The 1950’s brought us one of more intriguing (and lasting) of showbiz phenomena’s—The TV Star. Suddenly, outside of the movies, theatre, and radio loomed a new pop landscape, one where big buckaroos could be grabbed and across-the-board popularity could be achieved. Gene Barry, who passed away this week at the age of 90, was a TV Star, one with particular staying power, and a vivid persona—The New York Times obit mentioned insouciance, yet his was speckled with a comic inner irony-that made him extremely likeable and easily memorable.
Of course Barry, born Eugene Klass on June 14, 1919, in New York, actually did his time in radio, on stage and up on the big screen, starting out as a radio singer on New York’s WHN, graduated for roles opposite Mae West and in musicals before hitting it big in George Pal’s early sci-fi extravaganza, TheWar of the Worlds in 1953. Barry’s movie career was largely negligible, outside of a co-starring role in the Robert Mitchum’s corny but endearing Thunder Road (1958) and two cool outings with Samuel Fuller ( a director known for his work with wooden leading men and outré character types) in China Gate (1957) and Forty Guns (1957).
Barry was perfectly cast as the dapper and suave (but very macho) Bat Masterson (108 episodes from 1958-1961). The series has been in syndication for years, and it doesn’t measure up well to the better TV westerns. But Barry’s dandified Masterson, a derby-wearing, cane-twirling, clothes-horse, ladies-man Westerner who preferred to use his brain over his obvious brawn was a huge hit with audiences, both parents and western-addicted kiddies, and his cheeky charm established him as a true prince of the small screen.
Barry scored at least twice more with solid but short-lived TV series, and did a ton of guest starring roles (most memorably as the very first murderous sparring partner for Columbo in the orginal TV movie/pilot, 1968’s Prescription Murder), and he knocked out a late career comeback with his return to stage, as the Tony-nominated Georges in 1984 in La Cage Aux Folles.
The last of Barry’s true TV successes was The Name of the Game (44 episodes from 1968-71), in which, as part of a rotating three cast and series (the other two stars were Robert Stack and Anthony Franciosca); he played Glenn Howard, a flamboyant neo-Hefneresque owner of a publishing empire. I haven’t seen these since they were originally aired but remember them as typical 90 minute potboilers of the time, flecked with touches of contempo-issue plotting, Los Angeles ennui, and faux hipsterism.
It is Barry’s second TV hit, Burke’s Law, a comedic cop/mystery show with the ever-dapper Gene Barry as millionaire police captain Amos Burke, a playboy detective who arrived at crime scenes with a chauffeur driven Rolls Royce. It was one of the first creations of TV Kingpin Aaron Spelling, who remains one of the ultimate purveyors of televised eye candy, creating concoctions throughout his lengthy career that were as easy to swallow as they were to gaze upon.
Running from 1963-66 for a total of 81 episodes, this decidedly pre-feminist show boasts the lightest of eye-winking tones accompanying a bevy of curvy beauties and long-legged (Cat Fight Alert) lassies (proving once again the less-is-more popcult rule),
alongside a new batch of guest star murder suspects each week, ranging far and wide from The Smothers Brothers to Susan Strasberg to Ricardo Montalbam, to yeah, Paul Lynde. (My fave was George Hamilton as a beatnik/performance artist, a YouTube clip for which I searched far and wide to no avail.) Breezy and cheesy, this entertains far more than it deserves to, and mucho credit must be given to the ever bemused Barry, presiding over all the eye-winking proceedings like the proverbial cat with a nest of canaries held just so between his pearly whites.