Searching Search for Leslie StevensA column article, Riding Shotgun by: Don McGregor
Trying to find writer/producer Leslie Stevens in his 1972-73 TV series Search is like trying to navigate the twisting labyrinths of his better-known show The Outer Limits. Search is remotely as well from Stevens' rodeo drama Stoney Burke, which starred Jack Lord and Warren Oates and preceded the Control Voice.
In both these series Stevens wrote and/or greenlit scripts that worked as character studies, with a complexity of human desires and agendas. Many of the episodes aspired to work on more than one level. One can reasonably argue that many Stoney Burkes can be examined with allegorical ambitions, often times with visual and verbal metaphors.
The recent Best Picture nominee Gravity has the filmmakers insisting that it has an allegorical connection to the rebirth of humankind. Oh, please. That assertion makes me wonder if they everybody in Hollywood isn't totally delusional.
Posing somebody in a fetal position does not really work on a physical level when the person in question has been gasping and struggling for their lives. Crawling out of muck and water does not translate into the primordial slime and the evolution of life on the ground. Yet Stevens pulled off such demanding, complex levels on more than one occasion, in both the series mentioned above.
Take a look at the Stoney Burke episode "The Trip", and tell me that episode isn't imbued with a force that can be taken just as a plot unfolding -- a road trip, if you will, that aspires insistently to the nature of good and evil as our lives unfold, with temptation to abandon our hopes and dreams and what we believed was right and wrong, before we get to the end of the journey of life.
Tell me you'll find anything near as demanding and resoundingly clear in Gravity.
I wrote at length on Leslie and Stoney in an earlier Riding Shotgun you can find here.
This brings me back to Search.
Warner Archives has recently brought the entire series, minus the pilot movie, "Probe", to DVD. As usual, Warners has done a superb job in visuals and audio for fans of the show. The series only lasted one season, and apparently was seldom, if ever, in syndication. On a preservation level, then, Warners has made the show available for its fans and kept their high reputation for treating the episodes with respect, as they have with their other dramatic TV series DVDs.
I could ask, as I have many times on Warners' superbly done late '50s Westerns series, why the bumpers are intact on Search, but missing from those shows. That's strange because those series, such as Maverick, Cheyenne and Sugarfoot, made such a big deal out of the bumper breaks.
I'm just hoping by the time Warners has music clearances to its private eye series of that time period, like 77 Sunset Strip and Bourbon Street Beat, that they will have heard me bitch about it so much, they will make sure the bumpers are included with the releases.
The running times on the complete series release of Search indicate the episodes are uncut versions. The color reproduction is vibrant throughout. It is easy to see why NBC would want to try to keep the show alive past one season. They had three of the top male TV actors going into the '70s as the lead performers in the series. The only thing missing in Search is Leslie Stevens's inherent vision and voice.
But that is not Warners's problem.
Instead the problem is in the show itself, in what might have had to be done in the early 1970s to get the show greenlit. There is a glimpse of Leslie Stevens in the general setup of Probe, with its uncomfortable combination of frivolous spy adventure with a technological, computerized control room that feeds information into the heroes' heads. One of the most fun elements of Search is that it takes a room full of computer whizzes commanded by Burgess Meredith, playing Cam, to do what can now be done by an individual on a smart phone – possibly without having Big Brother listening to every conversation you have with a possible sexual partner (except maybe for the NSA).
Hugh O'Brien watches Burgess Meredith and his coiffed hair (and is probably wondering where the hell is Wyatt Earp when you need him).
Back in the '70s the surveillance requires a whole group of men and women about whom we essentially know nothing; their roles are simply to talk into their computer screens and convey pass on certain bits of information. It's quite possible, I suspect, that Leslie Stevens told the suits, "It's like Star Trek, except it's not a starship bridge, it's a room full of fancy looking computer modules. The observers are more drones, who speak to the agents in the field, and tell them things like: 'You've been knocked out. Are you okay?'" Yeah, that's what a hero wants to hear when they've been bashed over the head.
