NBC Movie of the Week, Originally aired May 21, 1977

**Contains spoilers**

One of the last gems I found on YouTube in the ‘08/’09 period was this tv pilot which I thoroughly enjoyed. As a more casual Star Trek fan I was also intrigued by the fact that this was created and written by Gene Roddenberry and it’s unfortunate it didn’t make into a series.

Robert Culp plays William Sebastian, a brilliant and well known criminologist who has been dabbling in and researching the occult. His theory is that the more heinous murders committed by humans that had no definable logic in motive must have been committed due to other more powerful and unseen forces. As a result of his flirtations with the dark side and backing out of a deal with the devil, he has just one minor problem: He has a hole in his heart, like a dagger or some object has been shoved through it.

A little healing black magic from his housekeeper, Lillith (Mrs. Gene Roddenberry – Majel Barrett), Sebastian is able to continue to live and walk around. But the spell does not offer a permanent fix. Sebastian has to find the doll that the object is impaled in.

He has been asked to look into a case in England at the request of Anitra Cyon (Ann Bell), who believes her brother, Geoffrey (James Villiers), is under the influence of evil supernatural forces which has contributed to his sudden and extensive wealth. In order to proceed with the case, Sebastian will need help from his former partner, Dr. “Hamm” Hamilton (Gig Young.) The movie opens with Hamm’s arrival at Sebastian’s home – having been requested there by telegram – and this great voice over to set the tone for the movie.

“I come here to meet a man I vowed never to see again. He was vain, arrogant, selfish, but his brilliance was still irresistible. He was also dangerous – never to me – but this evening began for both of us, a slide into horrors unimaginable, a descent into a corner of hell….”

Sebastian explains about the hole in his heart and asks for Hamm’s help with the case in England. Initially Hamm says no, after all, he has some issues of his own going on including a more than casual drinking habit and is facing an inquiry by the hospital he works for. He reconsiders after learning about Sebastian’s condition but suggests that Sebastian didn’t need a compulsive drinker as an assistant. The good doctor’s drinking habits, however, were corrected by Lilith.

As they talk, another visitor arrives: Anitra Cyon. The woman, however, is not who she appears to be. Sebastian becomes suspicious when she tells him that she’s changed her mind about having him investigate anything. He takes her into his study where she refuses to sit in a chair with a cross on it and after some talk she attempts to seduce Sebastian.

He kills the mood, if you will, with the Apocryphal Book of Tobit, pressing the open book against her and exposing her for what she is, a succubus. She literally goes up in smoke.

Hamm hears the screaming and the noise from the study and bursts in, only to be shoved back out by Sebastian. Hamm is incredulous, once Sebastian finally lets him into the study, as to what happened and who the woman was. Even further, he’s appalled by all the ancient art, religious artifacts and other “junk” as he puts it, that’s in the study. He shows genuine concern for Sebastian but also warns him, that if he’s harmed anyone with all this occult hullabaloo he would have him put away. Sebastian, to Hamm’s surprise, agrees.

They fly to England on the Cyon jet with Mitri Cyon (John Hurt). During the flight over Sebastian and Hamm talk about the supernatural. Hamm pretty much is a non-believer. Sebastian suggests the possibility that some of the most heinous murders (Charlie Manson, Richard Speck) may have been done at the force of the supernatural. As they talk, the jet begins to malfunction with loss of power, loss of engines and loss of radio transmission. Hamm attributes it to a malfunction, afterall it’s a man-made machine. Sebastian knows differently and the jet lurches and tosses about in the air even more when Sebastian starts rattling off the different names by culture for the devil. After a moment, the jet settles and resumes under normal power.

In London, Mitri stays behind at the airport to check on the plane and sends Sebastian and Hamm along with the Cyon car. Sebastian asks the driver, Sydna, to make a stop first, only to realize she was already headed in that direction.

The stop is at Merlin’s Mews and the library of Dr. Qualis, an expert in the occult. Sebastian had been in contact with Qualis regarding what was going on with the Cyons. When he and Hamm get there, they find the place on fire and they find Qualis dead inside. On the floor is a pentacle, which Qualis was trying to get to the center of at the time he died but didn’t make it. (The center of a pentacle is the safest place to be when facing demons). They find Qualis is clutching his journal just as a demon attempts to get into the room. Sebastian gets the doors shut and he and Hamm stand in the middle of the pentacle. The demon busts through the doors just before fire and police arrive. The demon disappears and a fireman is yelling at them to get the hell out of the building.

Outside, they’re greeted by Scotland Yard Inspector Cabell (Gordon Jackson) whom they’ve dealt with before. After a brief explanation of how they found Qualis, the Inspector drives Sebastian and Hamm to Cyon House.

During the drive over Cabell questions them, asks if they saw anything. They say they did not. Sebastian asks if the other murders (this is the first indication that there’s any pattern of murders that have occurred – unless I missed something earlier in the movie) have any connection to Geoffrey Cyon, business rivals or the like. The inspector admits that there is a connection, off the record. Cabell says that the Qualis killing, however, doesn’t fit the previous murders. Cabell then asks Sebastian if he has reason to believe that Geoffrey Cyon is behind any of the killings. Sebastian says he does not have any reason to believe so. Cabell looks relieved to which Sebastian adds that Cyon is quite close to several members of the Cabinet. Cabell answers that, “This is England. No one is above the law.”

They arrive at Cyon House which is the former Kentworth Abbey. Cyon spent millions redoing the place and it is no longer very “abbeyish” inside. Sebastian dismisses the inspector and he and Hamm approach the entrance. The moment Hamm uses the door knocker, Sebastian is hit with terrible chest pain. Sebastian describes the pain like “something being twisted. A physical movement…” It lasts for only a moment before it passes….and the door to Cyon House opens.

Inside, Hamm and Sebastian are welcomed to Cyon House which looks less like a stately English estate and more like a tacky gilded bordello. Much of the artwork and sculptures are sexually suggestive. The maids are all beautiful women who wear slinky dresses. As Hamm and Sebastian wait for Geoffrey Cyon they admire a more artistic rendition of Venus Reclining and then Sebastian notices a small ivory coffin box in a display case. He goes a little nuts, trying to find a way to open the case and then finally smashes the glass with his elbow. The coffin, which he thought contained the doll, or rather contained him, is empty.

They meet Geoffrey Cyon, a severe looking gent who looks like he might be a distant cousin to an American family known by the name of Adams. He’s aware of his sister’s request and there’s a discussion about payment. Geoffrey offers up the Venus Reclining painting, for which he paid some 200,000 pounds for. If they can confirm Anitra’s fears and suspicions they will receive the painting. If not, they get nothing. Geoffrey then has Sebastian and Hamm join him and his siblings for dinner.

