by L. WAYNE HICKS
J. Edgar Hoover took pains to protect the image of his beloved FBI.
Director of the bureau from 1924 until his death in 1972, Hoover repeatedly turned aside requests to dramatize the exploits of his famed G-men, either on television or film. By one count, he rejected 600 proposals.
Armed with power bestowed by Congress to reject any commercial use of the FBI name, Hoover finally gave his seal of approval to ABC's request for a series that simply would be called The FBI.
Approval came during a turbulent time in the FBI's history. The bureau's image had shifted from the crimefighters of the 1930s who took down John Dillinger to an agency preoccupied with hunting Communists while America was roiled with unrest over civil rights and rocked by the assassination of President Kennedy.
"They regarded our series as putting their best foot forward for the public to see," said actor Efrem Zimbalist Jr., who starred as Inspector Lewis Erskine in The FBI, which ran from 1965 to 1974.
Hoover's involvement in The FBI shows the lengths the director took in an attempt to bolster the public image of the bureau. He first recognized the importance of showing the FBI in a positive light in the early 1950s, as well as serving to explain the tasks and jurisdictions of the bureau.
"But we knew, too, that a less than first-rate program could cheapen the FBI's name and have an adverse effect upon its image," Hoover wrote in an article for TV Guide that was published posthumously.
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"The thing that changed his mind was The FBI Story that Mervin LeRoy did with Jimmy Stewart," said Zimbalist. "He liked it very much and he felt that he could trust Warner Bros. as a result of it. That was the only reason that he gave his permission for us to do this series."
The 1959 movie starred Stewart as agent Chip Hardesty, recalling glorious cases of the FBI's past and showing the domestic side of an agent's life. Hoover appeared in a cameo role, as himself. Just a year before, he had blasted movies and television programs that glorified crime and criminals and called for a halt to the 'ominous trend of crime glorification.'
Hoover was impressed with The FBI Story, and afterwards wrote Stewart that he was "deeply moved" by the actor's portrayal of an agent.
The FBI had cooperated on other Hollywood depictions of the bureau during the 1950s, including I Was a Communist for the FBI and The Street With No Name. But Hoover wanted to make sure any portrayals of the FBI would meet with his approval, so he had it written into law. Under Public Law 670, which Congress passed at Hoover's behest in 1954, he had the authority to protect the FBI name from commercial exploitation.
With that power, Hoover could control what image of the FBI the public saw. He used it to force Walt Disney to delete mention of bumbling FBI agents in its 1962 movie Moon Pilot. And he caused the firing of an actor portraying an FBI agent on the long-running CBS show Hawaii Five-O because his character's actions ran counter to what a real FBI agent would do; he was relaxing and letting local police do all of the work.
Hoover's own television tastes ran to watching Westerns, wrestling, the Washington Senators and I Love Lucy. He was even moved to write a fan letter to Lucille Ball after watching her show's fifth-season episode, The Great Train Robbery. Lucy mistakenly becomes involved with a thief who pretends to be a government agent and tricks her into luring a jewelry merchant into her train compartment.
"Oh, anything for J. Edgar," Lucy said at one point. "I got quite a kick out of your reference to the FBI and myself," Hoover wrote, "and I don't believe that I ever laughed as much at any TV program as I did at yours on Monday evening."
But Hoover found less to laugh about when The Untouchables went on the air in 1959. Produced by Desilu (Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball's company), The Untouchables followed the exploits of famed Prohibition agent Eliot Ness, but the show blurred the line between Ness' accomplishments and those of the FBI. The bureau's files note that "there is a tendency to usurp FBI jurisdiction for the purposes of portraying achievements of other law enforcement agencies."
Hoover ordered his agents to monitor and report on The Untouchables, which left the air in 1963.
The FBI no longer polices the use of its name or how it's portrayed on television or film, but continues to provide dramatic fodder. The exploits of the FBI today figure prominently in the current shows Without a Trace and Sue Thomas F.B.Eye and in the highly regarded series The X-Files and Twin Peaks.
But none of those relies relied on actual case files, the way The FBI did.
Hoover finally relented to a series on the FBI to help educate the public about the bureau's mission.
"We finally decided to clarify for the public what the FBI does," Cartha DeLoach, Hoover's second in command, once said. "We're simply an investigative agency. We can't protect people - like civil rights workers, for instance. There's some confusion about what we do and I hope this program will show people how we really work."
ABC's pitch for The FBI came from two of Hoover's friends: Jack Warner, the head of Warner Bros., and James Hagerty, the head of the network who had served as press secretary for President Eisenhower.
Friends or not, Hoover consented to the idea for a television series only after obtaining several stipulations. The government's top law enforcement officer would have strict approval of cast, scripts and sponsors.
"He had to approve of everything that had to do with The FBI," Zimbalist said. The director's approval might also have something to do with ABC buying the rights to Hoover's book Masters of Deceit.
Hoover and Zimbalist twice appeared on the cover of TV Guide together; Hoover was his usual grim-faced self. He wrote in the posthumously published article of the reasons for his conditions before approving of The FBI. He wanted to ensure a realistic portrayal of the bureau, so Hoover demanded casting approval because "actors cast in the role of FBI agents must look the part," he wrote.
Because The FBI was to air during the family hour on Sunday night, Hoover wanted script approval to guard against what he considered unnecessary violence, promiscuous conduct or offering any blueprint to committing crimes.
He also controlled sponsor approval because, according to Hoover's reasoning, the FBI is a non-partisan agency and it wouldn't be proper to have commercials for a political party or candidate during the program.
