(This is The Horn Section's contribution to the Me Tv "Summer of Classic TV Blogathon", hosted by our friends at the Classic TV Blog Association! Go to the Classic TV Blog Association to view all of the posts in this blogation, highlighting shows airing this summer on the Me TV schedule! Click here to learn more about Me-TV, and to find a Me-TV network affiliate in your area, click here!)
CAR 54, WHERE ARE YOU? -- "Toody Undercover" (1962) Starring Joe E. Ross, Fred Gwynne, Al Lewis, Paul Reed, Barnard Hughes, Bruce Gordon, George Mathews, Hank Garrett, Barney Martin, Jane Rose. Written by Terry Smith. Directed by Nat Hiken.
He literally "wore his breakfast" every morning. He was married eight times, always to a "lady of the evening" per CAR 54 co-star Hank Garrett. It was commonplace for him to use loud profanity in front of visitors to the set--children included.
How did the man's co-workers feel about him? Just listen to Charlotte Rae and Garrett on the Season One DVD commentary. In addition, IT'S ABOUT TIME co-star Imogene Coca referred to him as "that awful man". Nat Hiken (the genius behind SERGEANT BILKO) was so fed up with his unprofessionalism, it was rumored that if CAR 54, WHERE ARE YOU? had been renewed for a third season, it would have returned without him playing Officer Gunther Toody.
The stories about slobby, short (5'6") Joe E. Ross are legendary, as detailed here by Kliph Nesterhoff. Still, whatever the comedian's personal shortcomings, fans loved him, and his "Ooh! Ooh!" catchphrase is likely to be the first thing that pops into your head when someone mentions CAR 54. While Joe E. Ross was the walking definition of a one-dimensional actor, he was undeniably a perfect fit for CAR 54 and it is impossible to imagine anyone else playing Toody alongside Fred Gwynne's Officer Francis Muldoon.
Given Hiken's feelings and experiences (Garrett went so far as to conclude that Ross "caused Hiken's heart attack"), it may be telling that the most memorable episode to bring Gunther Toody front and center was scripted by Terry Smith. (Hiken did direct the episode; he'd won an Emmy for Direction in Comedy the prior season.) "Toody Undercover", the ninth entry in CAR 54's second and final season, was as close to a tour de force for Joe E. Ross as any episode could be. Gwynne, Al Lewis (as Officer Schnauzer) and the rest of the 53rd Precinct's officers took a back seat, and Beatrice Pons (Mrs. Toody) did not appear at all. Despite their reduced involvement, it remains one of the funniest of the series' 60 half hours (the show ran from 1961 to 1963).
We open on about the most stereotypical group of mobsters (well, circa 1962) that you could imagine, led by George Mathews, who made a career out of playing heavies. In this case, "Patsy Peru".
In his personal life, he was a chess master. Peru is gleefully informing the rest of his gang that "no one knows we're here", but he is shown to be sadly mistaken. He's being viewed by a set of binoculars and his foursome is being identified as "out of town hoods from Kansas City". The officer behind those binoculars is on the phone with his superior, giving us Me-TV veterans a "that guy" alert--it's Barnard Hughes!
But the beloved Father Majeski (only 47 here but already looking ready for the grandfatherly roles) was merely guest starring on CAR 54 as the Chief of Police. These new arrivals have Hughes fearing some holdups in the Bronx, so our Captain Block (Paul Reed) is in the next room rounding up volunteers for overtime.
Officer Toody is obviously raring for action, having been to bed right after Huntley and Brinkley the night before ("Goodnight, Chet" was followed by "Goodnight, Lucille!" per Gunther). But, well, let's just say he isn't the Captain's first choice:
Or the second, third or 54th for that matter. Inconsolable after being bypassed yet again ("Everybody's in on it but me!"), Gunther shuns his partner's offer of a lift and decides to walk home.
