Ellery Queen had all the ingredients for a hit in the mid-’70s. The source material was a respected detective novel series and producers Richard Levinson and William Link had scored with two similar genre series with Columbo and Mannix. Jim Hutton of Major Dundee and The Green Berets fame was in the title role. Episodes were packed with great guest stars as suspects. The pilot was launched as part of NBC’s “Mystery Movie.” Yet Ellery Queen Mysteries contains the only 23 episodes of the series.
Ellery Queen’s a mystery writer who likes to play sidekick to his police inspector father (David Wayne) in post-World War II Los Angeles. The series broke the fourth wall by reminding people they were watching a mystery show. It opens with the announcer describing who is going to die and a list of the suspects. Of course they leave it open with a “or was it someone else.” The offer was for the view to “match wits with Ellery Queen and see if you can guess who done it.” Like the traditional detective thriller the big reveal involved all the suspects gathered in a room as Ellery goes through his laundry list of pros and cons to weed out the real killer. Right before this moment, Ellery directly addresses the audience to make sure they’ve made their pick. This was something neither Columbo or Mannix did.
“Too Many Suspects” is the feature length pilot that aired the spring before the series was properly launched. A fashion designer is found dead. The only real clues Ellery finds is the cords pulled on the alarm clock and TV set. Among the suspects are Ray Milland (Panic In Year Zero) and Kim Hunter (Planet of the Apes). John Hillerman (Magnum P.I.) is a radio star eager to get more material from Ellery. “The Adventure of Auld Land Syne” is a confusing way to kick off the series since the murder takes place at a New Year’s Eve party. Why wouldn’t they wait till the holiday season to make Joan Collins (Dynasty) a potential killer? The show does hire Guy Lombardo to play himself 30 years younger. Suspects include Ray Walston (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) and David Doyle (Charlie’s Angels). “Adventure of the Lover’s Leap” has film noir legend Ida Lupino acting out a scene from one of Ellery’s novel. He has to find the real killer or he’ll die of guilt. Don Ameche (Trading Places) and Anne Francis could be dead.
“The Adventure of the Comic Book Crusader” has Ellery ticked off at his depiction in a graphic novel series. After a fight, the editor gets shot to death. Could Ellery have done it? Or was it someone else? Tom Bosley (Happy Days), Lynda Day George and Donald O’Connor keep us guessing. This wouldn’t be a real TV series without a guest spot from Betty White. She’s here on “The Adventure of Miss Aggie’s Farewell Performance.” There’s also former Miss America host Bert Parks in this tale of a radio star’s attempted murder. “The Adventure of Colonel Nivin’s Memoirs” gets Lloyd Bochner killed. His book exposed way too many international figures. Perhaps he was offed by Rene Auberjonois (Benson), Robert Loggia (The Sopranos) or Pernell Roberts (Bonanza). There’s an Alice and Wonderland theme to “The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party” with suspects including Jim Backus (Gilligan’s Island) and Larry Hagman (Dallas). Old things come out with George Burns, Jack Carter and William Demarest in “The Adventure of Vernoica’s Veils.”
“The Adventure of the Pharaoh’s Curse” spooks us with June Lockhart (Lost In Space), Ross Martin (The Wild Wild West) and Simon Oakland (Kolchak: The Night Stalker) as potential killers of Nehemiah Persoff. Unless the mummy did it. Keep you eyes pealed for John Larroquette. “The Adventure of the Eccentric Engineer” makes Ed McMahon the victim. He’s a rich guy who loves his toy trains. Did Arthur Godfrey, David Hedison (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea or Dick Van Patten taken him out? “The Adventure of the Way Witness” is beyond star packed with Michael Constantine (Room 222), Dwayne Hickman (Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine), Cesar Romero (Batman‘s the Joker), Michael Parks (Kill Bill), Dick Sargent (Bewitched) and Sal Mineo (Rebel Without a Cause) into the mystery. Vincent Price scares us with a movie set slaughter in “The Adventure of the SInister Scenario.” “The Adventure of the Hardhearted Huckster” brings the Bob Crane love.
Why Ellery Queen only lasted a season is still a mystery. The episodes are still entertaining after all these years. The star power plays well with the characters. Maybe it was just a case of bad timing since NBC had it on a Wednesday night with the forgettable lead in of The Montefuscos. It also had the major time slot rivals of The Streets of San Francisco and CBS’s Thursday Night Movie. Although all of this pondering is a moot point since Hutton died of liver cancer a few years after the cancelation. This series is part of his legacy. Ellery Queen Mysteries maintains its allure even when it asks you to guess along with the star.
“Ellery Queen Pilot (aka Too Many Suspects),” “The Adventure of Auld Lang Syne,” “The Adventure of the Lover’s Leap,” “The Adventure of the Chinese Dog,” “The Adventure of the Comic Book Crusader,” “The Adventure of the 12th Floor Express,” “The Adventure of Miss Aggie’s Farewell Performance,” “The Adventure of Colonel Niven’s Memoirs,” “The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party,” “The Adventure of Veronica’s Veils,” “The Adventure of the Pharaoh’s Curse,” “The Adventure of the Blunt Instrument,” “The Adventure of the Black Falcon,” “The Adventure of the Sunday Punch,” “The Adventure of the Eccentric Engineer,” “The Adventure of the Wary Witness,” “The Adventure of the Judas Tree,” “The Adventure of the Sinister Scenario,” “The Adventure of the Two-Faced Woman,” “The Adventure of the Tyrant of Tin Pan Alley,” “The Adventure of Caesar’s Last Sleep,” “The Adventure of the Hard-Hearted Huckster” and “The Adventure of the Disappearing Dagger.”
The video is 1.33:1 full frame. The transfers look really good for a series that hasn’t had much exposure lately. You can get the detail of the props as Ellery pokes around the crime scene. The audio is Dolby Digital mono. The sound is crisp with good levels. You can feel it when Ellery asks for your opinion of the suspects. The episodes have English subtitles.
Interview with Screenwriter William Link (18:04) lets him explain how him and Richard Levinson brought Ellery Queen to TV. Turns out Jim Hutton lived in his trailer on the studio lot during the shooting.
Ellery Queen Mysteries contains all the episodes of a series that’s qualifies as Brilliant, But Canceled. The mysteries keep you guessing till the end even if they’ve pointed out all the suspects. Jim Hutton is affable as the mystery writer who doesn’t mind solving a case for inspiration. Ellery Queen has all the finer elements of a Who Done It movie from Hollywood’s golden age. Fans of TV mysteries need to uncover this in their DVD collection.
E1 Entertainment presents Ellery Queen Mysteries. Starring: Jim Hutton, David Wayne and Tom Reese. Boxset Contents: 23 episodes on 6 DVDs. Released on DVD: September 28, 2010.
Joe Corey is the author of "The Seven Secrets of Great Walmart People Greeters." This is the last how to get a job book you'll ever need. He was Associate Producer of the documentary "Moving Midway." He's worked as local crew on several reality shows including Candid Camera, American's Most Wanted, Extreme Makeover Home Edition and ESPN's Gaters. He's been featured on The Today Show and CBS's 48 Hours. Dom DeLuise once said, "Joe, you look like an axe murderer." He was in charge of research and programming at the Moving Image Archive.