With the controversy over negative portrayals of Italian-Americans on 'The Sopranos' and 'A Shark's Tale,' it's interesting to note another time when Italian-American tempers flared against a television production.
The Untouchables was considered one of the most violent television shows of its time. Of course, by today's standards it's not that bad, but it was violent enough at the time to spark protests from concerned parents. Protests also came from 'concerned' Italian-Americans who didn't appreciate the whole 'Goombah of the Week' approach to the show.
'The Untouchables' starred Robert Stack ('Unsolved Mysteries') as real-life Chicago gang-buster and prohibition agent Eliot Ness circa 1930. The first episode was a two-part presentation on CBS's 'Desilu Playhouse' broadcast in April, 1959. The story centered around Ness' attempt to bust up Al Capone's Chicago syndicate. Neville Brand appeared as Al Capone and Barbara Nichols was his gun moll in this brutal and violent telefilm.
MGM stalwart Van Johnson was originally slated to play Eliot Ness, but he backed out the weekend before filming was to start in a dispute over money. Robert Stack was hastily recruited on Sunday morning (found at 2:00 am in Chasen's), fitted for costumes that afternoon, and started filming on Monday morning.
The two-part pilot was a critical and ratings smash, so much so it was later released to movie theatres. CBS bid for the series, but ABC won the rights and 'The Untouchables' weekly series debuted in the fall of 1959. It was bloody and violent, just like the pilot - the network demanded that each episode be action packed. Ratings were not spectacular during the first few weeks, but by the second season the show was solidly in the top ten.
Series director Walter Grauman summed up the initial concept of the series: "The show is dramatic fiction with documentary authenticity." While the teleplays started out as a semi-documentarian treatments illustrating the aftermath of the roaring twenties, they eventually relied on more fictionalized stories. "You don't realize how lousy strict documentaries are - plus the fact that you're libeling someone every thirty-seven seconds," series star Robert Stack stated in 1960. "If we limit it to actuality, we might as well go to newsreels."
The hyper-active announcer on The Untouchables was the voice of the 1930's and '40's newsreels - Walter Winchell. He had devolved into a cheesy, radio and newspaper gossip columnist by the fifties.
"Winchell is marvelous," Untouchables' producer Josef Shaftel was quoted as saying. "All he has to do is say: 'On the night of Oct. 5, 1931, Eliot Ness went down to the delicatessen' and people are sure he did."
THE LUCY CONNECTION
'The Untouchables' was a Desilu production, the co-presidents of Desilu were Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball. This was the second series they produced with Walter Winchell in the cast. Television insiders were surprised at his casting because it was Winchell who accused Lucille Ball of being a communist during the height of the American commie witch hunt in 1953.
Lucy recalled the experience of being falsely 'outed' this way: "I was terrified. That first day I was in a panic. I was absolutely bewildered. It was a terrible experience."
The real Eliot Ness disbanded his agents in 1932, but the show took the gangbusters well into the forties, wrestling with mobsters that Ness never encountered like 'Bugsy' Seigel, 'Bugs' Moran, 'Ma' Barker and even Nazis and presidential assassins.
Italian-American groups protested over what they felt was an unfair presentation of their people as Mafia-types. "We are plagued with lawsuits after certain shows" one of the show's producers Josef Shaftel explained, noting that the series was "heavily insured against libel." With good reason - the first lawsuit against the show was instigated by Al Capone's angry widow. She didn't like the way her deceased husband was made into a running villain on the show and wanted a million dollars for unfair use of his image.
The FBI was pissed off too. They were the ones who collared the famous names that Ness was supposedly busting each week on TV and they rightfully wanted credit for it. Even the Bureau of Prisons took offense, complaining that the show made their treatment of Al Capone look soft.
Now that The Untouchables has been released on DVD for the first time, we look back at this powerful network drama.
THE UNTOUCHABLES CAST
The Agents -
The Untouchables was Quinn Martin's first stint as executive producer and on this show he began a long practice of using announcers on his productions like 'The FBI', 'The Invaders' and 'Cannon'.
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