At dinner they meet Anitra Cyon, for what seems like the second time. Hamm even asks her if she has any relatives living in the United States, which she replies she does not. (Hamm’s still not quite convinced of that whole succubus thing). During dinner Geoffrey speculates that the true reason for Anitra’s investigation is simply because she does not approve of his extravagant and open lifestyle. Nonetheless, he proposes a toast to Sebastian’s success. Before Sebastian takes a drink of his wine, the edge of the glass leaves a cut on his finger. He pours the contents of his glass out using his napkin as a sift and finds shards of glass. The “old crystal” is to blame for the shards and Sebastian, not missing a beat, takes Hamm’s drink and proposes a toast. He recites the verse (which is not in English) and then takes a drink of his wine. Everyone else’s glasses shatter.

Anitra demands an explanation. Before one can be given, the head mistress of Cyon house comes in to inform Geoffrey that they were having trouble with the main gate, that the sonic control seemed jammed. Sebastian explains that the high frequency waves simply caused the old glass to shatter. Still…it doesn’t explain why his glass didn’t shatter.

After dinner, Anitra speaks with Sebastian and Hamm privately. She asks if he believes what was in her letters. Anitra is a somewhat plain, stern looking woman who obviously does not approve of her brother’s lifestyle or of the buxom beauties who are the maids. She’s somewhat envious, she admits. Nonetheless, she truly believes there is something evil going on and she fears for both her brothers. She asks Sebastian that if he can’t stop whatever power it is that is doing these things, if he has to resort to killing everyone in Cyon house to do it, including her, that he should do so.

The request literally knocks him back in his chair but he nods meekly. Hamm figures this is a good time to excuse himself and Sebastian for the evening. Mitri comes in in time to escort them up to their rooms. At the top of the stairs, they pause for Sebastian to catch his breath. One of the maids walks by with an arm full of sheets and brushes against Hamm, pushing him against the railing…which gives away and nearly sends Hamm tumbling down into the fountain.

Their rooms are adjoining, and Hamm’s looks like a bordello (complete with pink satin sheets on the water bed, a heart shaped pillow and more sexually suggestive art. There’s even a leopard skin rug on the floor. But wait, it gets better…)

Hamm leaves the room to check on Sebastian next door, who has a more appropriate and stately decorated suite. Hamm checks on Sebastian’s vitals while he reads through Qualis’s journal. Sebastian also explains that his toast at dinner was to ward off evil spirit. Since the demon would only be present or possessing one of the Cyon siblings, all of the glasses shattered in order for “it” to not reveal itself.

Sebastian reads entries from Qualis’s journal. The excavation done at Cyon house three years earlier for a new wine cellar disturbed an ancient underground cavern known as Druid’s Firepit. Qualis’s greatest fear is realized when he learns that “A” has been freed, after being bound for more than 2000 years. Qualis can’t even write the demon’s name in the journal instead writing only the symbol he is known by. When Sebastian shows Hamm the page with the symbol on it and speaks the demon’s name, Asmodeus, Prince of Lechery Lord of Corruption, the wind suddenly picks up and the fire in the fire place grows larger. It lasts for only a moment and then dies down.

Hamm doesn’t buy that this is anything beyond coincidence. Even he speaks the demon’s name and nothing happens. Sebastian explains that it was a direct response to him.

We have a break in our evil supernatural spirits for some comic relief with Hamm, who’s room remember looks like a bordello. More or less because, it is a bordello. He awakens to find a girl in his bed who, with a push of a few buttons on a console brings up the colored lights and turns on the funky music. She then has Hamm make a selection which in turn brings in a dominatrix and a “school girl.” The dominatrix selects a whip from a hidden cabinet on the wall and gives it a crack. By this point Hamm is out of bed and grabs the whip from the dominatrix….and the door adjoining to Sebastian’s room suddenly opens.

“I’m sorry,” Sebastian says, “am I interrupting something?” Hamms sputters that the ladies were just leaving then he turns it around and says they had just gotten there. Either way, Sebastian shoos the ladies from the room. Hamm explains he’s been awake all of two minutes. Sebastian marvels at how much Hamm accomplished in two minutes. Heh!

Sebastian then shows Hamm the druid ring from the window explaining that it was that that had awoken him. After they dress, they go out to check it out. Hamm is sure he can hear either women screaming or animals howling, or both – just as two pit bulls come barreling over the stones and straight toward them.

The two remain still while the dogs are snarling at them before being called back by Geoffrey Cyon. When they say they thought they heard noises from the ring, he invites them to take a closer look. He then says how the wind makes odd noises with the stones sometimes and advises the two that they shouldn’t come out here again. The hounds could be dangerous.

Back inside Cyon house Sebastian and Hamm leave to meet with Inspector Cabell just as several high profile financial leaders are arriving for a meeting. When they get to New Scotland Yard, they find the Inspector is not there and is at Merlin’s Mews. Sebastian figures that Cabell has learned that Qualis kept a journal and is there looking for it. They drive on to Merlin’s Mews and turn the journal over to Cabell. Cabell isn’t much interested in any of the evil spirits bunk and is only interested in making sure that Geoffrey Cyon is not being implicated in any of the murders. Technically, he’s not being implicated, as Sebastian notes that Geoffrey was in other parts of the world at the time various murders occurred. But still there’s something amiss at Cyon House. Inspector Cabell isn’t much interested.

Back at Cyon House, Sebastian strolls through the main foyer and notices a piano and sheet music and starts to play the melody. He gets stuck on one particular note. Mitri shows up and shows how it’s played properly. They talk a bit, Sebastian wondering what the hell Mitri is doing flying a plane when he can compose and play music that is beautiful. He asks Mitri about Cyon business interests and how each of the siblings own a third of the share. Mitri points out though that Geoffrey is the financial wizard and he (Mitri) merely backs him up in terms of votes, which always out votes Anitra. Mitri speculates that this may be part of her wanting this investigation too. Mitri also marvels at how much his brother has accomplished and praises his abilities, just as Geoffrey walks into the room.

Geoffrey admonishes Mitri, however. He even goes so far as to slap him when Mitri admits that he wonders if Anitra is going mad. Mitri excuses himself and leaves the room. Geoffrey then extends an invitation of sorts to Sebastian, just as Anitra comes into the room. Just as she’s about to warn Sebastian about Geoffrey’s “obscene Hell Fire club” they hear noises coming from Mitri’s room.

