The original ‘Ironside’ — Part II of a Reveal Shot series (NBC Tuesday Night at The Movies, March 28, 1967)
[With the Blair Underwood remake officially slated for NBC’s 2013-14 lineup, Reveal Shot continues with Part II of a series on the original “Ironside” with more on the two-hour made-for-TV movie that served as the pilot, as well as a wrap-up of the 1966-67 network ratings race. SPOILERS are present in this installment.]
With Ironside’s three assistants Ed Brown (Don Galloway), Eve Whitfield (Barbara Anderson) and Mark Sanger (Don Mitchell) established as characters, Don Mankiewicz‘s teleplay gets to the nuts and bolts of the investigation.
Ironside goes back to Commissioner Randall’s farm, where he was shot. It seems that the shell casings used in firing six rifle shots were never recovered. When the detective notes that six acorns have been spotted in the immediate vicinity, he deduces that a pack rat must have taken the shells and replaced them with the acorns. (Sigh.) In a rather lengthy sequence involving Wally Cox as the head of a Boy Scout troop, the rat’s lair is found — along with the casings. Apparently someone suggested that comedy relief was needed here, and alas, Mankiewicz ends up hanging one of the main plot threads on this development.
The shell casings are traced to a troubled Metropolitan Military Academy student named Tony Emmons (naturally, an expert marksman) who threatened to kill Ironside for arresting him after he fired a rifle shot into the window of a moving train. He was placed into a psychiatric hospital for juvenile offenders, but was released just days before Ironside was shot, by doctors who assumed he had been cured. Here, it seems, is our villain.
Throughout the pilot, director James Goldstone uses frequent, rapid-fire cuts. As the heroes look at slides of Tony’s mug shots projected onto a screen, Goldstone keeps cutting back to them, from the front, from the side, every time Ironside gets to a crucial part of the boy’s story.
Ironside finds out that Tony has a girlfriend, another former patient at the hospital named Ellen Wells (Kim Darby). He was very close to an art instructor at the academy, an attractive woman more than 10 years his senior, Honor Thompson (Geraldine Brooks).
The increasingly irritable detective is most anxious to speak to Ellen, but Ed has a hard time locating her. Ironside rides him about it until Ed, in Don Galloway’s most important scene in the film, has had enough.
“I keep remembering you’re a cripple, just like you told me to. Funny, you’re the one who forgets it. So I’ll remind you — you’re a cripple, chief. You can’t do it all yourself anymore. You have to lean on me and Eve and Mark. So you feel sore and frustrated. But that’s the way it is. Well, take it out on whoever it was that shot you.” Ed walks toward the door, then turns around. “Anyway, you weren’t all that perfect when you had legs.”
Burr, for at least the third time during the pilot, silently shows Ironside’s remorse for his behavior, smirking slightly, his eyes shifting in thought. He shouts at Ed to come back, to no avail. Still, he’s not quite finished being difficult. When Eve returns and reveals that she has found Tony’s art teacher, Ironside barely acknowledges her good work. “You know, I don’t have to be a policeman,” Eve says. “I could be on the beach …” Ironside says he doesn’t believe her — but then wonders, because her tone indicates that she might be getting fed up, too.
After a short meeting with Honor Thompson, Ironside and his crew begin to look for Tony. They go to a coffeehouse, where Tiny Tim is the MC for an archetypal late ’60s “performance art” interlude, taking the spotlight himself for a jaw-droppingly bizarre tune on the ukulele. Later, Ellen emerges, and reluctantly agrees to persuade Tony to meet with Ironside in the reception area of a clinic. “There’s no reason for him to be afraid,” she explains. “After all, you are in a wheelchair.” On that note, Goldstone gives us a closeup of Burr’s face, but doesn’t dwell on it.
The pilot’s most effective sequence follows. As Quincy Jones offers a pulsating variation on the show’s musical theme, Mark drives Ironside to the rendezvous area in the old police van. They wheel toward the clinic’s entrance, and Ironside ventures forward by himself, as agreed. He sees Tony and Ellen, beyond an escalator. Tony panics and changes his mind about the meeting. Ironside pulls himself out of the wheelchair and onto the escalator, his legs dragging beneath him, at an awkward angle. Finally he topples headlong to the floor, as passersby surround him. The great man feels humiliated, and after a few drinks in the middle of the night, is ready to call off the whole investigation.
“He got away. Any rookie fresh out of the academy could’ve grabbed him. Didn’t need brains, didn’t need experience — all he needed was legs.”
Mark, who has had the least exposure to the toxicity of Ironside’s personality, is the one who persuades him to keep going. “Beautiful, man …Only, school’s a drag, man. But I mean a real drag, baby.”
“Nobody’s telling you to quit.”
“And nobody has to. Now maybe I was gonna quit anyways. I don’t know. Only, way I figure, as long as you kept going, baby, I had to. Now — quit. I’m about ready to go home, you quit, I quit, and we both go home.” Mitchell gives this sequence some of the exaggerated Southern twang he used in earlier scenes. At this point, Ironside quickly regains his bearings and grouchily asks for a refill on his drink. The chase will resume.
