By 1959, television had reached an awkward and daring adolescence. It was ready to take off the training wheels, choose its own wardrobe and stay up late. Restless, moody, it was willing to take some risks. The Twilight Zone would be its first taste of tobacco; The Untouchables its first real drink.
There were three networks from which viewers could choose, two majors and a wannabe. Only the largest markets enjoyed an independent station. Westerns tied up a lot of network air time, and CBS, its camera shutter eye logo staring back, held the premier position. ABC, bringing up the bottom numbers in viewers and awards and forced to share the affiliates of other networks in several secondary markets, was expanding rapidly under the aggressive leadership of Leonard Goldensen. Color was a clever novelty available randomly on NBC. The entertainment value was often limited to any one of three or more shades of purple that a face might become as network engineers sailed rainbows without maps.
PBS was a twinkling in the eye of conservative academics. WTTW, Chicago’s Window To The World, transmitted from the Museum of Science and Industry as a look‑at‑all‑the‑tubes‑and‑wires demonstration. Its few minutes of programming featured a nerdy character – of the type that would, decades hence, give rise to many of Gary Larsen’s Far Side cartoons – in front of a smeared blackboard chalked up with physics equations that were barely discernible to the squinting electrons.
It was not, as they say, a pretty sight.
Everyone finally agreed that the kinescope, a 16mm copy of a video picture, had been a bad idea from the start, and so an American company, Ampex, was still developing a piano‑size video recorder they had invented in 1956, that put an image almost as bad as the kinescope on huge reels of relatively inexpensive magnetic tape. It wasn’t pretty either, but held promise.
In 1959, Americans were not only faced with the prospect of what to watch on television but deciding whom to put up with in the White House: Richard M. Nixon, the incumbent vice‑president with no makeup, a checkered past and checkered future, or John F. Kennedy, the all‑too‑charming‑and therefore‑suspect ambassador’s son with the Harvard credentials and a beautiful, if unsuspecting, First Lady in waiting. Their televised debates, the first for a national referendum became screen tests for the leads in Camelot and The New Frontier. Nixon, appearing on the tube tired and devious, squeaked out a narrow loss.
Dave Guard, Bob Shane, and Nick Reynolds calling themselves The Kingston Trio, continued their run at the top of the mainstream record charts with obscure ballads, their own style of calypso and frat house beer songs establishing their kind of folk music as the clean‑cut, Ivy League alternative to America’s greatest danger, Rock’n Roll. Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary, and dozens more would soon follow.
Liverpool was still a dirty, uncelebrated British seaport. The Japanese were throwing off good little cameras and bad little cars. Having learned what it had gotten it wrong in Korea, the U. S. Military Establishment was preparing to get it right in Vietnam. The American Space Program was about four pages long with no pictures. Dwight D. Eisenhower was cleaning out his desk. Nikita Khrushchev plotted the end of democracy on a global scale.
The 50s, those Fabulous 50s, were over.
By 1959, television had nearly completed a tour of duty through its Golden Age, so‑called for the many innocent comedies, campy westerns, variety shows, and serious attempts at theater. Formative and certainly experimental, the wondrous years of discovery were not without thunderous critical achievements and a few profoundly disastrous reversals.
As the medium grew out of its radio‑with‑pictures mindset, three separate, highly controversial events detonated the airwaves and changed the rules. Varied in format, but similar in the thunder each was able to generate, they were, Amos ‘n Andy, The $64,000 Question, and, at the tail end of the golden age and probably responsible for ending it, The Untouchables.
Amos ‘n’Andy, premiering in 1950 on CBS, was the logical extension of the long‑running and popular radio show of the same name begun in the late 1920s by Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden. It was not without its hate mail while on radio, but as soon as the series took to television, the NAACP, which had initially found it innocuous, reversed its position and mounted a campaign against it for its relentless depiction of blacks in what many said was demeaning slapstick and racist humor.