By the time the police arrive, one of the hounds is howling its head off at something in the tree. The only witness to the attack on Mitri was the other dog, who was gored and thrown into the tree. Geoffrey has the ambulance that was called for cancelled as Dr. Hamilton was taking care of things. This is the only scene in the whole film where Culp’s character is seen wearing glasses. Not sure if this was a continuity error or if any other scenes where he wore the glasses might have been cut.

Inspector Cabell speaks briefly with Mitri, who saw nothing of his attacker and could not recall even if it might have been a man or an animal. Sebastian then talks to Cabell about how the disciples of Asmodeus are capable of great physical change. Cabell is still not buying much of it but does agree to Sebastian’s request that a constable be left on the grounds, in case the attacker (if it was such an outside force) returns.

Hamm returns as Cabell leaves. With a constable on the grounds, Sebastian figures Cyon will have to keep his dogs penned up so he and Hamm can take a closer look at the ruins. They prepare to go with a flash light and appropriate religious symbols. Hamm’s is nothing more than a simple Star of David on a key chain. Sebastian has a cross. A very old cross, blessed for more than 900 years. (“Why must you always have the best of everything, William?” Hamm asks, somewhat sardonically). Sebastian does note that it’s “good to be together again.”

They head out to the ruins and find their way in (but not before one of the boulders of the ruins nearly falls on Sebastian). They follow the tunnel where they find one of the maids dresses on the ground along the way. They find markings on rocks dating back to druid times and are nearly crushed under falling stones.

Finally, they find the “prison” Asmodeus was locked away in for 2000 years. They find half of the broken solid gold seal that had been on the doors. Inside the “black temple” they find a sacrificial alter that bears Asmodeus symbol. Sebastian unveils the 900 year old cross that he carries and places it on the alter, the power of which is felt through the temple and brings Sebastian to his knees.

After he tucks the cross into a crevice in the altar, he gets back to his feet with help from Hamm. Suddenly they hear the crazy laughter of a girl and turn to see one of the maids is hanging upside down on the wall. Hamm checks on her but she’s completely unaware that he and Sebastian are even there. A disciple shows up a moment later but doesn’t enter the temple due to the half seal that Sebastian had hung on a candle stand. The disciple leaves and then Sebastian is hit again with the twisting feeling in his chest. Hamm grabs hold of him and walks him out of the temple, Sebastian taking the gold seal with them.

Back in Sebastian’s room, he tells Hamm what will happen if they don’t stop Asmodeus. His physical condition, however, has weakened and Hamm will not allow him to travel to London for the items that he needs. So Sebastian tells Hamm that he has to go. The items include materials so they can melt down some of the gold from the seal to make a bullet, holy water from a baptism and communion wine, blessed by a bishop. Hamm figures getting some of these things will be impossible, as he puts it he’s not a witch from MacBeth. But he agrees to go, so long as Sebastian rests. Sebastian agrees. He also figures if Geoffrey Cyon is Asmodeus, they needed to figure out which human was his priest. The legend goes that the priest takes the form of a great cat. This would be the most dangerous of the disciples.

Hamm returns later to Cyon House to learn that Anitra has gone missing. This news apparently doesn’t faze either of her siblings as Geoffrey is carrying on with a planned party. When Hamm asks of any news from Geoffrey about Anitra, Geoffrey simply walks away. Mitri is even less upset, saying that whoever has her is probably in more trouble than they realize anyway, as Anitra “is always saying she’s the real tiger of the house.”

As the party goes on downstairs, Hamm and Sebastian are in Sebastian’s room preparing the golden bullet. Sebastian theorizes that Anitra’s disappearance might be permanent. Hamm mentions Mitri’s comment about Anitra being the “real tiger of the house.” Sebastian adds that it was Anitra, after all, who brought them there.

As the party rages on (and dissolves into an orgy) Sebastian and Hamm sneak back down through the wine cellar to the temple. When Sebastian attempts to load his golden bullet into his gun, he drops it and it rolls behind one of the massive doors. He and Hamm pry the door away from the wall where they find the other half of the golden seal in the mummified hands of Mitri. Asmodeus was never Geoffrey Cyon. It was Mitri all along. Sebastian finds his golden bullet and takes the other half of the seal.

Sebastian loads his gun when the sounds of chanting can be heard. He and Hamm go into the temple and hide in the shadows.

They watch as disciples arrive carrying Anitra and placing her on the altar. Asmodeus then arrives and Sebastian and Hamm watch in awe as Mitri commands Geoffrey to be his priest by taking Anitra, sexually. Geoffrey cannot bring himself to do it and offers instead her death and her death only. But even this he is unable to do.

Asmodeus figures he knows someone else who would be his priest and he calls out Sebastian. The disciples chant Sebastian’s name and one of them turns to face him – Inspector Cabell.

Asmodeus offers Sebastian his life, the removal of the object impaled in the doll if he will become the priest. The ivory coffin box is brought in and the object is removed from the doll. Sebastian’s hole in his chest and heart are healed.

He approaches Mitri, vowing to “obey my Lord.” He’s draped in a black and gold robe and he turns to Anitra who cries to him about his promise, to kill them all. He says nothing, opening his arms wide where one hand contains the bottle of holy water. He pours near the crevice where the cross had been tucked into earlier.

The power of the holy water and the cross flares up from the alter and chaos erupts in the temple as disciples scramble away from the altar. Hamm hands the other half of the gold seal to Sebastian who puts the two pieces together and holds it out to Asmodeus. Asmodeus screams for hellfire and he gets it, only not for Sebastian. Sebastian throws both halves of the seal into the fire and then follows up with the communion wine, putting Asmodeus into a hellfire of his own. As the final touch, Sebastian fires his golden bullet at Asmodeus.

Hamm frees Anitra from the altar as total madness takes over the disciples and the temple. Sebastian fights off disciples as he makes his way to the doorway of the temple. Once he, Hamm and Anitra are out the temple crumbles and collapses in fire and destruction, taking everyone in it with it.

Back in the US, Hamm and Sebastian see the newspaper reports of the fire that destroyed Cyon house and the partygoers, along with many of the paintings and artifacts that it contained. Asmodeus unfortunately was not destroyed and Sebastian warns that they would see him again. They then receive a surprise visitor, Anitra Cyon, looking much lovelier than she ever had. She brings a gift to Sebastian, a painting. Not the Venus Recliningthat he had admired at Cyon house but a suitable replacement. While Sebastian looks over the painting, Hamm offers to talk to Anitra alone in Sebastian’s study.

