Gene Barry happily abides by `Burke's Law'

(USA TODAY, 1994)

LOS ANGELES - You'd think that at age 74, Gene Barry would be enjoying the good life with wife Betty at their Palm Springs condo.

But producer Aaron Spelling changed that when he asked Barry to return to series TV as suave, sophisticated, millionaire chief of homicide Amos Burke on Burke's Law. The original series ran on ABC from 1963-66.

Stars try to return to their former glory every season, and most of them fail. Barry is the exception - the new Burke's Law, which premiered Jan. 7, is a solid hit for CBS, averaging the best ratings the network has seen Fridays at 9 p.m. ET/PT since the days of Dallas. Season to date, Burke's ranks No. 37; it's already been renewed for next season.

Now Barry is on the set every morning at 7 a.m., acting through the evening. In off hours, he works with son Michael on scripts. They wrote the "Who Killed the Host at the Roast?" episode of Burke's Law that aired a few weeks ago with Milton Berle, Eva Gabor and Gavin MacLeod; they're penning a new one about the murder of a famous chef.

Unlike many popular series, Burke's Law didn't stay alive in reruns. Because it was filmed in black and white, few stations were interested. So how does Barry account for the immediate success of the new version?

"I know this will sound immodest," he says. "But viewers missed me and have been waiting for me. I haven't been on TV much for the last 20 years, but that was my fault. I just never found parts that I really liked."

Barry worked in films during Hollywood's glory years (he co-starred with Clark Gable in Soldier of Fortune) and gained fame in 1958 as the star of Bat Masterson, the lawman who wore a derby and carried a gold-tipped cane.

After Burke's Law and The Name of the Game (NBC, 1968-71), Barry took a 180-degree turn in the 1980s when he starred on Broadway as Georges, the nightclub owner, in La Cage aux Folles.

He feels a special affinity for Amos Burke. "As someone who grew up in the Depression, he leads the kind of life I fantasized about. Who wouldn't want to be Amos Burke when they grew up?"

The set for Burke's police office is situated in a Los Angeles warehouse, but most of the show is filmed on the run, at different L.A. locations. Barry spends his days in a lot of different mansions, but today the scene's being shot in the Atlas Bar and Grill, a historic art deco restaurant in downtown Los Angeles. As guest stars Kevin Dobson and Mary Frann rehearse, Barry takes a seat at one of the booths to chat.

He tells how color killed the original Burke's Law. For the third season, Spelling decided to switch gears, having Burke become an international secret agent. ABC loved the idea, telling Barry, "That's our Goldfinger! We've always wanted to do James Bond."

With the international setting, Spelling wanted to film in color, but ABC declined, saying the extra cost wouldn't pay off with bigger ratings. "Then you know what hit us?" says Barry, "NBC put I Spy on against us - in beautiful color - and they just creamed us."

Barry is confident this version of Burke's will live on in rerun land. "This time," he says, "I'm in living color!"

Copyright 1994, USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co., Inc.

Jefferson Graham, Gene Barry happily abides by `Burke's Law'., USA TODAY, 04-08-1994, pp 03.

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