All things considered, the central characters were a funny lot. Amos Jones (Alvin Childress), played a very good, decent, and upstanding straight man to Andy Brown (Spencer Williams, Jr.). and George Kingfish Stevens (Tim Moore), a larcenous, dumbfounded, and hilariously ignorant pair who spoke the manufactured dialect made famous on radio. There were other equally as amusing or offensive characters, but the principal problem was that there wasn’t much in the way of balance. There was no Cosby, no authentic black humor anywhere else on television. Just the clowns hanging around the Harlem‑based cab stand created and produced by white folks who had once done the characters themselves on the radio in a sort of audio blackface.
Whatever Amos ‘n’ Andy was, was not, or should have been, its demise put a number of highly talented actors out of work and virtually killed the notion of black situation comedy for nearly two decades. Forced off the network in 1952, Amos ‘n’ Andy ran in syndication until 1966 when it was permanently withdrawn. The controversy surrounding Amos ‘n Andy has never completely disappeared, nor has the program, available to collectors on tape.
Television’s second major upset erupted early in 1959 with the infamous quiz show scandals. Most memorable of the big money contests was The $64, 000 Question; although it was a similar daytime program few remember called Dotto that actually broke the scandal. While $64, 000 Question and its many imitators began honestly enough, wide fluctuations in ratings led crafty producers into deception in an attempt to guarantee stable audiences for demanding sponsors. Ultimately, contestants were chosen ahead of time to win or lose based on their audience appeal. When winners wore out their welcome, they were instructed to take a fall and paid handsomely to do so with discretion. At length, one intellectual chap, annoyed with the very idea of feigning ignorance, blew the whistle. Suddenly, revelations about similar shows on all three networks played out in the press severely damaging television’s credibility and dispatching the once quick and dirty prime time staples almost overnight. Viewers were genuinely incensed at having been taken in by such burlesque, but the cauldron had little time to cool.
No sooner had the quiz show scandals departed when along came the most expensive and violent weekly program ever produced It was the true story‑‑so everyone thought‑‑of a real crime fighter battling the real villains of history. The public was more or less innocently led to believe that the programs were documentaries, told in a sort of unspecified, reconstructed drama with narratives by a legendary radio voice of the period. The central story had already been told in a superlative, highly acclaimed, two‑part feature on The Desilu Playhouse that closely followed Eliot Ness’s published account. The series promised more of the same.
Before The Untouchables, viewers had been exposed only to the likes of Dragnet with its folksy charm and myriad misdemeanors. Although immensely popular, crime shows had been unreasonably, bloodlessly tame. Not only were felons reformable, but shoplifting might be central to an entire plot. The age of innocence was over.
As a series, The Untouchables was for a time, so convincing to the average viewer with its Bureau of Printing and Engraving artwork, brassy badge‑of-courage theme music and elegantly official format, hardly anyone in 1959 was willing to believe that they were being taken in (again) by one of the most cleverly packaged and carefully produced programs of all time.
It was very nearly total fiction, but nobody wanted to believe that. It was simply too well done to be trivialized by the notion that it might have been made up. But made up it was by an expanding stable of some of the finest writers available. They would take the series far beyond the established boundaries, turning an hour of prime time into a weekly charade of grand theater. Wading through American history and soaking in the lore of a Chicago under siege during the reign of the gangster kings, it was much more than simple entertainment. The good guys always won, of course, but they did so in a kind of supreme morality play with nothing less than extremes of good and evil.
Television reviewers were virtually unanimous in their praise. None suggested that it was simply another cop show. Viewers took it quite seriously. It was, after all, 1959, and television had become a vital appliance in a little more than a decade. But few really understood it or knew what to expect from it. The Untouchables would change much of that.
Many of the weekly installments were credible, fascinating and dropped familiar underworld names on a regular basis. Some of its earliest hours were distilled from legends of the period. These were the tales of ritual murder, political assassinations, gang warfare, bad liquor, hookers, drug addicts and other unsavory subjects starkly addressed in wet city streets and back alleys under moonless nights.
The violence, previously unseen on the small screen to the degree at which the ABC network began offering it, caused many a mother to shriek in disbelief while ushering wide-eyed youngsters back to bed. When gangsters got gunned, as they often did, their clothes ripped and props around them exploded in displays of special effects previously reserved for the more serious and expensive art of the feature film. It was an autopsy on the lawlessness of an era and suddenly television never had it so good.
There were those who would certainly take issue.