Thursday, October 20, 2011

Rex Stout Causes Unrest in Marriage

The brownstone on West 35th Street, New York City wherein resides the over-sized genius who may or may not be the illegitimate offspring of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler is as well known to mystery fans as Middle Earth is to Lord of the Rings devotees.

Nothing fills the mystery bookworm with such anticipation and dread as when a favourite detective makes that leap from the page to the screen. Sometimes perfection is achieved. Joan Hickson was born to embody Jane Marple. Sometimes the artistic license taken may leave you shaking your head, but the casting is heaven sent, as in the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce pairing in the Universal Sherlock Holmes movie series.

Nero Wolfe should have been a lock for film. Rex Stout's detecting team of Wolfe and legman Archie Goodwin combine that unfathomable genius we appreciate with the witty observations we like to think we would make, plus joyous helpings of action, labyrinth plotting and quirky characters.

Rex Stout (1886-1975) wrote his first Nero Wolfe novel, Fer-de-Lance in 1934 and his last, A Family Affair was published in 1975. It was that last novel that was my introduction as a teenager to the series. I read an obituary of Stout in the Sunday paper and straightway bought the book. Fans will realize this greatly coloured a lot of my later reading. Thankfully, there was a lot of reading to catch up on in the Nero Wolfe canon of novels, novellas and short stories.

Lionel Stander, Edward Arnold

Hollywood first came calling in 1936 with Meet Nero Wolfe starring Edward Arnold as Wolfe and Lionel Stander as Archie. I have yet to see the picture, but knowing Edward Arnold's work I do applaud that aspect of the casting. Lionel Stander as Archie. H'm, let me see. No! A wiseacre from way back was Bronx born Stander, but I just can't see him as Ohio born Goodwin. Did the producers miss the part about Archie's fatal attraction for the ladies?

Another Wolfe picture followed in 1937 based on The League of Frightened Men. Walter Connolly was cast as Wolfe (I can't call him Nero. Can you?) and, again, Connolly is a fine actor. Did he and the writers know what to do with the character? Again, Lionel Stander was Archie. Yeah. Sure. Lily Rowan would invite him for a weekend with her tony friends.

Radio might be just the thing! We can imagine the brownstone and environs in our minds eye and if the voice is right, and the scripts are up to snuff then radio might be just the thing.

The Adventures of Nero Wolfe, in 30 minute episodes, ran in the 1943-44 season and went through three leading actors. The first was British born J.B. Williams, followed by Santos Ortega with John Gibson as Archie. Mexican born Luis Van Rooten was the last actor to play the role on this program. A note here from a gal who misses her "stories". John Gibson appeared on The Guiding Light in the 50s, in some way connected with the Reverend Fletcher. Santos Ortega I remember well as Pa Hughes on As the World Turns in the 60s. Luis Van Rooten was also on As the World Turns at that time playing the dad of the legendary Lisa (Eileen Fulton).

The Amazing Nero Wolfe ran in the 1946 season and starred old Messala himself, Francis X. Bushman.

The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe in the 1950-51 season scored the casting coup of Sydney Greenstreet (the fat man!) as Wolfe. Can't you just hear him? Well, you can on OTR on the web. The program went through a succession of Archies including future directors Lawrence Dobkin and Lamont Johnson, Harry Bartell, Wally Maher and Gerald Mohr. Inspector Cramer on this program was played by William Johnstone who was dignified Judge Lowell on As the World Turns. I think Greenstreet and Mohr had great possibilities as a screen team. Ah, what could have been.

Don Mitchell, Barbara Anderson, Don Galloway, Raymond Burr

The television series Ironside ran from 1967-1975. The wheel-chair bound Chief of Detectives Robert T. Ironside was smarter than your average cop and inclined toward the gruff side upon occasion. I've always felt that The Chief and Sgt. Ed Brown had a quasi Wolfe-Goodwin relationship. For many years it was Don Galloway I would picture as Archie when reading the stories. Also, Johnny Seven who had the recurring role of Lt. Reese on the series would have made a fine Cramer.

Tom Mason, Thayer David

Frank Gilroy wrote and directed the 1979 TV movie Nero Wolfe starring Thayer David and Tom Mason. I only saw this the time it aired, but it looms large in my memory as quite the movie. Thayer David seemed to perfectly embody the irritating genius that is Wolfe and Tom Mason grew on me as Archie. The movie may have been a pilot, but sadly Thayer David passed from cancer after giving us this performance. The movie was nominated for an Edgar Award in the category of Best TV Feature or Miniseries. The winner was Levinson and Link's Murder by Natural Causes and the other nominee was Paul Monash's adaption of Salem's Lot.

