Question: I know The Untouchables was a TV show before it was a movie. But my buddy says the TV show was based on another, older movie. Is he right? Only 20 bucks is riding on it, but I'd like to know. Thanks. Craig T., Vancouver, Wash.
Televisionary: Technically speaking, your pal is right, Craig. Robert Stack first starred as gangbusting treasury-department legend Eliot Ness in a two-hour movie intended for overseas feature distribution. In the U.S., producer Desi Arnaz sold it as a two-part story for his CBS show, Desilu Playhouse and thought that was the end of it. But those early 1959 installments were big hits with audiences, so ABC execs came calling to launch it as a series.
Which would've been celebrated all around, except that none of the major players were much interested in doing a series at first. In fact, few of them had even been interested in making the initial movie to begin with, which makes The Untouchables one of TV history's biggest reluctant hits.
First off, Arnaz was cool to the idea of optioning the non-fiction book on which the movie was based (though he reportedly went from doubt to enthusiasm the same day he heard about it). Then, after waiting six months for producer Ray Stark to let his option expire because he was unable to come up with a script he liked, Arnaz, too, had a tough time turning the dry book into something entertaining. And his top choice to bring it to TV, producer Quinn Martin, wanted nothing to do with it. "When I read the script oh boy!" Martin told TV Guide in 1962. "Not only was the script a mess, and the character completely one-dimensional, but making it was a physical impossibility. I flatly turned it down. Then came that scene in Desi's office. 'Amigo, you gotta help us!' I said I didn't see why I gotta, and that the whole thing was stupid. Desi said, 'Go ahead, take a chance, amigo.' So I took a chance.' "
But they couldn't find an actor willing to take a chance with them. Van Heflin had other commitments. Van Johnson turned them down. And then... so did Stack, who was unhappy with his film career but didn't have to work because he was born into wealth. "I was scared," the actor said of his reticence at the time, noting that if the show had bombed it might've been the death knell for his career. A Desilu contingent went to his house and talked to him for 13 hours. Finally he signed on for the feature. And when ABC wanted it as a series, they had to convince him yet again.
Obviously, as it turned out Stack's fear of failure was misplaced: The show was a ratings smash when it launched in October 1959. But something might've been trying to warn him, since he and others on the show were nearly maimed or killed more than once over the series' run. Smashing a door with an ax, Stack narrowly avoided having his face split in two when the blade rebounded off the wood and came back at him, missing by inches. Actor Joseph Wiseman severed his Achilles tendon in a similar mishap. The '30s-era cars and trucks used on the show had dodgy clutches and brakes and Stack regularly had to jump out of the way of runaway vehicles. "We've got to work with live steam hissing in pipes in breweries, we've got to work with car crackups, we've got to work with razor-sharp axes," Stack said. "It's no picnic."
And when inanimate objects weren't a danger, men were. In one scene, guest-star George Kennedy hit Stack in the back of the head with a little too much enthusiasm, costing the star the sight in his right eye until a doctor readjusted vertebrae in his neck.As luck would have it, though, all the accidents and near-misses didn't do nearly as much damage as critics and groups offended by the series.
The estate of Al Capone sued because the show and its backers were profiting from his name without consent. The FBI objected after the fictional version of Ness and his crew were shown taking down Ma Barker when J. Edgar Hoover (who hated The Untouchables) and his boys deserved the credit. The series was criticized for taking all kinds of liberties with the real fates of such criminal heavy hitters as Capone, Dutch Schultz, Jake "Greasy Thumb" Guzik, Frank "The Enforcer" Nitti, George "Bugs" Moran and Vincent "Mad Dog" Coll. The Bureau of Prisons threatened TV stations to convince them not to air the second part of a double-episode in which Capone was transferred to Alcatraz because it made them look bad. (The stations aired it anyway.) And most notably, Prominent Italian-Americans (Frank Sinatra and a big politician or two) and groups representing them strongly objected to what they saw as stereotyping (much like the complaints about The Sopranos today), while others decried the high violence-and-brutality quotient. (The Tommy gun got so much on-screen action it really should've received its own credit).
The only ones who liked the show, it seemed, were the viewing public and the actors clamoring for guest-star work (Lee Marvin, Robert Redford, James Caan, Barbara Stanwyck, Vince Edwards, Peter Falk, Elizabeth Montgomery, Telly Savalas, Vic Morrow and Cloris Leachman and a whole list of others appeared in episodes).
That kind of protest takes its toll over time. Eventually, groups pressured sponsor Liggett & Myers Tobacco to drop the show and convinced Desilu execs to take their objections seriously. The producers gave their gangsters more ethnically generic names and took it easier on all the machine-gunning. The resulting show offended no one but didn't please anyone, either. It breathed its last in September 1963
"We died," former ABC programming VP Thomas W. Moore wrote in TV Guide. "In a few months the audience levels were about as low as Meet the Press and, somehow, the sponsors didn't care for The Untouchables anymore."
No, they didn't. Until the mid-'70s, that is, when reruns of the old series hit it big in local syndication, and 1987, when Kevin Costner and Brian De Palma's feature version cleaned up in theaters.