More Commies, more extortionists, more bank robbers―and more precision-made storytelling from this must-have vintage TV drama/actioner. Warner Bros.' fabulous Archive Collection of M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) library and cult titles has released The FBI: The Second Season, Part Two, a 4-disc, 13-episode collection representing the second half of the hit ABC series' 1966-1967 season. Famed producer Quinn Martin's most successful television series, The FBI continues to keep its head down this sophomore season, relentlessly, relentlessly driving on with its fact-based storylines while showcasing a truly remarkable gallery of Hollywood's finest supporting actors in this top-flight, exciting police procedural. No extras, again, but the transfers (most of them, at least) are good for this terrific-looking show.
Washington, D.C., 1966. In a small, tidy, spartan one-bedroom apartment, FBI Inspector Lewis Erskine (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) readies himself for bed after a long day of work...right before the phone rings. On the line is Arthur Ward (Philip Abbott), Assistant Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (second only to the Director, J. Edgar Hoover). Whatever rest Erskine planed on getting, he better get it on the next plane out of D.C., because he's been given another assignment. As his superior Ward has often stated, Erskine gets some leeway from the Director because he gets results...but when duty calls, it doesn't matter if its night or day, Erskine must go. Investigating federal crimes ranging from interstate fugitives to foreign spies to industrial saboteurs to murderous bank robbers, Erskine is often paired with Special Agent Jim Rhodes (Stephen Brooks), a young, slightly cocky agent. Scrupulously avoiding any relationships with the various women he encounters during his investigations, Erskine grimly goes about his work protecting the United States from its enemies within.
You see, this is the problem with reviewing split-season TV series (...and not waiting to watch all of the episodes before you write the first review). No sooner do I write in my first review that Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. is largely absent from the first half of the season (you can read that review here), he pops up, front and center, for these remaining 13 episodes. No, we still don't get a personal life for Lewis Erskine: no time-off activities, no romance, no nothing. It's "the Bureau" and nothing more for the dedicated, grimly determined inspector. However, Zimbalist, Jr., a fine, technically adept actor (who isn't exactly stretched here, to be honest) takes take the lead in most of the stories in this collection, giving the episodes more of an anchor than the previous "unconnected" anthology feel of the first half of the season.
Fortunately, what hasn't changed for this second half of the season is the quality of the guest star roster, and the crisp, clean scripting and directing that highlight The FBI's focused, no-nonsense storytelling aesthetics. Lead-off The Courier, brings Communist subversion right into 1960s suburban America when Asian orphan Cherylene Lee―who knows first-hand the terrors of murderous communist dictatorships―is adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Normal America/covert subversives Gene Hackman and Phyllis Love, with the aid of international relief worker/Commie stooge Ruth Roman (Hackman, about to make his mark with Bonnie and Clyde that same year, is coldly effective here). A Question of Guilt is an eerily premonitory episode of today's current headlines: tough narcotics cop Andrew Duggan is the last person seen with vaguely-ethnic hype David Mauro, who is beaten to death by Syndicate thugs Don Dubbins and Paul Mantee (good together as violent psychos). A liberal newspaper columnist, Larry Gates, fans the flames of race rioting with an ill-advised editorial calling for Duggan's head, and it's up to Erskine (who gives a great common-sense smack-down to Gates' irresponsible "journalism") and his team to restore law and order. Knee-weakening Barbara Luna livens up the otherwise familiar The Gray Passenger, featuring an over-the-top performance by Alejandro Rey (Luna, on the other hand, gives a nicely-shaded turn). The Conspirators, written by Robert J. Shaw and Norman Jolley, is a tense, well-acted number that finds committed Communist and saboteur Arthur Franz torn between his even steelier wife and comrade, Phyllis Thaxter, and his ideologically-wavering daughter and comrade, Julie Sommars, who doesn't want her Navy officer fiancÚ, Dabney Coleman, blown up in a bid to get the U.S. "out of the Orient" (read: Vietnam). Shaw and Jolley pull no punches with their straightforward script when Franz lays out his credo: "I'm a Communist. That means I've dedicated by life to an ideology that I believe will control every square inch of this world some day. And it's my sworn duty to bring that about in any way that I can." Newer, more cynical, more ironic viewers may laugh at this kind of political billboarding...but it's effective in a primitive, crude way.
