THE CAST OF THE UNTOUCHABLES

As the fictional Eliot Ness continued his battle against Capone and various elements of the criminal underworld between 1959 and 1963, the primary cast of The Untouchables went unchanged after the show’s First Season.

With Robert Stack starring as Eliot Ness, his special squad was comprised of Lee Hobson (Paul Picerni), Enrico Rossi (Nick Georgiade), William Youngfellow (Abel Fernandez) and Jack Rossman (Steve London.) While Picerni and Georgiade were series regulars, Fernandez and Rossman worked part-time on the show. In addition to these main characters, Walter Winchell narrated all 119 episodes and actor Bruce Gordon would occasionally repise his role of Frank Nitti.

The biographies have been compiled from promotional materials, interviews with the author, and contemporary trade publications.

Robert Stack (1919 – 2003)

A blue-eyed, imposingly good-looking leading man in theatrical films beginning in 1939, Stack once feared that any role in television, leading or otherwise, would be viewed as heralding the downside of his career, and he at first refused the role. Signing on to spite his agent, Stack would bring to the character of Eliot Ness a measure of reinforced concrete. He would be no ordinary peace officer with badge and gun, but rather the entire United States federal government, conveying to all concerned the illusion that confronting him was futile, possibly suicidal. Through Stack’s portrayal, Eliot Ness became an instant all-American hero virtually overnight and propelled an accomplished film star into the national limelight as no prior theatrical engagement.

A fifth-generation Los Angeles native, World War II Navy veteran, and son of West Coast legend J. Langford Stack, who once entertained prohibition officers in his “library” in the late 1920s, and coined the well known Schlitz advertising slogan, “The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous,” Stack’s earliest years found him in Europe with his family. When they returned, he could speak French and Italian fluently at the age of six, but very little English.

Stack grew up among motion picture, concert, opera, and radio favorites. Most of the brilliant names of the entertainment world were guests of his family during his childhood years – so it was natural that his first and only ambition was to follow in the pattern of these people whom he had come to regard as the most colorful personalities in the world.

Seduced by the theater in high school, Stack quit college at USC to enroll in the Henry Duffy School of Theatre and was signed by Universal Studios after graduation for the leading role in First Love (1939), with Deanna Durbin. He enlisted in the Navy at the outset of WWII, served as an aerial gunnery instructor both at home and overseas, and became a lieutenant. After his tour of duty, Stack returned to Hollywood and appeared in A Dale with Judy (1947), with Elizabeth Taylor and Jane Powell.

During World War II, Stack’s work was that of an aerial gunnery instructor. His Navy service was another link in the traditional chain of Stack family history, following nine relatives in the Navy, including a cousin who bore the rank of Rear Admiral and an uncle who was a commander. Stack attained the rank of full lieutenant.

Stack’s screen credits include Eagle Squadron {1942), The High and the Mighty (1954), with John Wayne, and John Paul Jones (1959). He received an Academy Award nomination for Written on the Wind (1956), and in 1960 won an Emmy for his portrayal of Eliot Ness in the category of Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Series. A second Emmy nomination followed in 1961.

After The Untouchables, he returned to motion pictures in Is Paris Burning? (1966), and appeared in other films, including 1941 (1981), in which the late Saturday Night Live star John Belushi stood in awe of his childhood hero. Stack starred in television’s Name of the Game, American Sportsman, Most Wanted, and Strike Force and later hosted for NBC’s Unsolved Mysteries. In 1991, Stack reprised his most famous role for NBC in The Return of Eliot Ness, an elaborate feature-length sequel of sorts set in 1947.

Once one of Hollywood’s most prominent bachelors, Stack’s marriage to actress Rosemarie Bowe in 1956, remains one of the industry’s few long-term commitments. The couple bore two children, Elizabeth and Charles. Known as a gregarious, pleasant, but sometimes stubborn man, Stack has many close friends in the business who speak highly of him. He has long been respected for his talent, his clever wit, and his genuine, earthy nature often missing from leading men of similar position.

