‘It’s BURKE’S LAW!’
An overview by Mike Burrows
for Radio Telly Scope Magazine,
Programme Preservation Society of England
Hollywood glamour, big name guest stars, slick patter and a murder every week - it’s Burke’s Law!
Once the sultry and sensuous feminine tones had announced the title and the laid back glitzy theme played along to the scene of a speeding Rolls Royce, you were in no doubt that this show had it’s tongue firmly in it’s cheek. Almost every week Captain of Homicide, Amos Burke (played by Gene Barry) would have to leave some gorgeous fawning female, or an exclusive Hollywood party, to be driven in his Silver Cloud II to the murder scene. Why a Rolls Royce? Because he was a millionaire! Why a cop? Because that’s what he did best!
Burke’s Law was a typical formula show. Each episode had the title ‘Who Killed...?’ followed by the victims name. The teaser revealed the murder, but not the murderer - that was up to Captain Burke. With a blend of comedy and drama, he would sift through an assortment of star-studded eccentrics. Each suspect was individually questioned by Burke and his fellow detectives, Rookie Tim Tilson (played by Gary Conway) and grizzled veteran Sergeant Lester Hart (played by Regis Toomey), until the guilty party was identified. And in case you hadn’t guessed, the privilege of revealing the guilty party was solely the Captain’s.
Much of the success of Burke’s Law, could be laid at the highly polished shoes of Gene Barry. Barry was no stranger to television. It had brought him fame and fortune during the late 50’s and early 60’s when he played famous western dandy, Bat Masterson, in the long running series of the same name. In 1961, the grueling work schedule and pressures associated with making a hit TV series took its toll, and he decided to quit. He announced that he’d had enough of television and vowed never to make another series. He took a successful song-and-dance nightclub act around America and stayed away from the TV factories for two-and-a-half years. Then the script for Burke’s Law crossed his desk.
The character of Amos Burke first appeared in ‘Who Killed Julie Greer?’, an episode from The Dick Powell Show, an anthology series produced between 1961-63 by Four Star Television. Written by Frank D Gilroy, it starred Dick Powell as Inspector Amos Burke, a millionaire police detective investigating the murder of Julie Greer (played by Carolyn Jones). Powell was a popular and accomplished veteran actor with over 60 movies to his credit. However, in comparison with Gene Barry, Dick Powell wasn’t really the right choice to play the millionaire policeman. His performance, competent though it was, seemed to lack the sophistication one would associate with a character both idly rich and, by contrast, utterly determined. He strutted his way through the show, confidently rattling off the dialogue like a hoodlum’s machine gun. His portrayal was a combination of private-eye type and slick American game show host rather than a debonair detective. One scene involved a blind women taking part in an identity parade! Powell guided her through the procedure with such a silky smoothness that you felt the urge to shout at the screen ‘ It’s the one in the middle!’
Sadly, Dick Powell became seriously ill following the play’s debut, and died on January 2nd, 1963.
Gene Barry’s portrayal as Captain Amos Burke was perfect. He moved with style and elegance. His dulcet tones were relaxed and convincing. The opening episode, ‘ Who Killed Holly Howard?’, quickly established Barry as Los Angeles’ premier detective. The story began with a woman found dead on a construction site. Burke, fresh from an all night party was quickly on the scene. There to meet him were Les Hart and Tim Tilson. Ardent Tim had already covered the preliminaries, as he tended to do in every episode (Apart from one - ‘Who Killed Beau Sparrow?’ - in which Amos, being first on the scene, rattled off the known facts to Tim who’d arrived in the Rolls. This show was not above sending itself up).
Again from the ‘Holly Howard’ episode, a suspect’s alibi was compromised thanks to Tim’s incredible knowledge of the mating habits of the Collimar Warbler, which astounded even Amos Burke. But you soon began to realize that center stage was always reserved for your ol’ Captain, and sooner or later, as they did in most episodes, Tim or Les would obligingly ignore the glaringly obvious - In Holly Howard’s case, undeveloped film still in the camera! - and the omission, duly discovered by detective Burke, fills in the missing pieces of the puzzle, which leads to the murderer!