Lee Horsley, William Conrad

Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts produced the 1981 series Nero Wolfe which ran for only half a season. I'm crazy about Conrad, but he really was just a grumpier Cannon waiting for Jake. Lee Horsley I prefer on the plain, as in Paradise, although he grew into a credible crime fighter in the short-lived Bodies of Evidence. What really worked for me in this series was the supporting cast. George Wyner was born to play Saul Panzer. George Voskovic as Fritz, Robert Coote as Theodore Horstmann and especially Alan Miller seething with irritation as Inspector Cramer were worth the price of admission.

Timothy Hutton, Maury Chaykin

Return with me to a decade ago when A&E was a regular channel surfing stop. You could count on an interesting Biography or an innovative original series such as A Nero Wolfe Mystery. Paul Monash scripted the 2000 pilot movie based on The Golden Spiders (see above Edgar Award mention). Hopes were high and hopes were met. The series became a personal project for actor Hutton who was one of the executive producers when the program began its unfortunately limited run on the network. Each episode was adapted from one of Stout's stories with scripts by William Rabkin and Lee Goldberg (Diagnosis Murder, Psych, etc.) and Sharon Elizabeth Doyle.

A repertory company of talented actors appeared in the episodes as different characters (Kari Matchett, Christine Brubaker, Francie Swift, Debra Monk, Julian Richings, Robert Bockstael, etc). Core characters were impeccably cast with Bill Smitrovich the cigar chomping Cramer, Colin Fox as a fussy Fritz coping with the world's most demanding gourmand. The busy Saul Rubinek showed up occasionally as Lon Cohen. He had played Saul Panzer in The Golden Spiders.

Attention to set and costumes was beyond reproach. Just as Stout's stories had his characters static in age while time swirled around them, the series was the same with Archie making quips about Nazis in one episode, and mini-skirts in another.

At the heart was, of course, the relationship between Archie and Wolfe. Timothy Hutton was just right as Goodwin. Sometimes I felt Maury Chaykin gave me too much of the petulance and not enough of the genius, but perhaps that was only because he hadn't lived with Wolfe as long as I had. Overall, I enjoyed his work and looked forward to seeing more of it. Unfortunately, A&E pulled the plug after only 27 episodes of A Nero Wolfe Mystery citing production expenses. If you want something done right, you are going to have to pay for it. We were taken to paradise, in this case West 35th Street, and turned away.


You are probably thinking to yourself that this is all well and good, Caftan Woman, but what has this got to do with Rex Stout causing unrest in your marriage? It's not what you may think. Garry has known about my thing for Archie since day one and he's cool with it. Last weekend my Honey Bunny was heading out the library and it being a blustery day here in Toronto and me being a soft-hearted sap, I pointed out that we had a multitude of books around the house and suggested perhaps a Nero Wolfe would fit the bill. His response: "No. I've read them all. They'll only make me hungry and, Sweetie, you're no Fritz Brenner." Nice to know what he really thinks of me!



26 comments:

  1. LOVED this post, Caftan Woman. You know that I'm a Nero Wolfe groupie, so any post on Stout or Wolfe will catch my attention.

    But this was better than most. Loved the comparisons.

    I must say that I listened to Sydney Greenstreet online a few weeks ago, as Wolfe, but I just the most awful time understanding him.

    Anyway, I've always thought that Raymond Burr would have made a great Wolfe. But we'll never know.

    I did like the A&E show, loved the repetory cast aspect too. Murray Chaykin has the best facial expressions. Loved the guy who played Saul Panzer. :)

    I wish someone would make a movie. Right off the top of my head I can't think who could play Wolfe now.

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  2. Thanks, Yvette. I wondered what you might think if you stumbled upon this post.

    I think Raymond Burr may have had Nero Wolfe in mind while he was playing Ironside. I also think he'd be pleased we thought so.

    The Wolfe stories are just too good not to intrigue another producer to take another chance. I can't think of anyone to cast at this point, especially after Hutton & Chaykin had their go. It needn't even be all about the bulk, as Thayer David proved. Time will tell.

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  3. Oh, I like this one! I always think of Laird Cregar when I see one of these adaptations. He might would have made a good Nero Wolfe.

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  4. A thoughtful and detail analysis leading up to a punchline. You need your own show on A&E.

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  5. FlickChick, Cregar = Wolfe is brilliant!

    Now, in our fantasy casting office we can spend hours coming up with the rest of the cast.

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  6. My own show, eh? "Caftan Woman", the poor man's Dame Edna.

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  7. If you get to be the poor man's Dame Edna, then I want to be the even poorer man's "Madge", her "bridesmaid" and second fiddle. Searching for appropriate neutral colored sweater and skirt as we speak.