In the four years he portrayed Eliot Ness, no one associated with the production ever saw him lose his temper, despite the long hours and the six-day workweek. Cordial, playful to the point of an occasional practical joke, but responsible, patient, and dedicated to his craft, Stack held the series together in more ways than simply playing the lead. In the years that followed, Stack was genuinely surprised that he had been a childhood hero to millions of impressionable kids, who saw his Eliot Ness as a positive father figure. Many parents and teachers, concerned only with the amount of violence in the series, missed this virtue completely.

Of those affected by Stack’s portrayal during the production of the series, perhaps the response he received from Elizabeth Ness meant most for him. In a letter elated May 10, 1960, she wrote:

“I think that it is high time I thanked you for the good name you have brought to the Untouchables. I awaited the first showing with many a qualm, but I was and am delighted with the production and the casting of you as Eliot. He was an exciting, delightful, and very real man. My years with him were wonderfully happy, so I’ve been especially sensitive to the quality of the show…”

Not long after that letter, Elizabeth Ness was one of Stack’s surprise guests on Ralph Edward’s This Is Your Life. Boyishly awed and humbled, he kissed her hand.

Walter Winchell (1897 – 1972)

Aptly portrayed by himself, Winchell was a real‑life journalist and radio commentator for four decades beginning in 1920. First a vaudeville performer then a writer for The Vaudeville News, he is widely regarded as the first to mix show business with journalism creating the newspaper gossip column in the New York Evening Graphic in 1924. An immediate success, he moved to the New York Daily Mirror in 1929, where his six daily columns, first about Broadway then entertainment in general, became a national feature. At the peak of his career, his newspaper audience was estimated at nearly fifty million readers.

In addition to his newspaper work, he went on radio in 1932, over the Mutual network where his clipped, nasal delivery sometimes bordering on a shout became famous worldwide with the often satirized opening line, “Good evening Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea… ”

He became extraordinarily influential by covering every subject from politics to crime, despite charges that his reporting was often seriously in error. Arrogant, abrasive, and feared throughout the entertainment world, Winchell is said to have had table 50 wired at New York’s famous Stork Club to eavesdrop on the exclusive night spot’s famous diners. Celebrities were equally amazed and annoyed at his ability to snoop into their most private affairs.

As the premier purveyor of hot scoops, steamy news, and general gossip, Winchell had little difficulty in maintaining a large radio and newspaper audience for many years. From that, he commanded and got the attention of a wide variety of famous personalities on both sides of the law. While he associated with hundreds of prominent figures, his lasting friendships were few and often convulsive.

The most celebrated of the handful of close friends was J. Edgar Hoover, whom he met during the Lindbergh case in 1934. Some years later, their close association began, with Hoover supplying Winchell with “inside information” and Winchell reciprocating by promoting the G‑Man image more than any other journalist. They consulted often, meeting frequently at “Winchell’s table” at the Stork Club and shared vacations in Florida. Hoover routinely provided Winchell with a limousine, driver, and bodyguards whenever the columnist received threats against his life, which occurred with some frequency.

The most well‑publicized effect of their friendship was the surrender of Murder, Inc., founder Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, at‑large for two years as one of the country’s most‑wanted fugitives. Arranged by Winchell in late August 1939, it was Hoover’s last personal arrest. Though ultimately successful, the affair nearly terminated their rapport.

The relationships Winchell maintained with stars’ press agents were often stormy. He is widely believed to have been the model for the venomous lead character in former press agent J.J. Hunsecker’s Sweet Smell Of Success (1957), starring Burt Lancaster as the Winchell‑like reporter and Tony Curtis.

Winchell is said to have reported that actress Betty Grable had been stricken with cancer at the height of her career. The star’s incredulous press agent immediately phoned a newspaper to protest and was told by the switchboard operator that “Winchell said she had cancer. She’d better have it if she knows what’s good for her.”

