Car 54, Where Are You? aired on NBC beginning September of 1961. I was surprised to learn that there are only 60 episodes in this series. The show revolves around officers Gunther Toody, Badge 1432 (Joe E. Ross) and Francis Muldoon, Badge 723 (Fred Gwynne). Their patrol car is Car 54, and they are with the 53rd precinct in New York. Toody and Muldoon are complete opposites which is why they get along so well. Toody is short, extremely talkative and not overly bright. He’s married to Lucille (Beatrice Pons), a bit of a loud, overbearing woman. Muldoon is tall, quiet and very smart. He’s a bachelor who lives with his mother (Ruth Masters) and two younger sisters.
Rounding out the large cast are officers Dave Anderson (Nipsey Russell), Omar Anderson (Ossie Davis), Kissel (Bruce Kirby), Nelson (Jim Gormley), Nicholson (Hank Garrett, O’Hara (Albert Henderson), Schnauser (Al Lewis), Steinmetz (Joe Warren), and Wallace (Frederick O’Neal), as well as Captain Block (Paul Reed), Sergeant Abrams ( Nathaniel Frey), Sylvia Schnauser (Charlotte Rae), and Claire Block (Patricia Bright).
Nat Hiken (the creative force behind The Phil Silvers Show) created the series. He wrote many of the scripts and also directed several episodes, one of which he won an Emmy for. The show was nominated for three other Emmys. It was up for Outstanding Program Achievement in the Field of Humor in 1961 which went to The Bob Newhart Show (not that Bob Newhart show, this was a variety show hosted by Newhart) and for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy in both 1961 and 1962 but got beat out both years by Carl Reiner for The Dick Van Dyke Show.
As recounted in Martin Grams, Jr.’s book Car 54, Where Are You?, after visiting a New York police precinct house and noticing what a communal feel it had, unlike any of the depictions of police on television, Hiken came up with the idea for a police-themed situation comedy. He continued to do research by spending weeks in a precinct squad room during late 1960, getting a feel for how the officers talked and interacted amongst each other, members of the community, and even repeat offenders, who were often treated more like family than threats. Hiken enlisted the support of Eupolis Productions and then pitched the idea to Proctor & Gamble, who agreed to finance a pilot.
According to Kliph Nesteroff in the definitive account of Joe E. Ross’ tawdry life off-screen, “King of Slobs: The Life of Joe E. Ross,” Hiken originally wanted to cast Jack Weston in the role of Gunther Toody (televisionheaven.co.uk says it was Jack Warden) and Mickey Shaughnessy as Francis Muldoon, but contract negotiations broke down with both, so he turned to Ross and Fred Gwynne as suitable replacements, though in Ross’ case he later regretted it.
John Strauss who had collaborated with Hiken on the theme song for The Phil Silvers Show, teamed up with Hiken once again for this theme. Strauss was married to Charlotte Rae, who appeared on the show. Strass was the composer, and Hiken wrote the lyrics. The familiar theme song is:
There’s a hold-up in the Bronx,
Brooklyn’s broken out in fights;
There’s a traffic jam in Harlem
That’s backed up to Jackson Heights.
There’s a scout troop short a child,
Khrushchev’s due at Idlewild,
Car 54, where are you?
The show was originally titled “The Snow Whites.” (Maybe because the sponsor made Chlorox bleach.) The show was given a great time slot on Sunday nights between Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and Bonanza. The producers thought the working title would confuse viewers since the show followed Disney. Since the theme song was already written, the last line of the song became the show’s title.
Critics were split on the show. While many people praised the series, some reviewers considered it disrespectful. The Chicago Sun Times deemed it “a preposterous (and sometimes cruel) depiction of the policeman.” The Dallas Times Herald stated, “The humor might be there, all right, but not much of it was showing.” The Alabama Journal complained, “It is insulting to the law enforcement and to the general public.” However, many policemen liked the show and found it funny.
The show was filmed at Biograph Studios in the Bronx and on location. The cars were painted bright red and white which photographed perfectly. There is some controversy about the patrol cars. Some articles listed them as Savoys, some as Dodges. According to Martin Grams’ blog from May 4, 2012, “On June 29, 1961, Arthur Hershkowitz signed the contract and during the first week of July, the following four automobiles were delivered to Eupolis Productions”: two 1961 Plymouth Belvederes, one Dodge Dart, and one Plymouth, all four-door sedans. Grams said “the cars were returned to the dealership and when the show was renewed for season two, the following cars were delivered”: two 1962 Plymouth Belvederes, three 1962 Plymouth Furys, one 1962 Dart 330, and a 1962 Chrysler New Yorker. One article I read said that the large circular object on the dashboard between the officers was an auxiliary fan used before air conditioning was available.
Despite the success of Car 54, which placed 20th in the ratings for 1961-62, Hiken soon began to feel overwhelmed with his responsibilities. Apparently, NBC wanted part ownership in the show in exchange for renewing it for season three, and Hiken would not agree to the deal. The show’s sponsor Proctor and Gamble tried to talk CBS into taking the show over, but there was no room on their schedule. Hiken was a bit burnt out with writing, directing, and overseeing the show and was exasperated with Ross who caused a lot of issues not remembering his lines, so Hiken ended the show and never worked on another series again.
Considering the short time that the show was on the air, there was a full slate of guest stars including Carl Ballantine, Tom Bosley, Wally Cox, Hugh Downs, Margaret Hamilton, Katherine Helmond, Hal Linden, Mitch Miller, Charles Nelson Reilly, Sugar Ray Robinson and Jean Stapleton.
The episodes are well written and similar to other sitcoms at the time.
In one, Toody is feeling henpecked by Lucille, but musters the courage to become king of his castle after seeing a stirring performance of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”
In another, Muldoon shares a childhood experience when the kids at school called him “Horse Face.” Toody, trying to console him, says “Don’t worry Francis, kids just repeat what other people say” and later added “After all, Francis, everybody liked Black Beauty.”
One script has Toody working an undercover detail in Brooklyn with a female cop posing as his wife and a small boy as his child. When his wife’s sister spots him, the rumors begin.
Even though there were only 60 episodes, the show went into syndication in 1964. It was one of the staples on Nick at Nite in the 1980s, aired on Comedy Central in the 1990s, and a few years ago it could be seen on both MeTV and Decades. The show came out on DVD in 2011 and 2012.
Like any show that was even somewhat successful, the show had a film made based on the series in 1994. The big screen version starred John C. McGinley as Muldoon, David Johansen as Toody, Rosie O’Donnell as Toody’s wife Lucille and Fran Drescher as Velma Velor. Not surprisingly, it was a dud. One reviewer said it “was one of the worst movies to ever come out of Hollywood.”
One fun fact I learned doing research for this blog was that this show was William Faulkner’s favorite tv show. He hated television but visited a friend’s house weekly to watch the show.
This show debuted during the decade when merchandising was a big part of every show. There were at least six comic books based on the show. There was a board game, puppets of Toody and Muldoon, and a car model.
The show was funny in its prime, but I’m not sure it holds up as well today as other shows from the sixties. However, two seasons of DVDs is not a large investment, so check out an episode on youtube and see what you think.