Question: I have been searching all over the Web for information about a particular U.S. TV series that I saw when I lived in Europe a year ago. I think the series was called The FBI, but I am not positive. This was a crime drama, and I am wondering if it is possible to buy videocassettes of this series. I would certainly be grateful if you could give me hints as to where to look for it. Gunnar H., Boston, Mass.
Televisionary: Unfortunately, the series, which ran on ABC from September 1965 to September 1974, is not available on video, as far as I know, Gunnar. (And, as always, if someone out there knows where it can be legally found, please let me know.)
The reason why could range from rights problems to underestimation of fan interest, but I'm betting there are others out there who'd be interested in picking up a few episodes. Matter of fact, the show's concept taking real case files from the Bureau and dramatizing them seems ripe for another go-round, considering the success of straight crime shows like those cranked out by the Law & Order factory (and the FBI could certainly use the image boost). Then again, maybe producers like rabidly successful L&O creator Dick Wolf figure it's easier to simply read the papers and base stories on publicly available information rather than jump through hoops to please the Feds.
And make no mistake: the forces behind The FBI jumped through a lot of hoops to produce a show stodgy and accurate enough to make late FBI head J. Edgar Hoover happy. Hoover reportedly rejected about 600 written requests to do radio and TV series revolving around the Bureau before executives from ABC and Warner Bros., which produced the Hoover-worshipping FBI Story, were able to pry a "yes" out of him.
Of course, that was just the beginning of living up to Hoover's exacting standards. First, stars Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Stephen Brooks, Lynn Loring and Philip Abbott and others in the cast had to pass background checks, despite complaints from the Screen Actors Guild that such a requirement was tantamount to blacklisting. An FBI spokesman told TV Guide in 1965 that such precautions were necessary to protect the Bureau's image. "We will not," he said, "permit anyone with a Communist, subversive or substantially derogatory background to portray any part in the series." (Blacklisting? Naaaaaah!)
Once Zimbalist made the cut, though, the Bureau loved him. And why not? He was a one-man recruitment effort. Hoover said as much when asked by a House subcommittee to explain why personal appearance counted as a qualification for agents. "I am looking for men who are clean-cut, mature and who will measure up to the image I think the American people feel an FBI man should have." he said. "I have received hundreds of letters from people saying that the inspector on the FBI series [Lewis Erskine, played by Zimbalist] portrayed what they thought an FBI agent should portray.... There is an image that people have of the FBI. I want our agents to live up to that image."
To producer Quinn Martin's credit, he and his people kept the G-men happy with a strait-laced show that still managed to entertain the TV audience, though the actors were another matter entirely. Abbott, who played Erskine's boss at the Bureau, did an admirable job of breathing life into a character whose only lines were inspired utterances like: "Be careful, Lewis," "How are things going out there, Lewis?" and "What do you think our move is now, Lewis?"
But Bill Reynolds, who came on board as Special Agent Tom Colby in 1967 after Brooks departed, didn't hide his feelings about his just-this-side-of-comatose dialogue. On the morning a TV Guide writer visited the set, Reynolds delivered this gem to Zimbalist's Erskine: "Durant's surveillance followed four nearly new cars that left the C-1 Garage. They were delivered to a firm called Amalgamated Auto Rents. Twenty minutes later, they were on their way from Amalgamated to a used-car lot."
"Brilliant exposition," Reynolds said of his lines. "Fraught." Two hours later, a studio worker told the actor he wouldn't be needed for another three hours. "Fine," Reynolds replied. "Do I have to be sober?"
Maybe not to deliver those lines, but the audience sure wanted it that way. Every time Martin and his crew tried to humanize Erskine and add some dimension, the network received letters from viewers who insisted he remain rock-solid and dependably flat. Martin and the writers obliged and the show stayed on the air for nine years a testament to giving the audience what it wants, artistic leanings or no.