Untouchables, The


The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation Presents

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About

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

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.

Highlights
Alan A. Armer on the violence on The Untouchables and the way to get ratings
35:30
Jay Sandrich on how his experience working on The Untouchables made him want to go back to directing comedy
00:34
Cliff Robertson on appearing on The Untouchables
02:26
Robert Butler on directing The Untouchables
03:17
Director-producer Walter Grauman on Robert Stack, and a memorable reaction he had to a piece of Grauman's direction, filming the Untouchables episode "Head of Fire, Feet of Clay"
01:39
Alfred Schneider on how the Italian-American reaction to The Untouchables led to ABC agreeing to not use the term "mafia"
03:46
Who talked about this show

Howard Anderson, Jr.

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Howard Anderson Jr. on creating the opening titles for The Untouchables
02:08

Alan A. Armer

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Alan A. Armer on the violence on The Untouchables and the way to get ratings
35:30
Alan A. Armer on the historical accuracy on The Untouchables and events it was based on
43:50
Alan A. Armer on the coming to work on The Untouchables, which he produced
59:31
Alan A. Armer on the popularity of The Untouchables, which he produced
48:19
Alan A. Armer on what was attractive about the characters on The Untouchables, which he produced; how audiences were beginning to root for the bad guys, or "heavies"
46:44

Robert Butler

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Robert Butler on directing The Untouchables
03:17

Dann Cahn

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Editor Dann Cahn on The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse episode of The Untouchables becoming its own series
01:53

Walter E. Grauman

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Director-producer Walter Grauman on Robert Stack, and a memorable reaction he had to a piece of Grauman's direction, filming the Untouchables episode "Head of Fire, Feet of Clay"
01:39
Director Walter Grauman on hiring formerly blacklisted actor Jeff Corey on The Untouchables (and how Corey nearly lost the job)
01:20
Director-producer Walter Grauman on taking the job on The Untouchables, after being so impressed with the script for the episode "The Noise of Death"
01:11
Director-producer Walter Grauman relates the plot [SPOILERS] to The Untouchables episode "The Noise of Death," a particular favorite of his
08:21
Director-producer Walter Grauman on instructing the actors to stick to the script for The Untouchables episode "The Noise of Death," so impressed was he with the writing
00:36
Director-producer Walter Grauman on an intense explosion done on The Untouchables that scared his son, who was visiting the set
01:25
Director-producer Walter Grauman on finding a way to appease the censor in filming a massacre scene for The Untouchables episode "The White Slavers"
03:21
Director Walter Grauman on his visual style and acknowledging a quote in the book The Untouchables by Tise Vahimagi, which is as follows: "[in the episode "The Purple Gang"] the prominent use of peculiar angles and enforced shadows was perfectly in keeping with the TV style of regular Untouchables director Walter Grauman" (p. 81)
02:37

Walter Koenig

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Walter Koenig on acting in an episode of The Untouchables
01:04

Gavin MacLeod

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Actor Gavin MacLeod on appearing on episodes of The Untouchables
03:20

Paul Monash

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Paul Monash on writing for Desilu, and on writing "The Scarface Mob," the pilot for The Untouchables
01:32
Paul Monash on writing "The Scarface Mob," the pilot for The Untouchables
01:33

Thomas W. Moore

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Thomas W. Moore on programming and developing The Untouchables
04:05

Del Reisman

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Story editor/associate producer Del Reisman on The Untouchables; on the series' storylines and violence; on producing for the series
18:31
Del Reisman on Robert Stack, TV violence and on The Untouchables' end
04:28

Cliff Robertson

View Interview
Cliff Robertson on appearing on The Untouchables
02:26

Jay Sandrich

View Interview
Jay Sandrich on how his experience working on The Untouchables made him want to go back to directing comedy
00:34

Alfred Schneider

View Interview
Alfred Schneider on how the Italian-American reaction to The Untouchables led to ABC agreeing to not use the term "mafia"
03:46

Herbert F. Solow

View Interview
Herbert F. Solow on the legacy of Desilu's productions, including Mission: Impossible and The Untouchables
01:40

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