Gunther trudges home in his street clothes, a guy who just wants a chance. Today, though, fate lends a hand. Peru and his boys just happen to be "laying low" at a spot on Toody's route home, and when they cross paths, Patsy swears he knows him. Toody's a dead ringer for "Moose" Merkowitz (who we never meet, since he's in Sing Sing per Toody).
Toody's intimate knowledge of Moose's current situation and other mobsters ("it's my business to know") leads Patsy to believe that "Bull" (Toody's high school nickname) would be a great local contact. Toody is loyal (to a fault?) to his "current outfit" and passes, but admits "it's sure nice to be wanted".
When Gunther shows up on the surveillance photos, Captain Block demands an explanation, and Hughes is ecstatic to hear it. "Congratulations, Captain! You've planted your own man!" Chief Hughes wants Gunther undercover, with the warning that the mobsters must never suspect that he's a policeman.
Captain Block: "That's simple. Have him wear his uniform."
Once the need for a disguise is nixed (Gunther hilariously explains that he's already in disguise) and our undercover man is In Like Flynn, Toody's home field advantage pays immediate dividends for Peru and minions. Toody has late breaking news on the location of the rare furs they're planning to steal and knows the new location "like the back of my hand". It's Sweeney's Warehouse, and Toody dutifully notifies the Captain under the guise of calling his mother.
This only assures Peru that he's chosen the right man. "Callin' his Mudder. He's got it up here (head) AND here (heart)."
Toody's in tune with the layout, so much so that Peru puts him in charge. And, in an instance of art imitating life, being the "Chief" and Go-To Guy goes to Toody's head. When the Police Captain reveals his location, the undercover man does what any great leader would do:
He blurts "Cops!! Let's get out of here!!" to his new minions.
|Cops!! He yelled, 'Cops"!!|
The mad scramble that ensues (without the Captain, whose stunned, prolonged reaction is probably Reed's funniest moment of the entire series) results in "Chief Bull" saving the gang from near-certain capture. "They called me 'Chief', and I just got carried away."
Amazingly, Hughes isn't deterred by the setback. After ruling out Captain Block's suggestion of Fort Knox for his next job ("With only five men?"), Toody has information that the "Big Boss" is coming in. Even Hughes is stunned. "This is bigger than we thought." HOW big? The Big Boss is none other than Frank Nitti himself:
Bruce Gordon was probably ready to spoof his well worn mafia persona after playing Nitti some 30 times on THE UNTOUCHABLES, and he would later do it on a weekly basis in 1966's RUN, BUDDY, RUN. But CAR 54 marked the very first time he played his "type" to comic effect. As "Biggie" Bigelow, let's just say he was none too happy about the botched warehouse job.
He's also unhappy with Toody "talkin' to me DIRECT", leading to several more hilarious slaps, but after getting a taste of Gunther's inside information on a prospective bank job, he's just as impressed with "Bull" as Peru. So much so that he entrusts Bull with the task of finding a bank. And so it's off again to call "Mudder" while Biggie gushes: "We're in the presence of a criminal great!!!!"
Mudder Block instructs "Bull" Toody to lead 'em to The Third National Bank. After Gunther repeats it thrice, the Captain is confident that the second trap is set.
Well, sort of confident, anyway. Determined to get it right this time, Gunther repeats "The Third National Bank" all the way back to the room, and right past a radio.....
.....that is playing the irresistably catchy commercial from our sponsor: The Federal City Savings Bank.
"Put your money in the Federal City
All the smart New Yorkers do!
Federal City is the Bank for you!!
Gunther's repetitive tune changes, and we all immediately know which bank "Bull", "Biggie" and "Patsy" will actually be taking down. I guess there really IS such a thing as bad publicity.
So the Good News is that Undercover Toody won't be yelling "Cops!" this time. The Bad News is the reason he won't: there won't be any "Cops!" around. While they're camped out, waiting in ambush at The Third National Bank...
...."Bull" and his new henchmen will be "taking candy from a baby" at the Federal City. So much for those smart New Yorkers, eh?
