Season One, Volume One
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Reviewed by Will Harris
t seems like forever since the cable networks that specialize in airing classic TV shows have been willing to put any series from the 1960s in their lineup that hasn’t already been rerun ad nauseum for the last 40 years. You may think this is an exaggeration, but consider that TV Land’s latest programming announcement trumpeted the triumphant return of “Hogan’s Heroes” to the airwaves. Granted, there’s gotta be someone out there who still hasn’t seen Hogan pull a fast one on Col. Klink, but the numbers surely aren’t as substantial as they used to be. How about someone digs into the archives and pulls out something different for a change? My personal nomination: “Burke’s Law.”
Gene Barry spent the 1950s as a jack of all trades, starring in the original movie version of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” in 1953, doing a sitcom stint as Gene Talbot on “Our Miss Brooks,” and wandering the Wild West as the title character of “Bat Masterson.” In 1963, however, he stepped into the shoes of Amos Burke, who is not only the Chief of Detectives for the city of Los Angeles but also a suave millionaire playboy who arrives at homicide scenes in a Rolls Royce driven by his Filipino manservant, Henry (Leon Lontoc).
Yes, I know it sounds laughable, but, damn, it’s good!
Barry strolls through the show with a wink and a smirk, constantly firing off quips and flirtatious remarks like he’s the James Bond of Southern California. Each episode opens with a female voice purring, “It’s ‘Burke’s Law,’ at which point we find Burke either hosting a gala event or, more likely, showing some sweet young thing in a skin-tight outfit a good time. Suddenly, the phone rings, and Henry announces that there’s a call from headquarters. Moments later, Burke offers his regrets to his lady friend and asks Henry to “bring the car ‘round.” Cue the opening credits, and off drives the Rolls. Every episode offers a title that starts the same way (“Who Killed…,” followed by the victim’s name), after which there’s a roll call of that week’s guest stars.
I’d have to bet that there’s no murder-mystery series this side of “Murder, She Wrote” that features such an impressive guest roster, except that these folks were mostly in the midst of their respective heydays or possibly still in the midst of their rise to fame when they turned up on “Burke’s Law.” There’s a veritable who’s-who of Hollywood to be found within these episodes, with every single segment featuring at least three major names appearing in some capacity. “Who Killed Mr. X?” features Jim Backus, Elizabeth Montgomery, Soupy Sales and Mel Blanc (providing the voice of a mynah bird); “Who Killed Cable Roberts?” finds Zsa Zsa Gabor sporting a French maid’s outfit, Paul Lynde playing a caretaker who can’t stop weeping, and the great John Saxon playing -- well, it’s John Saxon, so all you need to know is that he scowls through his role brilliantly. Other folks turning up are Barbara Eden, Don Rickles, Rita Moreno, Sammy Davis, Jr., Tina Louise, Cesar Romero, David Niven, both Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon (albeit in two different episodes), Elsa Lanchester, Agnes Moorhead, Yvonne DeCarlo, Carl Reiner, Broderick Crawford, Wally Cox, Telly Savalas, Gloria Swanson, Frankie Laine, Hoagy Carmichael, Nancy Sinatra, and even Nancy’s pop in an unbilled cameo. Now, c’mon, is that impressive or is that impressive? (Confession: I never actually spotted the Chairman, but according to the DVD box, he’s supposedly in the same episode as his daughter.)
Although “Burke’s Law” does feature a regular supporting cast, including Gary Conway and Regis Toomey as detectives Tim Tilson and Les Hart, respectively, they’re generally only there to make their boss look good. Conway occasionally picks up laughs by playing Tilson as the eager young buck who knows too much for his own good, but it’s inevitable that Burke knows best, regularly getting the opportunity to quote one of the “laws” that he lives by. (Example: “Never let your brain interfere with your heart, your stomach or your wallet. Burke’s law.”) It’s also a running joke that Burke is forever taking one for the team by interviewing the hottest, sexiest suspects by saying, “Let your old captain handle this one, eh?”
Yes, “Burke’s Law” is a bit campy, but Barry never quite winks at the camera, always managing to indicate that, for all his flirtatious ways, he’s still on the job and dedicated to bringing the murderer to justice. And, hey, if he manages to shake some action in the process, more power to him, y’know? Why Amos Burke isn’t universally considered to be one of the greatest TV characters of the ‘60s is beyond me, but perhaps the DVD reissue of “Burke’s Law” will change that.
Special Features: Granted, there isn’t a whole lot here, but give VCI credit for trying to provide something. In addition to offering a visual demonstration on just how much work they put into cleaning up these episodes with a “before and after,” they’ve included several commercials which aired during the same time period as “Burke’s Law.” There’s Arnold Palmer doing a commercial for L&M Cigarettes, pointedly smoking his way through a golf game, while another one for the company finds a proud papa puffing away on an L&M while his son gets his first hair cut. Learn about Lark Cigarettes’ fantastic 3-piece Keith Filter, and thrill to the fascinating new technology of Schlitz Beer’s new Pop Top! It’s not as good as contributions from Gene Barry or Gary Conway would’ve been, but you can’t say they aren’t fun to watch.