One of the true greats from the golden age of US dramatic television, The Untouchables was a glorious hark back to the classic Warner Bros gangster movies of the 1930's in its harsh, brutally unstinting depiction of a violent era and the battle to recapture a nation's self respect from the bloody taint of mobsterism run riot.
Beginning life as a two part TV Movie presentation on CBS's Desilu Playhouse in April, 1959, The Scarface Mob related real life Treasury agent Eliot Ness' fight to smash legendary gang lord Al Capone's infamous Chicago syndicate. Ness and his band of agents were said to be incorruptible, thereby earning themselves their nickname.
The series that followed between October 1959 to September 1963, although a consistent top ten ratings hit, was plagued by controversy and threats from certain quarters. The USA's Italian community complained strongly that the series was 'dragging their names through the mud', in response to this charge, the producers added a disclaimer to the end of each show admitting that much of the action was fictional. Indeed, most of the criminals that Ness and his 'Untouchables' came up against in the series, he never even met in real life.
Originally to have starred long time MGM movie star Van Johnson in the Ness role, the part was eventually accepted by Robert Stack, whose powerful performance and commanding screen presence elevated the television incarnation of the real life Ness into a charismatic, iconic symbol of justice which foreshadowed and paved the way for Jack Lord's much later success with Hawaii Five-O's Steve McGarret.
Another reason for the show's success was the inspired decision to have veteran 30's and 40's "Voice of the Newsreels", Walter Winchell, as the series narrator. His distinctive vocal style and accepted air of authority imbued the events of an episode with an innate realism which effortlessly glossed over any dramatic liberties taken with historical fact, and convinced the viewer utterly that what they were watching actually took place. The series also attracted a plethora of top flight guest stars, amongst the ranks of which Neville Brand's excellent Al Capone, Bruce Gordon's Frank Nitti and Clu Gulagher's "Mad Dog" Coll, were just a few of the highlight performances.
The series finally succumbed by the fourth season, to the toll taken on it by the myriad outside controversies which it had attracted and the resultant fall in ratings. However, as a prime example of top flight, expertly produced, exciting crime drama, The Untouchables more than lived up to its illustrious name and reputation. A 1987 movie featured Kevin Costner and Sean Connery.
Published on February 10th, 2019. Written by Laurence Marcus & SRH (2000) for Television Heaven.