THE EMPTY CHAIR
Oct. 15, 1959, May 5, 1960
Teleplay by David Karp
Story by Ernest Kinoy
Directed by John Peyser
Produced by Charles Russell
Co-starring Barbara Nichols, Bruce Gordon
Special Guest Star Nehemiah Persoff
Featuring Peter Mamakos, Richard Benedict, Betty Garde, Wally Cassell, Herman Rudin, Frank Wilcox, Carl Milletaire
“Chicago, May 5th, 1932. After seven months of legal delays, Al Capone, the country’s most notorious product of the nation’s experiment with prohibition, was on his way to federal prison to serve eleven years for income tax evasion. On hand to watch the mobster leave, was Eliot Ness, chief of the unique federal squad known as The Untouchables, the special unit that had worked for eighteen months to bring Al Capone to justice. For these men, the end of the Capone career was just the beginning of another era of violence. The king of the hoodlums had left a vacant throne behind him. The next man to claim it would pay for the privilege in violence and bloodshed.”
After Frank Nitti (Bruce Gordon), guns down Tony Mops Volpe (Herman Rudin), and Gus Raddi (Peter Mamakos), in his bid for control of Capone’s throne, he confronts syndicate bookkeeper Jake Greasy Thumb Guzik (Nehemiah Persoff), who persuades Nitti and the surviving council members to leave Capone’s throne empty until leadership is proven through peaceful negotiation.
The Untouchables launch an aggressive campaign to bust Nitti, knowing that if they leave the others alone, the dim-witted Enforcer will assume that Guzik and the others are out to cut him down. But Guzik succeeds in averting another armed confrontation with Nitti. That leaves Ness with the remote chance of persuading the widow of his informer George Richie, Barbara (Barbara Nichols), to help him bust Jake Guzik, who is not only her uncle but the man who paid for her husband’s murder.
“A quiet day, sunlight, peace. For Eliot Ness and the Untouchables, the same quiet between one job and the next. For Ness knew that even though Jake Guzik was headed for federal prison, other men in the shadow of Chicago, more vicious and more subtle, were waiting to take Al Capone’s empty chair.”
For obvious reasons, Quinn Martin felt it necessary to begin the weekly story of the Untouchables where the Desilu Playhouse ended. Writer David Karp concurred, and Capone, packed off to prison, leaves his heirs battling for control of Chicago. It is worth noting that Capone in fact, continued to run his empire during his stay in the Cook County Jail. Only when he was moved to Atlanta did he find it difficult to remain in charge, whereupon he appointed Nitti successor.
What makes it work are two lengthy verbal showdowns between Nitti and Guzik. These stormy encounters firmly establish Nitti as the gunsel, and Guzik as the brains of the organization with pencil mightier than the machine gun. The irony, of course, is that Guzik ends up busted while Nitti carries on to shoot it out for another 22 appearances.
Gordon and Persoff are perfect for their roles and they run completely away with their characters. The dialog is colorful, full of wisecracks and genuine heat. During the first encounter, Guzik advises Nitti that “…a gun can’t think.” Nitti, menacing the horn-rimmed accountant with his weapon replies, “It can shoot, bookkeeper.”
Later, when the two square off again after Ness’s raids has brought the mob to the very threshold of anarchy, they roar and hiss in each other’s faces, Guzik screaming “We’re sick and tired of you and your guns! We’re tired of seeing you carry it and wave it and pick your teeth with it! This is an association, not a gang!”
But a gang it is, indeed, for everyone, there is a gangster. Even the bean counter who packs a loaded pencil at all times. Persoff will return to the series in five subsequent episodes, three times alone as Jake Guzik. A gifted, highly animated talent, Jerusalem-born Persoff enjoyed a great deal of exposure on television throughout the 1960s and voiced the elder Mouskewitz in Steven Spielberg’s first animated feature An American Tail in 1986. As a dynamic character actor, Persoff fits The Untouchables like a glove.
The episode is also noteworthy because it essentially births the personality of the show’s Frank Nitti, who had been written as far more business-like in the Playhouse drama. Despite not having any scenes together here, Nitti is being poised to become the arch-rival for Eliot Ness. Nitti’s proclivity to violence, colorful exchanges and Bruce Gordon’s memorable portrayal will become series hallmarks.
This hour is also the introductory vehicle for Enrico Rossi, one of the precious few “good” Italians, played memorably by Nick Georgiade (who had just recently gotten slugged in a brewery raid in the original two-parter while playing a smart mouthed hoodlum.) As one of the two barbers witnessing the Nitti massacre – the other not wishing to identify Nitti due to acute spinal curvature – Rossi signs on to help Ness “do something about these butchers.”
Had continuity been an important concept in this series, Rossi should not have appeared in any program dated prior to May 1932, but he will appear routinely in 1929, 1930 and 1931. Rossi is easily Ness’s most readily identified Untouchable given his Roman nose and mellow voice so the idea of leaving him out of backdated scripts is much weaker than trying to stick to a continuity that viewers would likely not even remember.
