For more than a decade, actor Ken Curtis played Festus Haggen, the loyal sidekick to Marshal Matt Dillion (star James Arness) on the long-running television series “Gunsmoke.”
Curtis fully inhabited the role of the perennially disheveled and unshaven Festus, a man with a unique hillbilly accent who could be curmudgeonly and comical at the same time.
Festus remains a memorable character in TV history today, nearly 50 years after the show ended, to the point that even people who aren’t fans of Westerns – like me – know Festus. The actor behind the character is a different story.
Like many character actors, Ken Curtis is one of those familiar faces whose names may not be well known, but whose presence is an integral part of the fabric of film and television.
Two years ago, I couldn’t have told you the name of the actor playing Festus. That changed after spending months of Sunday afternoons recently watching “Gunsmoke,” Westerns and John Wayne films in general with my dad.
The thin face of Curtis, nearly masked under a heavy layer of whiskers as Festus, was becoming familiar enough to notice in films like “The Searchers,” “The Wings of Eagles” and “Conagher,” leading to the question: “Hey dad, is that Festus?” (That’s a real quote – I said “Festus.”)
“It kinda looks like him, but doesn’t sound like him,” I naively said, believing Ken Curtis really talked with that heavy Southern accent. (He was born in Colorado.)
Sure enough, it was Curtis. Now I’m seeing his familiar face more often, even in unexpected places like the 1959 B-horror movie “The Killer Shrews.”
There was Curtis as Jerry, a cowardly researcher willing to sacrifice others to save himself from the giant man-eating killer shrews. As Jerry, Curtis was lean, good looking, clean shaven and spoke in a quiet, steady cadence, the opposite of Festus in almost every way.
Intrigued and wanting to know more, I discovered Ken Curtis had a full-bodied career that included appearances in more than 60 movies and television shows with a few surprises along the way. Not only did he act in “The Killer Shrews,” for example, it was one of two horror movies he produced. (The other is “The Giant Gila Monster.”) Add singer and songwriter to his talents as well.
From the beginning
Ken Curtis was born July 2, 1916 as Curtis Wain Gates in 1916 in Colorado. In an interesting twist of fate, he grew up living below a jail in Bent County, Colo. where his father served as sheriff from 1926 to 1931. His mom cooked for the prisoners, one of whom was a harmless guy named Cedar Jack who Curtis later credited for inspiring his vocal portrayal of Festus.
In high school he played football and clarinet. He served in the U.S. Army for two years during World War II and studied pre-med at Colorado College. By 1940, he moved to New York City to start his entertainment career – as a singer.
OK, get that nasally Festus voice out of your head – Curtis had a wonderful singing voice. It was smooth, easy on the ears and romantic. If you doubt that, watch “Rio Grande” and pay attention to the tall soldier singing lead on “I’ll Take You Home, Kathleen.” Yes, that is Curtis serenading John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara.
Curtis was with the Tommy Dorsey Band where he followed – are you sitting down? – Frank Sinatra for a short time until Dick Haymes officially took over for Old Blue Eyes. He became a singer and host of the country music program WWVA Jamboree and lead vocalist of the Sons of the Pioneers in 1949, a Western singing group who previously worked with Roy Rogers. With Curtis, the band had such hits as “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” and “Room Full of Roses.”
His passions for music and acting quickly merged in the movies. He was signed to a contract with Columbia Pictures to perform in a series of musical Westerns, even playing the romantic cowboy lead in such films as “That Texas Jamboree” (1946) where he sang the ballad “Prairie Serenade,” and “Cowboy Blues” (1946) that featured a particularly sweet rendition of “Little Cowgirl” that will melt your heart. Curtis also co-wrote both songs.
In “Call of the Forest” (1949) Curtis is a loving single father and rancher who still finds time for a calming little song. With the Sons of Pioneers, Curtis sang in films like “Everybody’s Dancin’” (1950) and “Fighting Coast Guard” (1951).
And yes, he did sing in “Gunsmoke” on a few occasions. It must have been a shock to audiences at the time to hear the Festus twang transformed into such a tender singing voice. In the video clip above, Curtis sings a song he wrote called “Six Shiny Black Horses.” That’s Slim Pickens on harmonica. You’ll see in the video that his plaintive rendition of the song even touches Marshal Dillon.
Curtis was perfect for films that needed a musical moment such as “The Quiet Man” (1952) where, as Dermot Fahy, he played accordion and spoke with a brogue. (Now that is something to hear.)
“The Quiet Man” was one of 11 films Curtis appeared in directed by the great John Ford including “Mr. Roberts” (1955), “The Searchers” (1956), “The Wings of Eagles” (1957), “The Horse Soldiers” (1959) and “Cheyenne Autumn” (1964). He was also Ford’s son-in-law, married to his daughter, Barbara from 1952 to 1964.
