|Index||8 reviews in total|
During the early 1960's, the series "77 Sunset Strip" (one of my
favorites...) spawned a rash of hip detective knockoffs, many of them
from the same studio, Warner Brothers, several more from other studios.
Surprisingly, Revue Studios, known mainly for its cookie-cutter
formulaic dramas, came up with one that stood head and shoulders from
the rest of the imitators, and was an original in its own right.
"Checkmate" is the name of a detective agency in San Francisco with an
unusual twist: not just content to protect their clients, their aim is
to prevent the crimes before they start. The approach is like a game of
chess, hence the name, "Checkmate".
First and foremost, "Checkmate" strayed from the pretty-boy lighthearted mysteries, and settled for taut, intelligent, serious cases with a noir fashion. The fact that famed mystery writer Eric Ambler created the show speaks for itself. Plus, while "77 Sunset Strip" relied on Warners' stock company of character actors and rising young stars, "Checkmate" had the ability and the budget to include major big guest stars like Joan Fontaine, Peter Lorre, Mickey Rooney, David Janssen, Harry Guardino, Julie London, etc., giving it a sheen of class denied the other imitators.
The regular cast contained no slouches. The recently deceased Anthony George played Checkmate's deep-voiced head honcho Don Corey with more intensity than even the Strip's Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. Doug McClure played Jed Sills with a self-depreciating flair, playing off his obvious good looks; when "Checkmate" was canceled, McClure would pull it off again in the role of Trampas on "The Virginian". The real highlight here is the late, great Sebastian Cabot, playing the esteemed scientific consultant, Dr. Carl Hyatt, with a blend of haughtiness, exasperation, and intelligence; a blend that was put to good use (or waste, depending on how you see it) when he later took on his signature role as Mr. French on "Family Affair".
And I also might add, the theme song wasn't a bouncy rock and roller like 77SS and the rest, but a tense, moody jazz instrumental by the legendary John "Johnny" Williams.
If you can find "Checkmate" on DVD, which, sadly, is the only way you'll get to see this wonderful lost gem, I strongly recommend you pick it up. Compare it (and for that matter, "77 Sunset Strip") to the current wave of police procedurals on TV today. See which is better.
"Checkmate" is a JaMco Production, financed by Jack Benny (yes, THE Jack Benny, who also did a guest spot here), and filmed by Revue Studios in Hollywood and San Francisco. 70 episodes were aired on CBS between 1960 and 1962.
Checkmate Inc. was an elite San Francisco firm that would prevent (or
checkmate) a crime before it occurred. Don Corey (Anthony George) was
the owner of the firm and Jed Sills (Doug McClure) was his young
associate. Dr. Carl Hyatt (Sebastian Cabot) was a criminologist at a
local university who served as a consultant to Checkmate. All three
actors worked as a team in each episode, rather than alternating as
episode stars. Sebastian Cabot was the standout, but all three actors
were very appealing, and their interactions made the show compelling.
Checkmate Inc. worked out of Don Corey's beautiful Nob Hill bachelor pad. The set for this apartment was sensational, and was almost a fourth character. I really loved that apartment. I waited for the scenes that took place in Corey's elegant home, hoping to get a different angle on it. (Checkmate's John J. Lloyd won the Emmy for Outstanding Art Direction and Scenic Design.)
The three leads probably weren't paid much money, but the producers splurged on guest stars. A cool group of actors: Lee Marvin, Inger Stevens, Peter Lorre, Claire Bloom, Dan Duryea, Cyd Charisse, Richard Conte, Terry Moore, David Janssen, Angie Dickinson, Jack Lord, Elizabeth Montgomery, Charles Laughton, Tina Louise, Robert Lansing, Susan Oliver and Ralph Bellamy were a few.
My favorite episode was "The Murder Game", an Agatha Christie type story by Douglas Heyes ("Kitten With a Whip") that had an undercurrent of dark humor. A famed criminal lawyer (John Williams), who never lost a capital case, is dying. He learns that one of the clients he got off on a murder charge was really guilty. The lawyer invites several of his former clients to his house for a party, including the guilty one. He plans to murder the murderer. The lawyer also invites his former colleagues Don Corey and Carl Hyatt, and challenges them to stop him. "Checkmate" was on Saturday nights its first season, right after "Perry Mason", who the lawyer might have resembled.
