2 November 2006 | Cheyenne-Bodie
The Two Jakes
Jake Webster was the owner of a Vienna club called "Jake's Place". But American intelligence was also forcing Jake to work as a spy. A superb set-up for a show, with intimations of "Casablanca", "Gilda" and "The Third Man". A romantic action hero with a shady past who has a secret. Jake Webster could have been a star making role.
Brilliant Roy Scheider played the Bogart-like hero in the pilot movie called "Assignment Munich". But Sheider hit the big time with "The French Connection", and he wisely backed out of his commitment for the series. Sheider's performance as Jake was a little too self-satisfied anyway.
A number of top actors were reportedly offered the lead in "Assignment Vienna" but turned it down. Talented, underrated Robert Conrad ("Hawaiian Eye", "The Wild, Wild West") wound up as the new Jake Webster. Conrad had done a Jack Webb series called "The DA" the previous season, but it was canceled after thirteen episodes. He then made an unsold pilot called "Nick Carter". Conrad was more appealing than Sheider. He was convincing as a spy but not terribly distinctive or magnetic. A TV Bogart was required, and that's a tall order. John Saxon, who had just been fired from "The Bold Ones", might have been fascinating. Pernell Roberts (without toupee), Anthony Quinn, Gerald Mohr, Jason Evers, James Olson, Rod Taylor, John Cassavetes, David Janssen or Ben Gazzara also might have given Jake Webster more gravitas than Conrad. Desi Arnaz had been surprisingly superb in a similar role in "Thunder in the Night", a Desilu Playhouse (1960).
Charles Cioffi played Major Caldwell, Jake Webster's American contact. Richard Basehart played Caldwell in the pilot. A strong woman in the role would have added more flavor and tension, maybe Sharon Acker.
Eric Bercovici and Jerry Ludwig were the creators/executive producers. They were a talented writing team who had done a number of strong episodes of "Hawaii 5-0" and "Mission: Impossible". This was their big chance, and they did a good job. But the production should have been more stylishly filmed, with a richer film noir feel that would have recalled the show's movie predecessors. The look of the show didn't really make it stand out, even with some nice on location filming in Vienna. And maybe if Jake narrated the story, it would have given some of the intimacy that Bogart's narration added to his movies.
The show might also have injected more humor, along the lines of Blake Edwards' great "Mr. Lucky" (1959) - which was also a forerunner of this series. Maybe Jake should have had a droll partner like Mr. Lucky did, perhaps played by Michael Dunn.
Guest stars included Maria Schell, John Ireland, Rosemary Forsyth, Anne Francis, Walter Slezak, Susan Strasberg, Leslie Nielsen, Cameron Mitchell and Joseph Campanella. It might have been interesting if they had hired some prior TV spies for guest stars like David McCallum, Diana Rigg, Patrick McGoohan, Steven Hill and Robert Culp.
"Assignment Vienna" was one of three alternating series making up "The Men". The other two were "Jigsaw" with James Wainwright and "The Delphi Bureau" with Laurence Luckinbill.