I’ve just discovered that several (and possibly all) episodes of the great 1970s TV series Banacek are now available for free viewing on YouTube. For two seasons, in 1972-1974, Banacek ran as part of the NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie anthology program.
The mystery movie “wheel” was a great concept: a new mystery movie each week in a ninety-minute time slot, rotating among three or four series. It enabled producers to pay more attention to both the writing and the production values, and some of these series ended up becoming TV classics, such as Columbo, McMillan and Wife, McCloud, and The Snoop Sisters.
Banacek is my personal favorite of these. First, George Peppard was just superb as the title character: a self-confident, smart, tough, worldly, and, perhaps most interesting of all, truly independent freelance private investigator who specialized in recovering lost or stolen objects, for a fee of 10 percent of the total value of the item.
Banacek worked mainly for insurance companies, who were eager to engage his services in hopes of saving 90 percent of the dollar value of the object in question. As a result of his freelance status and his independent streak, Banacek ran into much hostility from insurance company investigators, but he ultimately charmed rival Carlie Kirkland (Christine Belford), and the two became friendly rivals (and more).
Speaking of the latter, Banacek was an unapologetic ladies’ man, and this element of the show may irk current-day feminists. It does, however, seem true to both the character and the times, and truth should always be a dispositive defense against accusations of political incorrectness. (Too bad that it seldom is accepted as such. If it were so, few of today’s silliest public arguments would be sustainable.)
Banacek’s Polish background was an important element of the show, and a particular inspiration to urban ethnic young people of the time, I’m sure, as his pride in his Polish heritage proved that a disadvantaged upbringing need not be any impediment to success in life. It’s a message that should resonate with people of all colors, in fact, and is well worth hearing even now.
Oftimes characters in the show expressed open contempt for Banacek’s ethnic background, pronouncing his name incorrectly and often doing so deliberately. Banacek would invariably correct their pronunciation, and rather pointedly suggest that they were vulgar and ignorant. Those were truly cheer-able moments, especially for life’s underdogs.
Another way Banacek showed pride in his heritage was by quoting old Polish proverbs—presumably invented by the show’s writers—which would initially strike the listener as rather confusing and indeed a bit silly but would, upon reflection, usually have a clear relevance to the issue at hand and in fact prove rather insightful. Here are a couple of good examples:
- “Just because the cat has her kittens in the oven doesn’t make them biscuits.”
- “You can read all the books in the library my son, but the cheese will still stink after four days.”
An additional attraction of the show was the numerous guest stars who played the suspects in the cases Banacek investigated, with the most attractive females doubling as romantic interests for the wealthy, handsome investigator. Among the memorable guest stars were Linda Evans, Broderick Crawford, Kevin McCarthy, Stefanie Powers, William Windom, Joanna Pettet, Margot Kidder, Janis Paige, Stella Stevens, David Wayne, Jessica Walter, Cesar Romero, John Saxon, Anne Francis, Harry Carey Jr., Victoria Principal, and Sterling Hayden.
That partial guest list is a nostalgic reminder of how many superb actors and actresses were around in the early 1970s and willing to guest star on a quality television show. The mystery series Murder, She Wrote accomplished a similarly impressive guest star list a decade or so later, but few series in recent years have been able to do so. Those surprising guest stars are one of the pleasures of these vintage TV shows.
In addition to the guest stars, series regulars Ralph Manza and Murray Matheson provided excellent counterpoints to Peppard’s Banacek. Manza’s character, Jay Dury, was Banacek’s diminutive, amiable driver, and his dubious theories for solutions to the mysteries, offered with great seriousness, amusingly point up the brilliance of Banacek’s ultimate explanations of what happened.
Matheson’s character, middle-aged rare-bookstore owner Felix Mulholland, is naturally genteel, very smooth with the ladies, a gifted chess player, and a dogged researcher of obscure information Banacek often needs. Mulholland appears to have long been something of a mentor and surrogate father to Banacek, and one can see in his natural gentility the model for the roughly raised Banacek’s well-learned suavity. Banacek’s obvious success at this emulation is another thing about the show that should inspire young people starting to make their way in the world.
Finally, the mysteries in Banacek were simply superb. Each episode presented a truly perplexing “impossible crime,” typically centering on the puzzling disappearance of a valued object. Often the robbery would lead to murder, making the solution of the mystery even more urgent and important.
The impossible crimes were highly enjoyable to contemplate. One of my favorites is in the first episode of season 1, “Let’s Hear It for a Living Legend,” in which a professional football player disappears while on national television. In “Horse of a Slightly Different Color,” a race horse disappears on a race track, before numerous witnesses, during a practice run. In “Fly Me—If You Can Find Me,” a jet airplane disappears. In “A Million the Hard Way,” a million dollars in cash disappears from a display in a Las Vegas casino.
In each case, we follow Banacek as he uncovers clues, interviews suspects, and develops his theory about how the crime was committed and who dun it. The solutions are always possible, if not extremely plausible, and they don’t often rely on coincidences or lucky breaks. Banacek’s ultimate explanation is always accompanied by visual flashbacks showing what happened, which increases the plausibility of the solutions in the viewer’s mind.
Another element of Banacek’s explanations of the mysteries is the rising exasperation of his insurance-company rival investigator on the case. Banacek’s independence and intelligence always get the best of these plodding bureaucrats, and they clearly resent his ability to have it all.
Of course, wealth and status are by no means all there are to a life well lived, and the continual reminders of Banacek’s humble background establish that he is nowhere near as superficial as he may appear on the surface. That lends the show emotional and moral depth that make it more than mere entertainment, for those who choose to see it. In all, the pleasures of Banacek are many and varied, and they are not all superficial.
(Note: I do not know whether the YouTube links are sponsored by the rights owners. To those who view the series on YouTube and like it, I recommend that you buy a copy at amazon.com or some other source. It is well worth the very small investment.)