Beat Street: Johnny StaccatoMeet Johnny Staccato, John Cassavetes' hipster TV detective
Written by J. Hoberman
"A smooth man on the ivories, hot on the trigger, and cool in a jam," so the paperback tie-in for the 1959-60 television series Johnny Staccato describes its protagonist. "He's the toughest private eye to hit America in a decade." That might be one way to describe John Cassavetes.
Cassavetes was just 30 when he took the gig as a Greenwich Village shamus with a penchant for jazz piano. Staccato (the softening "Johnny" was later added, over Cassavetes' objections) may have been a one-season wonder, but it enabled its leading man to underwrite Shadows, throw work to his pals, and hone his directing chops, while providing the closest thing he would ever have to a glamorous star vehicle. Cassavetes heralded himself in each episode with a jangling five-second montage. Scampering down a back-alley fire escape, he dodged and vogued, ran like a duck, broke a window and squeezed off a shot, peering through the shattered glass with a look of pure angst.
The half-hour show was one of 30 telefilm series to debut during the 1959-60 season (others included The Untouchables and The Twilight Zone). NBC scheduled Staccato opposite ABC's hit hillbilly sitcom The Real McCoys: "From West Vir-gi-nee they came to stay in sunny Cal-i-for-ni-ay!!!" Pure counter-programming, Staccato was set almost entirely in a nocturnal Manhattan populated mainly by creeps, junkies, and show-biz bottom feeders. Most episodes open with Johnny jamming at Waldo's, a MacDougal Street jazz cellar presided over by venerable character actor Eduardo Ciannelli. The (always white) sidemen sitting in with Pete Candolini's combo include guitarist Barney Kessel, vibraphonist Red Norvo, and drummer Shelley Manne, but, nearly always in a suit, Staccato has the stingiest lapels and narrowest tie in the room.
One of four private-eye shows to premiere that season (an event Time deemed cover-worthy), Staccato was inspired by Blake Edwards's Peter Gunn, a hit for NBC the previous year. Both shows signified sophistication with their intrusive fake jazz - the disciplined wah-wah of Henry Mancini's cocktail tinkle versus the strident horns of Elmer Bernstein's agitated big-city blooze. But rather than a cool L.A. bon vivant, Staccato was an edgy Little Italy street kid with a tense smirk and a barking laugh. Cassavetes had played many a juvenile delinquent during the golden age of live TV, and he brought that recent past to his detective persona. Johnny clearly loved grabbing a big slob by the lapels, and he managed to kill someone in virtually every episode, albeit with remorse: "That's why I need Waldo's."
Staccato's show tolerated a higher degree of moral ambiguity than Gunn's. And his world was sleazier. Although produced in Los Angeles, Staccato regularly complicated its back-lot geography with an assortment of Manhattan locations - sometimes annotated by Johnny. (Jumping on the IRT, he notes that "the quickest way to get uptown in the middle of the day is underground.") Always available for second-unit work in Manhattan, Cassavetes can be seen darting beneath the West Side Highway or pacing the Bowery, cruising the Deuce before ducking into Sardi's, attending the fights at the St. Nicholas arena and confronting a killer in the empty Polo Grounds. One episode introduces Spanish Harlem as New York's newest immigrant barrio; in another, Chinatown stands in for the city's nonexistent "Little Tokyo." But the show's spiritual home is its imaginary Greenwich Village.
Staccato materialized during the season of the TV private eye and the year of the beatnik and managed to combine them both. The sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, another new show, featured a comic beatnik named Maynard G. Krebs. A beat musical, The Nervous Set, had opened (and closed) on Broadway just before Staccato began shooting during the summer of 1959. Time ran four pieces on the beats that year, and the week after Life's multi-page spread "Squaresville USA vs. Beatsville," Staccato aired a mad, bongo-driven episode about a pair of crazy kids, shacked up in a cold-water pad, who try to sell their unborn baby. "Parents" reeks of a keyed-up intensity that, thanks in part to its leading man's jittery affect, was the show's stock in trade.
As Staccato (a name he stretches out with unmistakable irony in the show's introductory episode), Cassavetes sprinkles his discourse with offhanded jive - "Man, I thought you'd flip. You bend me, baby!" - delivered between drags on his dangling cigarette. Hardly shy about dismissing fellow musicians (or indeed anyone) as "square," Johnny is himself something of a moldy fig. He disdains bebop and is driven crazy when, in the gloriously demented "Wild Reed" episode, an obnoxious hophead sax player (Harry Guardino) attempts to make like Ornette Coleman. Nor is this hipster above petit bourgeois moralizing. More than once, he cautions some lissome guest star against "the pitfalls of beatnik living." But, like, who exactly is the sellout?
