and examines the two-hour made-for-TV movie itself. No spoilers in this entry.]

In March of 1967, NBC, for the 12th year in a row, as network affiliates gathered for their annual meeting, was trying to figure out a way to catch CBS, the perennial ratings leader. It almost happened, partly on the strength of made-for-TV movies such as “Ironside.”

NBC President Don Durgin told the station owners that NBC was the only network to have increased its audience in each of the last five years1.

He unveiled a 1967-68 schedule that Broadcasting magazine found remarkable in its relative lack of half-hour situation comedies — and 30-minute shows in general. “There are only six half -hours of any kind on next season’s [NBC] schedule, compared to 16 hour series, two two-hour movie nights and one 90- minute program [‘The Virginian’],” the magazine reported2.

By the time of the affiliate meeting, NBC had aired 18 of the top 40 movies shown in primetime that season, including four that had been made for television by partner Universal. “Doomsday Flight,” the story of a plane in jeopardy written by Rod Serling, got the best ratings among the TV flicks, with a 27.5 rating and 48 share, followed by “Fame Is The Name of The Game” — which later morphed into the series “The Name Of The Game — at 26.7 and 443.

At midseason, the network found a new hit in a revival of Jack Webb’s “Dragnet,” made distinct from the ’50s original by its color photography, a new partner for Joe Friday in Frank Gannon (Harry Morgan) and the decision to place the year in the title as “Dragnet 1967.”

‘Ironside’ debuts

Just over a week after the Broadcasting item appeared, on March 28, 1967, “NBC Tuesday Night At The Movies” featured the made-for-TV “Ironside.” The network hoped that viewers would be intrigued to see Raymond Burr, who had just completed a nine-year run as Perry Mason, in a different role.

San Francisco Chief of Detectives Robert T. Ironside (Burr) is vacationing at Commissioner Randall’s remote farm. We see him in the opening scene, complaining about some bothersome chickens. “I don’t even like eggs,” he says. As he prepares a stiff drink for himself, shots ring out, hitting Ironside, who drops out of camera range. As the credits roll, Ironside is on his way to the hospital in an ambulance, as Quincy Jones’ rather hysterical first version of his famous theme blares. The trumpeters on the track seem to be using their tongues to get a kind of trilling effect.

Gradually we get reactions from co-workers and others, who have been led to believe that the chief is probably going to die from his wounds. Sgt. Ed Brown (Don Galloway) is seen in a police locker room, chatting with a colleague. “You know what he told me? He said the only excuse for a policeman taking a day off is death — his own,” Ed says, slamming his locker.

A sexy dancer (Grace Lee Whitney, seen that same season as Yeoman Janice Rand on “Star Trek”) is talking to a reporter. “If it wasn’t for Ironside, I’d still be a shoplifter,” she says, while getting dressed. “He made me understand I had a talent. He was a policeman, but he had an eye for the finer things in life.”

Finally, policewoman Eve Whitfield (Barbara Anderson) explains to the press that she is from the prominent Whitfield family. Ironside, who questioned her about a jewel robbery, noted that she had keen powers of observation, “for a broad.” When she began to consider becoming a cop, he advised against it. ” ‘He said that police work would break my heart,’ ” Eve remembers, pausing briefly to consider the irony.

Television producers are seen collecting film for an obituary. “We can make the network with a quickie special if he goes today,” says one of them (Stuart Margolin, best known as Angel on “The Rockford Files). In scratchy black-and-white footage, Ironside addresses a group of police rookies in 1959. “The truth is, you’re not going to earn the respect of any flamin’ community,” he barks4. “…Then one day you’ll stop a bullet, and they’ll decide you weren’t a brute, or a crook, or incompetent. Just a cop. A man trying to do an impossible job.” This part, without some of Ironside’s cynicism, could have just as easily been mouthed by Joe Friday on “Dragnet 1967.”

Before the first commercial break, it is determined that Ironside will live — though he soon learns that a bullet has severed his spine, and that he will never walk again.

Burr gets some funny scenes with a no-nonsense nun (Lilia Skala, best known as the Mother Superior in “Lillies of The Field”) who works at the hospital. He easily coerces Commissioner Dennis Randall (Gene Lyons) to let him remain on the force as a “consultant” who will handle special assignments, beginning with his own case.

When Ed and Eve take him to his new office and living quarters, they are noticeably silent, so he forces them to acknowledge that he is “a cripple,” so that they need never mention it again.

