Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

THE DEFENDERS (1961): Season One

Robert Reed and E. G. Marshall
THE DEFENDERS (1961 TV series). Season One. 

Lawrence Preston (E. G. Marshall) and his son Kenneth (Robert Reed) are partners in a law firm that represents criminal defendants. The show lasted for four seasons and won numerous awards and accolades. Only the first season has been transferred to DVD and it gives a good taste of the series' good and bad points. Marshall and Reed are both excellent as the highly dignified if personable Lawrence and his comparatively hot-headed son. The interplay between the two, which is often quite argumentative, is one of the best things about the show. 

Marshall with Jack Klugman
The Defenders
 was created by Reginald Rose, who also scripted several of the episodes. The series is unlike Perry Mason because it often deals in social issues and eagerly embraces controversy. One might say it has "depth," although there are times that the show is more pretentious and irritating than anything else and worse, becomes quite preachy and even muddled. The series takes place in Manhattan and was shot at the Filmways Studio in New York, giving it an added veracity and lots of local color with its location filming. The directors who worked on the series include Daniel Petrie, Franklin Schaffner, Buzz Kulik, Paul Bogart, and others. Jack Klugman appeared sporadically as one of the ADAs in the district attorneys office and is quite good in the role. Guest stars on the show included Elizabeth Ashley, Ben Piazza, Frank Gorshin, Pat Hingle, Robert Duvall, Robert Loggia, Sylvia Miles, Ken Kercherval, Gloria De Haven. and Zachary Scott. 

Reed with Salome Jens
Most of the episodes were solid "Bs" with a few that were even better. "The Point Shaver" deals with a college athlete who is accused of taking bribes. "Death Across the Counter" has a vet (Clu Culager) accused of shooting a man during a robbery but Ken is convinced, against all odds, that he is innocent. "The Treadmill" has the Prestons doing their damnedest to save a man from the death penalty for a crime he committed 25 years in the past. "The Search" has a man confessing to a murder that another man was executed for and Larry tries to find out the truth while he and the prosecutor (Jack Klugman) try to figure out what went wrong with the system.  "The Best Defense" is a terrific story in which a mobster is arrested for murder but swears he is innocent -- this has a highly ironic finale. In "The Naked Heiress" a man leaves his money to a stripper (Salome Jens), then falls in front of a train (Glenda Farrell is outstanding as the stripper's mother). "Reunion with Death" has Larry presiding over a mock trial when Korean vets accuse one of their number of selling them out under torture. The very best season one episode is arguably "The Bedside Murder," in which an elderly doctor (Sam Jaffe) is accused of murdering a wealthy old woman because she left him money in her will. 

"The Attack:" Marchand, Barbara Barrie, Kiley
Although not quite as good as the aforementioned episodes, "The Attack" presents an interesting situation when a man (Richard Kiley) goes after the youth who assaulted his little girl, only to learn that he killed the wrong man; Nancy Marchand played the dead man's mother. Hands down, the absolute worst season one episode was "Gideon's Follies," in which a rich man is murdered and all of his many ex-wives are the suspects. Foolish and unfunny, it played like a witless spoof of Burke's Law, a series that did not debut for another two years. It was as if the producers, told that some people found The Defenders too grim, decided to lighten things up for one episode -- but it was a disaster. 

Verdict: Some very good scripts, but not nearly as much fun nor as classy as Perry Mason. **3/4. 


angelman66 said...

Has been years but this used to play in reruns when I was a kid, along with the old Perry Masons. Great guest stars, and Robert Reed in his most famous pre-Brady role. Just saw EG Marshall again recently as Geraldine Page’s ex husband in Woody Allen’s Interiors...a powerful film.
- C

William said...

Yes, Marshall was excellent in the Allen film as I recall. I think Reed far preferred his role in The Defenders than playing the father in Brady Bunch. I read that he was always asking for script changes and hated all the silliness.