Among his film roles, Curtis played Captain Dickinson who quietly stands by the snobbish Colonel Travis (Laurence Harvey) in “The Alamo” (1960). Look for his comic timing during a “fight” scene with his on-screen brother (played by Harry Carey Jr.) for the affections of Shirley Jones in “Two Rode Together” (1961). It’s chilling to see his dark side as the murderous Joe in “Cheyenne Autumn” who likes to kill Indians for sport.
His television appearances also included episodes of “Wagon Train,” “Perry Mason,” “Death Valley Days,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “The Yellow Rose” and the made-for-TV movie “Conagher” (1991), his final role completed only months before his death.
Curtis and his second wife, Torrie, had retired to Clovis, Calif. (near Fresno) in 1980 where they were active within the community and with the Clovis Rodeo Association. The couple took part in the rodeo’s parade the day before Curtis died in his sleep from natural causes in 1991.
In 1992, his memory was honored with a life-sized statue of Curtis as Festus. With his cowboy hat, heavy beard and deputy badge, it stands today outside the Educational Employees Credit Union in Clovis. Though he was much more than Festus as an actor, it’s only fitting that this celebration of his life and career immortalizes his most famous and enduring character.
The annual month-long Halloween horror film celebration hosted by Turner Classic Movies has returned with a packed schedule from Karloff to Kong, mad scientists to Satanists, and plenty of films starring guys named Lee, Cushing and Price. Multiple days have themes including the poetic horror of Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton (Oct. 4), Hammer films (Oct. 21) and killer animals (Oct. 26).
Here is the schedule of horror films airing on TCM in October 2021 with descriptions.
Friday, Oct. 1
6 a.m.: “King Kong” (1933). The original beauty and beast story.
8 a.m. “The Most Dangerous Game” (1932). Joel McCrea, Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong are targeted by a big-game hunter who preys on humans. Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack.
9:15 a.m. “The Vampire Bat” (1933). A village is terrorized with thoughts of vampires when bodies show up drained of blood in this film with frequent co-stars Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill.
12:45 p.m. “White Zombie” (1932). Bela Lugosi is a witch doctor who menaces a newlywed in what is considered the first zombie film.
2 p.m. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1932). Fredric March won an Oscar for playing the dual roles in Rouben Mamoulian’s version of the Robert Louis Stevenson tale.
3:45 p.m. “Mystery of the Wax Museum” (1933). Michael Curtiz directs Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill in one of his three horror films.
5:15 p.m. “Doctor X” (1932). Curtiz-Wray-Atwill team up again in this story of murders at a medical college. Curtiz made the film compellingly tense, yet it has a comic flair thanks to Lee Tracy as the journalist on the case.
6:45 p.m. “Freaks” (1932). Tod Browning’s landmark 1932 film starring real people with disabilities resonates today with its statement about the idea of physical perfection.
Sunday Oct. 3
2:45 p.m. “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1945). Hurd Hatfield makes a deal with the devil to stay young. Co-starring George Sanders, Donna Reed and Angela Lansbury.
8 p.m. “The Birds” (1963). Birds attack for no apparent reason in this taut Alfred Hitchcock horror thriller starring Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor.
10:15 p.m. “Little Shop of Horrors” (1986). Musical remake of the film about a carnivorous plant named Audrey II. With Rick Moranis, Steve Martin.
Monday Oct. 4
8 a.m. “Bedlam” (1946). Boris Karloff commits Anna Lee when she tries to reform the asylum he rules over in this film produced and co-written by Val Lewton.
9:30 a.m. “The Body Snatcher” (1945). Karloff and Lugosi star in this early Robert Wise film about a doctor who buys corpses from a grave robber. Based on a short story by Robert Lewis Stevenson.
11 a.m. “Isle of the Dead” (1945). People are quarantined by a plague on a Greek Island where there also may be a vampiric demon.
12:30 p.m. “The Curse of the Cat People” (1944). This sequel finds the only child of Oliver and Alice from the original film in danger after befriending the ghost of Irena (Simone Simon), her father’s dead first wife.
2 p.m. “The Ghost Ship” (1943). Strange deaths follow a young sailor who joins a new ship. The fifth of Val Lewton’s films for RKO.
3:15 p.m. “I Walked with a Zombie” (1943). When zombie films were poetic – thanks to director Jacques Tourneur.
4:30 p.m. “The Seventh Victim” (1943). A student (Kim Hunter in her film debut) looks for her missing sister and stumbles upon Satanists in this intriguing horror mystery noir.
6 p.m. “Cat People” (1942). Simone Simon as the innocent newlywed haunted by a family curse in this gorgeous film by Jacques Tourneur.
Wednesday, Oct. 6
12:45 p.m. “Forbidden Planet” (1956). More sci-fi than horror, this adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” stars Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis and Leslie Nielsen.
2:30 p.m. “The Invisible Boy” (1957). Robby the Robot makes his second film appearance as he helps a 10-year-old try to save the world from a super computer.
4:15 p.m. “The Terminal Man” (1974). George Segal undergoes surgery to stop violent seizures – but the implanted microchips have an unexpected side effect. Based on the Michael Critchton novel.