Lilith assures Sebastian that it is indeed Anitra Cyon. Sebastian had no doubt and although he knows it’s really Ms. Cyon and Lilith knows it, Hamm doesn’t. When he comments that it should be an interesting session in the study, the fire suddenly burns higher and the wind blows through the room. It’s then that Sebastian realizes there’s a symbol on the painting. The “A” of Asmodeus…

I really enjoyed Culp’s performance in this. He’s exactly as Gig Young’s voice over at the beginning of the movie describes: Vain, arrogant, selfish…but his brilliance is irresistible. Although the arrogance of the character doesn’t come off like some annoying know-it-all; he never talks down to anyone. He shares his knowledge not to make himself look important, but because the knowledge is important and needs to be shared so that others can understand what’s going on. This demon stuff is serious business! (Serious enough that his arrogance is in having to have a priceless jewel encrusted cross, blessed by priests for 900 years.)

He also looks really good dressed in black.

Gene Roddenbury was actually about 30 years ahead of his time with this pilot. Although supernatural movies like “The Exorcist” and “The Omen” freaked out audiences back in the ’70s at the movie theatres, and Steven King books were all the rage, the thought of bringing the supernatural to television was met with some skepticism. Spectre was not the only supernatural themed movie to air at the time (indeed, there were two others the same weekend; Good vs. Evil on ABC and The Possessed, also on NBC.) The networks, Roddenbury said in an interview in 1977, “always chickened out (with supernatural stuff) because they want the unexplained to be explained.  If you had a ghost it always turned out to be someone trying to frighten the aunt out of the estate.”

Although audiences were looking for such programs, critics weren’t. Reviews were mixed for Spectre, one critic calling it “campy.” Perry Fulkerson of the The (St Petersburg, FL) Evening Independent downright condemned the pilot calling it, literally, “a piece of trash.” Everything about the movie offended him, from the sexual overtones (the bedroom scene of Hamm’s with the dominatrix and young girl – “This is on television?” Fulkerson wrote, “It ought to be in the garbage.”) to Culp’s character using “evil devices” to fight off the forces of evil (Holy water? Communion wine? Oh, silly me, I guess Mr. Fulkerson didn’t like the old fashioned single action pistol Sebastian used). Fulkerson goes on further to say that using evil to fight evil is “quite contrary to the nature of reality.”

Makes me wonder what Mr. Fulkerson would think of the plethora of demon and vampire shows on television nowadays. Particularly, Supernatural, where the Winchester boys have a trunk full of “evil devices” in their old Chevy Impala to fight off evil spirits.

Nonetheless, I thought this pilot was well made and the storyline is good.  I acknowledge there’s a little camp with Hamm’s bedroom scene and Culp borders briefly on being a smidge hammy with his “Ah ha! A welcome!” when he and Hamm arrive at Cyon house. The production values, settings and special effects in this movie are very well done (and clearly very expensive!) except for one part. When Mitri/Asmodeus loses his human form during the final confrontation with Sebastian and is turned back into the demon, he looks like something out of a 1950s sci-fi movie. Very amateurish, totally fake and extremely disappointing. Especially so after various demons/disciples in previous scenes are much better costume and makeup work. Why a similar look was not utilized for Asmodeus in this scene is completely beyond me.

Unfortunately, because it cost so much to produce this movie NBC passed on picking it up as a series. The film was also overshadowed by Roddenberry’s decision to go forward with the first Star Trek motion picture although that film didn’t go into production until late 1978. Also, tragically, Gig Young would be dead just over a year after this pilot aired, after taking his own life.

As I was digging through the Google archive for info on Spectre I found a nice full page layout about the movie from The Day newspaper of New London, Connecticut.

You can see the full page article here.

I also happened to notice another amusing tidbit, but not directly related to the movie. If in England, “no one is above the law” then it’s ironic that two days before Spectre aired, David Frost’s infamous interview with former President Richard Nixon was televised. Nixon was quoted in the interview essentially saying that “when the President does it (orders something that might be illegal otherwise, like, say, burglaries) then it’s not illegal.”

Along with Academy Award winner Gig Young  (supporting actor, They Shoot Horses Don’t They?) guest stars included…

John Hurt – the British actor known for his role in Alien and his Oscar nominated roles in Midnight Express and The Elephant Man, essentially made his American TV debut with Spectre.

Gordon Jackson – another British actor familiar to American audiences from movies such as The Great Escape and the television series Upstairs, Downstairs.  Ironically, he would guest star on an episode of a short lived British television series the same year called…Supernatural.

Ann Bell – A long time actress on British television, Ann had an uncredited role in Fahrenheit 451 and also appeared in To Sir, With Love.

James Villiers – Long time British character actor who made a career of playing upper class type characters. He infact had an aristocratic background, being a descendant of the Earls of Clarendon. He appeared in such movies as the 1981 James Bond film For Your Eyes Only, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and the 1965 Bette Davis horror/noir film The Nanny.

And certainly I can’t forget to note Majel Barrett (who was a part of just about every Star Trek tv series and film – either as a character or as the voice of the Enterprise/Federation computer) who was the single most driving force behind Gene Roddenberry writing this pilot in the first place. Ms. Barrett actually studied witchcraft and had an interest in the supernatural. A piece appeared in newspapers around the country in March of 1977 that can be seen here.

Fans of the British tv series Are You Being Served? should recognize Penny Irving as the First Maid. Fans of the British tv series ‘Allo! ‘Allo! should recognize Vicki Michelle as the Second Maid. Both ladies can be seen in the full page spread from The Day newspaper above.

Spectre is available on DVD from modcinema.com. As of the time of this posting it is one of the Top 20 bestsellers.

Get Smart – “Die Spy”

Here’s another one of those miscellaneous clips I found on YouTube back in 2008 that just fueled my growing interest in Robert Culp. This clip amused me to no end and I still get a good laugh from it when I go back and watch it. This particular episode of Get Smart was a spoof of I Spy and although Culp is not credited for this appearance, the scene is totally his.

So! Kind gentlemen and lovely ladies, it would please me to have you to watch this clip…

TGAH: The Hit Car

Originally aired: March 25, 1981

In the early exploration of All Things Culp, I mined my way through YouTube. Back in 2008 there wasn’t a whole lot of stuff posted, a couple episodes of I Spy , one or two made for tv movies and various miscellaneous vids that I’ll cover in other posts. Amongst the miscellaneous stuff, however, was a vid that single handedly sold me on Bill Maxwell and The Greatest American Hero series. This vid is brilliant.

I was sold. I bought all three seasons in fairly short order.

