Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Classic TV Detectives Blogathon: Blacke's Magic (1986)

This review is part of the Classic TV Detectives Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Check out the other great posts here.

When this blogathon was first proposed, I racked my brain trying to think of interesting detectives to write about. There are certainly many. But, I ended up with the non-detective detective show (of which there are also many!) Blacke’s Magic because it was a program I hadn’t seen a lot of people talking about, and because it gave me a reason to sit down once again with the pilot movie. And any excuse that gets me on the couch with Hal Linden is good for me!

Blacke’s Magic made its debut as a made for television movie on NBC on January 5th, 1986. It was a midseason replacement show, put together by Peter Fischer, Richard Levinson and William Link, the trio behind the much loved Murder, She Wrote, which had made its impressive debut in 1984 (and you probably also recognize Levinson and Link as the madly brilliant duo behind Columbo). In many ways, the formula replicates Murder, She Wrote: A non-detective celebrity figure finds a new profession investigating various crimes committed around them. However, whereas Jessica Fletcher worked a sort of intuitive magic solving seemingly unsolvable crimes, Alexander Blacke (Hal Linden looking fit and fine) employs his learned tricks as a way to turn a whodunit into a howdunit!

Linden said he had rejected many television series offers before he decided to hit the small screen again as the retired magician crime fighter. He remarked that the sophisticated Alexander Blacke appealed to him because unlike the good-natured and responsive Barney Miller, Alexander was not just reacting to everyone else. He seemed larger than life, and that enticed Linden, who noticed a hint of Broadway in the charming Alexander.

Also, this opportunity gave Linden a chance to work with the great and oh-so-lovable Harry Morgan, whose last series role had been on the unsuccessful MASH spinoff AfterMASH. Morgan was actually not in the market for a weekly show, but said that after his first wife died in 1985 he wanted to put himself back out there. The combination of these two greats, backed by Levinson and Link, directed by the great John Llewellyn Moxey, and featuring a tasty premise full of magic and wonder should have been just as magical for the audience as it was on the show (the actual tricks were orchestrated by Doug Henning’s “magic designer” Jim Steinmeyer). And, it’s a damn shame that Blacke’s Magic never got a chance to fully explore its potential.

Newspaper promo for Blacke's Magic
Many critics dubbed Blacke’s Magic the new Banacek, and that is not too far off the mark. And it was also part of the problem. Banacek took on some serious mind-boggling crimes, but sometimes the stories were overly confusing (even if George Peppard werked those turtlenecks). The same could be said here, as the pilot movie, while certainly engaging and fun, throws too many rabbits into its hat, confusing the mystery and heart of the story.

The pilot episode, which is titled Breathing Room, starts off with Blacke performing a highly anticipated escape act, only to end up all wet and soon retired. Bored and unfocused, Blacke is invited to a magician's conference where he is due to get an award. Jetting off to San Francisco he soon runs into one of his magician friends, the Great Gasparini (!), played by Ceasare Danova with an extra dose of suave. Gasparini's beautiful daughter, Carla (Kathleen Beller) is dating a hot new magician named Michael (Joseph Cali from Grease, and The Lonely Lady and my heart). Michael basically plagiarizes one of Gasparini’s tricks, much to the dismay of the great suave one! Before you know it, Gasparini is taking one last… you got it… gasp at his infamous dunked coffin bit, only this time he plans to stay underwater one more hour than normal. Everything seems to be going wonderfully, but soon after Gasparini is released from the depths of the hotel’s pool, it quickly become apparent that he’s been shot… from inside the coffin?!?

I know! Crazy, right? 

Luckily for the viewing audience, Alexander's daughter (Claudia Christian) is dating a gorgeous homicide detective played by Mark Shera (lucky girl!), who is so baffled by the murder that he invites Alexander to help him solve the crime… on the down-low of course!

And that’s just about half of the story! Early on Morgan shows up as Leonard Blacke, Alex’s scoundrel of a father. He is an aging con artist who is equally as bored by his retired life and he soon joins Alexander in San Francisco, using his con-style tactics to, well, not get too much information. But Morgan looks like he’s having a blast.

Airing on a Sunday night against a small screen remake of The Defiant Ones, Blacke’s Magic was met with mixed reviews. Certainly, it was an imperfect pilot film – Morgan needed a stronger presence, and the story is buried under subplots and superfluous characters. Sure, we need red herrings, but with abused housewives, con artist illusionists, devilish doctors and hotel managers it feels like the telefilm was trying to cram a whole season into their first two-hour time slot!

