by Deborah Harter Williams
Cigar, vintage car, Polish Proverbs
Though it was only on for two seasons, Banacek is still memorable for its style, captivating plots and winning characters. George Peppard was Thomas Banacek, freelance insurance investigator equally at home in his palatial Beacon Hill digs, in a fight or climbing through windows.
Like any good character, Banacek’s contradictions made him interesting. He had triumphed over a poor background and achieved riches on the strength of his wits to the extent that was able to demand respect (and big fees) from insurance companies who had to come to him after failing themselves to find the goods. If a certain smugness accompanied his expertise, he had earned it.
His sidekicks came from both sides of the tracks. Street smart Jay Drury (Ralph Manza) was the driver of Banacek’s 1942 Packard Limo. While quick on his feet, he couldn’t always comprehend the proverbs and machinations of his boss. His catchphrase was “What does it mean boss?” On the more erudite side, Felix Mulholland (Murray Matheson), of Mulholland’s Rare books and Prints did Banacek’s research duties in a pre-Google world.
The cases were big – mostly heists – locked room and complex:
A 3-ton, 11-foot tall sculpture is missing at its gala unveiling
A huge, complex computer system vanishes from a locked and guarded building.
And a three million dollar wedding coach disappears – from a shipping container on board a ship
This was Banacek’s territory.
Peppard was perfect for the role. He could play both elegant and tough. The son of an opera singer and a contractor, he had been a Broadway actor and a Marine before coming to fame playing Audrey Hepburn’s neighbor in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He brought panache to the part (and his own cigars – later featured on The A Team). He also directed the second unit shooting of the Boston locations.
In keeping with the swinging 70s style, Banacek was a magnet for the ladies. They seemed to swoon at the mere sound of his voice. And of course they were always lounging around in bikinis and other revealing garb. But the woman who mattered and challenged him was rival investigator Carlie Kirkland played by Christine Belford. Their chemistry made the chase that much more interesting.
It was the heyday of the NBC Mystery Movie. The “wheel” format featured 3 shows in rotation, starting in 1971 with Columbo, McCloud and McMillan & Wife. It was so successful that NBC expanded the concept. In fall of 1972, the established shows moved from Wednesday to Sundays and three new crime dramas made their debut under the banner of The NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie: They were Cool Million with James Farentino, Madigan starring Richard Widmark and Banacek.
The other Thomas
Clearly under the influence of the Steve McQueen/Fay Dunaway movie The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), Anthony Wilson (The Fugitive and Lost in Space) created the series. Banacek is a hybrid of the two characters – McQueen the rich thief and Dunaway the insurance investigator out to catch him. Banacek even shared the same house as Crown – the historic Second Harrison Gray Otis House located at 85 Mount Vernon Street.
Done in by Divorce
The show was well received by television critics, and though not a huge ratings getter, was renewed for a third season. But Peppard was going through a contentious divorce proceeding with Elizabeth Ashley and quit the show rather than have her get a larger share of his earnings.
About those proverbs
While the series and its lead character won an award for the positive portrayal of Polish people, the proverbs were not, in fact, Polish. These imaginative inventions of the writing team, sometimes even made sense.
“A wise man never tries to warm himself in front of a painting of a fire.”
“When an owl comes to a mouse picnic, it’s not there for the sack races.”
And “Though the hippopotamus has no stinger in his tail, the wise man would rather be sat on by the bee.”
“What does it mean, Boss?”
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