There are all sorts of reasons why a TV show might get cancelled, but ‘to stop my ex-wife from getting a bigger cut of my earnings in our divorce settlement’ is possibly unique. That, however, is the reason that early Seventies series Banacek ended after two seasons, with star George Peppard happily cutting off his nose to spite his wife Elizabeth Ashley’s face. I guess he really hated her.
Banacek first appeared in 1972 as part of the rotating NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie slot. This ‘wheel’ series began life in 1971 with Columbo, McCloud and McMillan and Wife taking turns to appear, and was successful enough for the initial strand to be moved to Sunday mights and a second wheel started on Wednesdays. However, this proved less successful, with the likes of Cool Million, Madigan, The Snoop Sisters and Tenafly only lasting a single season each. Banacek, ironically, was the only popular strand of the Wednesday movies.
Designed to fit a feature film slot, each episode of Banacek runs 70 minutes without ads, and there are only eight episodes per season (plus the initial pilot). Peppard plays the title character, Thomas Banacek (in keeping with the times, hardly anyone uses his first name) in a show that attempts to make insurance investigation as glamorous and exciting as the life of James Bond. It’s not entirely successful in doing so.
Polish-American Banacek is a freelance insurance investigator who only takes on the toughest cases – thefts that seem impossible. For 10% of the insured value, he will recover the stolen item, saving the insurance company millions – though of course they are all resentful over having to have him large chunks of money (naturally, he doesn’t bother looking for anything worth less than a million) for doing what their agents can’t.
While Columbo reinvented the murder mystery by showing the killer upfront and then following the detective’s dogged wearing down of the usually smug murderer, Banacek also offers a new twist on the crime drama. This is less a ‘whodunnit’ (though it is that too) and more a ‘howdunnit’, each episode ending with Banacek explaining to the police, the insurance company and assorted suspects just how the seemingly impossible crime was carried out. It should go without saying that these explanations are frequently hilariously ludicrous, sometimes approaching Scooby Doo level. I won’t spoil the surprise for anyone, but one episode involves a holographic projection while another has the stolen item replaced by a giant balloon. Would-be thieves looking for tips on committing the perfect crime will find this series sorely lacking.
While not having macho stand-offs with possible suspects or engaging in the one scene of fisticuffs or shoot outs that each episode allows, Banacek will usually be seducing the episode’s leading lady. Actually, that’s unfair – he doesn’t have to seduce anyone. In the parallel world of this series, the ageing, silver-blonde and entirely charmless Banacek is cat nip for every woman who he comes across and they immediately throw themselves at him. It doesn’t matter who they are – young girls, thirtysomethings, highly successful businesswomen or Las Vegas showgirls, no-one can resist him, even if they are allowed some token dislike of his male chauvinist ways (references to male chauvinist pigs and women’s lib, along with the casual sexism throughout, probably date this more that Banacek’s polo neck and slacks fashion statements). Along the way, he’s assisted by chauffeur Jay (Ralph Manza), a weasly and seemingly untrustworthy Sicilian, and English bookshop proprietor Murray Matheson, who is there to allow the audience to be filled in on exposition and character backgrounds.
Also becoming a series regular in season 2 is Christine Belford as Carrie Kirkland, insurance company employee, sometime lover of Banacek (of course!) and rival. She first appeared in the pilot, but returned in the second season for a handful of episodes, and it’s notable that the ones she appears in are the most entertaining. She not only adds a degree of humour and a female presence who isn’t there just to be the hero’s shag of the week, but she’s also a much more appealing character than Banacek himself. It’s a pity that when the series prematurely ended, she didn’t get her own spin-off.
The series is very much in the Seventies tradition – it seems that pretty much every US TV series of the time would feature the same sort of stories to involve their heroes in, and Banacek finds himself investigating mysteries involving football games, horse racing, Vegas casino (complete with a Howard Hughes-alike reclusive millionaire) and ultra modern (and so no quite laughable) technology. The only thing missing are shifty communists, but no doubt they were lined up for the third season. And the stories are generally entertaining enough. There’s nothing earth-shattering here – nothing to come close to even middling Columbo episodes, for instance – but they make a decent enough diversion, even if you suspect that some of the stories might have been better suited to a one hour slot.
The show has plenty of guest stars – Stephanie Powers turns up in the pilot, and other shows feature the likes of Broderick Crawford, Kevin McCarthy, Brenda Vaccaro, Stella Stevens, Mike Farrell, Andrew Duggan, Jessica Walter, Candy Clark, Gary Lockwood, Ann Baxter, Cesar Romero, John Saxon, Anne Francis, Linda Evans, Victoria Principal and Stirling Hayden. Margot Kidder turns up in season 1 and manages to make a reference to Superman that will delight fans of her work as Lois Lane, no doubt. Jack Smight directs the pilot, while B-movie king Bernard L. Kowalski handles a couple of other episodes, and Hammer Films legend Jimmy Sangster co-writes one show.
Banacek is a solid enough series, but it has one problem: Banacek himself. The character lacks charm or appeal, being arrogant and smug throughout, needlessly confrontational all to often and generally unpleasant as he puffs away on his omnipresent cigar. And Peppard – not the easiest actor to work with by all accounts – does little to alleviate these flaws. In fact, his rather one dimensional performance probably makes things worse, as he wanders through the story rarely changing expression, whether he’s being threatened with death or about to get laid. He seems utterly disinterested, quite honestly.
An unlikeable leading man / character is quite a hurdle to overcome, but I can’t say I didn’t enjoy these two series when I rewatched them. There’s enough going on – and enough inadvertent silliness – to ensure that they are entertaining viewing. There are better 1970s TV series out there for sure, but fans with a nostalgic bent will probably find these shows worthy timewasters.