Nobody but nobody types with their thumbs (except on their smart phones, of course).
The three handsome lead Search agents often find themselves with female company. As you might expect from TV of that era, there might be a suggestion that they are attracted to each other -- which one of the Probe monitors will report by saying something like, "Heart beat accelerating. Blood pulse…" No one ever says any of these virile male agents are getting an erection, that's for damn sure, but that implication is aroused in more than one episode.
Search on TV Guide, when TV Guide was the place to know what the hell was on. I can assure you no one at TV Guide had a clue when they did this cover that one day computers and a thing called the internet would come at them like a guest star villain on Search.
What would be the reaction of Cam/Meredith, the head computer analyzer, if he learned one of his agent's pulse started to race when he was with another man, and therefore found he was attracted to guys? This was, after all, forty years ago. Attitudes change in time.
Still, if you know Burgess Meredith, it does make you smile to see him in a role where he most often doesn't have to do much acting, has coiffed hair (Burgess Meredith with coiffed hair!), and for which he probably took the role because they offered him lots of money and told him he'd be sitting down all the time.
One of the stars is Hugh O'Brien as Hugh Lockwood, who apparently once was an astronaut. Exactly how Lockwood becomes a high tech spy for a freelance computer conclave is beyond me. But then, maybe all that is explained in "Probe", and Warners didn’t include a copy of that in this collection. Lockwood is the stalwart hero of the group.
Hugh O'Brien does not carry a gun. I kept expecting a Buntline Special to appear in his hand, since Lockwood used it so much to batter cowboys into comas as Wyatt Earp.
Anthony Franciosa is Nick Bianco, the wise-cracking, tough ex-cop with an attitude. Nick is the frenetic hero of Search, and he moves energetically -- and he jumps, leaps, runs, and tosses off one-liners just as quickly. Search may make believe that it goes to Italy, but Tony will make one of his most startlingly memorable films with Dario Argento's 1982 film Tenebre, which was actually filmed in that country.
Doug McClure is Christopher Robin "C.R." Grover, apparently a kind surfer dude type hero who doesn't need coifed hair. Tousled hair is about all we apparently need to know about Grover. I guess C.R. is the free spirited Search agent. Except they monitor everything he does. So much for freedom.
A comic strip panel from Search, illustrating how any kind of privacy for the gents is minimal. Hugh O'Brien even has to cover their photo lens with a towel when he steps out the shower.
Many shows had separate heroes so that more than one episode could be filmed at a time, but I don't think many were kept as separate as they are in Search. O'Brien, Franciosa and McClure never meet in any episode. Their only connection is Cameron, who sends them off on their assignments and, especially in the opening episodes, yells distractingly into their ears. Cam never mentions either of the other two agents to whoever is on assignment for the week. Cam is the only one who appears in every episode. But remember, he gets to sit down most of the time.
Leslie Stevens wrote the first three episodes. I suspect that was so he could create the three lead characters. Unlike his Stoney Burke scripts, however, none of these characters have much depth. They are what many television heroes had become as the medium went into the 1970s, and what the networks seemingly demanded in many action dramas: good looking leads that were always the same, involved only in running around through that week's episode.
Who they are, or why such apparently independent-minded personalities would subject themselves to such overtly invasive techniques as gadgets implanted in their heads is a question Stevens would seem to have been eager to explore in The Outer Limits. Here, implanted head pieces that act as recording devices which even record them taking a shower, or when they might dally with one of the leading female guest-stars doesn't seem to raise an eyebrow on anybody.
Which leads me to wonder what happened to that mind that enjoyed exploring the labyrinth of human emotions and the vastness of the universe and our place in it. Stevens obviously relished dealing with such rich material in the early 1960s. My only conclusion is that the era of series that included a deep exploration of character and theme and consequence in the early 1960s -- in programs like The Outer Limits, Naked City, Route 66, Have Gun, Will Travel and I Spy, among others -- had already past. The suits had taken over.