Communists bent on sabotaging America's efforts in Asia are also in the background of Rope of Gold, a beautifully designed blackmail episode with a heavy-hitter cast. Manufacturing executive Peter Graves, under the thumb of blackmailer/hijacker/pimp/professional snot Louis Jourdan―who compromised married Graves with the charms of suicidal drunk Joanne Linville―must now give up the when and where of a $7 million dollar gold shipment to Jourdan and his gang, which includes the gorgeous, gorgeous Jessica Walter and icy William Smithers (who gets to throw a screaming Linville out a window). Great performances by all (Walter is effortlessly interesting, as always), particularly Jourdan, who bypasses his usual (and welcome) campy excesses for a tough turn here. Bradford Dillman is excellent as always in Sky on Fire, a solid suspenser that finds Dillman accidentally killing Charles Grodin (!), the brother of Lynda Day George whom newly-married Dillman knocked up, only to begin setting forest fires to cover his tracks (good location work on this one, along with Dillman's descent into an ever-widening hole of criminality). Lovely, talented Antoinette Bower is especially good in Flight Plan, an art heist episode that finds the lonely Bower, intent on changing her life, falling in love with thief...and murderer, J.D. Cannon.
In The Satellite, quirky Tim O'Connor can't do much with his one-dimensional kidnapper role, but future quirky queen Karen Black shows flashes of her soon-to-be-celebrated odd rhythms and off-kilter line readings. Force of Nature is a reasonably good little actioner, reminiscent too much, perhaps, of Key Largo at its end, but handsome good-guy James Franciscus is miscast as a nasty, violent kidnapper/murderer. Wayne Rogers, however, is excellent as The Extortionist, playing a racist ranch hand who resents his father R.G. Armstrong working for Rodolfo Hoyos, Jr.―a nice switch (crazy hot Barbara Luna makes her second appearance here this season, thank god). And finally, one of the best offerings this season is the two-parter, The Executioners, a Mob episode featuring that most unlikely pairing of Walter Pidgeon (!) and Telly Savalas as syndicate king pins who are dodging the increasing pressure of the legal system to reign in their criminal activities. Regular readers of mine already know what I think of Telly in anything he does (the man is a god), but I was more than pleasantly surprised at how good Pidgeon was in an uncharacteristically bad guy role; when Pidgeon warns, "If anybody gets in our way, we waste 'em, I had to check again what year this was produced. Written by Norman Jolley and directed by Don Medford, The Executioners, spread out over two episodes, takes its time in setting up its characters (Robert Drivas has a good turn here as a revengeful college kid killer with a secret), while its cast is second-to-none: in addition to the above mentioned, Susan Strasberg, Robert Duvall (second appearance this season), Herb Ellis, Dan Frazier, Ted Knight, and Celeste Holm (who's wonderful with a tender Savalas) also appear, giving The Executioners a decided heft for the appreciative viewer.
Audiences apparently agreed, warming to The FBI and finally bringing it into the vaunted Nielsen Top Thirty this sophomore season (at 30th for the year). Facing tough competition on Sunday nights at 8:00pm against CBS' The Ed Sullivan Show (13th), and the last half-hour of NBC's Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color (19th), The FBI still managed to carve out a niche for itself among action/drama fans (helped some by the fact that no one wanted to watch Disney's lead-out, Hey Landlord, at 8:30pm). Considering ABC's limited station clearance, and the fact that only four other ABC shows were in the Nielsen Top Thirty (Bewitched, The Lawrence Welk Show, Rat Patrol, and The FBI's lead-out hit, The ABC Sunday Night Movie), The FBI was guaranteed a renewal for the following 1967-1968 season...with a resulting jump in ratings.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.