6:15 p.m. “Deadly Friend” (1986). Another film about implanted microchips gone wrong, this time a lovestruck teen tries to bring his pretty neighbor back to life. Wes Craven directs.
Saturday, Oct. 9
4:45 a.m. “Schizoid” (1980). A woman must figure out who is killing fellow members of her therapy group.
6:15 a.m. “Dementia 13” (1963). A scheming widow trying to get the inheritance from her husband’s death is stalked by a killer in this first feature directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
11:30 p.m. “A Look at the World of ‘Soylent Green’ ” (1973). Short 10-minute documentary goes behind the scenes of sci-fi film.
Sunday, Oct. 10
10:15 p.m. “It’s Alive” (1974). Larry Cohen’s cult classic about a murderous infant. Yes, you read that right.
Thursday, Oct. 14
4:45 p.m. “Eyes Without a Face” (1959). Influential films about a brilliant doctor who sacrifices others to graft a new face onto his disfigured daughter.
6:30 p.m. “House of Wax” (1953). Vincent Price stars as a gifted sculptor whose hands were burned in a fire. Look for Charles Bronson as lab assistant Igor.
Friday, Oct. 15
6:15 p.m. “Carnival of Souls” (1962). A woman who survives a car crash is haunted by the dead.
Saturday, Oct. 16
6 a.m. “Ghosts Italian Style” (1969). For something lighter, watch Sophia Loren and Vittorio Gassman as husband-and-wife caretakers of a haunted castle in this ghostly farce.
Sunday, Oct. 17
8 p.m. “Poltergeist” (1982). A family terrorized by malevolent spirits who kidnap their daughter calls in paranormal experts. One of the best ghost stories on film.
10 p.m. “Burnt Offerings” (1976). Supernatural forces target a family that moves into a countryside mansion. Directed by Dan Curtis with Karen Black, Oliver Reed and Bette Davis.
Thursday, Oct. 21
7:45 a.m. “Dracula – Prince of Darkness” (1966). The second of seven times Christopher Lee played Dracula. This time he doesn’t speak and he’s without Peter Cushing but it’s still very much worth watching. Directed by Terence Fisher for Hammer.
9:30 a.m. “Frankenstein Created Woman” (1967). Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) puts the soul of a murdered man into the body of his lover who then seeks vengeance for his death.
11:15 a.m. “Dracula Has Risen from the Grave” (1969). Dracula may have died in “Dracula: Prince of Darkness,” but he’s accidentally brought back to life here. Directed by Freddie Francis.
1 p.m. “Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed” (1970). Baron Frankenstein (Cushing) blackmails a young couple into a kidnapping to help him perform a brain transplant.
2:45 p.m. “Taste the Blood of Dracula” (1970). Once again Dracula is accidentally resurrected. This time it’s by three businessmen who kill one of his followers and he’s not happy. Christopher Lee returns for the fourth time in the title role.
4:30 p.m. “Crescendo” (1972). Stefanie Powers plays a young music student whose life is in danger when she travels to France to research a dead composer.
6:15 p.m. “Dracula A.D. 1972” (1972). Lee and Cushing together again. In 1972 London, Dracula feeds off a group of devil-worshiping swingers including the granddaughter (Stephanie Beacham) of Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing).
Friday, Oct. 22
4:45 p.m. “The Bat” (1959). Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead star in a horror mystery set in a big old house that was once the scene of murders.
6:15 p.m. “House on Haunted Hill” (1958). A millionaire tempts five strangers with a big payday if they stay overnight in a mansion in this William Castle film. Vincent Price and Carol Ohmart are entertaining as the bickering rich couple who set it up.
Saturday, Oct. 23
6 a.m. “The Mummy’s Shroud” (1967). Hammer Studio’s third “Mummy” film finds a team of archaeologists yet again ignoring warnings as they mess with the tomb of a boy pharaoh.
Noon, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941). Victor Fleming directs Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Berman and Lana Turner in this remake of the 1931 film adaptation.
Sunday, Oct. 24
8 p.m. “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane” (1962). The only film pairing of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford works off their off-screen rivalry. An actress torments her wheelchair-bound sister in this acclaimed film that is part thriller, part black comedy from Robert Aldrich.
10:30 p.m. “Strait-Jacket” (1964). Joan Crawford is released from a mental hospital for committing a double murder, only to be the prime suspect in a series of axe murders. William Castle ramps us the suspense.
Monday, Oct. 25
12:15 a.m. “The Monster” (1925). Silent horror comedy about a meek amateur detective who investigates strange happenings in a mental asylum run by Lon Chaney.
Tuesday, Oct. 26
6:30 a.m. “Razorback” (1984). A giant wild boar is killing people, including a child, in the Australian Outback.
8:30 a.m. “The Swarm” (1978). Disaster king Irwin Allen turned his sights on nature for this killer bee film. Another great cast including Michael Caine, Richard Chamberlain, Olivia de Havilland, Katharine Ross and Patty Duke.