Thriller writer Eric Ambler created this show. Ambler was married to "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" producer Joan Harrison, who may have produced some of the early episodes.
John Williams received a Grammy nomination for the striking theme music. Saul Bass created the dazzling opening title credits.
Robert Lansing and Robert Sterling auditioned for the lead role of Don Corey along with Anthony George. Lansing was the choice of Universal executive Richard Lewis who developed the show, but CBS president Jim Aubrey didn't like Lansing's looks.
The Doug McClure character was originally going to be a woman, to be played by the lovely Joan O'Brien.
In the second episode of the second season, a new regular was mysteriously added. Jack Betts played investigator Chris Devlin. Betts had the tall, dark and handsome looks of Anthony George. Maybe George was having contract disputes with Universal, or maybe he had health issues. Or maybe Universal already had plans to move Doug McClure over to "The Virginian" the next season. Jack Betts had the lead in his first episode (with guest star Tony Randell) but after that he didn't get much screen time. I'm only sure of him being in one other episode (with guest star James Whitmore.) Jack Betts is still a very busy working actor ("Spiderman").
For me, this show jumped the shark the second season when "Checkmate" moved out of Don Corey's posh apartment into an expensive office suite. It just wasn't the same without that Nob Hill apartment. But for its first season, "Checkmate" was my favorite show, along with Rod Taylor's "Hong Kong".
Aaron Spelling tried to do a remake of "Checkmate" in 1970 called "The Most Deadly Game". George Maharis, Inger Stevens and Ralph Bellamy starred in the pilot. With that cast (two of whom were veterans of "Checkmate"), it should have worked. But even with Joan Harrison as one of the line producers, the execution was nowhere near as good as "Checkmate". Yvette Mimieux replaced Inger Stevens after her death.
I remember Checkmate. It had great style, action, plots & characters. I
never knew it was created by Eric Ambler, the author of A Coffin For
I had just moved to San Francisco in 1960 & it was a very exciting place to be - the fog, the cable cars, the bridges, Alcatraz & Chinatown. They all appeared in episodes of Checkmate. I recall the series was saturated with a sense of the city.
It would be great to see some of those old episodes again. They might seem corny now, but I'd like to see that great gray city by the bay again the way it was way back then.
I loved this series, and I do not like television series in general. The cast was perfect: Corey as tough, worldly-wise chief of "Checkmate" and mentor to partner Doug McClure, who here was able to get away from the grinning, pretty-boy roles that would dog his career, playing the younger detective with (for him) a subdued grittiness. And then there was Sebastian Cabot--vested suits, walking stick, sparkling eyes, he stole every scene he was in. The writing was excellent, and yes, the opening was way ahead of its time. An all-around classy show with terrific guest stars...naturally it is not available on VHS or DVD. Another reason that even at that age I was in agreement with Newton Minnow's description of television programming as a "vast wasteland." And the waste is the stuff that makes it to TVland and DVD. Which would be fine if shows like "Checkmate" were not lost forever.
The 70 black and white hour-long episodes of "Checkmate" were
originally broadcast from 1960-62 on CBS. Those who only remember
Sebastian Cabot as the prissy butler "French" on "Family Affair" will
be surprised at his superior acting talent, which was nicely showcased
in this series.
"Checkmate Inc." was an unusual organization based in San Francisco, a posh detective agency whose specialty was thwarting crimes "before" they occurred. The plot line for each episode was structured to resemble a chess game, which reflected the series title.
Middle age detective Don Corey (Anthony George) operated the firm out of his elegant Nob Hill apartment. Young Jed Sills (Doug McClure) was the designated hunk of the series. Dr. Carl Hyatt (Cabot) was a trained criminologist who served as the organization's brain trust. The three mostly worked as a team and a lot of the humor came from Cabot's frequent frustration over the dimness of his two associates.
Warner Brothers had hit on a successful formula for the intelligent detective series (insert "Surfside Six", "77 Sunset Strip", etc. here) and Jack Benny's "JaMco Productions" appropriated this and turned it into "Checkmate". At least they eliminated Warner's obligatory weird side-kick/informer and good looking but airheaded singer/girlfriend/etc.
So they basically had a main character targeted at all age levels of the female demographic, with one of which almost any male viewer could identify. And each episode included some attractive young actress(s) and a couple has-been movie stars in the cast.
The early John Williams' theme music was a memorable jazz instrumental for which he received a Grammy nomination. As often happens with these things they tried to get cute between seasons and added Jack Betts to the cast as investigator Chris Devlin and they moved the agency into a normal office suite. It limped through its second season until cancellation.
15 episodes from Season One are now out in a DVD package with the misleading title "Best of Checkmate:Season One". It does not appear that any effort was made to actually cull out the "best" episodes for this release, it looks more like this group was included because they were the only ones to which Edi Video had the rights and/or the only ones in good enough condition for digital re-mastering. The DVD package has no special features and is a relatively low-budget but serviceable effort. A similar collection of Season Two episodes is due for release in March 2008.
Then again what do I know? I'm only a child.
I was three years old, and I watched this show a lot..what seems to have made an impression, from what I remember, was the opening credits, on a background that looked like a Jackson Pollock painting..of course, I had no idea who Jackson Pollock was, or what the word "Checkmate" meant...its fascinating that 1. this show starred Sebastian Cabot..who later played the Butler, Mr. French in the inane, A Family Affair and 2. It was created by Eric Ambler.. Why hasn't it been re-run? I must say, however, that I just remembered another reason it was so unique..it featured one of the few TV guest appearances by Charles Laughton. In fact, it may have have been his last bit of acting, anywhere. It was called "Wind From the East",and it starred Laughton as a Chinese master-spy, a sort of cross between Fu Manchu and Wo Fat..
How funny - all of us baby boomers have memories of particular
"Checkmate" was a detective-type show starring Sebastian Cabot, Doug McClure, and Anthony George. Sadly, all these actors are gone now. The series was based in San Francisco. The firm was established to stop crime before it happened. Each episode would focus on a particular cast member, but the others would appear in the episode as well. The firm was owned by Don Corey (George) and he worked with an associate, Jed Sills (Doug McClure) and a university criminologist (Cabot). So you had a hunk for the teens in McClure, a familiar face in Cabot, who had been in movies from 1946 and later in television, and someone interesting to women over 18 (George). Cabot had not yet played Mr. French in "Family Affair." The creator of the series was the wonderful Eric Ambler.
This was a very classy show that had many guest stars from the world of film. I recently saw two episodes, one starring Claire Bloom and the other starring Jeffrey Hunter as a psycho. Episodes and DVDs of the whole series occasionally show up on ebay, so it's worth checking.
Personal memories - Tony George, during his years on "One Life to Live," used to live in my friend's building. He was a very slight man, though he doesn't look it on screen. When working on the Audrey Hepburn book, my research partner interviewed Doug McClure, and I actually transcribed the tape. He said that he had just been to the doctor and gotten a clean bill of health for his lung cancer. He died very shortly afterward, and I remember the man who interviewed him being very upset. When Jeremy Brett died shortly after I interviewed him, I received a card from my research partner that said, "Welcome to the black widow's club." Now, here's the episode I remember - it was with Anne Baxter and had something to do with a horse.
These really should be released on an official DVD.
Most fictional detectives work out of dingy offices and where clothes
that look like they've slept in them. Jim Rockford in the Rockford
Files operates out of a trailer. But the three who operate the
Checkmate Agency live pretty good out of a posh apartment that serves
as their office as well. Doing the grunt work are Anthony George and
Doug McClure, but they do it elegantly and only resort to violence when
George and McClure have a high priced consultant in Oxford professor Sebastian Cabot who is now transferred to San Francisco. He lectures on criminology at Berkeley. But the man has a Sherlock Holmes like mind and misses nothing. The other guys are on their toes as well.
Checkmate lasted three seasons and for three seasons gave us some really literate scripts, well plotted stories and unfortunately a black and white view of San Francisco. Pity CBS wasn't doing color at the time.
I just acquired the complete episodes of the show. It's going to be nice to relive the days of Corey, Sills, and Hyatt.
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