Before his 1952 television debut, he appeared in several unmemorable films, including Love and Hisses (1937). His first series for ABC television, The Walter Winchell Show, met with limited success, but his sponsors fled when he implied Adlai Stevenson was a homosexual.

Though his status as a newsman remained legendary, it wasn’t until he began ridiculing popular newcomers Marlon Brando, James Dean, and others, that the public began to view Winchell as a declining voice in entertainment. His next effort for ABC in 1957, The Walter Winchell File, lasted five months, but he would return to the limelight narrating Beau James, an expensive period film on the political career of New York mayor Jimmy Walker, released that same year starring Bob Hope and Vera Miles.

By the time Desi Arnaz began considering him as narrator for The Untouchables, the renowned columnist had both feet on the accelerator towards obscurity. Not only was he busy setting bridges aflame with lawsuits against ABC over the Winchell File failure, but his typically reckless 1953 story tying Lucille Ball to the Communist Party during the McCarthy Era had not been entirely dismissed by Arnaz’s wife.

Tom Moore, ABCs programming chief, wanted a new voice for the series, one that was pleasing to viewers, but despite the odds, Arnaz prevailed and the decision to use him remains a masterstroke. After all, Winchell was the voice of the 1930s. His authoritative, breathless, tobacco ‑cured bark recalled the era with such authenticity, it transformed The Untouchables into cinema verite, fooling viewers into believing the series was historical fact despite Winchell’s long history of shamelessly inaccurate banter.

At length, Winchell had arrived to the ultimate forum, the perfect medium for his style of theatrical deception. It was to be his final achievement and most enduring legacy. After the series, Winchell dabbled at the only thing he knew best, but it went unnoticed. He retired in 1969.

If few remember Winchell fondly for his work, he did little to secure lasting friendships at Desilu. He appeared only briefly at Glen Glenn Sound to do the voice‑overs, sometimes two or three program’s worth at a sitting, then retreated. He worked straight from the script and never changed a word of copy prepared for him. His narratives were written by the show’s writers in a style he most likely would have delivered in his most lucid moments on radio. Winchell’s contribution was limited to the legacy of his name and those unique, inimitable vocal cords.

Screenwriter John Mantley recalls his single consultation with Winchell by phone as an unpleasant experience, not repeated. The subject of the call is lost to the years, but Mantley, certainly the most prolific writer for the series, was greeted with the same abrasive contempt Winchell seemed to hold for all mankind. “He was an arrogant, nasty man, but he read what I wrote for him,” says Mantley. “I never called him again.”

In Winchell’s case, talk was anything but cheap, but neither was it exorbitant. In the game Trivial Pursuit, a question asked, “Who narrated The Untouchables for $25,000 an episode?” The question is in error. $25,000 would have been one-quarter of the entire budget for a single episode in the program’s first year. The figure reflects his salary for an entire year.

After retirement in 1969 following his son’s suicide, Winchell became a recluse. Walter Winchell died on February 20th, 1972 – with only his daughter in attendance at the funeral.

Paul Picerni (1922 – 2011)

No stranger to Robert Stack and his intrepid crew, Paul Picerni, who played Lee Hobson, was the newest of The Untouchables in the Second Season, and appeared in the two-part program which preceded the Emmy award-winning TV series. However, in the early show, Picerni played a cafe operator, and though the role gave him the opportunity to slap Barbara Nichols around, Stack and his men eventually gave him his lumps, so he was happy to be on the right side of the law.

Picerni was born in New York City and received his primary education there. lie attended Newtown High, in Elmhurst, New York City, and after graduating enlisted in the Air Force, serving, as a First Lieutenant. He flew 25 missions in the China-Burma-Indian theater of operations, and was awarded both the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

After separation from the service, Picerni came to Los Angeles and enrolled at Loyola University as a drama major. Upon his graduation, he became head of the drama department at Mt. St. Mary’s, a woman’s college in Brentwood.

In 1950, Picerni was placed under contract to Warner Brothers, and among his first assignments under the pact was a role in House of Wax a film that was the first picture in 3-D. Picerni recalled that though 3-D films never did get far, House of Wax was nevertheless a big money maker.