I was especially sold on Culp’s Bill Maxwell, the calcified, old school Fed who freaked out and took off in the pilot after the visit with the “green guys” and the bequeathing of the suit to Ralph. He returned, however, out of a sense of duty and curious to see what the fuss was all about. By the end of the pilot, he was becoming quite comfortable with the idea of this supersuit and with this first regular season episode, he was ready to run the whole show, much to Ralph’s chagrin. Honestly, if the pilot for The Greatest American Hero didn’t sell you on watching this show, The Hit Car should have. This is by far my favorite episode.

So what’s the fuss all about? Read on…

Starlet Wilde has agreed to testify against Johnny “The Dancer” Diamante, the biggest “dope dealing slug” that FBI agent Bill Maxwell has been trying to nail for 15 years. After another Fed attempts to drive Starlet to LA from San Francisco and is shot in the process, Bill decides to go to San Francisco and bring her down himself – with help from Ralph and the suit.

Ralph, meanwhile, is trying to organize his class to do a Shakespeare play which will get them some credits for English Lit (which nobody seems to particularly care about). During the first meeting for the play, unfortunately, Bill shows up, tells Ralph they have a flight to San Francisco at 7 o’clock and it was go time.

Ralph, indignant, protests, saying he can’t just up and leave not without having to tend to some stuff first, like finding a babysitter for his son, Kevin. Bill solves that problem quick and asks for the next one. Pam tries to slip out but Bill doesn’t let her, telling her plainly, “You’re in this.” He then explains to both Ralph and Pam about his 15 years trying to nail Johnny Diamante and makes it clear. “We’re gonna get this guy, Ralph. Finally.”

Pam doesn’t care to be a “third string utility man” and Ralph’s not happy about Bill just barging in and taking things over. “Bill, you cannot going around changing people’s lives to suit yourself!” he says. “Sure I can,” Bill replies.

Despite neither of them liking the situation, there’s a grudging agreement to go along with Bill. Ralph asks Pam to take over the rehearsals for the play and Ralph and Bill head out…where Bill finds his hubcaps in the front seat of his car courtesy of Ralph’s students.

In San Francisco they arrive at the dumpy hotel room where Starlet is hiding. Starlet is pleasantly surprised to see Ralph – which annoys Bill.

Once inside her room, she tells Bill that she refuses to fly, citing some astro chart mumbo jumbo. There’s some lively discussion about driving versus flying, killers being on their tail and the stars predicting the future. Starlet also turns the charm on Ralph, which did I mention really annoys Bill? “Okay, boys and girls, over here please. Let’s put a dimmer on the goo goo eyes and try n’ hold a thought. We have killers after us in the immediate vicinity.”

Well Startlet doesn’t think there’s anybody outside the hotel room and she goes over and pulls back the curtain which suddenly shatters in gunfire. Bill pushes Starlet down to the floor and out of the line of fire and then hollers for Ralph to get out there and stop the gunmen.

Ralph sputters and mutters but does his thing, jumping through the bathroom window and flying across the way, only to crash into the penthouse across the street from the hotel. He manages to make his way out the suite, down the stairs and through the lobby all the while people are staring and snickering at him. He commandeers a trench coat on his way out.

Back at Starlet’s hotel room, Ralph knocks at the door. He gives Bill the bad news about not getting the hit guys and proceeds to confuse poor Ms. Starlet, who can’t figure out how Ralph ended up outside, when the last she knew, he was in the bathroom. Neither Ralph, nor Bill make any attempt to explain and Bill quickly changes the subject, they need to rethink their scenario as it’s obvious the hit guys are on to them.

Starlet still refuses to fly. In fact, so does Ralph.

Bill, sick of them both, gives in to having to drive back to LA.

During the drive, Starlet is impressed by Ralph’s intellect as he’s sitting there reading Shakespeare. Bill, in turn, is simply amazed by her lack thereof…

Having driven for a while, and hearing enough of Starlet prattle on confusing The Taming of the Shrew with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? Bill decides they’re going to stop at an FBI safe house in Salinas for the night. Only Starlet refuses, telling him they can’t stop until Santa Barbara – her astro chart and all. She can’t sleep except by the water.

Bill’s livid. Not wanting to hear the arguing, Ralph makes a suggestion to Bill that Pam’s boss has a beach house in Santa Barbara. If Pam can borrow it, they can stop there. Starlet thinks it sounds wonderful. Bill’s irritated as all hell by this point but they stop and phone Pam.

Somehow, Pam manages to get use of the beach house (would have been interesting to have scene showing her trying to explain this to her boss) and is there waiting for the trio when they arrive. Bill praises her on getting the beach house but laments that there’s no food. There’s then some added animosity from Pam toward Starlet. A great cap off to an already wonderful evening.

The next morning they prepare to head out. Bill, starving by this point, is making due with stale dog biscuits that would “float in a tub of spit forever.” There’s a nice scene here between Bill and Pam where he at least acknowledges that Starlet’s been putting the moves on Ralph and tells Pam that she’s more than welcome to set the show girl straight, with what we today call a good bitch slapping. It’s hard to tell tho’ if Pam appreciates the gesture since it was presented in such a Neanderthal way.

While this is going on, Ralph’s in the bathroom, putting on his red jammies. He sees a holograph in the mirror of the two hit men outside the beach house. At the same time, Starlet’s pounding on the door to use the facilities. She eventually busts in, makes a little pass at Ralph who deflects it and heads out to tell Bill what he’s seen.

Bill gathers the troops and lays out the plan rapid fire. He takes no grief from either Pam or Ralph and tells them to do what he says. Pam sees that Starlet is down and away from the windows while Ralph does his thing with the suit. Bill, meanwhile, goes right out the front door – John Wayne style. He catches the attention of the hit guys and exchanges fire with them, taking a wound to his hand. Ralph gets the drop on the two hit men and tosses one head over heels in Bill’s direction. While Bill places that one under arrest, Ralph chases after the second hit man who tries to make his escape in another vehicle. Ralph catches him and Bill follows up to pick up the guy. By this point there’s sirens in the air and the heat is on. Bill tells Ralph to disappear, won’t let him take the car and can’t let him take the van. Ralph indignant once again, issues a warning to Bill that his patience is running pretty thin with this “partnership.” He then takes to the air and tries to fly, only to go dive bombing right into the ocean. The two hit men are completely stupefied by what they’ve witnessed. Bill advises them to forget what they saw but after their arrest they babble on and end up in a mental ward somewhere.

They make it to the courthouse in LA, but not without a new hit squad trying to nail Starlet. Bill takes a shot to the leg this time but Starlet is spared and is ushered inside where the grand jury is waiting. Bill calls the entire mission a success….until he finds out later from the District Attorney that Starlet took the 5th and refused to testify.

At this point, Ralph figures out there was a different scenario going on the whole time and he explains it to Bill. They weren’t trying to kill Starlet, they were trying to kill Bill. Bill doesn’t buy it at first until he thinks about for a minute and it makes sense.

