|Banacek: The First Season (1983)
Starring: George Peppard, Ralph Manza, Murray Matheson
George Peppard had a brief but notable run as a movie star during the 1960s. His first major gig came in 1959’s “Pork Chop Hill,” where he served alongside Gregory Peck, Rip Torn, Robert Blake and Norman Fell, but it was his turn as Paul Varjak, Holly Golightly’s eventual beau in 1961’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” that proved to be the most memorable movie role of Peppard’s career. Several other notable films would follow, including “How the West was Won,” “The Carpetbaggers” and “The Blue Max,” but his star began to droop a bit as the years passed, and, by the ‘70s and early ‘80s, Peppard’s big roles were limited to grade-B sci-fi dramas like “Damnation Alley” and “Battle Beyond the Stars.” It’s no surprise, then, that when NBC came a’calling in 1983 with a regular TV series gig, Peppard was more than happy to take the part.
Still, while there are worse roles to be remembered for than that of the A-Team’s cigar-chewing Col. John “Hannibal” Smith, it’s nice that TV Guide decided to kick off their series of TV-on-DVD releases by reminding folks that George Peppard wasn’t always just the leader of a renegade commando squad. Once upon a time, he was the coolest, most awesome insurance investigator in the business. And he was chewing on cigars back then, too.
Peppard played Thomas Banacek, and, while technically a freelance investigator, his specialty was working with insurance companies for a 10 percent “finder’s fee” in order to save them from having to pay out full payments for lost or destroyed property that had been insured for outrageously large sums. Banacek’s clearly a man of means, driving a customized 1969 American Motors AMX; but, of course, that’s only when he’s not being driven around in a 1973 Cadillac Fleetwood limousine by his trusty chauffeur, Jay (Ralph Manza). While a top-notch detective in his own right, Banacek is regularly provided with crucial background data by bookseller Felix Mulholland (Murray Matheson), who deals in antique books as often as he deals in information.
Banacek is the James Bond of insurance investigators. He’s classy, has a way with the ladies, and isn’t too shabby with the hand-to-hand combat, either. He’s also a master of snappy retorts and rapid-fire patter. Proud of his Polish heritage, Banacek gladly doles out proverbs that ostensibly hail from his homeland, but usually only result in a double-take from those on the receiving end. (Example: “Read the whole library, my son, but the cheese will still smell after four days.”) He’s certainly the antithesis of the “Polacks” who were the focus of so many ethnic jokes during the ‘70s, solving crimes without breaking a sweat and providing ridiculously in-depth explanations as to how the guilty parties almost got away with it. In addition to the consistently witty dialogue, there are also some great guest-star turns, including Broderick Crawford (“Highway Patrol”), Kevin McCarthy (from the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”), and Margot Kidder, who plays one of Banacek’s romantic interest and, ironically, makes a joke about Superman almost half a decade before being cast as Lois Lane.
“Banacek” is an underrated drama of the ‘70s that, while not necessarily the best of the decade, is certainly one worthy of rediscovery, if only to enjoy the fun of Peppard’s performance. In fact, don’t be surprised if, in a few months, someone gets the bright idea to update the show, either bringing it back to television or possibly even turning it into a movie franchise. (Personally, I’m voting for the latter; this role has George Clooney’s name written all over it.) The greatest shame about the release of “Banacek” on DVD is that the show has shown up in a really sub-par set.Special Features: We’re looking at some pretty slim pickings here. The only “Banacek”-related feature is a photo gallery, and the only thing we get beyond that is a selection of TV Guide crossword puzzles that are only accessible via the DVD-ROM drive of your computer. What, they couldn’t at least include the TV movie which served as the pilot for the series? It’s hard to believe that TV Guide, a magazine whose name is synonymous with television coverage, would finally license its name for a series of DVDs, only to make a debut like this. Yes, the three principals of the shows are deceased, but several of the directors and guest stars are alive and could’ve provided a commentary track or contributed to a retrospective featurette. Better yet, how about getting an actual insurance investigator to chime in? That would’ve been hilarious! Really, though, the greatest disappointment is that the set retails for $29.99, yet there are only eight episodes here. Granted, each runs almost an hour and a half – the show was actually part of the rotating line-up of NBC’s “Mystery Movie” series – but, still, if you’re going to release a specialty item like this and there are only nine further episodes (counting the TV movie), why not just go whole-hog and release it as a set of the entire series?