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In the 1930s, gangsters and G-Men alike were busy dealing with the fallout of Prohibition. Real-life government agent Eliot Ness put Al Capone in jail for tax evasion, and because he and his team of law enforcers couldn’t be bribed (and back then, practically everyone had their price), they were nicknamed “The Untouchables”.
In real life, Ness and his men went their separate ways after Capone’s arrest, but the series had them stay together well into the 1940’s, going gun to gun against nearly every famous gangster of the time, with some Nazis and presidential assassins thrown in for good measure.
Desilu, the production company owned by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, started it all when they produced a two-hour TV movie based on the 1947 novel co-written by Ness which aired as part of Desilu Playhouse.
It had a coarse, documentary feel to it, and the voice-over drone, which added a sense of reality to the proceedings, came courtesy of Walter Winchell, the ubiquitous voice of 30s and 40s era newsreels (and who, incidentally, had actually pointed a Communist-witch hunter finger at none other than Lucille Ball a few years prior).
The TV movie was such a success that years later, it was even released as a movie in the cinemas.
Several networks vied for the rights to make an Untouchables series, but ABC won the bidding war and insisted that each episode was as action-packed as the pilot.
By the end of the second season, The Untouchables was a ratings hit, and the producers claimed that real-life shady sorts called in with kudos and even suggestions for story ideas. But unfortunately, Ness and the gang had also attracted plenty of controversy.
In the show, Eliot Ness’ most frequent enemy was Frank Nitti, Al Capone’s right-hand man and the leader of Capone’s empire after Ness sent the big man to the pokey. And when it wasn’t Nitti raising hell, you can bet it was some other Italian-American – which left Italian civic groups up in arms about their biased portrayal.
The FBI was unhappy because the show insinuated that it was Ness who arrested crooks like George ‘Bugsy’ Moran and Ma Barker, when it was actually the Agency.
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 real Capone family was unhappy that the show was making money from Al’s name and brought a million-dollar lawsuit against producer Desi Arnaz for using the Capone likeness for profit. This was particularly upsetting for Arnaz who had been a classmate and friend of Al Capone’s son.
Desi Arnaz, the network, and the chairman of the Italian-American League to Combat Defamation made peace with one another and agreed that no more Italian surnames would be used for the bad guys.
In the show’s last years, its violence was toned down substantially, and gangsters of various non-Italian ethnicities popped up – there was even a Russian villain named Joe Vodka.
But the show wasn’t the same anymore, and the very things that angered special interest groups were the things that made it a naughty viewing pleasure. Now on Tuesday nights, watchers were starting to skip the Chicago crime scene altogether, and tune into Jack Benny or The Price is Right.
Though a good crime-busting premise will sometimes take a breather, it never completely retires. Brian De Palma directed a new The Untouchables feature film in 1987, starring Kevin Costner and based loosely on Ness’ book and the resulting series.
Producer Quinn Martin went on to produce a number of other crime dramas, including The FBI and The Streets of San Francisco, both employing the same type of ominous narration that Walter Winchell provided on The Untouchables.
The later shows had more revolvers than tommy guns, but the same type of quasi-authentic (by Hollywood standards, at least) look at crime.
Agent Martin Flaherty
Agent William Youngfellow
Agent Enrico Rossi
Agent Cam Allison
Agent Lee Hobson
Oscar Beregi Jr.
Captain Jim Johnson