11:15 a.m. “The Pack” (1977). Packs of dogs abandoned on a vacation island terrorize visitors.
1 p.m. “Rattlers” (1976). Rattlesnakes go on a killing spree in the Mojave Desert.
2:45 p.m. “Night of the Lepus” (1972). The greatest film ever about killer rabbits must be seen to be believed.
4:30 p.m. “Killer Shrews” (1959). Giant rat-like creatures attack a group of people stranded on an island during a hurricane.
6:15 p.m. “Them!” (1954). The first – and still best – of the big-bug movies stars James Arness and James Whitmore who track giant killer ants.
Wednesday, Oct. 27
8 p.m. Carl Laemmle (2019). Documentary about the film pioneer who not only founded Universal Studios and brought us the Universal Monsters, but also helped save 300 families from Nazi Germany.
9:45 p.m. “Dracula” (1931). Bela Lugosi in his most famous role.
Thursday, Oct. 28
1:45 a.m. Carl Laemmle (2019). See Oct. 27.
3:30 a.m. “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925). Universal’s silent version with Lon Chaney features the greatest unmasking in film.
5 a.m. “Frankenstein” (1931). Colin Clive is the title character – Dr. Frankenstein – and Boris Karloff is his unholy creation.
Friday, Oct. 29
8 p.m. “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” (1971). Vincent Price is wonderful in this glorious mashup of horror genres.
10 p.m. “Night of the Living Dead” (1968). If you love zombie movies, thank George A. Romero for the original classic zombie thriller.
Saturday, Oct. 30
Midnight, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978). Director Philip Kaufman’s remake of the alien invaders taking over human bodies stars Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams.
2 a.m. “Hell Night” (1981). Slasher film about four college pledges who spend the night in a mansion where a family was massacred years earlier.
3:45 a.m. “Exorcist II: The Heretic” (1977). John Boorman directs this sequel to one of the most terrifying films ever made. Linda Blair reprises her role, Richard Burton co-stars.
5:45 a.m. “Creature from the Haunted Sea” (1961). A criminal bumps off his cohorts and blames it on a legendary sea creature – that may really exist. Roger Corman directs.
6:45 a.m. “The Hypnotic Eye” (1960). Authorities try to figure out why beautiful young women are disfiguring themselves. A chance to see Allison Hayes in something other than “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.”
8:15 a.m. “Chamber of Horrors” (1966). A killer seek vengeance after he cuts off his hand to escape hanging.
10 a.m. “Spider Baby” (1964). Lon Chaney Jr. takes care of three siblings who suffer from a family curse.
11:30 a.m. “The Devil’s Own” (1966). Joan Fontaine stars in this Hammer film about teacher traumatized by a witch doctor who moves to a small English village.
1:15 p.m. “The Curse of Frankenstein” (1957). Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee star in the first of seven Frankenstein films from Hammer.
2:45 p.m. “The Haunting” (1963). My vote for the most terrifying “strangers spend the night in a haunted mansion” film.
4:45 p.m. “The Tomb of Ligeia” (1965). Vincent Price mourns his dead wife in Roger Corman’s take on the Edgar Allan Poe story.
6:15 p.m. “The Fly” (1958). Things go terribly wrong for a well-meaning scientist. With Al Hedison, Vincent Price.
8 p.m. “Frankenstein” (1931). See Oct. 28
9:30 p.m. “Young Frankenstein” (1974). Mel Brooks honors the spirit of the original Universal films with this genius comedic homage.
11:30 p.m. “Who’s Superstitious?” (1943). Short film on superstitions.
11:45 p.m. “Black Cats and Broomsticks” (1955). Short documentary (8 minutes) examines 20th century superstitions.
Midnight: “Cat People” (1942). See Oct. 4.
1:30 a.m. “The Leopard Man” (1943). Bodies are discovered around a town after a black leopard escapes. From Tourneur and Lewton.
2:45 a.m. “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death” (1971). Strange occurrences happen when a former mental patient moves into a farmhouse that may be haunted.
4:30 a.m. “Carnival of Souls” (1962). See Oct. 15.
6 a.m. “Phantom of the Rue Morgue” (1954). Paris police are baffled in a search for a serial killer in adaptation of another Edgar Allan Poe short story.
7:30 a.m. “Macabre” (1958). A doctor has only hours to find his daughter who has been kidnapped and buried alive in this film produced by William Castle.
8:45 a.m. “White Zombie” (1932). See Oct. 1.
10 a.m. “Cat People” (1942). See Oct. 4.
11:30 a.m. “The Leopard Man” (1943).
12:45 p.m. “Mad Love” (1935). Peter Lorre plays a surgeon whose demented obsession with an actress leads to him to replace her husband’s mangled hands with those of a killer.
2 p.m. “Horror of Dracula (1958). The one that started it all for Hammer Film, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and director Terence Fisher.
3:30 p.m. “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1961). Richard Matheson wrote the screenplay for this film loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story. Starring Vincent Price, Barbara Steele, John Kerr.
