Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe is a literary detective in the classic sense. Like Sherlock Holmes, he's unsociable; and, weighing an eighth of a ton he has an intermediary doing his leg work and also telling his stories: Archie Goodwin. It's of the school of mystery writing where all the suspects are gathered together at the end and sit quietly until Wolfe points to the murderer.
In this series, Archie Goodwin is played by Lee Horsley, before he tried to be the new James Garner. While Rex Stout makes Archie Goodwin a first-class wisenheimer and wisecracker, Horsley's Archie is written in that 1980s kinder, gentler way (compare Horley's Archie to Tim Hutton's brash and hilarious Archie in the later A&E Nero Wolfe series). Still, Horsley's a good enough actor to pull it off.
William Conrad ("Cannon") is shaped a lot like Stout's Wolfe. Compared to Archie he looks a trifle short, but he carries the proper amount of weight; and Conrad's beard makes his Wolfe even more intimidating. Conrad (believe it or not, once narrator of Bullwinkle and Rocky) has a commanding voice, which one would expect from Nero Wolfe.
All the Wolfe trappings are here: the orchid obsession (and this series, unlike the later A&E series, actually has Theodore Horstman, Wolfe's live-in botanist, played to perfection by Robert Coote). And Fritz, Wolfe's live-in chef, is pretty well captured by George Voskovec (who unfortunately did not survive the show by long).
Weakness seeps in with the lower end of the casting, with George Wyner's Saul Panzer and Allan Miller's Inspector Cramer. In the 70s and 80s Wyner was sort of an all-purpose schlub, a low-rent Austin Pendleton. Plugged in for comic relief, Wyner is hardly the tough, almost infallible human bloodhound of Rex Stout's stories. Allan Miller, another busy actor of that period, is hardly the image of hard-as-nails, cigar-chomping Cramer, who in the stories keeps threatening to run Wolfe and Goodwin in. Miller's a competent actor but this isn't his role.
Unlike the A&E series, which sets Nero Wolfe in a colorful, neverending 1950s, this series updates the tales to "modern" times (circa 1981). But though it has that run-down, pre-Giuliani New York feel, on the set in Wolfe's office it's like stepping into an earlier and more elegant time. They capture Wolfe's lodgings pretty well.
While mostly sticking to Stout's stories, it's difficult to do justice to a novel in an hour, including commercials. Updating the stories dumbed them down; and changes were made to some stories to suit early 1980s sensibilities (SPOILER: in one episode, "The Golden Spiders", a character killed in the book is just hospitalized in the series).
Some familiar faces: Richard Anderson, Darren McGavin, David Hedison, Barry Nelson, etc . . . but not enough to get excited about. This isn't "Murder She Wrote." A few rising stars (Mary Frann, Delta Burke, et al.) but not as many as one might hope to see. Lots of young actors appearing in this series never hit the big time.
Overall, fairly tepid updatings of Stout's very funny but often brutal stories. Conrad is a very good Wolfe (the Wolfe in the later A&E series is much too abrasive and unpleasant; I know, Wolfe was in the original stories, but Conrad makes him palatable for television). For all that, it's a pleasant and largely innocuous way to waste time. The only real regret is that Archie Goodwin is given too much heart, and his cracking wise is limited.