Hoover himself reportedly suggested having Quinn Martin produce The FBI. Martin earlier had brought to television The Untouchables, the show that had so displeased Hoover.
But Martin rejected the idea of anything to do with the FBI.
"I really tried not to do the series because I felt that shows that had official seals on them turned out to be puff pieces," Martin said in the book The Producer's Medium. "But I finally agreed."
Martin, who said he was "much more politically left of the FBI," journeyed to Washington and met Hoover, "whom I liked in spite of not being politically in the same place."
On the other end of the political spectrum from Martin, Zimbalist, whose conservative bent put him slightly out of step with the more liberal members of Hollywood, became a lifelong friend of Hoover's. At Hoover's funeral, Zimbalist sat in the FBI section.
"It was, to me, a rather legendary organization," Zimbalist said, "but I guess there was a lot of criticism going on at the time of the FBI. Hoover saw the series as a way of winning a lot of people over to his side. So in retrospect, one has to say that we did the bureau a service with the series. We definitely popularized the FBI. At the same time, they did us a huge service by their cooperation and putting the cases at our disposal and helping us in so many ways. It gave us an authenticity we couldn't have bought with all the money in the world."
In February 1965, Martin, the production manager, story editor and casting director toured the FBI headquarters. A month later, the art director visited with an eye toward recreating the headquarters on a Hollywood set.
It was Zimbalist's turn in April, but his visit was more thorough than what the typical tourist would see. Zimbalist spent a week learning the basics of being an agent, including hand-to-hand combat and firearms training.
Zimbalist's last day in the hands of the FBI included a lengthy visit with the director himself. "It was extraordinary. It was a conversation that was one-sided. He just talked. There wasn't time to respond. He talked so fluidly and with ease and without faltering at all or without hesitating that there wasn't time to say anything. After a few minutes one grew grateful for that because you could just relax and listen as the panorama of his life unfolded in front of you. He was so interesting."
Hoover touched on a wide-ranging list of topics, including Shirley Temple and Dillinger, and confessed FBI goofs: One agent forget to bring handcuffs and wound up "cuffing" a suspect with a necktie. Hoover told another story about an agent making an arrest in an unfamiliar town. He couldn't find the local jail until the criminal gave him directions.
The FBI wasn't Zimbalist's first television series. In fact, he had initially balked at TV work. A veteran of the movies, Zimbalist was under contract to Warner Bros.
"When they told me they wanted me to do a series, I thought, 'Well, gosh, that's going to tie me up. It's going to be confining.' I just didn't like the idea of that aspect of it. On top of that, I had just finished one of the best movies I ever made in my life, Home Before Dark, with Mervin LeRoy. I just didn't feel like stepping into a harness for the foreseeable future. "It didn't turn out that way. It turned out to be very enjoyable. I loved it."
The series Warner Bros. pushed him into was 77 Sunset Strip, which ran for six seasons on ABC starting in 1958. The private eye show starred Zimbalist as Stu Bailey. When that series ended, Zimbalist told his agent he'd be willing to do more television work "if he could find a good series." By then no longer under contract to Warner Bros., Zimbalist wound up working for the studio again, this time on The FBI.
The FBI ran for nine years, but Zimbalist initially wanted out after five. "My contract was for five years," he said. "I was looking forward to quitting after five years. Quinn came to me. He asked me to sign on for another five. I said, 'Gosh, I'd really like to get out. I'm tired. I'd just like to rest and look around.' He said, 'Well, my whole future depends on the next five years.''' Zimbalist signed for another five years. "I was that fond of him and respected him that much and he'd been that generous to me."
The FBI made its debut on ABC Sept. 19, 1965, going up against the perennial heavyweight The Ed Sullivan Show. "We were up against Disney," Zimbalist said. "We were up against Sullivan. We were able to handle them pretty well."
Before the series began, Hoover had sent an inspector out to California to meet with Martin and to give him hundreds of FBI memos with details of closed cases.
"We fully understand that The FBI was to be a dramatic, rather than a documentary, program," Hoover wrote. "However, we wanted each episode to be grounded firmly on fact and to portray the Bureau's jurisdiction and techniques as authentically as possible."
Zimbalist said the FBI rejected scripts that didn't accurately portray bureau actions.
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But not everything was to Hoover's liking, Zimbalist recalls.
"I think there were certain things that irritated him," said Zimbalist. "For instance, in the beginning the FBI wore hats and for some reason - it must be my genetic makeup - I can't wear hats. You put me in a hat and I look like a Greek wine merchant. It doesn't matter what the hat is, I'm not a hat person.
"The first day of shooting of our series was a hat test for me," Zimbalist continued. "One hat after another. The whole day long, they put different hats on me and photographed me.
"Finally at the end of the day, Quinn said, 'Forget it. You're not wearing a hat. Just forget it.' So I didn't. Hoover's idea concerning a dress code of agents was that they melt into the background. He wanted them to look like anybody else. At the time this dictum came down, people were wearing hats. By the time our show came along, hats were on the way out. I had long since not worn any hats. They were kind of going out anyway, but this was the death blow to hats for the bureau. By the end of the year, the agents themselves weren't wearing them anymore."
"The FBI did not bother me ever about story content," Martin said in The Producer's Medium. "They bothered the hell out of me in terms of procedure. They had the right to protect their image and they would say, 'We would use cuffs there,' or 'We would do this there.' And I didn't argue about that. I mean, I'm not an FBI guy; that's what you have technical advisors for."
Martin died in 1987 at age 65.
L. Wayne Hicks is a Denver-based writer and student of popular culture. He is completing his first book, the story of the TV show Romper Room.
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