Enter Mark Sanger

The entrance of Mark Sanger (Don Mitchell) is unforgettable, if a bit awkward. Writers Collier Young [the series’ creator] and Don Mankiewicz devote a lot of time in this pilot to establishing the character, an angry black militant in his early-to-mid 20s. Measured against most of the black male characters in prime time during this period, only Bill Cosby’s Alexander Scott on “I Spy” is more fully dimensional, since Mark is capable of rage (justified and unjustified), intelligence and sarcasm. (Later, during the project’s life as a series, he would gain further nuances.)

Ironside, thrashing around in his wheelchair, orders Ed to send Mark up to his office. Ironside has arrested him at least twice, and the kid seems to hate him, but he knows better. Ironside reminds Mark that he sent him to “youthful offender treatment” both times.

“I did it because I don’t think you’re stupid,” Ironside continues. “Only ignorant, and angry.”

“My my — you go’ give me a cigarette,” Mark says, putting on a faux Southern dialect. “Tell me ’bout Jackie Robinson and Ralph Bunche, and Booker T. Washington, huh? Look, I done been this route before, Charlie.”
“You know my name! And it’s not Charlie, man, buddy boy nor baby! Check?”

A grudging respect established, Mark reveals, in answer to questioning, that he doesn’t take drugs, but doesn’t want to go back to school. Ironside then crosses a line: “You make me sick! There you are standing on your own two feet in front of a man who can’t, and you feel sorry for yourself because you’re black. Well, paint me black and let me walk out of here.”

Mark: “You have never been black! If you were you’d be hollering, ‘Make me white and stick me in an iron lung!'” Ironside thinks for a moment, and backs off from that aspect of the situation5.

He asks Mark for confirmation that he didn’t do the shooting.

“I don’t have to answer that.”
“No you don’t. But you hate me enough to, don’t you?”
“I hate your guts.”
“Enough to kill me?”
“10 times over.”
“Just never had the chance, is that it?” Ironside looks at a gun he dropped earlier while trying to unholster it. “Well, there’s your chance.”

Mark is skeptical. “Oh — you mean I am supposed to believe that gun is loaded, huh? But you told me I wasn’t stupid.” He aims the gun at a window and fires, putting a hole in it. Quincy Jones responds here with a subtly facetious music cue, underscoring the idea that  we probably shouldn’t take any of this too seriously. Ed bursts into the room, holding a gun on the still-armed black youth, but Ironside tells him it’s all right. Mark gives him his gun, and the detective tells him he owes $8.35.

The next day, we are in the police garage, where a surly assistant has converted an old paddy wagon into a cruiser for Ironside. When Mark shows up, impressed that no police were sent after him that morning,   Ironside reveals that he’d like Mark’s help to get around, prepare meals, and other tasks that more or less describe a manservant.

“Well now! You lookin’ fo’ a boy,” Mark says, again affecting the mock Southern accent.
“No,” Ironside replies. “Just legs. You’ve got ’em, I need ’em. It’s that simple.”
“Well I’m not. Simple.”
Ironside can only pay $20 a week, and Mark will have to go to night school twice a week. But Ironside goes to interesting places, and Mark is willing to see just what this guy’s angle is.

In the next post in this series, Ironside and his assistants begin to question suspects in his shooting.
Read The original ‘Ironside’ — Part II of a Reveal Shot series (NBC Tuesday Night at The Movies, March 28, 1967)

— David B. Wilkerson

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  1. “Colorful Audience Seen for NBC-TV,” Broadcasting magazine, March 20, 1967. Pg. 50.  
  2. “More Hour Shows at NBC,” Broadcasting magazine, March 20, 1967. Pg. 48.  
  3. “NBC’s Ersatz Pix Hottest Package, Per the Nielsens,” Weekly Variety, April 26, 1967. Pg. 165.  
  4. “Flamin,” as near as I can guess, is the best euphemism possible on broadcast television in 1967 for that other F word. The device wasn’t used in the subsequent series, possibly for this reason  
  5. I suppose, at this distance, it would be pretty easy to laugh this off  as the corny meanderings of a couple of white television writers. But it must be said that Mark’s attitude here, delivered with appropriate venom by Don Mitchell, has to have been a very big deal in 1967. Only two years earlier, NBC affiliates in some Southern cities initially refused to air “I Spy” because a black man and a white man were working together, side-by-side, as equals. Mark is no equal, and his hostility toward Ironside fades fairly quickly after this point, but the notion of having a black man be openly contemptuous of bigotry, and, several times, mocking Southern attitudes through an accent, was simply unheard of on broadcast television at this time.  

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