Forgotten TV: JOHNNY STACCATO’S Cool Jazz Noir

This piece was originally published June 29th, 2009

1947 Philco IconFor one season, from 1959 through 1960 on NBC, one of the cooler television series of the era (and there were quite a few) aired.

That show was Johnny Staccato.

Johnny Staccato starred none other than the prolific actor, screen writer, and director John Cassavetes who could play cool because he was actually…

pretty freakin’ cool.

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Cassavetes is inimitably best known to many as the slimy husband of Mia Farrow in Roman Polanski’sRosemary’s Baby (1968) or for his Best Supporting Actor nominated role as Victor Franko in The Dirty Dozen (1967), while the same Cassavetes would also become immortalized as one of the remarkable fathers of true independent cinema.

John Cassavetes (December 9, 1929 – February 3, 1989) the son of immigrant Greek parents, was born in New York City, raised back in Greece until the age of seven and then, without speaking any English up to that point, grew up in Long Island and later New Jersey where he studied to be an actor.

He attended the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts from which he graduated in 1950. Working in theater, acting in a few small films and then appearing in a TV anthology show led him to meeting and marrying the Academy Award winning actress Gina Rowlands, later cast in some of his finest films. Graduating and working in teaching the method acting style, he then discovered improvisational acting. This was the impetus for his first film, 1959’s Shadows.

An attempt to find financial backers in the standard way failed, so Cassavetes turned to family, friends and an over the air appeal to listeners of the controversial host Jean Shepard’s (of A Christmas Story fame) radio program. Shadows would go on to win the Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival.

After directing two films under the Hollywood system, he would go on to independently produce and direct eight more films that were complex character studies, often of personal relationships between the sexes.

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His films incorporated such maverick filmmaking techniques as using hand-held cameras and scripted actors within a fictionalized cinema-vérité film style, a lack of narrative or easy to follow framework, and a harrowing emotional depth to his characters that was out of place and difficult for mass consumption although, like Ingmar Bergman for instance, substantially rewarding upon viewing.

Cassavetes’ Faces would garner three Academy Award nominations, while A Woman Under the Influence(1974), a Best Director nomination.

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So taking all of this into consideration, you can imagine that Johnny Staccato would not be your run of the mill detective thriller.

Set in a gritty noirish Greenwich Village with its surrounding Manhattan dives and areas such as Chinatown, the series cast Cassavetes in the title role as that of a quietly cool and intellectually sharp, brooding yet dryly loquacious, jazz pianist/private investigator. Working part time at a jazz lounge, he often reluctantly gets involved, primarily for the money. Beneath Staccato’s seemingly uncaring exterior though, is the feeling that he cares too much about helping his fellow cretins.

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Never short on style or a jazz aesthetic, episode titles include such very “with it” diamonds as Swinging Long Hair; Fly, Baby, Fly and Murder in Hi-Fi.

The guest stars who passed though are, like as with say The Twilight Zone, often became the future top stars of television: Mary Tyler Moore, Elizabeth Montgomery, Martin Landau, Cloris Leachman, Dean Stockwell, and Michael Landon among others.

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With an incredible soundtrack by the always reliable Elmer Bernstein, Johnny Staccato truly stands out as an important work that is well due for rediscovery and enjoyment. Sadly, the series has yet to appear officially on DVD other than a single episode which was released on a compilation DVD of with three other failed detective shows: Brilliant But Canceled-Crime Dramas.

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One Comment

  1. 1 – 1 of 1
    Blogger Eugene B. Bergmann said…
    Jean Shepherd’s listeners (“The Night People”) contributed over $2,000, significant enough for Cassavetes to state among the opening titles of “Shadows”: PRESENTED BY JEAN SHEPHERD’S NIGHT PEOPLE.

    June 29, 2009 at 5:35 PM

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