Sunday, June 8, 2008

Let Your Old Captain Handle This

Category: Review

If you think modern television shows have hokey plots, try this one on for size: A millionaire police homicide captain who shows up at the crime scene in a chauffeured car to begin his investigation.

That "hokey plot" is the scenario for Burke's Law, which I discovered in reruns as a teenager. It has since become either my favorite show or in the top three (depending on the mood). The great news is that part of the first season of Burke's Law is now available on DVD in the U.S.

Burke's Law was the first hit for the late Aaron Spelling as a producer, and it was a series that the "A" list celebrities of the day begged to be on. (Examples: Frank Sinatra's cameo in "Who Killed Wade Walker?" Sammy Davis Jr.'s brief dancing appearance in "Who Killed Alex Debbs?") Each episode began with a murder, followed by a phone call to Captain Amos Burke (who was usually entertaining a beautiful woman) and a dash to the scene of the crime in his Rolls Royce. Each episode was titled "Who Killed (the name of the murder victim)?"

So why was this so good? First, the acting. Gene Barry (Captain Burke) was superb in delivering one-liners with the straightest face. Gary Conway (who went on to star in Land of the Giants) played the hotshot young detective Tim Tilson, always trying to show off how much he'd learned in college. Then there was Leon Lontoc, who played Burke's chauffeur/butler, Henry. While sometimes restricted to the typical early 60s Oriental servant stereotype (think of the minimal use of Bruce Lee in The Green Hornet, which star Van Williams objected to and pressured the producers to rectify, resulting in the cancellation of the series after one year), Henry could also rip off some zingers. One of the most classic had Henry mumbling in his native language. When Burke asked for a translation, Henry huffed, "I said I never had this much trouble when I worked for the Green Hornet!"

Secondly was the writing. Ostensibly a crime drama, Burke's Law was dang funny. The plot should make that fact obvious; however, there were other elements that made the show as comical as any sitcom (and funnier than some). For one thing, Amos had a list of sayings about situations, which he would spout off: "Never let your brain interfere with your heart, your stomach, or your wallet. It's Burke's law." (A collection of the "Burke's laws" is one of the extras in the DVD set.) Any time the investigation involved a beautiful female, Burke would tell his associates, "Let your old captain handle this one."

However, it was a crime show, and there was a murder (or sometimes several murders) to solve. The shows were very well written to leave the identity of the murderer hanging. Sometimes the guilty party was obvious; other times it was a total shock.

And, yes, the celebrities (many of whom appear in pre-superstar roles, such as Elizabeth Montgomery in "Who Killed Mr. X?") make the show fun to watch now in retrospect. While most of us remember Paul Lynde as the wisecracking Uncle Arthur on Bewitched or the joking "center square" on Hollywood Squares, he appeared in two episodes and turned in fine performances.

The only drawback is that the series is being issued a little at a time. Only 16 of the first season's 32 episodes are on DVD at the moment, which means (a) more money to spend or, sadly (b) they can stop putting out the DVDs if they don't sell well. I hope the latter isn't the case, though. Burke's Law is a joy, even 45 years after it first appeared on television.

Burke's Law season one, part one

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