While Captain Block fears the worst as 11 PM blends into Midnight and beyond, Toody stalls ("Wait! We forgot to take the adding machines!") and stalls. And stalls, to the point of removing the wastebaskets, teller cages and doorknobs. This precise attention to detail further convinces Bigelow of the genius of this up and coming "criminal great". "No fingerprints! Whatever you touch, you take!"
It all results in an empty store where a bank stood the day before, and Captain Block's lament: "How can such a DUMB cop be such a SMART crook?"
Meanwhile, the Toody Gang calculates the take on those adding machines: $347,000, or about $2.5 million in today's dollars.
Biggie feels logical next move is to blow town 'til the heat's off, but after a heist like this he defers to "Bull" who whispers that he has an even bigger job in mind. The instantly astonished Bigelow quickly concludes: "It's too big for ME to handle!" Mafia leaders from all across the U.S.A. are called in to implement Bull's next plan.
Toody's quick thinking (first time for everything?) apparently bought him a third chance, since we see Block and the Chief of Police again peering through the binoculars at the meeting to reveal Bull's "master plan". Actually, it's Block's earlier suggestion. Fort Knox!
"Bull" has a lot of hype to live up to, as Bigelow introduces him as "the leader we've been waiting for since Big Al left us"! When Bull reveals that the plan involves all of them being in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, they're nonplussed.
That is, until Biggie Bigelow calms them down. After all, it's only a couple hundred miles from Fort Knox and has all the supplies they'll need for the job. Plus, breaking out will be "child's play" to Bull's mind! The problem is, getting IN--it takes a federal rap.
Fortunately all of our syndicate leaders have one, from counterfeiting to draft dodging (pre Vietnam!) and happily pile into the police wagon outside after confessing. The final instructions from the New Al Capone? "Don't do nothin' 'til you hear from me!" Ecstatic to be part of a job that appears to be a career capper, the giddy Bigelow kissing "Bull" on the cheek before he hops in!
|"I just gotta!"|
When all is said and done, an olive branch from Hiken to his troublesome star? Maybe so. Then again, maybe not. Gunther probably faced an eventual contract on his life once Biggie and the guys realized they'd been had. Perhaps the director was setting up a sequel episode AND swan song that would make Officer Toody's return literally impossible.
With the benefit of hindsight (and those DVD commentaries) it's fun to speculate that perhaps writer Smith was making his own statement on the controversial Joe E. Ross with "Toody Undercover". Art imitating life? Gunther Toody is unwanted and unloved, and we're shown it's for good reason. He fits in perfectly with the "lowest of the low" and screws up royally to increasing degrees. It truly appears for much of the episode that this department would be far better off without him and Captain Block openly fantasizes about getting rid of him--just like CAR 54's creative captain, Hiken. Toody goes beyond being a lovable screwup: he's a genuine menace to the public when he's front and center at the Federal City caper. But he's lucky--as lucky as, say, a one-dimensional performer being cast as the lead in a top 25 Nielsen hit--and he proves to be a valuable asset in spite of himself in the end.
Regardless of the episode's subtext (and despite the plot getting a bit hard to swallow towards the climax) "Toody Undercover" remains a prime example of the wiseacre energy and wonderful lunacy of CAR 54, WHERE ARE YOU? and arguably the finest showcase for the talents of Joe E. Ross. If there was ever a doubt about him being perfectly cast, this outing proves that he was, and it's hard for me to imagine the show lasting very long without him. Unlike, say, BARNEY MILLER without Abe Vigoda. This second season entry also gets a terrific boost from guest star Bruce Gordon, who appears to have the grandest of times poking fun at his Frank Nitti image.
CAR 54, WHERE ARE YOU? airs at 2 AM and 2:30 AM ET Sundays on Me-TV, followed by an hour of Nat Hiken's other smash hit, THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW. Both are true television classics that are well worth staying up for.