As the 1970s began, social revolution in America may have been in full swing, but television had retreated. Many producers had lost their independence. Concepts and scripts had to be cleared before anything could be filmed. Herbert B. Leonard more or less had the playground to himself when he did Route 66 and Naked City. CBS was not going to fuck around with Richard Boone on Have Gun, Will Travel, or he'd have said, "Enough, I'm gone."
I suspect, though I do not know for a fact, that Leslie Stevens was able to sell the concept for this series but the network was clear on what it wanted. You can have your technological umbilical cord, they said, but we want quick-paced, action oriented stories, none of this philosophical discourse on human events, on joy or tragedy. Here is the note we want you to play, and we want to hear that note consistently.
The agents of Search are sent on global hopping tours, courtesy of a few stock shots of whatever country they are supposed to have gone to solve the case. It is hard for TV to go back to such an obvious approach after I Spy took Robert Culp and Bill Cosby around the world. There is nothing like really being in Spain, if that's where you say the characters are when they get shot at, clubbed over the head or chased in cars. Most of the time Search is on sets or in the hills surrounding Hollywood.
Here is a side-by-side comparison of the midseason changes in the computer monitoring lab at the halfway point of Search. The reds are all gone without explanation and it no longer looks as if you are working in Hell; on the other hand, the midseason changes makes it look like a Hell that has lost all color. The suits get paid the big bucks to make abritrary creative decisions like this.
Halfway through the series, the Hollywood suits obviously reacted to the ratings not being what they hoped they would be. They do what noncreative committees do; namely, brainstorm on ways to fix the show without really changing it. The computer lab goes from hellish reds to plain flat lighting. What the hell was that supposed to accomplish?
The one thing they do that has a positive effect on the show is to hire a bigger-name supporting cast. They don't allow the scripts to give those name performers, males and female, more to do. It just makes many of them more recognizable.
Nehemiah Persoff, one of my favorite characters actors from the late '50s to the 1960s, especially, appears at the onset of "The 24-Carat Hit" as the lead big organized crime lord who kidnaps Dane Clark's daughter. I swear, he disappears in the middle of the episode, never to be heard from again, as his underlings Michael Conrad and William Smith get pummeled by Tony Franciosa. See, though, look at the guest-stars in that one episode to see how they beef up the supporting cast.
Doug McClure gets to star some of the most memorable actresses. I always enjoy seeing Barbara Feldon again. She and Doug go to Las Vegas "In Search of Midas". In "A Honeymoon to Kill", he has both Luciana Paluzzi and Antoinette Bower as female costars. Luciana did not do a lot of American television, but both she and Antoinette get a lot of screen time in this episode.
Luther Adler, who was so great in so many Naked City episodes like "A Memory of Crying", doesn't get to do any serious acting as a Swiss bank president whose high-level financial endeavors are compromised in "Numbered for Death”, but he is always an imposing presence.
The theme, by Dominic Frontiere, is spritely and at times is a little too upbeat when the going is getting tough (although, on the other hand, things don't get real tough in most episodes). This music scarcely seems to reflect Frontiere's tastes. There is none of the somber and ominous tones of The Guns of Navarone here.
Leslie Stevens brings along many of the people he worked with on Stoney Burke and The Outer Limits, but his cinematographer Conrad Hall went on to films like Electra Glide in Blue. You can find my Riding Shotgun piece on that film here.
Burgess Meredith does get out of the chair for his only featured player episode in "Moment of Madness". There are actually about 30 minutes of madness as Patrick O'Neal kidnaps Cam and holds him in a cell, torturing him with lights and sound. Apparently, O'Neal had not heard about waterboarding.
For those who like Hugh O'Brien, Tony Franciosa and Doug McClure, and don't mind a '70s show that could almost be a generic model for action shows in that decade, they will be glad that Warner Archive Collection made the search for the show, and unearthed and preserved it to disc.
They can do their own search for glimpses of Leslie Stevens.
We now return control of your television back to you.
Copyright © 2014 by Don McGregor