Wednesday, September 5, 2007

"Blacke's Magic"

The relatively fond memories I have for the 1985-1986 midseason replacement show, "Blacke's Magic," may very well be the result of 1980s nostalgia. I couldn't tell you, really, because the series has never been released on video cassette or DVD, meaning that my memories of the program are two decades old. I'm not certain the program would fare well when judged by today's standards and compared to the multi-episode story arcs and postmodern self-referentialism of modern narrative television programs. But, in 1986, "Blacke's Magic" was good, clean, fun, if only because it featured a magician and an old school con man solving crimes the police simply could not. What more could you ask for?

At its essence, NBC's "Blacke's Magic" was a procedural, before that term was used to describe shows in which crimes were systematically solved over the course of an episode. There was one unusual crime per episode, and Alexander Blacke (Hal Linden), a magician, along with his con man father Leonard Blacke (Harry Morgan), solved them using their respective skills. Created by Peter S. Fischer (with Richard Levinson and William Link as creative consultants), the men behind "Murder She Wrote," the show followed the same formula, and attracted the same demographic I suspect, but as a young child of the 1980s, I was hooked. I even picked up a book on sleight of hand early that year as a result of the show.

The show began as a two hour movie, which aired on Sunday, January 5, 1986. Later than week, on January 8, it took over the Wednesday 9:00 pm slot formerly occupied by Robert Blake's canceled "Hell Town." Alas, "Blacke's Magic" would not endure. Canceled after less than a full season's worth of episodes, it returned again, briefly, with reruns in the fall of 1988. To my knowledge, it has not been seen since on television. There isn't much about it on the Internets.

The show had an interesting pedigree. It had been four years since Linden's "Barney Miller" had gone off the air; Morgan, for his part, had decided to retire before accepting the role. Shortly after the show premiered, Morgan told reporters:
I really had sort of decided not to do anything, to give it all up. My wife had died in February, which didn't help my spirits any. If she hadn't, I don't think I'd be doing this show because we would have been doing other things. After all, I'm going to be 71 (in) April.


Anyway, people kept saying to me, `Well, dammit, this is not good for you, sitting around thinking about it, and going to work will help you.' So when I got what I thought was a terrific script and a wonderful character, I took it. I'm glad I did. It was not a mistake.1
What I remember most about the show was the interaction between Linden and Morgan, who were fun to watch together. Linden's character, as the more responsible of the pair, was left with the task of keeping his father, ever the grifter, in line during the course of their misadventures. Said one TV critic at the time:
There is nice chemistry between Linden, who is an urbane, dashing and wise Alexander Blacke, and Morgan, whose main role is to hang around in a straw hat and bow tie and sound homespun and look corny. They're a good team, and as a bonus, they always solve the crime.2
Here's the first few minutes of an episode which show cases Linden's slightly over the top performance style:

But magicians are supposed to be over the top, right?

Critically, the show was not well received. One writer balked at the premise and formula:
Blacke's formula seems to call for a clever five-minute setup of the crime at the beginning of each show, and a clever five-minute resolution at the end, in which, in time-honored closed mystery style, all the suspects are assembled, and the perpetrator -- and the method -- exposed by Linden.

But between, alas, there are 38 minutes to fill, not counting commercials, and filler it is: mostly Hal and Harry aw-shucksing, and mincing around, chasing red herring guest stars and generally killing time in that equally time-honored "aren't these guys cute going through the paces" TV tradition.3
This is a typical criticism of most shows in which the plot is neatly wrapped up at the end of a particular episode. Part of the appeal of modern serial television is that loose ends remain to be resolved not at the end of the episode but the end of the season, or sometimes, the end of the series itself. Modern television viewers accustomed to multiple plotlines and complicated arcs might not have the patience for a 1986 episodic program in which two far-from-young television actors solve crimes with magic tricks and sleight of hand. But this was the 1980s, and plots were tidily resolved by the end of the episodes, and writers writing under pressure may not have had time to be as novel as they would have liked. Another critic, describing the mystery in the original two hour movie, put it more bluntly: "Think of the most obvious solution, and you'll be right."4

Some critics predicted that "Blacke's Magic," which fared about as well as "Hell Town" in the ratings, might still survive due to the affability of its stars. Wrote Dallas Morning News critic Ed Bark: "The difference ["Blacke's Magic" and "Hell Town"] is that Linden and Morgan are far easier to work with than the mercurial Robert Blake."5 (If he only knew!)