5 p.m. “Curse of the Demon” (1958). An American professor (Dana Andrews) visiting London investigates a devil worshipping cult. Directed by Jacques Tourneur.
6:30 p.m. “Horror Hotel” (1960). A college student studying witchcraft is lured to a New England town where witchcraft isn’t relegated to history books. With Christopher Lee, Venetia Stevenson.
8 p.m. “Psycho” (1960). A secretary on the run for embezzling money makes an ill-fated stop at a roadside motel in one of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest films.
It’s almost time for the TCM Classic Film Festival and you’re a bit out of sorts because you don’t have Turner Classic Movies to watch the festival at home. Maybe you just moved, switched services or cut the cord: the bottom line is that you need to watch TCM fast!
Relax – you’ve got options and they are quicker and easier than you think.
First off: you can’t get TCM for free. Sorry. Nor is there a standalone app you can buy. The Watch TCM app is linked to paid accounts with a cable provider or streaming service that provides TCM.
Basically here are your choices to watch TCM:
An account with either a cable or satellite provider.
A Live TV streaming service.
What’s the difference? A cable or satellite provider – think Spectrum, Comcast, X-Finity, DirecTV or Dish – is the traditional way to watch live television through a cable box or satellite dish. You can find TCM on most of these services, although it often comes on a higher tier at a higher price.
A Live TV streaming service is an app that lets you watch live television like you would with cable. It is not, however the same as an on-demand streaming service such as Netflix, Amazon Prime or Apple TV+ where you pick what you want to watch from a library without the option for live TV. (This is where it should be noted that additional programming for the TCM Classic Film Festival will also be available to watch on the streaming service HBO Max, although you won’t be able to watch TCM live.)
The bonus: you don’t need to rent equipment. Instead, you most likely already have everything you need to get started: an internet connection plus a Smart TV or a device like Roku, Amazon Firestick or Apple TV. If you can use Netflix, you can use this.
Live TV streaming services that offer TCM include AT&T TV, Sling TV, Hulu with Live TV and Youtube TV. Full channel lineups, packages and prices are on all of their websites. As soon as you sign up online, you have service. Service is month-to-month so if you don’t like it, you can switch to another without penalty. If local channels are important to you, be sure to see what these services offer in your area.
If you have cable or a dish but don’t get TCM, call to see if you can get it on another package. Most providers let you change tiers without an extra fee and they can do it on the phone for instant TCM. If you want to get cable or satellite, do an internet search to see what is available in your area. I won’t list prices because services and packages vary greatly depending on where you live and if you package TV with other services.
This may be the easiest way to get TCM. Here are four available services.
Sling TV is the least expensive service that offers TCM. First you have to purchase one of Sling’s two basic packages: Orange Sling (recommended for sports/entertainment) or Blue (entertainment/news). Each is $35 regularly. This is important: To get TCM, you’ll need to add the “Hollywood Extra” package for $6 a month. (It has eight channels including SundanceTV, Reelz, StartTV, GRIT, Cinemoi.) The total cost, then, for Sling Blue and “Hollywood Extra” would be $41 with 50 hours of free DVR storage. Look for free trials and discounts. (If you’re lucky, you may still be able to get the $10 for the first month special.) Sling almost always offers free gifts by prepaying for two or more months such as getting a free TV antenna.
AT&T TVis the new live TV streaming service from AT&T (it replaces ATT U-Verse). TCM is available on all three packages starting with the “Entertainment” package that comes with more than 65 channels and 20 hours of free Cloud DVR service to record that late-night programming. Cost starts at $69.99 a month.
Hulu + Live TV. Packages start at $64.99 with TCM and 50 hours of free Cloud DVR storage. Current offer is a free one-week trial. Be sure to look at this live streaming option, not the regular Hulu streaming service.
YouTube TV.Packages start at $64.99 with TCM and come with unlimited DVR storage.
All of these options are constantly changing but this will give you a start. I’m not a tech expert, but I’ve done a lot of research looking for options for myself. I hope this is helpful.
The TCM Classic Film Festival starts at 8 p.m. May 6 on both TCM and HBO Max.
Television sleuth Jessica Fletcher solved a remarkable number of mysteries throughout the 12-year run of “Murder, She Wrote.”
During the 264 episodes and four movies, the mystery writer – eternally personified by the legendary Angela Lansbury – dealt with greed, infidelity, theft, poisonings, curses, voodoo and ghosts during hundreds of investigations.
Yet I find the most impressive case was in the inventive “The Days Dwindle Down” (Season 3, Episode 21) in which Jessica is asked to solve a decades-old murder that comes with a unique twist. The episode is a “sequel” to the real 1949 detective film “Strange Bargain.”
Let’s break it down into three important parts: how the idea came to be, the film and how it all came together on “Murder, She Wrote.”