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  8. Ha! My very own "Madge". I can you now, sitting quietly - well, maybe...um...okay, how long do you think you can keep that up, Possum?

    I bought glasses with red frames and my daughter said I looked like "the purple haired man lady". We stared at each other for about a minute before I figured out who she was talking about. By the way, I don't look like the purple haired man lady in my glasses.

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  9. Caftan Woman, I'm a big Rex Stout/Nero Wolfe fan, and reading your post about Nero Wolfe in his many forms (including IRONSIDE :-)) put a big smile on my face! I remember seeing one or two of the Nero Wolfe movies with Lionel Stander and Edward Arnold, too, though I agree that Stander's Archie was a very different Archie than, say, Timothy Hutton's version; he and Maury Chaykin were my favorite versions. I must admit I kinda liked the version with William Conrad and Lee Horsley, but I readily admit they weren't totally spot-on in their characterizations, but they tried. :-)

    Now you have me interested in finding the Sydney Greenstreet broadcasts, to say nothing of carving out more reading time so I can re-read the Nero Wolfe books I already have! Thanks for the tips and the wonderful post. C. W.! (And never mind your husband's wiseacre cracks! :-))

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  10. I've only seen the A&E series, in fact, I own it (one of only two TV series I own) because I'm such a fan. I don't mind Chaykin's pouty portrayal at all and love the period detail, fabulous ensemble cast and the neatly crafted scripts. It's a series that deserves a lot more recognition than it gets.

    On the other hand...Greenstreet as Wolfe must've been very interesting.

    Another great post, CW - and I hope your husband appreciates that there are few among us who can achieve the culinary wizardry of Fritz Brenner...

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  11. Got an idea. Hugh Bonneville as Wolfe. He'd have to put on a few pounds, but he's not sylph-like anyway.

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  12. I'm a big fan of 1920-1960s detective series, but I have yet to read a Nero Wolfe book. I picked up several at my library's booksale and sound like just the thing for a cold winter's evening.

    I don't think I've ever seen a Nero Wolfe adaptation of any kind, so it looks like my first exposure will be the to literary Wolfe.

    That was a really fun post.

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  13. Marvelous post on one of my favorite literary detectives. I'm unfamilair with the radio series (but need to check them out). As for film and television, no one has quite filled the bill for me in terms of portraying Nero and Archie. I have the same problem with another literary fave, the erudite and pompous Philo Vance. Warren William's portrayal came closest to the books, but the supporting characters weren't right (and I love Eugene Pallette).

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  14. The purple haired man lady?!?!?! OMG. LOL.

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  15. Dorian, I'm so pleased you "get" the "Ironside" connection.

    Once Stout grabs you, you're a fan for life.

    I sure can't stay mad at my husband when he inspired a post!

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  16. The Lady Eve, of the discerning taste, I simply must know the name of the other series you feel worthy to be part of your home entertainment collection.

    What you say is so very true. "A Nero Wolfe Mystery" deserves a lot of attention and praise.

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  17. Yvette, I think Hugh Bonneville can do anything. You're brilliant!

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  18. Kevin, you're in for years of wonderful reading with the Wolfe series. I predict that Archie Goodwin will be your literary best friend, and you may start posting in the style of a smart-aleck detective. Welcome to the club!

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  19. Rick, we so want the screen versions of book favourites to succeed, but so often we're left shaking our heads at the gaffs of producers, casting, etc. It's tricky, but we know they'll keep on trying.

    Yes, Warren had Vance's cool, above everybody intellect thing working very well. I think maybe they tried too hard to appeal to a broader base with the Sergeant's numbskull behavior. Instead of going with what works, they tried that square peg/round hole bit. dthat

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  20. MTN - kids say the darndest things!

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  21. CW, you'll shake your head at me, but I've never read any Nero Wolfe novels. I have real all of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories and novels, but otherwise have not read many mystery novels. I don't really know why! I am not qualified to make an opinion because of that, but you are such a fan, I take your word for it about the good and bad Neros. I've had the same feelings about Holmes and Watson, and the different actors and movies.

    This was really interesting, and you make me want to look into Nero!

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  22. Becky, maybe some of the Hutton/Chaykin series, "A Nero Wolfe Mystery" are online. I think you might enjoy them for their period detail.

    As I look around my bookshelf, most of the overcrowded paperback population is from the mystery genre. I might be a tad obsessive.

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  23. Caftan Woman, You are not going to believe this but, I have never heard of Rex Stout. After, reading your wonderful review, I will check out his work.

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  24. Dawn, I do hope you check out the works of Rex Stout. "When" you become a fan I will break my arm patting myself on the back.

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