Jim Steinmeyer, a theatrical illusion designer, served as a technical adviser for "Blacke's Magic" and was kind enough to respond to my email asking to share a few memories. In fact, if you watch the first video posted above of the great "Blacke's Magic" opening titles, you will see Steinmeyer's hands doubling for Linden's performing the magic tricks. Steinmeyer recalls:
In the opening sequence, I played Hal Linden’s hands. Many of these shots were me flourishing silks, holding doves, et cetera, as if preparing for a show. I did the little move at the end, where a card turns into a flower, and that is completely sleight of hand. (I was rather proud of it, as it was a very tough move to do, and doubly so in the time and under the circumstances, with the camera moving slightly! I think that even magicians don’t quite know how it’s done.) Hal and Harry Morgan matched the shots before and after it, but those are my hands in the middle.

In the opening sequence, Harry Morgan’s hands are played by a professional magician named Earl Nelson, a good friend of mine in Los Angeles. Earl is an expert manipulator, and very adept at knowing the best way to photograph these moves so they look their best.

When we shot the opening, I had my friend Ricky Jay ready to do Harry Morgan’s hands, but at the last minute they changed the schedule of the title sequence and Ricky wasn’t available, so Earl stepped in and did a great job. Ricky was disappointed that he didn’t get a chance to do it.

If you’ll remember, Harry Morgan’s hands do all card flourishes. He was supposedly an old card cheat. So Earl really did the tough stuff, and I did one trick.
Ricky Jay would go on to become part of David Mamet's stock company of actors, appearing first in Mamet's directorial debut, House of Games, only a year later in 1987.

News reports at the time suggested that Linden did all of his magic. Steinmeyer remembers how Linden tackled the role of a magician in preparation for shooting episodes:
It’s true that Hal Linden did most of his own magic, but he didn’t really learn sleight of hand for the show. Because of the show’s schedule, he didn’t have time to master elaborate effects, and part of my job was to choose effects for him that were slightly mechanical or special apparatus which gave the appearance of sleight of hand, but he could perform. I have to say that his acting abilities often carried the day in these examples. He had a wonderful touch and manner with these props. He really wasn’t much of a magician, and he didn’t pretend to be one, but he “acted” the part of a magician wonderfully, and he knew that was his job.
What I did not know is that John Carradine had played a role in pilot which was ultimately reshot with another actor due to some difficulties with Carradine's performance. He would have been 79 years old at the time. Recalls Steinmeyer:
For the first show, the two hour pilot, we shot the entire scene with the magic inventor with John Carradine in the role. It was very sad. He was very old, couldn’t remember the lines. His hands were arthritic and he could barely get through the scene. When the show was almost finished, we were called back to the set and arrived to find Carl Ballantine. He worked the scene perfectly and ended up being in the final show.
As a technical adviser, Steinmeyer had a number of duties to perform prior to an episode being shot:
When the scripts arrived, I suggested the best magic, then arranged it or had it built and showed up on the set to teach it to the actors and watch how it was shot. On several occasions I was called back to the insert stage to do additional shots. And for several of the scripts, I was called in early to make suggestions. For example, I suggested the way that the statue could vanish in “Ten Tons of Trouble,” and I think that got me brownie points from the producers (!) I was still in my 20s when we were shooting the show, so I was trying to be a good boy!