Although “Murder, She Wrote” was only in its third season at the time, the producers were already looking for “a new way to tell a story,” according to a 1987 interview with Executive Producer Peter Fischer in the Los Angeles Times. The show had also gained a reputation for its notable collection of guest stars from the classic film era, thanks to their relationships with star Angela Lansbury.
Those two factors – new storytelling and classic Hollywood – combined to give Fischer an idea. “If only I could find an old movie where everyone was still around, then we could solve the case 30 years later,” he said in the article.
Fischer started by sifting through hundreds of films. He needed a mystery that Jessica Fletcher could solve plus living cast members from the film who would be willing to reprise their roles year later. It was a time-consuming task that would take nearly a year until Fischer found “Strange Bargain.”
The film had a tidy conclusion that would have to be ignored so Jessica would have a mystery to solve, but everything else was there including the three main stars – Martha Scott, Jeffrey Lynn and Harry Morgan.
From there, a few characters were added or had their storylines extended to provide more details for Jessica. Original film clips and new black and white footage told the original story in flashbacks and did it so well that you don’t need to watch the movie to understand the episode. Still, I recommend seeing “Strange Bargain” simply because it’s an easy to watch film and you’ll be more invested in the Wilson family, the main protagonists.
“Strange Bargain” certainly lives up to its title. In fact, the plot borders on being so ludicrous – a despondent man will pay an employee to make his suicide look like a murder – that it almost overshadows the fact that the film is a solid mystery yarn.
Sam Wilson (played by Jeffrey Lynn) is a loving father and husband who is having trouble making ends meet in his job as an assistant bookkeeper. When he asks his boss, Malcolm Jarvis (Richard Gaines), for a raise, he’s shocked to learn he’s being fired after 12 years.
Not only is the firm in bad shape, the once wealthy Jarvis is broke. As an indication of Sam’s character, he addresses his boss as “sir “and tries to comfort him (“The firm will come back, Mr. Jarvis”), despite his own plight.
As it turns out, the job loss isn’t the worst of it.
The desperate Jarvis has concocted the strange bargain of the title. He has taken out extra life insurance and plans to kill himself to help his wife and son financially. Since a suicide nullifies the insurance payout, Jarvis asks Sam to make it look like a robbery; in return, Jarvis will pay him his last $10,000. Sam is horrified and steadfastly refuses while pleading with Jarvis not to kill himself.
But Jarvis moves forward with his plan. Sam tries to stop him but he’s too late. Jarvis is dead and a note addressed to Sam, plus the money and the gun are nearby. Rattled and confused, Sam takes the gun and leaves, then decides to shoot two bullets through the window as Jarvis had asked him to do.
Back home, Sam finds blood on his hands, hat and the steering wheel and desperately tries to wash it off. He also burns the note from Jarvis – in retrospect, the only proof that he isn’t a murderer.
Once the dogged Lt. Richard Webb (Harry Morgan) starts his investigation and makes it known that something isn’t right, the film shifts into a taut thriller of whether the likable Sam will take the fall for a murder he didn’t commit.
The script by Lillie Hayward is cunning in how it unnerves Sam by forcing him to return to the scene of the death and having others – including his wife and son – talk incessantly about the investigation. They do it so often, it almost works as a comedy, except the viewer can see the toll it’s taking on Sam.
“They won’t leave a stone unturned until they find that murderer,” his wife, Georgia (Martha Scott), tells him. “Lt. Webb always gets his man,” says his idolizing son.
The film’s ending is a solid surprise and works well, but since J.B. Fletcher needed a mystery to solve, you’ll have to put the movie’s last few minutes in the back of your mind before watching its sequel on “Murder, She Wrote.”
THE TV EPISODE
In “The Days Dwindle Down,” Jessica is being wooed by yet another Hollywood hotshot. He’s not there to discuss her latest novel “The Stain on the Stairs,” no, this guy sees dollar signs in the stack of newspaper clippings he’s collected about Jessica’s detective skills with headlines like “Writer rights wrong.”
“This real-life sleuth action will play like a Beatles’ reunion,” he tells “Jessie.”
His big money-making idea is a new talk show starring Jessica and the victims of the murders she has solved. After explaining the difficulty in booking the victims to him (ahem), Jessica also says she doesn’t want to profit off the misfortunes of others.
The conversation is overheard by a sad-looking hotel employee who later visits Jessica. She is Georgia, Sam’s wife (again played by Martha Scott), who pleads with Jessica to her clear her husband’s name. Sam has just been released from jail after serving a 30-year sentence for a murder she swears he didn’t commit, but he’s a shell of himself. “He was broken, just broken. He sits there and broods and waits to die,” Georgia says. “I don’t want vengeance, or money or publicity. All I want is us, in whatever time we left, to have a life together.”
Her words echo the refrain of “September Song,” the often recorded American standard (think Frank Sinatra) where the episode gets its title: “Oh, the days dwindle down/To a precious few/September, November. And these few precious days/I’ll spend with you.”
When Georgia pleads “Please, Mrs. Fletcher,” we know where this is going: Jessica never turns down a “Please, Mrs. Fletcher.”
