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Classic TV Series “The Defenders” Comes to DVD At Last

Thursday, July 28th, 2016

The Defenders, one of the most important drama series of the 1960s, finally gets a DVD release.

Completely forgotten today by most, this stunning series racked up 132 episodes over a four year on CBS, and starring E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed as a father and son legal team that specialized in handling “difficult” cases. Unlike most courtroom dramas of the era, such as the wildly popular CBS legal procedural Perry Mason, starring Raymond Burr in the title role,

The Defenders was never really about the law unto itself – it was more concerned with social justice, and used the courtroom setting as way of opening up a discussion on a wide variety of issues of the day. From September 16, 1961 – May 13, 1965, each week The Defenders tackled subjects no other series of the era would touch. During its run, The Defenders won 13 Emmy Awards (including three in a row for Outstanding Drama Series) and received an additional seven nominations.

As historian Mark Alvey wrote, in part, in The Encyclopedia of Television, “The Defenders was American television’s seminal legal drama, and perhaps the most socially conscious series the medium has ever seen. The series boasted a direct lineage to the age of live television drama, but also possessed a concern for topical issues and a penchant for social comment.

With its contemporary premise and its serious tone, The Defenders established the model for a spate of social-issue programs that followed in the early sixties, marking a trend toward dramatic shows centered on non-violent, professional ‘heroes’ (doctors, lawyers, teachers, politicians).

The series had its origins in a 1957 Studio One production entitled The Defender, written by Reginald Rose, one of the most prominent writers from the age of live anthology dramas. Having collaborated with Rose on the original two-part Defender teleplay and other productions, veteran anthology producer Herbert Brodkin teamed again with the writer to oversee the series.

The Defenders’ creators went against the overwhelming tide of Hollywood-based programs, following the tradition of the live anthologies–and the more recent police drama Naked City–by mounting their show in New York. Although The Defenders was primarily a studio-bound operation, with minimal location shooting, its success proved to be a key contributor to a small renaissance in New York-based production in the early 1960s.

The series concerned the cases of a father-and-son team of defense attorneys, Lawrence Preston (E.G. Marshall), the sharp veteran litigator, and his green and idealistic son Kenneth (Robert Reed). As Rose pointed out a 1964 article, ‘the law is the subject of our programs: not crime, not mystery, not the courtroom for its own sake. We were never interested in producing a “who-done-it” that simply happened to be resolved each week in a flashy courtroom battle of wits.’

Certainly The Defenders exploited the inherent drama of the courtroom, but it did so by mining the complexity of the law, its moral and ethical implications, and its human dimensions. Rose and his writers found much compelling drama in probing the psychology of juries, the motives of clients, the biases of opposing counsel, the flaws of the system itself, and the fallibility of their own lawyer-heroes.

The series frequently took a topical perspective on the American justice system, honing in on timely or controversial legal questions: capital punishment, ‘no-knock’ search laws, custody rights of adoptive parents, the insanity defense, the ‘poisoned fruit doctrine’ (admissibility of illegally obtained evidence), as well as immigration quotas and Cold War visa restrictions. The Defenders avoided simple stances on such cases, instead illuminating ambiguities and opposing perspectives, and stressing the uncertain and fleeting nature of justice before the law.

As a serious courtroom drama, The Defenders series meshed well with network aims for prestige in the early sixties in the wake of the quiz show scandals and charges of creeping mediocrity in TV fare. The dramatic arena of the courtroom and the legal system allowed for suspense without violence, and the avoidance of formula plots characteristic of traditional crime and adventure drama.

With consistently strong ratings and a spate of awards unmatched by any other series of its day, The Defenders proved that controversy and topicality were not necessarily uncommercial. The series was in the works well before FCC Chairman Newton Minow’s 1961 ‘vast wasteland’ speech, but there is little doubt that the new Minow-inspired regulatory atmosphere augured well for the rise of such programming.

The show’s success supported the development of a number of social-issue and political dramas in the following years, notably Slattery’s People and East Side, West Side, and gave further impetus to a shift in network programming from action-adventure to character drama. But most significant of all, it grappled with larger ethical and political questions, pulling social problems and political debate to center stage, presenting a consistent, ongoing and sometimes critical examination of contemporary issues and social morality.