Later, Picerni worked in some 60 movies, including such hits as The Young Philadelphians, and Marjorie Morningstar.” Picerni left Warners in 1953 to freelance, and as a freelance actor, he appeared in some 150 television shows.

Picerni was married to the former Marie Mason, who was a ballet dancer when they met. They live in Tarzana with their eight children, four boys and four girls who range in age from 5 to 13 years.

Away from work, Picerni declared that his beloved family took up most of his time. “We’re the original togetherness group,” he said in an interview, “and it takes a bit of planning to launch a project. There’s hardly time for anything else.”

Coincidentally, Picerni says that with the birth of each child his career took a sudden upswing – a new contract, raise in pay, better roles, etc. Picerni’s final film role was in 2007’s Three Days to Vegas, directed by his his brother and stunt performer Charlie Picerni, who also worked on the series. The film featured Nicholas Georgiade in a cameo and starred Untouchables guest stars Rip Torn and Peter Falk.

Nicholas Georgiade (1933 – )

Nicholas Georgiade’s Enrico Rossi was Desilu’s “good-guy” Italian, and was discovered by Lucille Ball while he was playing a leading role in a local little theater production of View From The Bridge.

Georgiade became one of the first members of Miss Ball’s Desilu Workshop Theater Hollywood’s largest talent pool of young professionals.

Signed by Desilu on November 25, 1958, to a standard equity contract, Georgiade – like other Workshoppers – was permitted to accept outside acting assignments while under­going the workshop’s special training program.

During this time Georgiade appeared in Playhouse 90’s Seven Against The Wall and The Killers of Mussolini, as well as other TV film shows, including “Chain of Command” and The Untouchables for Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse. It was his performance in the latter two-part production that Georgiade made an impression on Desi Arnaz.

When time came to cast the role of Enrico Rossi, the character created to replace the Keenan Wynn part from the original show, Arnaz picked Georgiade.

Like his Greek ancestors, Georgiade has always felt that a sound body and a sound mind were inseparable requisites for success. To this end, he spent added hours improving his physical fitness while attending high school, where he did considerable boxing. However, the lure for action and travel caused him to quit school in 1948 to join the Army, fibbing about his age.

Assigned to the Infantry’s First Division, Georgiade continued his boxing, by 1950 had won the European heavyweight title for the Army. Mustered out the same year, he returned to New York City, did odd jobs until a friend helped him obtain an athletic scholarship to Syracuse University. However, not having a high school diploma, arrangements were made for him to take an entrance exam, which he passed.

In addition to continuing his athletic career, Georgiadc majored in sociology and psychology, planning to become a teacher. During his freshman year, he met Anita Khanzadian, an English major. They were married during Nick’s senior year. Meanwhile, he took time out to appear in a college production of “Rose Tattoo,” playing the role of Mangia Cavallo. Upon graduation, in 1957, he returned home, but instead of doing postgraduate work for teacher’s credentials, Nick decided to give dramatics a try. Be studied with Herbert Berghoff and Sandy Meisner, following which he personally staged a showcase production called Group 10 at Steinway Hall for Broadway producers.

Legit roles, however, were not plentiful, so Georgiade and his wife came to Hollywood. He finally got a bit part in the Player’s Ring production of View From The Bridge, as well as understudying the lead. His break came when he had to step into the role of Marco one night, stayed from six-and-a-half months. It was during this time that Miss Ball saw Nick and signed him to the Workshop.

Georgiade continued his career in film and television playing supporting roles throughout the next three decades, appearing in Batman, Combat!, Run Buddy Run, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), among others.

Nick Georgiade celebrated the 60th Anniversary of The Untouchables in retirement in Nevada.

Abel Fernandez (1930 – 2016)

Rugged Abel Fernandez, a tough but sensitive ex-paratrooper who used to make a living with his fists, viewed his part in The Untouchables, as the biggest break of his new career as an actor. He portrayed William Youngfellow, Cherokee Indian member of Elliot Ness’ gangbusting group of Department of Justice agents. Youngfellow was based on William Gardner, a Native American Treasury agent who served as a part of the real-life squad.

