THE UNTOUCHABLES

U.S. Crime Series

Based on the 1947 novel by Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraley, The Untouchables was the first dramatic series created at Desilu Productions, the studio owned by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, and famous for providing situation comedies to U.S. television. Airing on ABC from 1959-63, the series was panned for what critics at the time deemed "excessive and senseless violence." But it was enormously popular with audiences and made names for producer Quinn Martin and actor Robert Stack.

The series centered on a greatly embellished version of the real life Eliot Ness, played by Robert Stack, and his incorruptible treasury agents whom Chicago newspapers had dubbed "The Untouchables." Their battles against organized crime served as the source material for the television series. While the fictional Ness and his Untouchables were somewhat lifeless characters, the back-stories and motivations established for the series' criminals were incredibly well-defined. This was due, in large part, to the talented actors, including Robert Redford, William Bendix, Lloyd Nolan, J. Carroll Naish and Peter Falk, guest actors who played the series' criminal kingpins. This, of course, lead to one of the basic problems of the series--the criminals appeared more human than the heroes.

The series began as a two-hour made-for-television movie documenting Ness's fight against Chicago-mob leader Al Capone. The movie, and its episodic counterpart, maintained an earthy grittiness with its stark sets and dark, studio backlot exterior sequences. A realistic mood was added by narrator Walter Winchell (who had, incidentally, a few years before, broken the real-life scandal of Lucille Ball's alleged communist ties during the McCarthy-era blacklisting period). Winchell's staccato delivery of introductory background material set the stage for each week's episode.

ABC justified the series' violence on grounds of historical accuracy, yet the network often violated the same rule by having their fictional Ness responsible for nabbing mob leaders such as George "Bugsy" Moran and Ma Barker, figures with whom he had no actual dealings. Indeed, a number of FBI agents complained about their real-life victories being credited to the fictionalized Ness. Such pressure eventually forced ABC to create additional FBI characters to more accurately portray the people involved in the show's historically-based cases.

The Untouchables also drew controversy for its stereotyped ethnic characters. The Italian-American community protested the series' use of Italian names for criminal characters. The Capone family also brought a million-dollar lawsuit against producer Desi Arnaz for using the Capone likeness for profit. This was particularly upsetting for Arnaz, a classmate and friend of Al Capone's son.

The show was tremendously successful in its second season, but its popularity rapidly declined when NBC countered with the musical variety program Sing Along With Mitch. Producer Quinn Martin built his Untouchables success into an impressive string of cop-based dramatic hits, including The FBI (1965) and The Streets of San Francisco (1972). Robert Stack became a popular TV actor and has since starred in other successful dramas in which he has played similar crime fighters and adventurers. Since 1988 he has been most visible as the host of Unsolved Mysteries, a popular "reality" program. The Untouchables inspired two revivals--a 1980s movie version as well as a 1990s syndicated series.

-Michael B. Kassel

 


The Untouchables

NARRATOR    Walter Winchell

CAST

Eliot Ness................................................ Robert Stack
Agent Martin Flaherty
(1959-1960) ..................Jerry Paris
Agent William Youngfellow.....................
Able Fernandez
Agent Enrico Rossi
................................Nick Georgiade
Agent Cam Allison
(1960)...................... Anthony George
Agent Lee Hobson
(1960-1963).................... Paul Picerni
Agent Jack Rossman
(1960-1963)............. Steve London
Frank Nitti
...............................................Bruce Gordon
Al Capone
................................................ Neville Brand
"Bugs" Moran
..............................................Lloyd Nolan
Dutch Schultz.....................................
Lawrence Dobkin
"Mad Dog" Coll............................................
Clu Gulager

PRODUCERS Quinn Martin, Jerry Thorpe, Leonard Freeman, Howard Hoffman, Alan A. Armer, Alvin Cooperman, Lloyd Richards, Fred Freiberger, Charles Russell

PROGRAMMING HISTORY 114 Episodes

ABC
October 1959-October 1961           Thursday 9:30-10:30
October 1961-September 1962        Thursday 10:00-11:00
September 1962-September 1963      Tuesday 9:30-10:30

FURTHER READING

Arnaz, Desi. A Book. New York: Warner, 1976.

Boddy, William. Fifties Television: The Industry and Its Critics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Powers, Richard Gid. G-Men, Hoover's F.B.I. in American Popular Culture. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.

 

See also Arnaz, Desi; Martin, Quinn; Police Programs; Westinghouse-Desilu Playhouse