Ironside’s quest finally takes him back to Honor Thompson’s studio, where he expects to find Tony. When he arrives, he finds the boy’s lifeless body on the floor, with blood on his temple. Honor explains that the kid committed suicide, but as always in TV detective dramas, there are problems with that conclusion. Ironside knows that Honor killed him, because when he got out of the hospital, he wanted Ellen, rather than her.
Honor blames Ironside for ruining everything by arresting Tony. That’s why she shot him with Tony’s rifle. Ironside has his culprit. Now if only he can wheel his way out of the woman’s studio in one piece.
Now completely unhinged, Honor tries to burn Ironside with a blowtorch, but he keeps putting throwing her art objects on the floor to block her path. Finally she throws a lantern at him, which shatters and starts a fire. Ironside is imperiled until Ed, Eve and Mark come to the rescue.
“Ironside” earned a very respectable 22.2 rating and 37 share1which, combined with the proven star power of Burr, gave the network every confidence that it could be a successful series.
Critical reaction was lukewarm, however. UPI’s Rick DuBrow wrote that although Burr was up to his usual standard, “the presentation was depressing in its appeal to cliché Hollywood reactions to ‘jazzy’ contemporary life, the younger generation and supposedly constructive views on human relations.” Presumably DuBrow was referring to the pilot’s depiction of Summer of Love-era San Francisco, Tony’s apparent fornication with Honor and Ellen, and the script’s comments on race relations through the Mark Sanger character. “Universal,” he continued, “…might do well to equate believability with the maddening glossiness for which the film company is so well-known.”2
There were always accusations that Universal, the last studio to employ the Golden Age “studio system” and its assembly line production methods, produced television shows that were too slick for their own good.
Cynthia Lowry of the AP said it was “interesting” to see Burr playing someone as “testy” as Ironside, but she, too, was less than enthusiastic about the pilot as a whole. “Although NBC called it a ‘major motion picture,’ the show was a routine whodunit that would have comfortably occupied an hour of television time. It was padded to the bursting point with all sorts of irrelevant odds and ends to stretch it through a second hour.”
Lowry went on to say that the pilot “strained credibility often,” citing the acorn/Wally Cox sequence. She then derided the conclusion as “a surprise ending that was not much of a surprise to the detective story fan.”3
While the plotting had some clear weaknesses, I thought the characters were set up nicely, in a way that did eventually serve the series well. I always thought that a more traditional set-up in which a master criminal is the one to shoot Ironside, perhaps even someone, like Wo Fat on the contemporary “Hawaii Five-O,” who could escape justice at the end, with the promise that we would see more of the character, might have been a preferrable route. The”Ironside” crew did rally quickly to produce several outstanding Season 1 episodes, which will be explored in future posts.
1966-67 ratings race
The formal 1966-67 season formally ended less than a month later, on April 16. As it had in every season since 1956-57, CBS prevailed in the network race, finishing with a 19.6 rating, while NBC was just 0.3% off the lead at 19.3. ABC was never a factor, ending the season at 17.2.
NBC had narrowed the gap considerably, but CBS made midseason changes of its own that proved decisive, adding “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” to its lineup. And, as Weekly Variety’s Murray Horowitz pointed out in the showbiz newspaper’s May 3 issue, the Tiffany Network made major strides in the one area that NBC traditionally called its own — the special4. Thanks to shows like “The Monkees,” “Star Trek” and some of its feature films, NBC won the season among adults 18-49 years old, a demographic that was just becoming appreciated by advertisers, and would eventually become the primary currency for ad rates.
In a July 1967 New York Times article, Raymond Burr explained why he chose to play wheelchair-bound detective Robert T. Ironside after a nine-year run as the world’s greatest defense attorney, Perry Mason.
“When you leave a series after nine years you want something fresh,” he told the Times’ Digby Diehl. “I chose ‘Ironside’ because the character is completely unrelated to Mason. They’re almost on different sides; one is a man who arrests people and puts them in jail; the other is a man who gets them out. But there’s much more latitude in ‘Ironside’ for showing a human being. You are not tied to a courtroom; you don’t have San Quentin or the gas chamber facing you every week.”
“If ‘Ironside’ has a good run that will be fine by me, but I don’t think I’d ever do nine years of a series again. A series is hard work, six days a week, but it’s enjoyable. I just get tired.”5
- “NBC’s Ersatz Pix Hottest Package, Per the Nielsens,” Weekly Variety, April 26, 1967. Pg. 165. ▲
- “Aside from Raymond Burr, ‘Ironside’ Was Depressing,” by Rick DuBrow, UPI, March 29, 1967. ▲
- “Raymond Burr Talks Tough In New Role,” by Cynthia Lowry, AP, March 30, 1967. ▲
- “CBS Wins ’66-’67 In a Sweep — But NBC Gained On Last Season,” by Murray Horowitz. Weekly Variety, May 3, 1967, pg. 37. ▲
- “Old Faces In Strange Places,” by Digby Diehl. New York Times, July 9, 1967. ▲