Although, it must be said that sticking to this rigid formula meant that the show had little or no character development. (Not necessarily a bad thing - consider Columbo or Mission Impossible) and the disadvantage of an inflexible lead character meant the writers had the difficult task of coming up with something fresh every week. The opening interplay between Burke and Tilson was always worth watching:
This scene from “Who Killed Mr. X?” takes place as Burke approaches the victims body.
Tim: “Captain, we didn’t find any identification on him, but it looks like a 38 hole in his back.”
Burke: “Did you...?”
Tim: “We took prints and they’re on their way to Washington.”
Burke: “Were there any...?”
Tim: “No trespassers in the vicinity, just a man walking his dog and we’ve taken his name.”
Burke: “I suppose you got the dog’s name too.”
Tim: “Yes sir, Prince!”
Captain Burke still had the last word-
Les: “They don’t leave clues like they used to!”
Burke: “What did you do for bloodstains?”
Burke: “Yeah, bloodstains. When a man’s shot in the back he usually bleeds. There are no bloodstains around the body. Could be he was shot elsewhere and brought here.”
Les: “ Something tells me we should have noticed that!”
Burke: “That’s alright, Les, only Captains are perfect! I’ll see you back at the office.”
Incredulous dialogue, but never let the practicality of real life interfere with a willing suspension of disbelief - Burke’s Law!
The show featured ‘Burke’s Lawisms’, one-line witticisms called a Burke’s Law. Most paraphrased existing proverbs - ‘Too many crooks spoil the stew!’ or ‘ ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a relative!’- Some sounded like they came out of a fortune cookie or a Christmas cracker - ‘Money can’t buy love, but it can put you in a good bargaining position!’ or ‘ ‘When you hit a brick wall, sleep on it!’. Others just didn’t make any sense at all -’if you don’t find what you’re looking for in deep water, look in the flower garden!’ or ‘ When it comes to murder, the only sure thing is that there are no sure things!’
High profile Hollywood guest stars were also a signature of the show - several appearing in cameo. In ‘Who Killed Alex Debbs?’, Sammy Davis, Jr. appeared as Cordwainer Bird, (a pseudonym of Harlan Ellison who wrote the script) a character wanted for questioning. Sammy arrived at the police station, and proceeded to dance all over Burke’s desk, only to be taken away and never seen again.
Another example was David Niven who appeared for only a moment in ‘Who Killed Billy Jo?’ as The World’s Greatest Juggler! (Other notable guest stars included Gene Barry’s wife, Betty, to whom he is still very happily married. She appeared in ‘Who Killed The Eleventh Best Dressed Woman In The World?’, and Gene’s son, Fred, who appeared in ‘Who Killed Mr. X?’ & ‘Who Killed Eleanora Davis?’)
Apart from Gene Barry, the other regulars all helped to keep Burke’s Law:
Gary Conway was a very popular actor, especially amongst the female fans. He was a relative newcomer to Hollywood when he got the part of Tim Tilson. He had appeared in such films as ‘I Was A Teenage Frankenstein’ (1957) and ‘How To Make A Monster’ (1958). In 1962, he played a character called Tyler Duane in ‘Young Guns of Texas’, and Burke’s Law soon followed. Conway went on to star as Steve Burton in Irwin Allens’ Land of the Giants. Since then, Conway has become a successful writer, producer and director, and amongst his latest projects is a proposed Land of the Giants TV reunion.
Leon Lontoc played Henry, Amos Burke’s oriental chauffeur and valet. Looking after the Police Captain’s luxurious mansion was second nature to Henry, unlike his sense of style. In one episode, he’s seen wearing a garish bathrobe. Employer and style guru, Burke could take no more; “Take it back and kill the guy who sold it to you - don’t worry, I’ll get you off!” Burke remarked before embarking on another case. Sadly Mr. Lontoc died in 1974.
Regis Toomey played Sergeant Lester Hart. He was the seasoned cop, looking forward to retirement. He always seemed to have an avuncular attitude towards Burke, and occasionally betrayed a distinct admiration for the Captain. The impression I got was that he and Amos went back a long way. Regis Toomey died in 1991.
Eileen O’Neil played Sergeant Ames, a fairly underused character in my opinion. She seemed to be just around to look attractive and take notes. Eileen O’Neil, the actress seemed to work quite regularly on America TV during the sixties. Apart from Burke’s Law, she appeared in episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies, Batman, Get Smart, The Munsters, I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched. She also appeared in several films; ‘A Man Called Dagger’ (1967) & ‘Cindy’ (1970).