As they drive away from the courthouse, Bill and Ralph both lament about their day of which neither one has much sympathy for the other. Bill then makes an excuse about stopping for some cigars and he pulls up to a little Italian restaurant where, inside, Johnny Diamante is complaining about his day too. “The only thing that’s worked out in the last 24 hours is this tuxedo,” Johnny says to his henchman, Mike, “and if I didn’t look so good in this thing I’d smack you right in the mouth!” If Johnny thought his day was going bad it got worse, when Bill comes walking in with a cheerful rendition of “The Gang’s All Here” and walks (limps) up to Johnny’s booth, pulling a gun.

A tense moment passes before Bill takes hold of Johnny’s plate of spaghetti and dumps in right on Johnny’s lap. He not only just dumps it, he pushes the plate right into Johnny’s gut and then lets it slide down to the floor.

Bill doesn’t stop there. He then takes Johnny’s glass of wine and carefully pours that into his lap too all the while seeing out of the corner of his eye as Mike tries to move for a gun and Bill simply tells him to freeze.

In parting, Bill asks for Johnny to say hello to all the pretty people at the Grammy’s…

Knowing full well he’s angered Johnny, Bill returns to the car and asks Ralph to drive. Johnny and Mike follow in a truck that has the Hit Car in it. Once again, the conversation between Ralph and Bill is a bit one sided with Ralph prattling on about how they need to communicate better if this partnership is going to work. All Bill is concerned with is that Johnny is following them.

They arrive at the school, which Bill figures will work good for his scenario – the place is supposed to be empty. Only it’s not. Ralph has a dress rehearsal scheduled which sends Bill into code red mode and he tells everyone to get down just as Johnny opens fire through the doorway from the Hit Car.

The shootout underway, Bill faces down the Hit Car (and runs from it) while Ralph struggles with the change of outfits. Finally, Ralph gets his act together and flies in under the Hit Car. He tips the Hit Car on its side effectively trapping Johnny and Mike.

Upon seeing Ralph, Johnny realizes his hit guys weren’t kidding when they said a “supah guy” broke up the hit. Bill gives Johnny the same advice he gave the hit men: You didn’t see any of this. It didn’t happen. Johnny has no problem with that.

For all his bluster about Ralph’s students and sometimes Ralph, Bill shows up at the opening night of the kids play. He tells Ralph that he wasn’t there as any show of support, however. He just likes Shakespeare….

…and to listen to the baseball game on his transistor radio.

Great interactions between the characters (and conflict), great plot twist and nice use of a 1966 Dodge Charger (I’m a car nut). The scene where Bill dumps the pasta on Johnny’s lap is classic. In fact, I loved this episode so much I played around with the footage and created a couple of “trailers” for the ep (kinda like a movie trailer). Here’s one of them…

The Greatest American Hero – Season One is available at Amazon.com, either as a download or you can purchase the DVD set.  You can also download the Hit Car episode itself through Amazon for about the price of a cup of coffee!


I Spy: A Cup of Kindness

Originally aired: September 22, 1965

No sooner had I been introduced to Robert Culp through the Columbo: Death Lends a Hand episode, I set out to find anything and everything I could of his work and material. Roaming through YouTube one day I discovered there were a couple of episodes of I Spy that had been posted (this was before the more official posting of the episodes that now run in their entirety and are uncut on both YouTube and formerly on Hulu). The first episode I found was this one, “A Cup of Kindness.”

We all know the expression, “You had me at hello?” Yeah, that’s pretty much what happened here. I loved this episode at first viewing and thoroughly enjoyed viewing it again when I went back to do my caps for this post. I won’t say how many total screen caps I ended up doing because…um…well, it was a lot.

But suffice it to say, not long after viewing this episode (along with the very first episode of I Spy, “So Long Patrick Henry” also posted at YouTube at the time) I bought all three seasons of I Spy. In one shot. Wham, bam, thank ya sir.

So here we go, the episode that introduced me to Kelly Robinson, Alexander Scott, tennis, Hong Kong and ascot ties!

Kelly and Scotty return to their hotel room only to realize from the shadow showing in the door vent that somebody is sneaking around within. They dismiss their busboy and, always being prepared, remove weapons from their sports bags. They then enter the room, which appears to be empty. They both notice two feet showing from behind the floor length curtain by the window. They get the drop, only to find it’s just a pair of shoes. They immediately turn to the closet next to them but their visitor is actually across the room, watching them from behind a book shelf. He announces himself, with gun drawn.

The intruder turns out, is not really an intruder at all. His name is Russ Conley and he’s Kelly’s former instructor from spy school. The intrusion turns to a nice reunion and Kelly introduces Scotty to Russ. Russ, turns out, did have a reason for seeing the boys, as he had a message to deliver to them from “the department.”

He gives the envelope to Kelly who goes to check it out. The message is in code, so Kelly retrieves their codex (hidden with the number six of their room number on the door) and deciphers the message. The decoded message is short and grim. The man delivering the message, Russ, was a double agent and had to be killed. Kelly is clearly shocked by the news of his old teacher and the assignment that’s now been placed within his and Scotty’s hands.

Kelly shoves aside his feelings about the assignment and maintains a cool detachment as he rejoins Russ and Scotty for a drink. Kelly hands the decoded message to Scotty, folded and says nothing to Russ, other than confirming that it’s a new assignment. While Scotty reads the message, Kelly pours a beer for Russ and toasts him. Kelly then proceeds to tip Russ’s glass too far, spilling some beer on him. The tactic serves one obvious purpose – to get Russ out of the room for a few moments while Kelly and Scotty absorb their new assignment. Then I got to thinking about it, the gesture also serves another purpose, a way for Kelly to say “Damn you!” without having to speak it.

Considering the warm and friendly introduction Scotty had witnessed just a few minutes earlier, he asks Kelly the blunt and obvious question. What are you going to do? Kelly’s reply is equally as blunt. Kill him.

Without letting on that their assignment had to do with him, Kelly and Scotty go about showing Russ the sights of Hong Kong. They go up to Victoria Peak (the bluff that overlooks Hong Kong and the harbor) and have a somewhat coded conversation about becoming corrupt. By the end of it, it becomes clear. Russ knows of what was in the coded message and that he’s been branded a traitor by the government. As he and Kelly stand near the edge of the bluff, Russ asks if Kelly’s going to push him off. Kelly is unable to do the task.

