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The Forgotten James Arness Cop Show
zardoz-1327 December 2017
Warning: Spoilers
James Arness must have grown weary of wearing Stetsons and six-guns and riding horses for more than twenty years on "Gunsmoke." Between the time he left "Gunsmoke" and then later resumed making "Gunsmoke" as made-for-TV movies, he decided to don contemporary togs and play a plainclothes San Pedro Police Detective in "McClain's Law." Our towering, six-foot, seven-inch, gray-haired hero plays a retired SPPD detective who has just sold a fishing boat that he had co-owned with his best friend, Sid Lammon (Gerald S. O'Loughlin of "Ice Station Zebra"), because the waters around San Pedro were played out. As it turned out, the fishermen who bought their boat took it to Alaska. One day while enjoying a beer in a local bar, Sid shows off $10-thousand dollars, and McClain scolds him for this foolish bravado. Nevertheless, Sid insists that he just wanted to feel what it was like to carry around such a wad. Later, Sid's body is discovered in a back alley. Apparently, his assailant not only shot and killed him, but he had also stolen Sid's ten-grand. All of this occurred after Sid had talked about moving his wife, Annie (Bibi Besch of "Steel Magnolias"), and their two sons to Iowa to farm corn. Unfortunately, NBC canceled this series after only 15 episodes. Typecasting may have doomed the World War II veteran, who had injured his leg at Anzio, Italy, during the historic Allied beach landing in 1944. You've got to give the big guy credit for trying to break out into something different. Indeed, "McClain's Law" was an unusual law & order series. Unlike the remaining hour-long episodes, veteran director Vincent McEveety--who helmed 45 "Gunsmoke" episodes as well as a "Gunsmoke" movie--and "Hell in the Pacific" producer & writer Eric Bercovici lavished 97 minutes on this offbeat pilot. They've done an above-average job of making their implausible premise plausible. In fact, they incorporated Arness' real-life war wound into the character that he played and justified it as a disability that led to his retirement.

After two local SPPD detectives can find neither a clue nor a trace of one, McClain convinces one of the old war horses that he had served with back in his day, Captain William Scofield (Scott Brady of "Dollars"), to allow him to come out of retirement to solve the case. Earlier, he had appealed to Lieutenant DeNisco (George DiCenzo of "Back to the Future") to let him handle the investigation, but DeNisco had turned down his offer. Consequently, McClain went to the San Pedro Dispatch and a story about DeNisco's refusal to let McClain take part in the investigation. This newspaper article prompted the mayor to send Scofield to talk to McClain. Scofield warns McClain he will have to take a refresher course at the police academy. Predictably, McClain breezes through the academy, much to the chagrin of who had hoped the 53-year old retiree would flunk out. Once he gets back on the force, McClain resolves to find Sid's killer, but DeNisco throws obstacles in his way. He assigns one of the two detectives on the Lammon murder, Detective Harry Gates (Marshall Colt of "North Dallas Forty") to ride with him. Eventually, the two come to tolerate each other and inevitably they become inseparable. Repeatedly, everybody warns McClain that being a cop has changed because much of the crime committed is perpetrated by youngsters. None of this dissuades McClain as he knuckles down to find his man. I cannot recall any television police procedural where a retired cop returned to the force, so "McClain's Law" has that factor going for it. James Arness is still James Arness. He plays McClain basically as if he were Marshal Dillon launched into the future. The pilot isn't bad considering that it takes place in a small town instead of New York or Los Angeles. Marshall Colt is good as McClain's partner. Indeed, were it not for James Arness' iconic presence, this would be just another standard-issue police thriller. It's fun to see Scott Brady in a peripheral role as one of McClain's old hands. Of course, James Arness fans should relish this forgotten series, if for no other reason that it show another facet of the big guy.
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