On the downside, Nitti might be dumb, but not stupid. To leave not one, but two witnesses to a massacre is not only cerebrally stupid, but unbelievable as well. A mob that only recently dusted seven men in a garage on St. Valentine’s Day, one of them an innocent bystander, would not leave two barbers standing.
The most serious problem is Barbara Richie, alias Brandy La France, as portrayed by Barbara Nichols. She is only slightly easier to watch here, sober and in mourning, than she was in the Desilu Playhouse where she was drunk, obnoxious, shallow, and definitely in need of further drama lessons. Her performance is often painful to watch.
Throughout much of the first season, writers would try to find the right voice for Winchell and often his narrations wouldn’t vary much from week to week and in this episode, they are prosaic at best. Since Winchell wrote none of his own copy, it was later suggested that he adopt a more urgent, news-like delivery. This angle gave the writers the direction necessary to fabricate Winchell’s voice-overs with bulletin-like consistency that eventually became the program’s trademark.
As the premiere episode, it has a tendency to drag its feet toward the end, but definitely sets the tone for the 117 hours to follow.
Screenwriter David Karp, who would go onto win an Emmy in 1965, carves out some pretty great exchanges like those mentioned between Guzk and Nitti.
While Barbara Nichols’ portrayal of Barbara Guzik is otherwise a glaring headlight in this episode, her exchange with Ness in the last quarter of the episode offers us our first glimpse of an Eliot Ness that thrives in pushing the envelope for justice as he needles her into helping their case.
Stack’s characterization wheels a relentless balance of reserve, fury and comfort in less than three minutes of screen time as he appeals to Brandy, insults her, pulls out the knife used to kill her husband, holds it in her face and manages to eventually win her over. Stack’s beautiful sardonicism will become one of the main pillars in his portrayal of Eliot Ness and you can see Stack exercising himself into the role here.
BRANDY: “Well I’m not a nickel, Mr. Ness. You don’t spend me like you did Georgie.”
NESS: “You must have loved him very much.”
BRANDY: “You bet your life I did.”
NESS: “Quite a change, Mrs. Ritchie. From professional stripper to professional widow.”
BRANDY: “Why you dirty, lousy cop…”
NESS: “All decked out in mourning clothes and self pity. Spending the rest of your life putting flowers on a grave.”
BRANDY: “Listen, Georgie was the only thing I ever cared about.”
NESS: “Did he know that?”
BRANDY: “No, thanks to you he was killed before I could tell him about it.”
NESS: “And now he’s dead and you still can’t tell him. They don’t send telegrams to the cemetery, do they?
Brandy slaps him.
NESS: You’re using the wrong weapon, Barbara. Try this. Exhibit A. That’s what they used on your husband. And the men who did the job are still around.
• Screenwriter David Karp’s script for The Empty Chair would win an Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1960.
• The Empty Chair is the first of several first season episodes to take place over a protracted timeline — in this case roughly May through September of 1932. This is an unusual choice for pacing an hourly anthology series and one that was thankfully used less and less as the series writers’ got their footing.
• The plot of this episode will be loosely revisited in the second season with the episode The Seventh Vote, where Capone sends an intermediary to deal with Nitti and Guzik. As that episode takes place in April, it can be viewed as a “prequel” of sorts to The Empty Chair. The Seventh Vote will claim Guzik’s prison sentence is handed down in “July of that same year” despite the timeline of this episode. While continuity loses, the audience still wins.
• Ness giving Brandy a pistol for personal protection is a strange choice, but the First Season will be a proving ground for a degree of debatable creative choices. This is something a private eye would do, but not Eliot Ness.
• While the show will only rarely and specifically reference previous episodes, there are several overt mentions to the original two-parter for narrative continuity: Ness amusingly alludes to Martin Flaherty’s brief encounter with Brandy LaFrance (where she threw herself at him while he helped wiretap Capone’s phone) and he specifically references the death of Joe Fuselli. The assassination of Joe Ritchie is obviously a major plot point and an interesting story driver from the Playhouse film. While a useful device, it’s unlikely his death and subsequent memorial would have meant much to the roundtable of Capone’s mob.
• Producer Charles Russell, who died in 1991, is known as the producer for another of television’s most highly acclaimed programs, You Are There, in the early 1950s for CBS. Recreating many famous moments in history as live television events, You Are There gave Walter Cronkite his earliest exposure and had much to do with establishing CBS as a force in news and documentaries. But it was Russell’s clever deception in hiring three talented writers, Abraham Polansky, Walter Bernstein, and Arnold Manhoff, during the McCarthy era (while they were blacklisted) that made the program a critical success. Working under the cover of pseudonyms/and “body doubles” when CBS brass met with them personally, the writers were known only to Russell.
• We see our first establishing shot of the “Federal Building” in the series through stock footage, though the real life Ness moved his operations to the Transportation Building off Dearborn Street in Chicago.
• The real Jake Guzik, a long term Capone crony, went on to establish the mob’s Trans-America race wire in 1946, sapping (in usual Capone fashion) the legitimate Continental Wire Service. The only one of a handful of original Capone mob members to die a natural death, Guzik expired in 1956.