They ride on the ferry and talk. Russ tells his story of what happened, how he’d been captured and tortured. He couldn’t bring himself to swallow the cyanide tablet. Whether or not Kelly and Scotty are sympathetic it’s hard to tell. Maybe Russ wasn’t a double agent, but he had still sold out to the other side and there’s a slight issue with trust at this point. Russ pleads, however, for their help to prove that he wasn’t a double agent. He had a non-functioning duplicate of the component he had traded his life for. He knew where the real one was located. All they had to do was switch the real component for the fake one.

Russ knows where the component is located and offers to show them. Walking through a crowded market area, Russ gives Kelly and Scotty the slip. They find him in short order and he explains that he was only showing that he could’ve walked away and disappeared if he wanted to, if he were truly guilty. Kelly and Scotty don’t seem to be any more assured by this demonstration. Russ then shows them where the component is located, an import/export business. There’s still some skepticism from Kelly and Scotty, about how Russ could even know where this small device is located. He insists, however, that it’s there.

They decide to try to prove it and Kelly sets up a beautiful little shuck and jive. He goes in with a box of firecrackers and a couple of his tennis rackets. He immediately turns on the charm to the girl working behind the counter, even interrupting her with another customer. When she basically tells him to heel, he bides his time, lighting a cigarette. (Note that more than one cigarette is already coming out of the pack when Culp goes to tap it on his finger. Whether that was intentional or a slight goof, Culp grins a little but carries on flawlessly.)

When the clerk finishes with her customer and turns her attention to Kelly, he’s all charm. His request is very simple. He wants to ship out a package of firecrackers and his tennis rackets. The girl attempts to explain to him that theirs is not that type of business and that he would need to go elsewhere. Kelly refuses to accept that and asks to see the manager. The manager/owner basically tells Kelly the same thing. As they’re talking though, Kelly has strategically placed his lit cigarette near the exposed fuse of the box of firecrackers. When it goes off, chaos ensues and gives Kelly enough time to watch the manager dash to the back office and check the safe.

Before the firecrackers die down and the manager returns to the front office, Kelly dashes back and jumps behind a display. He feigns surprise for what happened and attempts to apologize. The manager wants to hear nothing of it and he removes Kelly, bodily, from the office.

Outside, Kelly reports to Russ and Scotty. It’s there. All they have to do now is make the switch. Back at the hotel, they make their plan but afterward, Kelly still seems bothered by something.

The next day, they set up. Scotty and Russ will break in from the alley while Kelly pulls another diversion again using the same firecracker trick. The clerk behind the counter is less than enthusiastic to see Kelly again.

In fact, she’s essentially non-responsive to any of his charming antics. Kelly, naturally, picks up on her offense and apologizes for his foolishness from the day before. As he’s talking to her, however, the lit cigarette is once again strategically placed near the exposed fuse of the firecrackers.

When the firecrackers suddenly start popping, it starts the clock ticking. Scotty and Russ blow the metal covering off the back window of the office and proceed to cut the gate while Kelly carries on with his ruse out in the front office, which turns into a free-for-all once the firecrackers die down. The manager gets a little rough with Kelly, Kelly gets rough back (although his karate chop attempt against the manager hurts himself more than it does the big manager) and Kelly ends up in a battle royal with all the exporter dudes henchmen (before which he’s plunked on the counter like a rag doll and sent flying down the length of it!)

And I mean battle royal! Every possible fight technique you can think of is utilized in this sequence and it’s one of my favorite fight scenes with Culp. He’s not only throwing punches, he’s jumping on the counters, scaling walls, swinging from the overhead pipes, giving a boot to the head here n’ there, coming down to the floor long enough to stuff one guy into a desk and then swinging on a hanging overhead lamp. Oh, and the hammer toss! I can’t forget the hammer toss!

Despite Kelly’s gallant efforts, he still gets beat by the bad guys and Scotty and Russ are caught too. The exporter manager tosses everyone in a supply room. No problem, Kelly figures. After all, Russ was the expert on this stuff, being in locked rooms and all. So Kelly asks, “what do we do, Teach?”

Russ, unfortunately, doesn’t have much of an answer, which doesn’t sit well with Scotty. He starts to go around the supply room, trying to find something that might give them an advantage to bust out of the place. Meantime, the exporter manager returns and gives them 15 minutes to decide if they’re going to tell him who they are and what they’re up to. And with 15 minutes until their fate, Scotty wasn’t interested in having to wait for a spark of genius to come from Russ. He starts to gather some stuff together with Kelly helping, although Kelly has no idea what his partner is up to. One thing Scotty needs is for one of the crates of codfish to be opened. Kelly tries to pry it open bare handed, but can’t do it. Scotty asks Russ for the component to use to pry open the crate. Russ hesitates, out of fear of damaging the component, but is overruled by Kelly and Scotty. He hands it over and they pry the box open.

Kelly watches as Scotty puts the ingredients together in an old shoe box; chemical fertilizer, dry ice and a flammable liquid. Scotty explains that the concoction won’t blow the door off the place but would create enough smoke and chaos to give them the upper hand. The only thing left needed was a fuse, and the only thing they had was cigarettes. After determining how far a cigarette burns in five minutes, Scotty clipped another cigarette to the same length and lit it. He set it in the box and everyone took cover within the room. They had just about five minutes until their hosts returned.

No sooner do the bad guys open the door when Scotty’s homemade bomb goes off. Chaos erupts and the boys have a momentary advantage over the bad guys. There’s a fight and gunfire and a close call for Kelly who’s nearly shot by one of the bad guys. Russ saves Kelly and they make their escape. The three jump into a cab and it’s here that Kelly and Scotty find their suspicions confirmed. Russ points a gun at them while instructing the driver to go to Victoria Peak.

At Victoria Peak, the truth about Russ comes to light. He has, in fact, gone corrupt. With the component back with him, he can now sell it to an even higher bidder. The only thing left was to dispose of Kelly and Scotty. Kelly belittles Russ for setting it up to shoot them in the back.

Scotty, however, isn’t going to stand and take a bullet in the back and he turns suddenly and charges at Russ. Russ shoots, hitting Scotty in the leg as Kelly also charges at Russ and there’s a struggle and scuffle. Kelly knocks the gun from Russ’s hand and during the course of the struggle, Kelly drops down to the ground on his back, pulling Russ with him. He flips him over and sends him tumbling off the edge of the cliff.

Although this had been the mission all along, Kelly is horrified. After all, Russ had been his teacher and somebody he had respected at one time. The deed done all the same, Kelly picks up the component (Russ had made Scotty put it down on the ground earlier) and turns his attention to his wounded partner. Kelly apologizes for what’s happened but Scotty shakes it off. Kelly didn’t have to apologize for anything.