Fernandez always has wanted to be an actor, a cherished dream that in his younger days often seemed as remote a possibility as the next meal.· It began when he was a child who learned to hit back after being pounced upon by loitering gangs while running errands.

One day a movie company shot exterior scenes right in front of his home in downtown Los Angeles. Abel was fascinated by the camera, the sound boom, the lights and reflectors, and assistant directors shouting “Quiet – we’re rolling!” After that I used to play hooky and try to get through the gates into studios,” he said, “but I always got turned away.

Abel, youngest of a large family whose mother died when he was born, was the “castaway” who was bounced around from relative to relative until finally, his grandmother raised him. She warned him not to run with the street gangs in the bitter crucible of Temple and Figueroa streets and encouraged his interest in sports.

At Cathedral, then Belmont High School, Abel excelled in athletics. At 16 – then a strapping six-footer – he enlisted in the Army, became a paratrooper and was sent to Asia with the 11th Airborne Division just following World War II.

He had always known how to fight – a necessity for survival in the asphalt jungle. But in the service, he learned to box. This refinement of what Abel actually considers a dubious attribute led to his winning the middle-weight champion­ship of the Asiatic forces.

Following his discharge he returned home, got a job as a printer’s devil, and continued his amateur boxing career, winning the Los Angeles Golden Gloves light-heavyweight title in 1950.

He turned professional later that year – a promising fighter with a picture right cross and a devastating punch in either hand. But Abel couldn’t stand the cold-blooded the exploitation of the prize ring, which found him pushed into main events after just three preliminary bouts.

“I soon learned that the money I was promised really wasn’t there,” he said. “After my manager took his cut and I paid for sparring partners, equipment, training facilities, publicity, cornermen, a trainer and the rest – I was lucky to keep a third of what I earned – before taxes. I even got billed for my towel and soap.”

Two incidents served further to disenchant him. “One night I hurt a guy real bad. He had said something to me as we climbed into the ring and I got mad the only time I ever lost my temper as a fighter. Usually, that’s fatal, because when you’re mad you leave yourself open to assassination. But I got off first and belted this guy with an awful right. His head bounced off the canvas, and he lay so still it scared me. There was no elation. I was sick and scared. He was in the hospital for three days.”

And one night when he was fighting at Hollywood Legion Stadium Abel slashed a cut over his opponent’s eye just before a round ended. “I was sitting on my stool waiting for the next round to start when this girl stood up at ringside,” Abel recalled. “She was a beautiful doll, expensively dressed. She was screaming at me, ‘I hit him in that eye! Kill him! Kill him! What happens to people at fights?”

So virtually unmarked after some 120 bouts as a pro and amateur, Abel quit the prize ring late in 1953 just as he was being touted as a title contender. He became a bartender and he studied acting. Friends helped him, and the easy-going darkly handsome 6-foot-4, 190-pound bachelor got his first chance in a movie entitled Second Chance starring Robert Mitchum and Linda Darnell. Since then, he  appeared in 16 motion pictures (including Fort Yuma, Target Zero, and Many Rivers to Cross” to name a few) and more than 50 television shows (including Steve Canyon, Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Disney’s Andy Burnett” series, 77 Sunset Strip, Playhouse 90 and Cheyenne.)

Because of his appearance, Abel often is cast as an Indian. His heritage makes him a one-man UN. He’s part Mexican, Spanish, Portuguese, Irish and Italian – with blue­
black hair and eyes.

“This part in The Untouchables was a great break for me,” he said. “I’ve had a lot to learn but when you’ve had to fight all the way up, you learn. I’ve met some of the most wonderful people in the world in this business. I don’t think I’d ever be overawed by the star bit. I made a name in this town before I ever became an actor and I don’t think my hat size’d change.”

After leaving his acting career, Fernández produced films for disadvantaged children.

