Question: What was the name of the early '60s show that worked with, if I remember correctly, some very touchy subjects? It starred E.G. Marshall, as I remember. Thank you. Bob A., Oxford, Mass.
Televisionary: You're thinking of The Defenders, Bob, which first hit the small screen as a two-part installment of CBS' Studio One in 1957. In that production, Ralph Bellamy and William Shatner played the father-son lawyer team (defending Steve McQueen), but when it became a series in September 1961, the roles of attorney Lawrence Preston and son Kenneth were filled, respectively, by Marshall and Robert Reed (who would go on to be forever remembered as Mike Brady).
And yes, the show did indeed tackle controversial topics, which was its reason for being, according to creator Reginald Rose. Episodes revolved around, for example, teen pregnancy and abortion, mercy killing, blacklisting, and other sensitive subjects not widely addressed by TV at the time. And as you might expect, such daring created problems.
For instance, a decade before Norman Lear's Maude ran a tempest-inducing double-episode on abortion, The Defenders presented "The Benefactor," an installment involving a pregnant teen's right to decide whether or not she should have a baby. Before it even aired, regular sponsors Brown & Williamson, Lever Brothers and Kimberly-Clark pulled out. And after CBS prescreened the episode for affiliates so they'd know what they were getting into, 11 of 180 stations refused to run it, while others ran it at a later hour.
Overall, the series took a decidedly progressive view of many issues. "It's a liberal show," producer Herb Brodkin told TV Guide in 1962. "I'm a conservative Republican in my personal life, but I'm a reeking liberal in my artistic life. Maybe I do it to shock. I'd call this the most liberal show on the air."
As you might guess, the show's two stars were split on the matter. Marshall, for instance, went left on rehabilitation of offenders. "Once a murder has been committed, my compassion does not go to the victim," he said. "The victim's dead. It's the criminal who's alive, and who needs our help."
Reed, for his part, went in the other direction. "Mercy killing that's one example of an idea I don't agree with at all," he explained. "I don't think any man has a right to take a life. Fortunately, in the mercy-killing script, Reggie presented both sides. If it had been a pure advocacy of killing, I wouldn't have been in it. I couldn't consciously participate in any play that advocated ideas I think are wrong."
Later on in the show's run, in fact, Reed followed through on his threat when an episode portrayed an evil, crackpot evangelist. "Some of the things this wild man spouted were the same words the minister might say in my own church," he said. "I asked to be written out, and I was."
By August 1964, Defenders had lost most of its hot-button topicality. And in doing so, it lost Marshall's enthusiasm, too. "I liked this show when it dramatized hot issues the kinds of things you could argue about, which drew attention, which were controversial," he said. We haven't had that lately. Reginald Rose hasn't written for the show in a long time.... "I'm here all day, myself; there's not much I can do about it. Still, on my own, I've asked writers I know to contribute ideas. This show broke fresh ground in its early days; now the atmosphere in television has developed so that even more areas can be dramatized: abortion, pornography, Negroes' problems. You have to give The Defenders at least part of the credit for that. But, as I said, we don't do much of it anymore ourselves."
No, they didn't. And a little more than a year later, they weren't doing it at all. The show's last episode aired in September 1965.