The 50s: Martin Kane, Meet Kookie Burns
Many of the early TV heroes were characters who had already been featured in successful radio programs, as cautious programmers elected to convert established characters and shows for the new medium. It made a lot of sense. For example, the classic hard-boiled PI, a staple of the airwaves in the 40s, was ideally suited for the small screen.
Even when they finally created a PI expressly for television, wary corporate types hedged their bet, running a radio version along with the weekly televised adventure for the first three years. The show was Martin Kane, Private Eye (1949-1954). The title character was played by three different actors over its five year run, starting with William Gargan. Kane made it a point to stop at the neighborhood tobacco shop in the middle of each show to purchase one of his sponsor’s products, and the actor was changed each time they decided to promote a new product.
The hero of another early hit, Man Against Crime (1949-1956), was a bit more politically correct in modern terms; he distinguished himself from the herd by never carrying a gun. The hard-boiled dick will always be with us, of course, but by decade’s end, a new, smoother, and more elegant PI also made the scene with the debut of Peter Gunn (1958-1960). Jazz was his theme and cool was his mien.
Where crime goes, lawyers follow (and often vice versa), and that included moving from radio to TV. The Amazing Mr. Malone (1951-1952) jumped over to ply his trade early on, but he was overshadowed by the subsequent debut of the most effective attorney ever to appear before the bench. Perry Mason (1957-1966) managed to get his clients off week after week, some 270 episodes worth, mostly by tricking, beguiling, or otherwise convincing the actual guilty party to confess right there in the courtroom.
The amateur sleuth was represented by one of the best-known names in crime fiction, Ellery Queen (1950-1952). He would be heard from again and again. Clever Ellery has been played by six different actors in five series over the years. Big Town (1950-1956) featured Steve Wilson, a noble newsman whose integrity and dedication often were the impetus for exposing corruption and bringing the villain to justice. Try selling that concept today.
Of course, there were cops, some of the best TV cops ever, in fact. December 1951 marked the debut of what is certainly the most satirized police show ever, Dragnet (1951-1959). Laconic Joe Friday’s “Just the facts, ma’am” was one of the first TV catchphrases to become part of the language. On Naked City (1957-1963), the dedicated and ever-changing detectives of New York’s 65th Precinct managed to tell a small portion of their promised eight million stories during a once-interrupted six-year run. Finally, The Untouchables (1959-1963) took us back to Chicago in the 30s and made Eliot Ness a legend.
As the decade ended and the grind of turning out weekly shows wore down actors and production crews, ABC-TV found a new formula for success. 77 Sunset Strip (1958-1964) begat Bourbon Street Beat (1959-1960), Hawaiian Eye, (1959-1963) and Surfside Six (1960-1962), each featured a requisite two heroes, one pretty girl and an oddball minor character for comic relief. At least one of the latter became a teen idol (or whatever they were called in those days). Parking lot attendant Kookie Burns eventually put away his comb and became an official Sunset Strip PI. Upward mobility, what a concept.