However, as a cozy mystery series, ala the aforementioned Murder, She Wrote, it doesn’t get much more charming or comfy than Blacke’s Magic. This is one of those shows where you can simply sit back and let the actors do the driving. It’s an inviting cast, and everyone from Maud Adams to Tricia O’Neil to David Huddleson bring a little bit of their own ol’ black(e) magic of awesome to the screen (trivia: O’Neil was also featured in the Murder, She Wrote pilot telefilm and got her start with the Fischer/Levinson/Link trio all the way back in seventies in an Ellery Queen episode and in another pilot TVM titled Charlie Cobb: Nice Night for a Hanging). It’s really a shame that Blacke’s Magic only ran for 12 episodes before it did its final disappearing act, because I think the series had some great tricks up its sleeve.

Plus it had this wonderful opening:


Rick29 said...

I remember BLACKE'S MAGIC because magicians have always intrigued me. But television producers kept trying to transform them into detectives! There was also THE MAGICIAN with Bill Bixby and I think Chris George played an escape artist in the telefilm (and pilot) ESCAPE. The pilot sounds like fun (albeit a little confusing) and I'm sure that Linden and Morgan (two consummate pros) made a fine team in the subsequent series. Thanks for covering a lesser-known show--it's too bad there aren't any full episodes on YouTube. The clips are a hoot and I do like those credits!

Lisa said...

Terrific post about a show I confess I'm not sure I've been much aware of prior to this! Never watched it, I don't think, and I'm plenty old enough to have been able to. :-) The most adorable credit sequence and too bad this delightful show didn't last. Just goes to show that even with terrific behind-the-scenes talent and beyond top-notch performers -- it doesn't get any better than Linden and Morgan -- nothing is guaranteed.
Let's hope more episodes show up for viewing!

Joanna said...

Why haven't I seen this series!? make it sound so good. I miss the early days of TVLand (where I was able to watch Bixby's THE MAGICIAN) or even Trio's "Brilliant But Cancelled." I want to see this series--and soon! Thanks for sharing it.

Mike Doran said...

About that Blacke's pilot:

It was circa 1964 that Burke's Law had an episode called "Who Killed Merlin The Great?"

There was this magician's convention, see, and Merlin The Great got submerged in a coffin on live TV, and when he was brought up he'd been shot, and Capt. Burke had to ...

The Burke's was written by Levinson & Link, with guest suspects including Jill St. John, Nick Adams, Paul Lynde, Charlie Ruggles, a few others I can't call to mind just now ...

When L&L and Peter Fischer got around to doing Blacke's, it was easy enough to reuse the murder gimmick from Burke's, while changing the surrounding story and character dynamics for the new show - and hoping nobody remembered the long-dormant Burke's (this was long before YouTube, DVDs, screen grabs, etc.).

L&L&F were quite good at recycling:
One of their writers, Lee Sheldon, had been headwriter on Edge Of Night when that long-running mystery soap was dropped.
Sheldon had tried to get the show placed in syndication by putting an "impossible crime" cliffhanger in the last episode. That didn't work out, but several years later Sheldon hooked up with Blacke's, and got to use his Edge "impossible crime" there after all (it involved making a street disappear).

If I haven't already made it clear, Blacke's Magic was a big fave of mine.
As to why it didn't last, both William Link and Peter Fischer have weighed in on this in interviews and books; it was MCA office politics rather than ratings that was the real culprit (details may be found elsewhere ...)

Mitchell Hadley said...

Glad you've chosen this one. I remember a few episodes from years past (certainly not as well as Mike does, but he's in a class by himself!), and it doesn't deserve to be forgotten. I actually think I like Hal Linden in this better than I did in Barney Miller. (And good reminder on The Magician, Rick!)

Hal said...

I remember this show well, and I was surprised that NBC didn't give it more of a chance. Then again, they had an embarrassment of riches in 1985-86 thanks to the Thursday night lineup basically taking over the top 3 that year and keeping it for a long time to come.

I wrote about CRAZY LIKE A FOX a while back, another fun show that had the plug pulled way too fast. What was it about the mid-80's that caused all three networks to have such a quick hook with so many promising crime dramas? It's a miracle that CBS stuck with THE EQUALIZER and allowed it time. BLACKE'S MAGIC might well have developed a loyal following if it had been given that kind of chance.

Jeff Haggar said...

I don't recall ever seeing this show, so thank you for the educational post. I was always fascinated by magic so maybe I would have liked it. Note to Rick: The entire Ten Tons of Trouble episode is on YouTube (in five separate 10-minute segments).

Lacey said...

I have to laugh at the style of the opening of this series and opening of The Magician which was in the mid 1970s.

This was a good show but it lacked any real interest. You just did not care about the main characters.