Crime fighting didn’t have a mandatory retirement age back in 1973. Once upon a time, television executives didn’t have a tantrum if they had a show on the schedule that dared to appear to viewers over 49. There was no stigma in the elderly and their desire to see familiar faces in new roles. Nobody would have blamed Buddy Ebsen if he had limited his appearances after nine season as Jed Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies. But he wasn’t ready to pack up the grease paint. He wanted in on the detective game that dominated prime time with Banyon, Banacek, Columbo and Mannix. Luckily Quinn Martin had the perfect sleuth vehicle for Ebsen. Barnaby Jones: Season One contains the first thirteen cases of the elderly private investigator who never let criminals heard him creak.
“Requiem for a Son” was an episode of Cannon that launched the show as a mid-season replacement. The show would be have the titles changed to a Barnaby Jones episode in later runs. Frank Cannon (William Conrad) gets a late night call from a nervous Hal Jones. He’s worried about situation. Cannon tells him to visit his house. Hal hangs up the phone and gets shot dead. Cannon turns out to not be the only man investigating this homicide. Hal’s father Barnaby used to share their private eye office. He had retired to the life of raising horses, but there’s no way he can let his son’s death go unsolved. He and Cannon get on the job. Turns out the son was working for a Congressional candidate. The son was shot while completing a blackmail payoff. We learn quickly four things that separate Barnaby from the dozens of other TV crime fighters. He loves drinking milk. His office has a lab so he can do his own CSI work without waiting for police reports. He’s able to bring gut reaction with brainy deduction to a case. He hates firing his gun. He’s old. He works well with Cannon in exposing the truth. He quickly becomes a solo star with the assistance of his son’s widow (Lee Meriwether) in the office.
“To Catch a Dead Man” gives us William Shatner (Star Trek) as a millionaire playboy who dies in mysterious circumstances when his boat blows up. But is he really dead? Barnaby discovers that the Shatner is shacked up with Janice Rule up at the lake with a whole new identity. This is the evil Shatner at his prime. “Sunday: Doomsday” makes Barnaby his own client. He has to figure out what nutjob plans to kill him in three days. He gets a funeral wreath. Lee gets a funeral dress. Who is causing this havoc? It’s another spaceman with Gary Lockwood (2001: A Space Odyssey) plotting the old man’s finale. “Perchance to Kill” gives us a third outer space icon with Richard Hatch (Battlestar Galactica). He’s part of a hippie couple that are suspected of murder. Barnaby is hired to hunt them down. He might be old, but he knows where groovy flower children lurk.
“Murder in the Doll’s House” lets Jack Cassidy (David Cassidy’s dad) critique a local writer with a shotgun. Barnaby is hired to find the final chapter of the writer’s upcoming novel. “Sing a Song of Murder” gives us the hot sounds of Rick Michaels. He’s a cheesy ‘70s super hunk in his sansabelt slacks like Englebert Humperdink. After a hot show, he takes a groupie back to his rented mansion to fool around on the diving board. What he forgets in his drunken fun that there’s no water in the pool. His lifeless body is found by his managers (Jackie Coogan). They scheme to pretend Rick has been kidnapped. After the record company pays off the half million dollar ransom, they’ll act like the kidnappers killed the singer and split with the money. Nice to see Uncle Fester really playing a devious. “See Some Evil, Do Some Evil” has Roddy McDowall (Planet of the Apes) as a blind pianist with a harsh secret. Barnaby arrives late to meet a client that’s been murdered. Since the guy sent a check earlier in the day, Barnaby must solve his client’s murder.
“Murder Go-Round” gives us the evil tag team of Claude Akins (Sheriff Lobo) and Geoffrey Lewis (Devil’s Rejects). They’re part of a homicidal small town that doesn’t take kindly to strangers with car issues. What is the diabolical secret that has made this a severe tourist trap? How can the old man survive the double trouble of Akins and Lewis when they want him to stop nosing around? “To Denise, with Love and Murder” lets Bill Bixby play a scheming husband. He’s married a rich old woman, but enjoys the company of a young lass. He gets sick of juggling ladies and lets one go splat. “Twenty Million Alibis” has a retired jewel thief decide to pull off a caper while appearing on a talkshow. Gary Owens (Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In) is the clueless host. Barnaby must figure out how this guy could complete a jewel heist in a few short minutes.
Barnaby Jones: Season One allows us to appreciate what the elderly can offer us in the realm of private investigation. He’s not a geriatric joke stuck in the past. He wants to be on the cutting edge of sleuthing around Los Angeles. Ebsen adapts well to the role without reverting to Jedd Clampett-isms. He’s doesn’t look out of place in a new suit. The show shines because we don’t get Barnaby giving a prolonged Abe Simpson monologue about what crimes were committed in his day. He stayed current with the times. Barnaby Jones: Season One gives us an elderly detective with staying power. Barnaby stuck around for eight years before finally returning to retirement.
“Requiem for a Son,” “To Catch a Dead Man,” “Sunday: Doomsday,” “The Murdering Class,” “Perchance to Kill,” “The Loose Connection,” “Murder in the Doll’s House,” “Sing a Song of Murder,” “See Some Evil, Do Some Evil,” “Murder-Go-Round,” “To Denise, with Love and Murder,” “Little Glory, a Little Death” and “Twenty Million Alibis.”
The video is 1.33:1 full frame. The transfers are from the 35mm source. You get a lot of detail when he’s on the case. The pilot episode finally lets us see what Frank Cannon looked since the Cannon episodes aren’t nearly as sharp. The audio is Dolby Digital Mono. You get the clarity if Barnaby’s deductions without hearing his bones click.
Episodic Promos (1:00) give summaries of each episode. You can watch them before the episode or all the promos at once for what’s on each disc.
Barnaby Jones is a vintage brand of Quinn Martin sleuthing. He might be an old detective coming out of retirement, but there’s little rust in his deductions. He was a man who could combine science with street smarts. The thirteen cases have classic ‘70s plot lines. Barnaby Jones keeps up the winning tradition found in Cannon.
CBS DVD presents Barnaby Jones: The First Season. Starring: Buddy Ebsen and Lee Meriwether. Boxset Contents: 13 Episodes on 4 DVDs. Released on DVD: February 16, 2010. Available at Amazon.com.
Joe Corey is the writer and director of "Danger! Health Films" currently streaming on Night Flight and Amazon Prime. He's 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.