Steve London (1929 – 2014)

Steve London appeared in 63 episodes of The Untouchables as Jack Rossman, who was loosely based on Paul Robsky, the wire-tap expert on Ness’ squad. London appeared in bit roles throughout his short career on film and television.

London, Robert Stack and Bruce Gordon would all appear on The Lucy Show in 1967 to comically send up their respective Untouchables roles.

After his time in Hollywood, London earned his law degree and practiced under his birth name, Walter Lee Gragg.

 

 

Bruce Gordon (1916 – 2011)

Known as The Enforcer, Frank Nitti became one of the all-time greatest recurring TV villains, eclipsing the notorious and often named but virtually never seen Capone. Portrayed memorably by Bruce Gordon in just 23 episodes as well as the Desilu Playhouse, Gordon brought to the Nitti character a single‑mindedly evil, unforgivingly treacherous yet somehow likable, even enjoyable persona unmatched by any other in television history apart from oil baron J. R. Ewing of the series Dallas.

Over the course of the series, Nitti was shot, shoved, slapped, raided, berated, busted and killed off only to return for more. At the conclusion of the first year, Nitti’s demise eliminated Ness’s chief adversary. When reminded of this in a 1960 TV Guide story, Gordon replied that he wasn’t sorry to see Nitti go. “I got a little tired of going to the bank where the manager always pretended to call the police…” He would not remain dead for long.

While other famous criminals of the era would often return in the bodies of different actors, Gordon was always Nitti, helmsman of the Capone empire frozen as it was in the act of collapse for four television seasons.

Despite his limited appearances out of the of 120 hours filmed, Nitti seems present in nearly every episode, if not in body certainly in spirit. Disagreeable and unreasonable, usually displeased with the performance of just about everything and everyone around him, Nitti is the eternal dim bulb, the one more likely to solve a problem with a bullet than through the art of compromise.

Second only to Stack’s Ness, Gordon’s Nitti achieved celebrity status unrealized by the man he portrayed, a small, mustachioed and by all accounts quietly malevolent individual that deserved his Enforcer nickname by carrying out Capone’s more ruthless edicts himself or delegating the honors.

After the series, the only Frank Nitti everyone had grown to love was typecast forever, but it worked to Gordon’s advantage and he appeared often in other programs in the same sort of character. Despite the failure of Run Buddy Run! in 1966, he seemed to genuinely enjoy what other actors feared most and he capitalized on it whenever possible. He nurtured his image and ultimately starred in a series of amusingly threatening Dodge commercials sporting natty pinstripes and gray fedora. He also appeared with Able Fernandez in several beer commercials in New York that played up his earlier association with the beverage.

His final starring role as Frank Nitti began on December 31st, 1979, with the opening of Frank Nitti’s Place in Kansas City, Missouri. A comfortably plush saloon and pizza parlor featuring etched glass, Pullman-style booths with green pinstripe upholstery, polished brass speakeasy appointments and Untouchables memorabilia, the immediately successful nightspot included large photo murals of his one-time television adversary, Eliot Ness. Gordon often greeted arrivals and generally hung amiably around, fully dressed in period attire complete with trademark carnation.

In a restaurant review appearing in the February 22nd, 1980 edition of the Kansas City Times, co-founder Diamond Jim Bowers, one of Gordon’s long-time friends, was quoted as saying “I don’t know how he could have played such roles. Bruce couldn’t kill a motor.” An item on the menu resembling what most would call a “Chicago hot dog” was billed as “Nitti’s Frank.”

Robert Stack mused some years later that he, Paul Picerni, and Abel Fernandez had conspired to show up at Frank Nitti’s Place in a surprise “raid,” but unfortunately they were unable to coordinate everyone’s schedules. Frank Nitti’s Place became well-known, but burned mysteriously several years later and did not re-open.

Gordon’s screen credits include Love Happy (1949) with the Marx Brothers, Curse of the Undead (1959), and appearances on television’s Car 54, Where Are You? and The Lucy Show, Petyon Place, and many others.