Question: Defend an old gal, please. I enjoyed reading your answer about Cannon, but when telling my husband about it, I mentioned remembering Barnaby Jones as a character on that show before he got his own. He says I'm wrong. Am I? Sarah L., Arlington Heights, Ill.
Televisionary: Sorry, but yes. You can take some comfort, though, in your confusion being understandable. In the first episode of Barnaby Jones, which ran on CBS from January 1973 to September 1980, Frank Cannon (William Conrad) was called over from his own series to help out a young private eye who'd inherited his father's detective agency. When the baby sleuth was killed, his dad Barnaby (The Beverly Hillbillies' Buddy Ebsen) came out of retirement to solve his murder and then stuck around to head up the series. (Conrad went back to his own show, but there was some back-and-forth between the two until Cannon went off the air in 1975, which may have added to your mix-up.)
Barnaby Jones came about the old-fashioned way: An executive saw a hole and commissioned a show to fill it. "The thinking seemed to be, well, there's a fat detective and a lady detective and detectives that are blind, thin, crippled and rumpled," Ebsen told TV Guide in 1978. "The only kind they didn't have was a mature detective."
So Fred Silverman, a legendary TV man, got in touch with Cannon producer Quinn Martin, who'd also been toying with the idea of an older detective, and they were off and running. Bringing in Ebsen, who was popular from his 9-year run as Hillbillies paterfamilias Jed Clampett, was a no-brainer. Only Ebsen didn't think the show had much of a chance. "There were detective stories all over the place. I thought the market was saturated," he said.
Taking the series even further from the traditional detective-show formula, Barnaby was no Joe Mannix. He was an unfailingly polite character who didn't beat people up on a weekly basis and didn't take too many hits himself. And its odds didn't look any better after the critics pummeled the show. TV Guide's Cleveland Amory wrote: "Some of the plots are so complicated that in retrospect they seem terrific. It's just when they're going on that you have all the trouble."
Yet Barnaby Jones proved to be critic-proof. Over the course of the next few years, Ebsen and Barnaby helped take down several big stars scheduled opposite him, including Dick Van Dyke (The Dick Van Dyke Show), Michael Douglas and Karl Malden (The Streets of San Francisco), and David Janssen (Harry O).
The biggest mystery, however: Why? Even those who worked on the show over the years weren't all that sure. And those who volunteered theories didn't exactly come up with complimentary ones. Producer Philip Saltzman, for example, thought his show, which spent much of its time in a 10 pm slot, was akin to a glass of warm milk. "Each show has an intriguing puzzle, and it's pleasant to watch Barnaby unravel it," he offered. "But there's nothing stomach-churning, nothing to make you nervous. We're never nasty. At 11 o'clock, the people can switch off the set and go peacefully to bed."
Of course, networks hate having an audience that skews too old, and the people looking for shows to help them sleep don't tend to fall into the youth demographic, so in 1976 Mark Shera signed on as a Barnaby's younger cousin in order to bring in some of the young 'uns. But Ebsen remained the star, and to director Walter Grauman, that was the whole secret right there the actor's likable quality.
"I remember when we were doing the pilot, it was about 3 one morning and we were standing on the bridge of a boat in a miserable rain. Everything was going wrong," Grauman recalled. "I looked up at Buddy... and I said, 'Buddy, this show is going to be a hit.' He looked down at me like the rain had softened my brain and asked why. I said, 'Because people like you. That's the main thing you have to have, people liking you.'"
Perhaps. But Ebsen didn't necessarily buy into the theory, and didn't want to give the matter too much thought anyway. "I don't like to probe too deeply into the whys," he explained. "It's self-defeating. If you decide this particular thing is working, you tend to pour on a little more of it. You become calculating instead of natural, and it shows."