Burke’s Law did last for two full seasons in its original format. It even spawned a totally separate spin off series. (As featured in Burke’s Law - ‘Who Killed the Jackpot?’ - this episode introduced Anne Francis and John Ericson in their Honey West roles. The episode also featured Steve Forrest, who was to become ATV’s The Baron)
In 1964, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association honored Gene Barry with a Golden Globe Award for best male television star, and Burke's Law for best television show.
In 1965 after Burke’s Law had notched up a respectable 64 episodes, the producers decided on a change in the format. James Bond was a big success, and TV spies were the new craze. Amos Burke was about to enter the world of espionage
Leaving behind the Los Angeles police department, Burke became an international agent for the American government. His contact was the Man! (played by Carl Benton Reid). The first episode ‘Balance of Terror’ had Burke foiling a plot to smuggle Red Chinese gold into Latin America.
Amos Burke: Secret Agent was to have all the fancy gadgets and gimmicks that 007 and the men from U.N.C.L.E had found so useful. The title sequence endorsed this, as it showed Burke stepping from the shadows into a bright spotlight. He lights a cigarette and he then shoots some off-screen victim with a bullet from the cigarette case!
Amos Burke: Secret Agent was by all accounts as suave and sophisticated as it’s predecessor, but like Burke’s Law, it was filmed in glorious black & white! In America it aired against new spy show ‘I-Spy’ which was filmed in glorious color. Amos Burke: Secret Agent lasted just 17 episodes before poor ratings led to its cancellation.
Gene Barry continued in television, starring as magazine publisher, Glenn Howard in The Name of the Game (1968 -71), and then as Gene Bradley, a film star moonlighting as a spy in The Adventurer (1972 -73). Various guest appearances followed in The Love Boat, Charlie’s Angels and Fantasy Island.
In 1982, during a lull in his television career, Gene returned to the stage, appearing with his wife, Betty in ‘Watergate: A Musical’.
In 1983, Gene played the homosexual lover of a drag queen in the hit Broadway musical, ‘La Cage aux folles’, a role, which was a far cry from the likes of Amos Burke or Gene Bradley. Very much a family man, Gene was at first a little hesitant at playing a part so diverse from his other roles. His wife, Betty urged him to go for it, as did his sons and daughter. (Contrary to Hollywood standards, the Barry family is one of the precious few that have escaped even a fragment of gossip, and the marriage of over 50 years has been a testament to what a family is all about.)
Then in 1994, 28 years after the original, Gene Barry starred in a new series of Burke’s Law. The show had a new theme, but retained that breathy female voice announcing the title. The Rolls Royce Silver Cloud II returned also, this time in a classy gold and black as opposed to silver. Henry was still the chauffeur (this time played by the late Danny Kamekona), and still laying down the law was a more mature Amos Burke.
Between the intervening years, Burke had obviously ceased to be a secret agent and had returned to the LAPD. No longer a Captain, he was now referred to as Chief Burke. He has been married to Sarah, had a son and been widowed for the passed 11 years.
His son, Peter (played by Peter Barton) had followed in dad’s footsteps and become a detective in Homicide. The new Burke’s Law also had a resident forensic expert, Lily Morgan (played by Bever-Leigh Banfield). The new team was complete apart from one exception - Dom DeLuise played Vinnie Piatte, an Italian-American caterer, who found himself involved in most of the ‘gigillionaire’ detective’s cases!
The whole show came across as a well-crafted package, if a little lightweight. The original producer, Aaron Spelling, famous for his glossy soaps, looked to recreate the new series using all the old ingredients. (As a point of interest, Gene Barry had turned down the role of Blake Carrington, in Spelling’s Dynasty)
Gene Barry, at the age of 75, was still as smooth as silk, but could never resist playing for laughs and sending himself up. One scene in the first episode - ‘Who Killed The Starlet?’ - had Chief Burke dancing in a rock video! The daft dialogue was still there too.
Taken from ‘ Who Killed Romeo?’ A note is found in the victim’s apartment:
Murder note: “I’ve decided the only way to kill you is to put your head a vice, shave your mangy mane and drill tiny holes through your skull!”
