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The NBC Mystery Movie aired from 1971 until 1977 and consisted of several recurring programmes. Its use of a rotation of different shows under an umbrella title was an NBC innovation during this era, and followed on the heels of the network’s 1968 umbrella series, The Name of the Game which ran each of its different segments under the same title.
In 1969 NBC launched The Bold Ones (which included The New Doctors, The Lawyers, The Protectors, and, in 1970, The Senator), and in 1970 the network presented the Four in One collection of Night Gallery, San Francisco International Airport, The Psychiatrist, and McCloud.
But the idea behind Mystery Movie and similar “wheel format” series had much deeper roots than these NBC versions and can be traced back at least to ABC’s Warner Brothers Presents, which debuted in 1955.
The original incarnation of The NBC Mystery Movie consisted of three rotating series:-
McCloud, starring Dennis Weaver as a modern-day western Marshal who was transplanted from New Mexico to the streets of New York, was a holdover from NBC’s earlier Four in One line-up;
McMillan and Wife starred Rock Hudson and Susan St. James as San Francisco Police Commissioner Stewart McMillan and his wife, Sally.
And the most successful Mystery Movie segment of all; Columbo, featured Peter Falk reprising his role from the highly-rated 1968 NBC made-for-television movie, Prescription: Murder, as a seemingly slow-witted yet keenly perceptive and doggedly tenacious LAPD homicide Lieutenant.
The new Wednesday night series was an immediate success for NBC, and Columbo was nominated for eight Emmy Awards, winning in four categories.
For the next season, NBC attempted to capitalise on the Mystery Movie‘s success in two ways. First, it moved the original Mystery Movie lineup of Columbo, McCloud, and McMillan and Wife to the highly competitive Sunday night schedule and, as a fourth instalment to this rotation, added Hec Ramsey, starring Richard Boone as a Western crime fighter.
NBC also initiated a completely new slate of similar shows and moved these into the Wednesday time period formerly occupied by the original Mystery Movie lineup.
Thus, NBC’s 1972 fall schedule contained the original Mystery Movie shows, now called The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie, plus a completely new set of programmes, titled The NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie.
NBC continued to achieve commercial and critical success with its Sunday Mystery Movie series. The umbrella programme finished tied as the fifth highest-rated series of the 1972-73 season, and Columbo garnered four more Emmy nominations to go along with acting nominations for McMillan and Wife‘s Susan St. James and Nancy Walker.
But the Wednesday Mystery Movie lineup never was able to realise a similar degree of success. The new Wednesday series included:-
Banacek, starring George Peppard as a sleuth who made his living by collecting insurance company rewards for solving crimes and insurance scams (Banacek’s Polish-American heritage was also a featured element of the programme);
Cool Million, a segment that featured James Farentino as a high-priced private investigator and former CIA agent, and;
Madigan, starring Richard Widmark as a New York police detective.
While the shows’ concepts may have sounded similar to those of the original Mystery Movie segments, they lacked the novelty and unique characterisations of the originals, and NBC’s attempt to clone its Mystery Movie format in such a way that it could fill a second block in its prime time schedule was ultimately unsuccessful.
The “knock-off” Wednesday line-up was retooled several times over its two seasons on the air.
Madigan and Banacek were retained for the 1973 fall season, and were joined in the rotation by Tenafly, which featured James McEachin as an African-American P.I in Los Angeles (the series title was suspiciously similar to the 1972 blaxploitation hit film, Superfly), The Snoop Sisters, which brought Helen Hayes to prime time television as half of a mystery writing/crime-solving team of elderly sisters, and Faraday and Company, starring veteran film and television actor Dan Dailey.
But after seeing no better results in its second year, the NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie was dropped for the 1974 fall season.
NBC was not the only network unable to successfully clone the Mystery Movie formula. Both ABC, with its 1972 The Men series, and CBS, with its 1973 Tuesday Night CBS Movie (which rotated made-for-TV movies with the series Shaft, featuring Richard Roundtree reprising the title role from the film of the same name, and Hawkins, starring the legendary Jimmy Stewart as a small-town attorney, failed in similar short-lived attempts.
But while its imitators struggled, the three original Mystery Movie entries remained strong into the mid-1970s. Over these years, NBC continued to try to find a fourth element that could be added to the Columbo/McCloud/McMillan and Wife mix, trying out such shows as Amy Prentiss, McCoy, and Lanigan’s Rabbi.
Finally, in the fall of 1976, Quincy, M.E., starring Jack Klugman as a Los Angeles medical examiner, joined the rotation. In early 1977, it was spun off as a regular weekly series and would go on to have a successful seven-year run on the network.
By the end of the 1976-77 season, The Sunday Mystery Movie had reached the end of its run and was replaced on the NBC schedule by The Big Event.
But The NBC Mystery Movie had left a legacy that would not soon be forgotten, and the series served as an inspiration for a future television trend: the made-for-television movie, featuring regular characters and routine plotlines, which would appear only a limited number of times each season.
Ironically, one of the most popular of such recurring programmes would be Mystery Movie ‘s own Columbo, which was revived in the late 1980s by ABC and would go on to once again garner high ratings and still more Emmy Awards for its new network.