Burke's Law is one of those mid-60s cop shows that never was a gigantic hit, but which was successful enough to eke out two and a half seasons (its last half-season as the retooled Amos Burke, Secret Agent). The interesting thing is that Burke's Law, despite its relatively short run, has several elements which have nonetheless implanted themselves in the collective television unconscious--the sultry female voice delivering the show's title each week, that sporty theme by Herschel Burke Gilbert, obviously modeled somewhat on Ron Goodwin's then-popular music for the Rutherford Miss Marple films, and, probably most iconic of all, Burke's luxurious Rolls Royce, not exactly standard fare for a Los Angeles Chief of Detectives. That Rolls Royce is endemic of what is strongest about Burke's Law--this early Aaron Spelling production is long on style, pretty short on substance, but is surprisingly spry and enjoyable even more than 40 years on.
American cop shows routinely portrayed their heroes as working stiff, blue-collar types, and that was part of Burke's Law's particular genius--it upended the stereotype by making Amos Burke (Gene Barry, updating his Bat Masterson dandy to a mid-20th century milieu) not only the Chief of Homicide in L.A., but a multimillionaire with all the trappings--a Beverly Hills mansion, a chauffeur (Leon Lontoc) to drive him about in the aforementioned Rolls, and, perhaps most importantly, a string of buxom beauties hanging off his arm. Burke's police team consisted of his young detective assistant, Tim Tilson (Gary Conway), a kid who, in a running gag throughout the series, always seems to be one step ahead of Burke until the final denouement of each episode. Also on hand was the older Sergeant Les Hart (Regis Toomey), the sort of crusty "Uncle Charlie" type who was the voice of experience and reason counterbalancing Tim's youthful exuberance.
What really set Burke's Law apart from the run of the mill police fodder of those days was its truly impressive list of guest stars, perhaps not exactly A-listers, but former A-listers a plenty, some of whom were rarely seen on television in those days. In fact, my jaw was literally agape in one episode as I saw this list of guest stars reeled off in the opening credits: Linda Darnell, Mickey Rooney, Bert Parks, Gale Storm, Telly Savalas, Sheldon Leonard, and Elizabeth Montgomery. That's just one episode, folks. Typically the episodic nature of each episode--Burke simply traveled from suspect to suspect, amassing clues--gives each guest star their moment in the sun, something which they are all obviously relishing. In fact you haven't truly lived until you've seen Storm and Parks perform not only a convincing marital squabble, but a seamless segue into a vaudeville version of "Baby Face." In another episode, you get Oscar winner Gloria Grahame as perhaps the world's most glamorous heroin addict (evidently proving her Oklahoma statement that she's a girl who "cain't say no") erupting into a surprisingly violent outburst with hubby Jack Carter, who hasn't been able to find her a fix. (There's probably an unintentional laugh out loud moment when Burke encourages Carter to give Grahame a candy bar to help with her heroin "delirium tremens"--do they know about that at Scientology's Narconon?). The show, as suave and smooth and glossy as it always was, provides some unexpectedly visceral moments like Grahame and Carter's fist fight throughout virtually every episode.
Barry, who always seemed a bit fey to be a totally believable "man's man" sort of star, does great work here, vocally lugubrious while perfectly self-effacing enough to bring out the comedy that is always lurking just below the surface in many scenes of Burke's Law. This series had a light, airy ambience that never took itself too seriously, even when examining the seedier side of mid-60s L.A. If Barry is occasionally a bit on the stiff side (watch especially his peculiar posture in many scenes when he's forced to just "stand there" during dialogue moments--it's almost comical how uncomfortable he looks), he has that suave and assured manner that brings Amos Burke alive as, well, an effete snob, albeit one with a gun and occasional karate move.
Angelinos will especially love the series for its many location and establishing shots throughout the city, circa 1964. It's amazing to look back on Los Angeles in the era and realize how relatively undeveloped large swaths of the city still were. Occasionally the show missteps in establishing shots, as in two consecutive episodes where the same still photograph of a mansion is used as the scene of two separate crimes. (Strangely, that's something that another popular detective show, Poirot, would commit decades later in its hour long episodes--if you watch them back to back, you'll see that the same white Art Deco house is used over [and over and over] as the scene of various crimes. It's something that producers and directors probably never thought of in the pre-home video days, when marathon viewing of series became more of the norm).
Also adding to the fun of Burke's Law is seeing up-and-comers in both featured and small, supporting roles scattered throughout the episodes. Watch for some nice turns by such later well known stars as Rue McClanahan, Fess Parker and Barbara Eden in several episodes, while enjoying great starring roles by a host of performers like Jayne Mansfield, Dorothy Lamour, Ed Wynn, Tab Hunter, Don Ameche and Buster Keaton in others. This was obviously a well-budgeted show for its era as its slick production values and uncommonly good guest star rolls consistently prove.
If Burke's Law never attained the top tier status of some of the other, longer running 1960s police efforts, looking back at it now it seems an unusually charming and nimble show with just the right "wink factor" to take the edge off some of the murderous mayhem. Despite his reputation being somewhat sullied and caricatured later in his life, Aaron Spelling was always a producer who knew his stuff, and this early effort of his shows him trying to inject a sort of filmic ambience into the grind of a weekly television series. Burke's Law holds up much better than a lot of its better known kin, and that's testament not only to Spelling's production expertise, but also to the unique charms of Barry, the excellent supporting cast, and the incredible guest stars in each episode.