Chief Burke: “Peter, we are looking for someone with a lot of unresolved anger - and access to power tools!”
It still boasted the high profile guest stars, being called the ‘Love Boat’ of the nineties. Jennifer Anniston, Morgan Fairchild, James Brolin all appeared. Eva Gabor, who had been seen in the original series, turned up in ‘Who Killed Romeo?’, and Anne Francis, who played Honey West in the spin off series turned up at a private eyes’ convention, in ‘Who Killed Nick Hazard’, as Honey Best!
Some episodes were penned by writers from the original series - ‘Who Killed Alexander the Great’ was co-written by Richard Levinson and William Link (original series writers of’ ‘Who Killed Mother Goose?’). This tale had all the twists and turns of the original stories. This story ended with a moving scene showing Amos and son, Peter, visiting Sarah Burke’s grave.
One episode, ‘Who Killed The Host At The Roast?’ was even written by Gene Barry and real son, Michael.
As with any remake, new characters were introduced to play alongside the old favorites. Henry, the chauffeur, had pretty much become one of the Burke family, fussing over Peter like a mother hen. The character was also less obsequious, and wickedly relished in the perks of the job. In one episode he appeared in a daytime soap (‘Who Killed The Soap Star?’- “Hey everybody, come and watch me on TV!”), and in another, he enjoyed all the benefits of a luxury hotel (‘Who Killed Good Time Charlie?’ - “Am I paying you today, Henry, or is this your day off?”).
Peter Burke just seemed to live life to the full. When he wasn’t apprehending murderers, he was driving round in his ‘funky’ black jeep playing loud rock music, or reminiscing about past lovers. He lived rent free in a spacious outbuilding by the side of dotting dad’s spacious mansion. A surfboard was always propped up in the corner, reminding viewers of his many days spent on the beach. While interviewing witnesses, he would routinely bungee jump from a bridge, or when chasing a suspect, thinks nothing of diving into a hotel pool from several stories up. The big problem was this character was too perfect and lacked any balancing attributes. He might have had more appeal if he failed once in a while - but he never did. Comparing Peter to Tim Tilson, you soon realize that young Tim, although keen and impulsive, did make mistakes and would probably have learned from them. In Peter’s case, he was so sure of himself that he didn’t even have a chip on his shoulder about walking in dad’s shadow - which is a pity. That might have given some depth to the character, along with some badly needed appeal.
Lily Morgan, the forensic expert, often betrayed the odd flutter with her eyelashes when talking to perfect Pete, but I could never see upwardly mobile number one son falling for a girl with brains. And Lily certainly had plenty of gray matter. While Chief Burke tried to solve the case by interviewing all the suspects over 60, and Peter concentrated on the ‘bimbo’s’, Lily would have the murderer banged to rights with a bit of fluff, or soil from the rose garden.
Finally we come to Vinnie Piatte. Why does a who-dun-it? show need the regular presence of an over the top Italian-American caterer? Apart from superfluous comic relief, I’ve really no idea! Vinnie was like that maiden aunt who always called at inconvenient times and insisted on staying for week. When he wasn’t serving the main course at the scene of the crime, or providing candid gossip on some poor innocent suspect, he was trying to include Burke in some business deal involving seafood or pasta!
Sadly, the show just didn’t catch on, even with the dubious presence of Vinnie. As with a lot of series, haphazard television scheduling had a lot to do with its premature demise, but ultimately a lot of its success was riding on soap star, Peter Barton, who apart from good looks, didn’t really have much more to offer. Female fans of his previous series The Young and the Restless might have found him appealing, but fans of the original Burke’s Law would have just seen him as a ‘Ken’ doll.
The new Burke’s Law might not have had the same success as the original, but it was a good try. Twenty-seven episodes covering two seasons is better that some series. But sometimes it takes more than the right script, the right characters or even the right schedule - sometimes it takes the right moment, and it may just be that like so many revisited series, for Burke’s Law at least, that moment has passed.
Or has it?
Where was it I read that someone’s thinking of doing a Burke’s Law TV Movie?
“When it comes to TV, the only sure thing is that there are no sure things”
* * * * *
Reprint permission granted by Mike Burrows
with thanks to the Gene Barry Fan Page