(During this scene watch actress Angela Lansbury whose eyes water up during Martha Scott’s performance in what feels like a real reaction, not part of the script.)
Deeply touched by Georgia’s unwavering belief in Sam, Jessica agrees to speak to him. As he tells his story, she quickly finds holes in the case. Why would the police believe the killer shot bullets from outside the home after he killed Jarvis, thereby drawing unnecessary attention to himself? Why didn’t the police find the gun? And what about the missing police files?
Sam and Georgia’s son, Rod (Art Hindle), became a police officer in hopes of clearing his father and has collected an impressive amount of information that he gives to Jessica. There’s enough to convince her that things don’t add up.
Plus Jessica asks the question: What if it wasn’t a suicide, what if Jarvis was murdered?
Jessica and Rod work together and find new suspects. There’s the son, Sydney Jarvis (Richard Beymer), who lies about his mother being dead. Jarvis’ secretary Miss Vantay (played here by June Havoc) who loves to gossip but is clearly hiding something. The new character of Dorothy Hearne Davis (Susan Strasberg), who runs the company now, isn’t telling the truth about her late grandfather, one of the original suspects.
Then there’s the person who takes a shot at Jessica, using the same gun that killed Jarvis. How is that possible if Sam threw the gun in the ocean? Jessica figures it out.
As secrets are spilled, it’s sadly revealed that people had information that could have kept Sam out of jail.
There are many reasons why this episode works on its own and as a sequel to the film. Much of that credit goes to writer William Gerson whose clever work adds mystery by taking us deeper into minor characters and elaborates on moments in the film that were red herrings or never fully explained. As an example, Miss Vantay (played by Betty Underwood in the film) is only shown briefly, but she clearly had it out for Sam. “I don’t know what makes me more nervous, seeing the boss or getting by his secretary,” Sam tells Jessica, making the viewer wonder what was her true role.
The use of phrases that would have been popular in the 1940s is delightful and adds to the time capsule feel of the episode such as when Lt. Webb says he thought Miss Vantay was “playing bed sheet bingo with the boss.”
I appreciate the respect shown in the episode for the original film as it adds new elements but still effectively ties both works together. “The Years Dwindle Down” is not only one of the most entertaining episodes of “Murder, She Wrote,” it is one of the cleverest episodes of television you’ll ever see.
Eagle-eyed “Murder, She Wrote” fans will recognize Debbie Zipp as Rod’s pregnant wife. In Season 4, she started her recurring role on the series as Donna Mayberry, the girlfriend and future wife Grady Fletcher (Michael Horton), Jessica’s nephew. Zipp and Grady are married in real life.
That’s Gloria Stuart taking over the role of Edna Jarvis, the wife of the dead Mr. Jarvis, for the TV show. In the film, Edna was played by Katherine Emery.
Betty White is kneeling on the ground next to a 550-pound lion named Zamba. She’s brushing his mane, fluffing it up and teasing the top. When he rolls over, she continues brushing, then rubbing his belly with a big smile on her face.
It was mesmerizing to watch this 50-year-old footage from “Betty White’s Pet Set,” as the petite Betty and the enormous Zamba played together. It wasn’t the only time Betty would get close to a dangerous animal on the show – she also sat with a 250-pound leopard, let a Bengal tiger lick her face and was overrun by puppies.
Betty’s lifelong love of animals gives her a natural ease that’s evident on the show, now available in a new 50th anniversary DVD set from MPI Video, where she interacted with seemingly the entire animal kingdom.
Debuting in 1971, the 39-episode series had been unseen for decades leading it to be called the “lost Betty White series.” Consider this DVD set, then, a treasure found.
It’s not only a great series for those who love Betty and animals, but also for fans of classic television and movies since it has an impressive guest list of such stars as Doris Day, Mary Tyler Moore (Moore and her poodles are pictured at the top of this story), Rod Serling, Johnny Mathis, Donald O’Connor, Burt Reynolds, Vincent Price and Jimmy and Gloria Stewart. (The guest for each episode is clearly labeled in the packaging and in the DVD menu, allowing you to pick episodes with your favorite celebrities if you like.)
“If I haven’t told you already, I will now. ‘The Pet Set’ is one of my favorite shows. I’m thrilled it’s going to be seen again after all these years,” Betty said in a release about this new home video of the series she created and produced with her husband Allen Ludden.
Each 22-minute episode has a celebrity guest and their pet plus related segments with animals both on and off the set. While there are the expected adorable animal babies, you’ll also meet elephants, snakes, vultures, anteaters and more.
And this isn’t a show where the expert is the only one handling the animals, Betty is right there holding them, putting her arm out for a bird to sit on, rubbing them in their sweet spot. Guests can pet and hold the animals to their comfort level, which also provides moments of unintentional laughter.
Many of the animals come from regular guest Ralph Helfer (who gives off a Robert Foxworth vibe), the founder of Africa U.S.A. who worked with and trained many animals (Gentle Ben, Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion) from television and movies (“Daktari,” “Bonanza”).
