The Mystery of NBC's Ellery Queen TV series
Do you remember a TV series where in each episode a murder would take place? The victim had several enemies, but all of the suspects seemed to have an airtight alibi. The investigator takes into account what seems to be a series of mundane clues before realizing who committed the murder. Before gathering all the suspects together to trap the killer, our hero turns and looks at us, the audience, and challenges them to figure out who done it.
Sounds like “Murder, She Wrote” doesn't it? Well, the same creators of that series forged a similar one almost 10 years before Angela Landsbury donned the reading glasses and filled the Cabot Cove jail with a well meaning, but still murdering clientele.
“Ellery Queen” debuted on NBC in the fall of 1975 with a lot of promise. It was set in New York City just after World War 2. Which was a brilliant choice since the approach of the series was more appropriate to that time period..
The star was the well established, but still very youthful looking Jim Hutton as the eponymous absent-minded murder mystery writer. He lived with his father, Investigator Richard Queen played by the always entertaining David Wayne. Each episode usually began with the murder of someone of importance and wealth. The elder Queen would drag his son along to help with the case and before the final commercial break Ellery would realize who the killer was. Then, in what was very unusual for that time, he would break the “fourth wall” and talk to the viewing audience. Telling us he knew who did it and going over the clues needed for us to solve the mystery.
Hutton's performance was the key, his absent minded nature, yet brilliant deductive skills may remind some of Peter Falk's Columbo. But his boyish charm and affable character were a joy to watch. It helped that the chemistry between him and David Wayne was almost letter perfect. It also seemed like this was Hutton's time to shine. He had began his film career with a lot of promise and made some memorable appearances in films like “Walk, Don't Run”, “Major Dundee”, and “The Hellfighters”. Though most may remember his very painful death scene in “The Green Berets”. Yet he never became a big star. So in the 1970s he turned to television and made many guest appearances before landing the lead role in “Ellery Queen”. He poured his heart into this opportunity, even living on the lot while the show was filming.
I remember this series as a child. My Dad, who's rule over the TV was absolute, would sometimes skip over to see what was on NBC that night. Such forays didn't last long however as Dad's interest would wane and we were watching something else.
Ellery Queen Opening Teaser
Several years later after growing up and moving out I was clicking through the channels and found Ellery Queen on some lowly cable network. Even though it only lasted a season, somehow the episodes were in syndication. I managed to watch most of the series, but not quite all as it would disappear rather quickly. Only recently with the release of the entire series on DVD did I get to fully enjoy all the episodes of this curious, yet wonderful series.
Which leads to the biggest mystery of Ellery Queen. Why did NBC cancel it after only one season? A question that is often asked by fans of the series and the subject appears in polls of TV series “gone before their time”. Sadly, Jim Hutton died of liver cancer in 1979, so even had the series continued it would've only lasted for two, perhaps three more seasons at best. His son, Timothy Hutton won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor a little over a year after his father died and gave him a nice tribute during his acceptance speech.
There is no official notice from NBC that I'm aware of that explains why they canceled the series. But a pretty good guess would be the combination of the show's production costs and rival competition as the highly popular “Streets of San Francisco” aired on ABC against “Ellery Queen”.
I also feel that the timing of such a unique show worked against it as series like “Streets”, “Baretta”, “Kojak” and the like dominated 1970s in terms of police series. By the time of “Murder, She Wrote”, the TV landscape had changed considerably and audiences were ready for a “whodunit” type show. “Ellery Queen” seemingly was doomed from the start.
What remains are the two-hour pilot and 22 sharply written, well produced, and highly enjoyable episodes for mystery fans to savor. Reminding us not only of what has passed, but what television currently lacks today.