10 September 2006 | Cheyenne-Bodie
Pretty much a waste of Tony Franciosa's great talent
Anthony Franciosa got off to dazzling start as a film actor with "A Hatful of Rain" (recreating his Broadway role and getting an Oscar nomination), "A Face in the Crowd", "The Long, Hot Summer", and "Career". At times Franciosa was almost capable of a Brando-like intensity. He could have been a great Sonny or Michael in "The Godfather", if he had been a few years younger.
Like Ben Gazzara (who co-starred with him on Broadway in "A Hatful of Rain"), Franciosa's film career petered out quickly and he turned to television, first with "Valentine's Day" (1964) and then with "Name of the Game" (1968-71). "Name of the Game" was a series with enormous potential but the execution was only slightly above average. Franciosa fought with the producers to improve the quality and eventually quit or was fired.
Ben Gazzara wisely didn't do any more series after the fine "Run For Your Life", but Franciosa returned for a third try with "Search" (1972) and a fourth time with "Matt Helm" (1975).
Matt Helm is a spy in a series of admired novels by Donald Hamilton, and in a series of unadmired movies starring Dean Martin.
For the series they turned Helm into a Los Angeles private detective, which seems reasonable enough. Helm worked for a beautiful blond attorney named Kronski (played by Laraine Stephens of "Bracken's World"). Helm and Kronsksi were in love. Gene Evans ("My Friend Flicka", "The Steel Helmet") played Matt's friend on the force.
The show was developed for television by Sam Rolfe ("The Man From UNCLE", "Have Gun, Will Travel"). The executive producer was David Gerber ("Police Story"), who was lucky enough to be married to Laraine Stephens.
Helm was somewhat reminiscent of Richard Diamond. Helm had a phone service operator named Gertrude, similar to Diamond's Sam. Helm was a brash, playboy type who lived the high life and didn't take anything seriously. Helm lived in a beautiful California house with lots of wall to wall glass. He drove a cool convertible.
The most memorable scene of the series had a gangster's girl friend suggestively licking an ice cream cone while Matt tried with difficulty to concentrate on talking to the gangster. Matt later went and had an ice cream cone of his own.
This show had no ambition to be anything but light-weight entertainment, and it was modestly successful at that. But Franciosa was an actor with greatness in him, and this seemed like a waste of his talent. If he was frustrated with the quality of "Name of the Game", he must have been very depressed with this effort. Franciosa got into a fist fight with episode director Richard Benedict, which must have been an indication of the tension on the set and Francisosa's general unhappiness with the direction of his career.
Doing good work in drama series in the 1970's seemed almost impossible. The only truly good drama series I remember from the 70's are "Lou Grant" and "Police Story".
Nine years later Franciosa came back for one more series: "Finder of Lost Loves" (1984). Even in mediocre material, Franciosa was always a watchable, lively presence. He never stopped trying.