In one episode (written by Rose) a judge takes the elder Preston to task for invoking the social roots of his clients’ acts as part of his defense: ‘The courtroom is not the place to explore the questions of society.’ Lawrence Preston responds: ‘It is for me.’ So was the television courtroom, for Reginald Rose and the writers of The Defenders.”

Finally, the first season of this indispensable television series is being released on DVD; among the guest stars in the 32 episodes included in the eight disc set are Jack Klugman, William Shatner, Ossie Davis, Richard Thomas, Frank Gorshin, Eva Gabor, Robert Duvall, Robert Loggia, Martin Sheen, Julie Newmar, and many more.

There’s also a slew of extras, including The Studio One Presentation Of The Defender (1957) Starring Ralph Bellamy, Steve McQueen And William Shatner; the pilot episode for the series, as well as interviews with associate producer Bob Markell, writer Larry Cohen, and a 1973 interview with E.G. Marshall on the series.

Well worth watching – and still compelling viewing today, immaculately restored.

The Alfred Hitchcock Hour

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

They’re in black and white, which was once an economical production medium. They’re shot on 35mm film. Most were made on a strict six-day schedule. They were shot almost entirely at Universal City. The series started out as a half hour show in 1955, and then switched to an hour format in 1962, ending its run in 1965. Each episode was shot like a feature film, in “single camera” format, rather than in sitcom format, and production values — especially story lines and guest stars — to say nothing of the physical execution of each segment were exceptionally high.

As an anthology series, there were no continuing characters; it was an entirely new show every week. Hitchcock’s own input into the series was minimal, but he directed a few episodes of the series, and watching the Universal TV crew work, he was inspired by their speed and efficiency to shoot his groundbreaking film Psycho there, breaking away from the slower crews at Paramount, where he had spent the 1950s. All in all, 363 episodes were shot over a ten year period.

An enormous number of exceptionally talented actors, writers and directors contributed to the series, including actors Ed Asner, Mary Astor, Roscoe Ates, Gene Barry, Ed Begley, Charles Bronson, Edgar Buchanan, John Cassavetes, Jack Cassidy, Dabney Coleman, Joseph Cotten, Bob Crane, Hume Cronyn, Robert Culp, Bette Davis, Francis De Sales, Bruce Dern, Brandon De Wilde, Angie Dickinson, Diana Dors, Robert Duvall, Peter Falk, John Forsythe, Anne Francis, Edmund Gwenn, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Charles Herbert, Lou Jacobi, Joyce Jameson, Carolyn Jones, Don Keefer, Brian Keith, Jack Klugman, Peter Lawford, Christopher Lee, Cloris Leachman, Peter Lorre, Dayton Lummis, E. G. Marshall, Walter Matthau, Darren McGavin, John McGiver, Lee Majors, Steve McQueen, Tyler McVey, Joyce Meadows, Vera Miles, Vic Morrow, Robert Newton, George Peppard, James Philbrook, Sydney Pollack, Judson Pratt, Vincent Price, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, William Shatner, Henry Silva, Barbara Steele, Jan Sterling, Dean Stockwell, Jessica Tandy, Dick Van Dyke, Richard Waring, Dennis Weaver, Joanne Woodward, Fay Wray, and Keenan Wynn.

It’s an elegant, intelligent, well designed series, the like of which we will never see on television again. Black and white has vanished as a production medium, along with the artistic values that went with it. Film has also vanished, leaving everything to be shot with a slick, artificial digital sheen. The violence quotient has been upped so that gruesome rapes and murders are now commonplace on shows such as Law and Order SVU and the CSI series; it seems that plot, acting, and nuance have been left behind. Let’s raise a glass, then, to The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, one of the most innovative and artistically ambitious television series ever produced — on a budget, on a schedule, on an assembly line, even — but with style, elegance, and wit, down to Hitchcock’s droll introductions and commercial break announcements, which the director performed himself.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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