Uncredited. What a perfect word to succinctly sum up the career of character actor Richard Deacon.
Not only is his impressively extensive resume filled with “uncredited” roles, Deacon also never received the credit due from his long body of work that included roles on some of the best-loved classic TV series including the iconic “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”
Instead, he’s typecast in our memories as a striking visual: tall (6-1), bald, bespectacled. Yet even when he’s in the background in one of those uncredited roles, Richard Deacon stands out.
Deacon deserves our respect and attention and that’s why I chose to write about him for the 9th annual “What a Character” blogathon hosted by Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled and Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club. You can read all of the other entries by going to those blo
Deacon’s first film role was as an MP in the sci-fi yarn “Invaders from Mars.” That was 1953 and over the next seven years he would be in at least 40 movies of various genres (and on as many TV shows). Most roles were “uncredited” so you won’t find him in the credits, and often his character is referred to generically like desk clerk, salesman, hotel manager, pawn broker, banker.
Let’s think about those just those seven years to get a full appreciation for Deacon and his remarkable perseverance. He must have had a strong lack of ego and, I would bet, a deep passion for his craft to work so hard, for so long without being labeled “a star.”
Those four movies and many others in the book will be shown on TCM in October including “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” “Mystery of the Wax Museum,” “Them!” and “The Wolf Man.”
TCM’s Star of the Month (#sotm) is horror great Peter Cushing, whose films will be featured in prime-time every Monday night in October. Though the first two weeks (Oct. 5 and 12) focus on Cushing’s early roles and non-horror work, Oct. 19 is devoted to his Hammer films – including three Frankenstein movies – and Oct. 26 is all horror including two Dracula films.
Oct. 14 is Tod Browning Day with seven of his films programmed including three with Lon Chaney. The month culminates in around-the-clock horror films on Oct. 30 and 31.
Though a word isn’t spoken in it, much is communicated. A small circular light pierces the dark screen as a young man in World War II Germany is looking for his love. Another light appears, and the circles meet, like “two moons.” The two young lovers, tears in their eyes, finally see each other, but then hastily shut off their lights in fear of approaching soldiers.
The scene is from “We Were Young,” a 1961 film by Bulgarian director Binka Zhelyazkova and it’s so captivating I wrote down the title and circled it multiple times as a reminder that I must see this film.
I’ve since watched the two-minute clip multiple times and remain entranced.
There are countless moments like that throughout the 14-part film by Mark Cousins, the filmmaker, author and former film critic who previously made the epic 2011 documentary “The Story of Film: An Odyssey.”
Like that extensive documentary, “Women Make Film” is well worth your time especially as it’s presented in a three-month immersive programming initiative by Turner Classic Movies focusing on female filmmakers.
Like think twice before accepting an invitation to stay overnight in a mansion. Don’t visit an English village – especially in the 17th century. If an inheritance involves an old house or meeting relatives for the first time, you might want to politely decline. And Dracula is never really dead.
Those are some of the recurring themes in the more than 70 horror films being aired in October by Turner Classic Movies.
TCM’s annual October scarefest returns with a night of themed horror movies every Thursday in October: “Betwitched” is the theme on Oct. 3, “Black Magic” on Oct. 10, “Ghost Stories” on Oct. 17, “The Undead” on Oct. 24 and “Horror Classics” on Oct. 31.
Friday nights are devoted to the TCM Monster of the Month, Godzilla (who brings along a few friends). You’ll find other horror films sprinkled throughout the schedule, too, with a horror marathon starting at 8 p.m. Oct. 30 and concluding in royal fashion with “Dracula, Prince of Darkness” at 6:45 a.m. Nov. 1.
This is what we have to look forward to: at least 10 movies from Hammer Film Productions; 8 movies starring Christopher Lee; 6 films each that feature Vincent Price and Peter Cushing; 4 with Karloff and 3 films directed by Roger Corman. Multiple movies carry the names of Barbara Shelley, Val Lewton, Edgar Allan Poe, Richard Matheson and American International Pictures (AIP), another favorite studio for horror fans.
Horror fans rejoice! Turner Classic Movies has once again packed a horrific lineup for October programming including a creature of the month, a night devoted to ghostly encounters and 200 years of Frankenstein.
Plus, there’s not one star of the month but four as TCM showcases four greats of the horror genre. Lon Chaney, Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff and Vincent Price will each have a Wednesday night devoted to them in October. The series starts at 8 p.m. Oct. 3 with Chaney and includes five of his silent films.
The misunderstood Mummy is the designated creature of the month, earning a slot every Sunday night starting at 8 p.m. The schedule includes some cool Universal films in the “Kharis” series on Oct. 7 and a trio of mummy films with a sense of humor on Oct. 14.
The Bowery Boys even get in on the action with a night of horror films starting at 8 p.m. Oct. 30.
Here’s a look at the schedule broken down by topics with some descriptions: