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The Two Jakes
2 November 2006
Jake Webster was the owner of a Vienna club called "Jake's Place". But
American intelligence was also forcing Jake to work as a spy. A superb
set-up for a show, with intimations of "Casablanca", "Gilda" and "The
Third Man". A romantic action hero with a shady past who has a secret.
Jake Webster could have been a star making role.
Brilliant Roy Scheider played the Bogart-like hero in the pilot movie
called "Assignment Munich". But Sheider hit the big time with "The
French Connection", and he wisely backed out of his commitment for the
series. Sheider's performance as Jake was a little too self-satisfied
A number of top actors were reportedly offered the lead in "Assignment
Vienna" but turned it down. Talented, underrated Robert Conrad
("Hawaiian Eye", "The Wild, Wild West") wound up as the new Jake
Webster. Conrad had done a Jack Webb series called "The DA" the
previous season, but it was canceled after thirteen episodes. He then
made an unsold pilot called "Nick Carter". Conrad was more appealing
than Sheider. He was convincing as a spy but not terribly distinctive
or magnetic. A TV Bogart was required, and that's a tall order. John
Saxon, who had just been fired from "The Bold Ones", might have been
fascinating. Pernell Roberts (without toupee), Anthony Quinn, Gerald
Mohr, Jason Evers, James Olson, Rod Taylor, John Cassavetes, David
Janssen or Ben Gazzara also might have given Jake Webster more gravitas
than Conrad. Desi Arnaz had been surprisingly superb in a similar role
in "Thunder in the Night", a Desilu Playhouse (1960).
Charles Cioffi played Major Caldwell, Jake Webster's American contact.
Richard Basehart played Caldwell in the pilot. A strong woman in the
role would have added more flavor and tension, maybe Sharon Acker.
Eric Bercovici and Jerry Ludwig were the creators/executive producers.
They were a talented writing team who had done a number of strong
episodes of "Hawaii 5-0" and "Mission: Impossible". This was their big
chance, and they did a good job. But the production should have been
more stylishly filmed, with a richer film noir feel that would have
recalled the show's movie predecessors. The look of the show didn't
really make it stand out, even with some nice on location filming in
Vienna. And maybe if Jake narrated the story, it would have given some
of the intimacy that Bogart's narration added to his movies.
The show might also have injected more humor, along the lines of Blake
Edwards' great "Mr. Lucky" (1959) - which was also a forerunner of this
series. Maybe Jake should have had a droll partner like Mr. Lucky did,
perhaps played by Michael Dunn.
Guest stars included Maria Schell, John Ireland, Rosemary Forsyth, Anne
Francis, Walter Slezak, Susan Strasberg, Leslie Nielsen, Cameron
Mitchell and Joseph Campanella. It might have been interesting if they
had hired some prior TV spies for guest stars like David McCallum,
Diana Rigg, Patrick McGoohan, Steven Hill and Robert Culp.
"Assignment Vienna" was one of three alternating series making up "The
Men". The other two were "Jigsaw" with James Wainwright and "The Delphi
Bureau" with Laurence Luckinbill.
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