Westinghouse-Desilu Playhouse Presents: The Untouchables, April 20 & 28, 1959

Written By: Greg Howell - Feb• 21•14

1959 - The Untouchables
For the 1958-59 television season, Desilu Studios trotted out a new, hour-long anthology, the “Westinghouse-Desilu Playhouse” for CBS. While the majority of productions were only moderate successes, several productions pulled in spectacular ratings. Besides the Westinghouse sponsored “The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show,”- which were specials and technically not part of the Westinghouse-Desilu Playhouse – both the “Twilight Zone” pilot (The Time Element) and this surprise 2-part production based on a true-crime novel by Elliot Ness, “The Untouchables” were also Top Ten productions.

20897539Many industry insiders were shocked that Desilu was tackling such adult and violent fare. Arnaz had stated publicly that his studio would never put anything but family programming on the air. Nonetheless, the studio believed in the project; and desperately needed improved programming for Desilu Playhouse, and bankrolled production at $300,000 on the Desilu lot with star Robert Stack, film-noir director Phil Karlson, producer Quinn-Martin and cinematographer Charles Straumer.

The first show aired April 20, 1959. The script told the story of Elliot Ness, the FBI treasury man who pursued Chicago mob man Al Capone at the height of prohibition. Violent and dark, the show was grounded by a voice-over by radio’s Walter Winchell. The Untouchables destroyed the competition in the ratings; and,the week-long buzz about the first hour brought increased interest. 6,000 letters poured into the CBS mailroom, and the April 28 conclusion, received a whopping 37.4 rating, nearly dethroning TV’s #1 show, “Gunsmoke.”

With the huge success and critical acclaim brought great controversy. Italian-American’s were incensed by the mob stereotype – even Frank Sinatra protested. Others were outraged over the excessive violence, and much debate followed the telecasts about the increasing violence on television.

The show won “Westinghouse-Desilu Playhouse” Emmy awards for cinematography and art direction. Robert Stack won the Emmy for his performance as well. “The Untouchables” is the pioneer of modern day crime dramas featuring gritty realism and graphic violence, a hot topic that continues today.

Ironically, “The Untouchables” episodes began the downfall of “Desilu Playhouse.” When Desi Arnaz sold the show to ABC for $3 million in a bidding war with CBS, according to Sanders and Gilbert’s book, “Desilu, The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz,” CBS was livid; and, a month later announced for the upcoming season, the “Westinghouse-Desilu Playhouse” would move from the prime Monday night slot (Lucy and Desi’s home since 1951!) to Friday night; and with an additional, vindictive blow, scheduled the show opposite ABC’s new smash top Ten hit, 77 “Sunset Strip.” The time slot move was the demise of the “Playhouse” and was cancelled in the spring of 1960.

“The Untouchables” ran on ABC for four seasons and 118 episodes, giving Desilu studio and ABC its most profitable show and hit. It also paved the way for Desilu to branch out into dramatic programming, which included “Star Trek” and “Mission Impossible.” Desilu released the 2-hour pilot as a theatrical film after its spring 1959 TV success.

The Untouchables: The Complete Series is available for purchase online at Amazon and Walmart.

Opening credits for “The Untouchables,” and opening for 1959 movie release.

Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, written by Coyne Steven Sanders and Tom Gilbert

Note: ©Greg Howell, Saturday, October 17, 2009

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