Cassavetes was editing his second "commercial" version of Shadows while moonlighting as a private eye, and the movie cast its own shadow on Staccato. Times Square's neon wilderness was a frequent backdrop, and Shadows cast members put in fleeting appearances: star Lelia Goldoni turns up as a sedately petulant Village chick and producer-editor-extra Maurice McEndree as a crazed ventriloquist. A smooth manager in Shadows, Rupert Crosse played a more literal killer in Staccato. Ben Carruthers never made the scene, but both of his buddies did: Big Tom Allen turned up as a scarily violent Korean War vet, and little Dennis Sallas had a regular job tending Waldo's bar. (He's relieved in one episode by Dean Stockwell's psycho slasher.) A number of later Cassavetes associates can also be found, notably John Marley, Paul Stewart, and Nick Dennis - and there's one episode that allows the star to riff and flirt with his missus, Gena Rowlands.
It was November 11, 1959, the night before that particular show was telecast, that the second Shadows had its epochal premiere on a bill with Pull My Daisy at Amos Vogel's Cinema 16. A New American Cinema was born! According to biographer Ray Carney, Cassavetes immediately tried to break his Staccato contract. Among other strategies, he publicly attacked the show's sponsors when "The Wild Reed" was bumped - as inappropriate - from Thanksgiving night. (The show ultimately aired as Staccato's season swan song on March 24, 1960.) Another ploy involved getting his picture taken with recently busted Jake LaMotta. Still, sponsor Salem cigarettes could scarcely have been displeased with their chain-smoking shamus.
"I want to not solve some crimes too," Cassavetes protested. While that existential prospect would never come to pass, Cassavetes did manage to direct five Staccato episodes and co-wrote another. Their visual style varies - "Solomon" comes on like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "A Piece of Paradise" is filled with moody close-ups, "Night of Jeopardy" is blatantly Wellesian in its expressionism - but, in every case, hysteria is a given. In "Murder for Credit" and "A Piece of Paradise," the obligatory Waldo's jam has the fingerpoppin' frenzy that opens Shadows. "Night of Jeopardy" transposes a similarly frantic scene to the local informer's pad. (Whatever happened to Frank London, who was a Staccato semi-regular as Shad the quacking stool pigeon?)
As a freelance wise guy and two-fisted yenta, the Staccato character functions as a de facto director. He knows more than anybody else, and, for their own good, he's forever telling people what to do. It's even possible that the grim glare Cassavetes fixed on his fellow actors, particularly those who had been his students, provoked some sort of behavioral response. But it is in the episodes he signed that the performers get to wail. Carney notes, with some understatement, that these are all "character studies." Indeed, invariably, Cassavetes stops the action - sometimes more than once - to let a chosen actor take a solo.
"Maybe the critics won't like it, but I kinda think maybe you cats will," an overbearing musician hectors the Waldo's regulars in the first of the Cassavetes episodes, "Murder for Credit." He could be speaking for the director. Dependable ham Elisha Cook Jr. gets to rant in two shows, first as a skid-row drunk and then as the world's greatest criminal lawyer. Cassavetes delivers his own righteous diatribe in the former and treats himself to a bravura scene in the latter, browbeating Cook's beautiful, witchy client (Cloris Leachman), a professional peacenik, during the course of a highly irregular prison visit. The director's cross-examination takes on a distinct acting-exercise quality, perhaps accentuated by Leachman's being a member of that Cassavetes bte noire, the Actors Studio. "It was pitiful - a woman revealed right to her core," he gloats after goading the pacifist to murderous violence.
Watch two-score Johnny Staccato episodes and you have to wonder if American television had ever seen a more impatient, impulsive, hyperactive, twitchy protagonist? As a presence, Cassavetes is less a flashback to James Dean than a preview of jumpy ethnic live-wires like De Niro and Pacino. What's more, he's a scold. In "A Nice Little Town," which Cassavetes co-wrote, Staccato leaves the Big Apple's mean streets to deliver a snarling denunciation of small-town hypocrisy. The locals have not only allowed a meek little Communist to be lynched in his own living room but enabled the subsequent murder of his patriotic pretty sister. Staccato has reason to be mad, although, even when things end well, he's liable to be supremely pissed.
Given the forced enthusiasm that frequently shades into exasperation and even disgust, Cassavetes' Staccato is one swaggering step away from being a crank or perhaps stalking off the set. It's a pleasure to see him knock back shots at Waldo's bar - not that they help much. Cassavetes projects so much nervous energy that virtually every show has his character divided against himself. In "Double Feature," he plays his own evil doppelgŠnger. A hit man mean enough to squash a kid's ping-pong ball, his killer stare, obsessive work attitude, and monumental sense of irritation are only a few degrees from Johnny's. The episode ends with a Cassavetes-on-Cassavetes shootout-the bad self enjoying a wildly baroque death collapse on a handy pinball machine.
Johnny Staccato has many curiosities and a few near-classic episodes - the quasi Pop Front boxing saga "Viva Paco!," the sub-Subterraneans "Poet's Touch," the Twilight Zone creepy "Act of Terror" - but the most authentic thing is Cassavetes's anxiety. Again and again, he signals that Staccato has just too friggin' much on his mind - and do ya mind? Communicating a rage barely contained by his cashmere threads and the show's claustrophobic 24-minute format, the volatile star often seems to be wondering why he should be doing this at all.