This month we are looking at “It Was the First” in the golden age of television. We start off with the first television crime drama: Martin Kane, Private Eye.
Martin Kane, like so many other early television shows, started life as a radio show. Sponsored by the United States Tobacco Company, it was on the radio from 1949-1952 and aired on television from 1949-1954, resulting in 75 episodes.
The show was directed and produced by Frank Burns. A variety of writers provided scripts, but Alvin Boretz and Donald Sanford wrote the most. Boretz would go on to write scripts for many shows during the sixties, seventies, and eighties. Sanford was also a prolific writer during those decades; he is best known for writing all 194 episodes of The Plainclothesman which aired the same years as Kane, 1949-1954.
Considering it was only on for five years, four different actors played the title role: William Gargan, Lloyd Nolan, Lee Tracy, and Mark Stevens. Gargan played the role till 1951 when Nolan took over. Nolan would have a long, acting career, best known for his starring role on Julia as Dr. Chegley. Tracy accepted the role in 1953 and Stevens became the star for the last year. After this show ended, Stevens went right into another crime series, Big Town which was written from the perspective of the press. He would make appearances in movies and television through the late eighties.
Martin Kane works in New York. Originally, Kane was a sweet-talking detective who called women “doll face.” Depending on which actor was playing the detective, his personality could be smooth and suave or gruff and aggressive. Kane seemed to become tougher as the series continued. Sometimes he received full cooperation from the police; other seasons, they were more difficult to work with.
Rounding out the cast were Frank M. Thomas playing Captain Burke, King Calder was Lieutenant Gray, Nicholas Saunders portrayed Sergeant Ross, Loring Smith was Captain Evans, and Sergeant Strong was played by Michael Garrett.
The early years of television had their share of mishaps. Watching these early shows you can see botched cues, falling scenery, missed lines, and other bloopers.
It was immensely popular both on the radio and television; in its second season, it was 12th in the ratings and would go on to the top ten.
The United States Tobacco Company also sponsored the television version. Martin Kane could be seen entering his favorite tobacco shop in the middle of the show where he discussed his pipe and cigarette tobacco with store owner Happy McMann played by Walter Kinsella. The sponsor’s products were prominently on display in the shop and Kane paid $.15 a pouch for his tobacco.
Charles Paul provided the music for the show. After this show went off the air, Paul spent the rest of his career composing music for soap operas, contributing to almost 2500 different episodes through the eighties.
NBC aired the show on Thursday nights at 10 ET. It was a half-hour show for the first four seasons, switching to a 60-minute format for the final year.
The show was nominated for Best Mystery, Action, or Adventure Program in 1953, but it was beat out by Dragnet.
A 1950 comic book was based on the show; it was illustrated by Wally Wood, Joe Orlando, and Martin Rosenthal. (Wood became one of Mad’s first cartoonists, and Orlando also worked on Mad and was the VP of DC Comics and his career spanned six decades in the business.)
In his biography, Why Me, William Gargan talks about working on this show:
“Very soon in the game, I realized our stories were nothing to rave about. How much well plotted story line and genuine character development can you accomplish in a half-hour? So, I made the program a showcase for me. After all, that was what we were selling – Martin Kane. I developed a tongue-in-cheek style, a spoof of the hard-boiled detective, a way of silently saying, Don’t blame me for the lousy stories, I didn’t write them. And anyway, what’s the difference?
It was nothing staggering, my decision. It only made sense. Bogart’s movie version of Sam Spade applied the same ground rules. We gave the audience a good time, and if all the threads were not tightly tied in a half-hour, we swept them under the bed. Have fun. And the show, for whatever reason, took hold. . . . The show had charm, and its charm held together the lunacy, the feeble character development, the limited camera work.
It also had a producer I could not abide. . . . He used the show for a flesh parade. The result was we had pretty, empty-headed girls on the show. blowing lines all over the lot.
The show began to slide downhill. In desperation, I began to mug a little more, to cover up the new holes, and the script writers began to write more blatantly. You get into a terrible rut this way. Everybody works harder to undo the damage, and the result is more screeching, more overacting, overwriting, which starts to drive the viewers away and to get them back you come up with more and more desperate gimmickery.”
A new show was created in 1957 with Kane working in London, starring Gargan, but it never was popular and was cancelled after a year.
The show might not have been the best crime detective show ever written, but it was popular, nominated for an Emmy by its peers, and set the tone for future dramas.