With their assignment complete and Scotty on the mend, Kelly’s kinda bummed by what happened with Russ. But not for too long. The girl who worked as a clerk at the import/export place comes knocking on the boys’ hotel room door. Kelly’s surprised to see her.  She carries with her a box of firecrackers, like what Kelly used with his ruses. She tells the boys that she was cleared of any wrongdoing, since she had been working at the place for only a few days and had no idea what was going on. She then lights the fuse on the box of firecrackers, sending Kelly and Scotty both diving under their beds.

But the box doesn’t go off….at first. She was told it wouldn’t but had wanted to see how they would react. Then all of a sudden, it does go off and she winds up under the bed with Kelly.

Yeah… Yeah, I would have too.






The first season DVD for “I Spy” is available at Amazon.com.

Columbo: The Most Crucial Game

Originally aired: November 5, 1972

Two things to note here…

1. The moustache. It was real and it threw me for a loop. He looked so different with it! Outside of a game show appearance from the same year and a photo of Culp from a documentary on race relations from around the same time period (’71?), I was used to seeing Culp pretty much sans facial hair. (The Grizzly Adams beard in Hannie Caulder is a different story).

2. The Los Angeles Coliseum. If I’ve got the timeline right in my mind, about the time Culp filmed his first appearance on Columbo in 1971, he either just completed or was just about to start on filming for Hickey & Boggs. By the time this episode aired in November of 1972, Hickey & Boggs had been out in the theatres for about a month. So you could watch Culp on the big screen running around the Coliseum and then come home and watch him in the same place on the small screen!

Culp plays Paul Hanlon, general manager for a pro football team owned by Eric Wagner. Eric inherited the sports empire from his father but would rather spend his days partying and playing. Paul, however, sees a better and brighter future for himself – if he can get Eric out of the way.

Paul arrives at the Coliseum and makes his way up to the owners box. He dismisses the busboy for the afternoon, explaining that it would only be him in the box and no guests. After the busboy leaves, Paul gets on the phone to Eric, rustling him out of bed (it’s already afternoon) and telling him to do some laps in the pool and be ready to be picked up as soon as the game was over. They had a flight to catch to Montreal for a business meeting regarding the purchase of another sports team.

Eric grudgingly says he’ll be ready but honestly couldn’t care less about buying another sports team. As soon as Paul is off the phone with Eric he phones down to the team locker room and talks to the head coach giving him a hard time about the team’s performance and what plays to do (and the game hasn’t even started yet). While doing this, Paul puts the phone on speaker phone and carries on the conversation while beginning to change his clothes.

Yeah, we’re not five minutes into this thing and Culp’s taking his shirt off.

What he changes into is the uniform of a concession man. Complete with paper hat and popcorn box. (I couldn’t help but laugh when he grins at his reflection after he puts the hat on.) The get up allows him to leave the stadium unnoticed.

With a commandeered “Ding-a-Ling” ice cream truck, Paul drives out to Eric’s house. He carries a transistor radio with him to keep tabs on the game. Just before getting to Eric’s house, he stops at a payphone and calls Eric to make sure he was out of bed and in the pool, as requested earlier.

At first, Paul can’t get through because Eric is on the phone ordering food or booze or something. Paul waits a minute or so and then dials again. Eric answers and is right where Paul wants him to be.

Paul gets back in the ice cream truck and drives away from the payphone…just as a little girl is calling after him for ice cream down the road. He arrives at Eric’s house and selects his weapon of choice from the back of the ice cream truck, a big chunk of ice. (No, no Death By Drumstrick). Chunk of ice in hand, Paul sneaks onto the property and does his dastardly deed, killing Eric at the pool.

Before he leaves, however, Paul has to cover his tracks. Literally. His wet shoes leave footprints behind on the deck, so he removes his shoes and hoses down the deck.

Then he’s back in the ice cream truck, racing down the highway back to the football game. Ah but he takes a moment to have fudgesicle on the way. And if I’m sounding smarmy by this point it’s because I couldn’t take any of the rest of this episode seriously. The changing of shirts, his grinning after putting the hat on and then the fudgesicle. The fudgesicle did me in.

Back at the stadium, Paul returns by the halftime – in time to meet with the head coach (and thus further substantiate his alibi). Paul smoothes over whatever issues he had at the start of the game and tells the coach that he’s doing a fine job. As he says, he has bigger fish to fry now…

When Lieutenant Columbo arrives at Eric’s house he suspects a little too quickly that Mr. Wagner’s death was no accident. When Columbo goes to the stadium to report of Eric’s death to Paul, Paul reacts appropriately enough.

And the most crucial game begins as Columbo investigates and spends the rest of the episode dogging Paul Hanlon. The scenes between Falk and Culp are worth watching the episode for because Columbo really just annoys the hell out of Paul. He shows up at Eric’s house to ask questions and poke around.

He follows Paul to the airport, which irritates Paul to no end. And Paul can’t shake the Lieutenant loose for the life of him until Mrs. Wagner’s plane arrives.

Yes, Mrs. Wagner. Eric had a wife. And Mr. Hanlon had his sights set on more than just Eric’s fortune. Columbo casually remarks how she’ll inherit everything now and continues his pestering of Paul until she arrives.

Columbo, respectfully, leaves Mrs. Wagner alone. He remains zeroed in on Paul Hanlon, showing up at a media event for the basketball team and informing him that his office phone and the phone at the Wagner house had been bugged, turns out, by the family lawyer. Columbo has everyone (including Mrs. Wagner) gather at the house to listen to some choice cuts of phone conversations, particularly Paul’s phone calls to Eric just before Eric was killed.

The recorded phone conversations seem to further reinforce Paul’s alibi, but Columbo’s bothered by something with the calls. Eventually, he does figure it out. There’s one minor innocent sound that’s missing from Paul’s phone calls to Eric and when Columbo shows up at the stadium on another day he casually blows Paul’s alibi all to pieces.

My favorite exchange of dialogue in this scene is Paul – thoroughly annoyed with Lt. Columbo – says, “Columbo, I’m going toss you out of here on your ear!” to which Columbo calmly replies, “I wouldn’t do that sir. Because then you’re gonna miss the best part…”

Compared to the first Columbo episode, this one wasn’t as good. The performances were all great and the episode has its moments, but the storyline itself was lacking somewhat.  I didn’t really full grasp Hanlon’s motive for murder and didn’t pick up on much malice forethought on the first viewing of the episode. The second viewing, when I capped it, I at least picked up on the motive but still found it vague.

Would I watch it again? It’s Culp, of course I would!

“The Most Crucial Game” is available on the second season Columbo DVD set available at Amazon.com.