Friday, December 11, 2009

He wore a cane and derby hat

While I was channel surfing around 1 or 2 in the morning a few years ago, I discovered that one of the cable stations was about to begin a marathon of episodes from the “Bat Masterson” TV show, starring Gene Barry, who died this week.

I hadn’t seen “Bat Masterson” in many years. Since then, and in recent years, I’d seen reruns of other shows I’d grown up with. Some held up; some didn’t.

I figured I’d watch a “Bat Masterson,” then head to bed.

I wound of watching three of them. Or was it four?

They seemed to hold up quite well for two major reasons: the quality of the writing (I think someone named Andy White basically created the series) and, of course, Gene Barry, who played the man who “wore a cane and derby hat.” (And it only now occurs to me, a professional editor, that "derby hat" seems redundant. Oh well.)

So I watched a lot more of the episodes when the cable station began showing them regularly.

I wasn’t that big of a western fan when I was a kid. I was too young to stay up for Paladin, though I was permitted to watch “The Rifleman.”

But I used to watch “Bat Masterson” because it was different – or rather, the hero was different. A lot different. The series purported to be based on a biography of Masterson, which I’ve never read, and in seeing them again, I got the impression that the episodes were based on things that happened to the real Masterson or things that might have happened to him. (And who knows what the guy was really like? I’ve seen a picture of the real Bat, apparently taken in later years, and the real guy looks like a guy who’s trying to be as dapper as the guy who would play him decades later.)

Heck, I even had a “Bat Masterson” board game. Kind of like Clue, as I recall. (Where is the bad guy hiding? The saloon? The livery stable?)

A few years later, Barry resurfaced in “Burke’s Law,” playing a rich guy who solves crimes as the head of a homicide squad because he likes doing it and he’s good at it.

Barry’s character, Amos Burke, had an eye for the ladies – actually, two eyes for the ladies, and you shuddered to think what he could do with more. The show at times at least bordered on sexist, I suppose; for the most part, it was, to me, engagingly silly. And it had some fine writers, too, among them Richard Levinson and William Link, who created “Columbo,” and Harlan Ellison.

“Burke’s Law” was produced by Aaron Spelling for Four Star and used a formula Spelling would later use on “The Love Boat”: lots of guest stars, some of them on their way up, some of them not so famous anymore but worth seeing. (I fondly remember one episode that included a pre-“Bewitched” Elizabeth Montgomery and, as an older lady, Ann Harding, a very interesting actress whose heyday was in the 1930s.)

After a few years, someone got the idea of making Amos Burke a secret agent, and Capt. Burke’s fortunes couldn’t have fallen more precipitously if he’d been shoved down an elevator shaft. I never could watch an “Amos Burke, Secret Agent” episode all the way through.

Barry’s next role was Glenn Howard, newspaper publisher, in “The Name of the Game.” He was one of three stars, the others being Anthony Franciosa and Robert Stack. Each episode was 90 minutes. Maybe I was too young, or maybe the show was padded, or what, but I usually couldn’t get through any of these episodes, either.

A little later, Barry played the murderer in “Prescription: Murder,” the pilot film for “Columbo.”

In the 1990s, Spelling and Barry resurrected “Burke’s Law.” I tried to get through a couple of episodes and got through one, I think. For one thing, Amos Burke now had a son (got to appeal to the younger generation, y’know). And each episode featured Dom DeLuise. I’m sorry Mr. DeLuise isn’t around anymore, and I did find him amusing, but to me, a little of him always went a long way, or at least halfway around the block.

So what are we to make of Gene Barry? He’d been a movie star before “Bat Masterson,” but, as far as I can tell, not a major one. And he was a good musician – a pianist – and he could sing and dance, as evidenced by the acclaim he won on the stage in “La Cage Aux Folles.”

When all is said and done, Gene Barry radiated class. (Is it a coincidence that his real last name was Klass?) But the movies of the fifties already had someone who radiated – indeed oozed – class, namely Cary Grant.

And when you consider that a lot of early television lacked this kind of class (though it did have its charms and, once in a while, a kind of quality that has seldom, if ever, been equaled), and when you consider that Fred Astaire rarely appeared on TV and Cary Grant never did, someone was needed to provide some polish. Gene Barry was in the right place at the right time, and – cane and derby hat or not – he delivered the goods.

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