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Reviewed by Will Harris
he 1970s: an era when television dramas could revolve around lead actors who didn’t fit the mold of Hollywood handsome and weren’t of ages that found them nestled snugly within key advertising demographics. Such things are long since gone now, of course, but thanks to the wonder that is TV on DVD, we can relive those glory days when both fat guys and old guys could be private investigators. The most notable figure in the former category, of course, is Frank Cannon, and as for the latter, there’s only one name that leaps immediately to mind: Barnaby Jones.
Buddy Ebsen had been a dancer of some note in his early career, and you may or may not know that he was originally slated to play the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz” until he had an unfortunate reaction to the silver paint, but his career in Hollywood wasn’t what you’d call hugely successful. In fact, unless you’re a real cinephile, you’ll likely only know one film on his resume (“Breakfast at Tiffany’s”), which is probably why Ebsen had no problem making the jump to television when the medium came calling. His first major recurring role was that of George Russel in Disney’s “Davy Crockett” series, followed by a gig on a western series called “Northwest Passage,” but the official no-turning-back moment came when he stepped into the shoes of a man named Jed.
Although the odds of overcoming such an iconic role would’ve seemed insurmountable, it quickly becomes clear during the pilot episode of “Barnaby Jones” that, even after you strip away Ebsen’s popular “Beverly Hillbillies” persona, the actor’s naturally genial manner makes him imminently watchable. The premise of the series helps you fall into his corner as well, with Jones – once a private investigator – coming out of retirement to solve his son’s murder; even after he’s done so, however, he decides to stay in the business, with his daughter-in-law, Betty (Lee Meriwether), acting as his right-hand woman. Like his television peer, Columbo, Barnaby Jones is forever underestimated by those involved in the crimes he’s investigating, but despite his age, he almost always manages to get his man.
As with any 1970s mystery series, one gets as much fun out of picking out the guest stars as anything else, and “Barnaby Jones: Season One” is full of them. In fact, the pilot episode, “Requiem for a Son,” actually features the aforementioned Frank Cannon (William Conrad), thereby establishing that both “Barnaby Jones” and “Cannon” exist within the same Quinn Martin universe. Other notable names include William Shatner as a man who fakes his own death, Gary Lockwood as a stalker who’s out to kill Barnaby, and Cathy Lee Crosby as a beautiful young thing who isn’t afraid to flirt with a much older detective, with appearances elsewhere in the season from Roddy McDowall, Jackie Coogan, Bill Bixby, Jack Cassidy, Claude Akins, and many more.
If you didn’t live through the ‘70s, it’s understandable that you might not get excited about the release of some of the now-archaic series from the era making it to DVD, but if you only know Buddy Ebsen from “The Beverly Hillbillies,” you might give “Barnaby Jones” a try, as it shows that he was just as adept at drama as he was at comedy.
Special Features: Nothing but the original episodic promos. Obviously, Ebsen isn’t around to contribute, but Ms. Meriwether is, and having interviewed her a few years ago, I know that her enthusiasm for the series remains undaunted, so it’s shocking that there’s not even so much as an introduction to the set from her.