At that time we tried to do as much of the magic “for real” as possible. For example, the disappearing turtle that Black watches Ballentine do is a real trick, not a camera trick. I know this doesn’t mean much now (and it probably didn’t mean much to the viewers), but I always tried to arrange the effects so that they were something a magician would really do. The turtle trick was done with lighting and mirrors, the same way stage illusions are performed. As the show went on, we took liberties on a few occasions, but overall, the magic was “real.”
In my own digging into the history of "Blacke's Magic," I could not find much in detail as to why it never returned to the airwaves. Steinmeyer elaborates:
The show should have had another season. It was popular, but was caught in a contract dispute between the networks and studios. I know that sounds like a feeble excuse, but it’s a fact. The wrap party was a celebration. Everyone was ecstatic about the success of the show, but weeks later we heard that NBC wanted “back end” rights to their shows, and ended up eliminating many of their outside-productions that summer. It was very sad that it never came back, and the producers were devastated. (For me it was just a job! They were devastated!)
He recalls working with Morgan fondly:
Harry Morgan was just a delight to work with. Everyone loved him. Everyone. He was a very funny, old show business codger offstage. He told wonderful stories, endlessly, right up until the time that they’d call him to the set. He’d put down his cigar, glance at the script and step in. I remember several times when he had “tear-jerking” scenes — some sentimental thing. He could do this, as if doing it in his sleep. Wonderfully acted. You could watch the tears well up in his eyes. We all held our breath. “Cut!” He would pick up his cigar, walk off the set and start telling jokes.

I did very little with him, but had to have him do some “sleight of hand,” making a set of dice disappear, on the “Showdown” show. I prepared a couple of options. But the previous day, his good friend Leif Erickson, the actor, had died, and Harry had been up all night with his widow. He was really tired and a bit rattled. I think they even got cue cards for him on the set. I know they were worried about him, and I considered it very bad luck that I was now dependent on him to do something tricky that day. When it came to the magic, he just couldn’t focus on it. I talked to the director and we arranged to do it on a “cut,” using the sound of the dice to carry the illusion over, so it seemed he really did it by sleight of hand. This was the only time I saw Harry Morgan “off his game,” and everyone was concerned with him that day and accommodated him.
Erickson, who had appeared in On the Waterfront, died on January 29, 1986.

Steinmeyer says he will forever associate "Blacke's Magic" with the late, great Orson Welles, an actor who did not ever appear on that program. He remembers:
The day we were shooting [the episode] “Revenge of the Esperanza,” I was down in Marina del Ray, a very pleasant, sunny morning crouching behind a table, making milk appear and disappear in a glass. When I got back to the office, I found a number of phone messages. Orson Welles, a good friend of mine, had died that morning. Whenever I think about shooting Blacke’s Magic, I think about receiving that news.
Welles, the auteur, died on October 10, 1985. I would discover Welles for the first time a year later, as he was the voice of Unicron in 1986's Transformers: The Movie. It would not be until the early 1990s that I would see Citizen Kane and The Third Man for the first time.

Come to think of it, it's odd that the producers never made an attempt to resurrect "Blacke's Magic," especially considering the mileage that was made from "Murder, She Wrote," which ran from 1984 to 1996 (and a number of television films thereafter). It would have been relatively easy to create a number of television films in the late 1980s or early 1990s. But it was never to be. Linden has done a number of television appearances since then, and Morgan turned 97 years old earlier this year. There is no word on whether the show will come to DVD.


I found this video of Steinmeyer lecturing at Brown University about the history of his craft that I thought interesting enough to share:

1. Hodges, Ann. "Sorry, but there's no 'Magic' in new Linden, Morgan show," Houston Chronicle, January 8, 1986.
2. Rosenberg, Howard. "Linden, Morgan Supply The Magic in 'Blacke's'", The Los Angeles Times, January 4, 1986.
3. Sonsky, Steve. "'Blacke' Needs Some Magic," Miami Herald, January 8, 1986.
4. Bianculli, David "'Blacke's Magic' Has Few Tricks," The Lexington Herald-Leader (KY), January 5, 1986.
5. Bark, Ed. "Which series will NBC, ABC renew?", The Dallas Morning News, March 31, 1986.

1 comment:

horus kemwer said...

You should point out that Orsen Welles was himself a magician and performs magic tricks in his film F for Fake.