I didn't know who Robert Altman was when I tuned in this episode some 47 years ago, but I was a Fabian fan, and he was spectacularly EVIL as the villain of the piece. His acting career never really took off, but at the time I thought he had the potential, and also liked his work in Don Siegel's Hound-Dog Man.
Suffice it to say that this forgotten TV episode will definitely delight Altman fans if someone resurrects it, and could also surprise anyone who's written off Fabian completely. The conventional wisdom is that episodic TV directors are mere traffic cops, but having seen this classic show as well as 16mm theatrical revivals of Sam Peckinpah's episodes of THE WESTERNER I think we're long overdue for giving the auteur theory an extension into so-called minor TV assignments.
Oct. 18, 2010: I got to see it again, and here are the details. Pre-credits teaser segment packs a wallop, as Fabian guest stars as Luke, a hitchhiker tossed out of a car by a lady (who he derisively calls "Mother Goose") after he attempts to grope her. He heads to the nearby grocery store, and lacking the 40 cents to pay for his purchase violently throws the old owner over the counter. After stealing money from the cash register he shoots the guy dead in cold blood, singing a gospel song as he leaves.
The name Luke is no accident, as a bible passage from Peter is superimposed on the screen warning us to be vigilant against the devil walking among us in the form of a lion. This passage is repeated at the end of the episode, and Fabian sings gospel songs, far removed from his pop hit repertoire, several times a cappella.
The script by Ellis Kadison, better known for producing & directing family films in the '60s like "The Cat", is way over the top, playing more like an exploitation movie than a TV segment. Series regulars Richard Anderson, Philip Abbott and Rhodes Reason take over center stage from Fabian, who is quickly arrested by Rhodes for murder. His trial hearing hinges on circumstantial evidence: the fatal gunshot stopped a clock at exactly 6:02pm, pinpointing the murder, and an eyewitness saw the car driving past, not too far from the grocery store, well before 6. It's a he said/she said case, as Fabian maintains that the cougar (term of course had not been invented yet), parked off the road for a lengthy sexual tryst, while she maintains she drove on directly, kicking him out before 6 near the store.
Some ridiculous plot twists include the cougar being the wife of local D.A. played by Anderson, and when he has to put her on the witness stand, their family friend, defense lawyer played by Abbott, has to tear her apart, as a drunk currently getting psychiatric treatment (of course an even bigger stigma then, but still today). Fabian is freed for lack of evidence, and director Altman adds a cute touch of a horde of teeny-boppers rushing to surround him in court as if it were the real pop-star Fabian and not just a handsome drifter.
In fact, despite his still-fun "daddy-o" hipster lingo, as he mocks & insults all adults throughout the episode, Fabian is not styled as a stereotypical juvenile delinquent but rather is an 18-year-old ladies' man, with "Dino" high collar shirt and snazzy sport jacket. He looks ready to step on stage as a lounge act in Vegas. This duality adds force to his performance -evil in such an attractive package.
After being free to go on about his murderous ways, Fabian visits his lawyer Abbott and extorts money from him at the point of a switchblade. He's a total sociopath, but I expect as a young teen I was rooting for him all the way -that being the interesting and subversive point of this melodramatic exercise.
Besides Fabian's memorable turn, Dianne Foster does an excellent job as the horny housewife, who takes matters in her own hands for the violent and nihilistic finale: cougar vs. lion. After 49 years, I was still caught by surprise at the wild finish. As a footnote, I see in IMDb that Altman brought Foster back to play an entirely different character on "Bus Stop" 3 months later -short attention span time.
As to why minor classics like "Bus Stop" and so many other TV series of its era languish in limbo, I'm guessing it is the poor production values. Though Altman had visually impressive shows like "Combat" and "Bonanza" later on, they had bigger budgets and thereby hold up better with a 21st Century audience that has been spoiled with frills. The Golden Age when great writing and acting trumped locations/spfx and the like unfortunately remains the domain of a relatively tiny group of buffs, though there is hope in the recent fascination of younger fans in threadbare but entertaining exploitation films of the '60s and '70s, per the current Joe Sarno cult.
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