Shanachie Entertainment | 1961 | 780 mins. | NR
The follow-up to creator Nat Hiken’s phenomenally successful The Phil Silvers Show/Sgt. Bilko (1955-59), Car 54 (1961-63), achieved respectable ratings in its first season, but plummeted in the second. However, nearly fifty years later, the series about the misadventures of two oddball police officers working in the Bronx, has developed a well deserved cult following. (Its brief revival on Nick at Nite during 1987-90 certainly helped.) Filmed on location in New York, and at Biograph Studios on E. 175th Street, also in the Bronx, with mostly New York-based talent in front of the camera, Car 54 is noteworthy for several reasons.
In the early sixties, television was dominated by WASPish, settings and characters. Car 54 was among the first series to explore diversity, featuring Jewish, Irish, Italian, and African-American characters. The cops weren’t matinee idols; they were the kind of guys any person might meet, and their beats looked liked real neighborhoods. For 1961, this was pretty daring stuff.
The scripts are absurd yet intelligent. It’s easy to see why Carol Burnett has referred to Nat Hiken as a “comedy genius.” Hiken wrote many of the episodes, and after watching them, I can’t help but feel much of his style is still in vogue today. Several episodes of Car 54 have the same farcical feel of an episode of Seinfeld. Hiken too, could make “nothing” funny.
The series starred Fred Gwynne and Joe E. Ross. Gwynne famously appeared in an early Sgt. Bilko as a depressed soldier exploited by Phil Silvers’s scheming motor pool sergeant, while Ross was a semi-regular on the series as mess sergeant Rupert Ritzik.
A nightclub comedian and all around slob, Joe E. Ross wasn’t a likable guy. However, he was perfect as dim-witted Officer Gunther Toody. Somehow, it comes through that Toody wasn’t much of an acting stretch for Ross. Ross’s catch phrases “Ooh! Ooh!” and “Do you mind? Do – You – Mind?” eventually became part of the pop culture lexicon. Excitable but dense, his ruddy features and stocky physique perfectly contrasted lanky, horse-faced Gwynne, who played Officer Francis Muldoon, Gunther’s straight-man.
The supporting cast is just as important to the success of the series. Paul Reed, played their boss, Captain Block, while Hank Garrett, Bruce Kirby, Al Lewis, Nipsey Russell, Frederick O’Neal, and Ossie Davis turn up regularly as other officers at the 53rd Precinct. Also in the cast was Beatrice Pons, as Gunther’s long-suffering wife, Lucille; Charlotte Rae as Al Lewis’s hotheaded wife, Sylvia; and Yiddish theater veteran Molly Picon as Mrs Bronson.
It’s great to see Car 54, finally get a DVD release. Fans of the show should be thrilled, and for those not familiar with it, here’s your chance to see Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis before they would achieve immortality on The Munsters just a couple of years later, and check out Charlotte Rae, two decades before she would star on Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts of Life.
The 30 episodes presented in their original black & white, full-frame format over four discs, look good despite being derived from less than perfect 35mm film elements. Generally they’re a pleasure to watch and don’t appear edited or time-compressed, and a few have their original sponsor spots. The all-region discs feature English mono audio (no subtitles or alternate audio options).
Strangely, rather than present the shows in broadcast or production order, they are shown in order of popularity, though how this was determined is anyone’s guess. Unfortunately, this makes finding specific episodes a problem and tracing the evolution of the show is almost impossible. (Al Lewis, for instance, turns up as a construction worker in one episode, after having already played Schnauzer in earlier episodes.) Weird…
There’s just one extra but it’s a good one: Robert Klein’s intelligent interview with Hank Garrett and Charlotte Rae. It’s funny, and revealing, despite Rae’s obvious reluctance to speak ill of Ross.