Gene Barry: The suave Chief of Detectives in the 1960s series 'Burke's Law'
Saturday 12 December 2009
As the suave and witty Los Angeles Chief of Detectives in Burke's Law, Gene Barry brought to television screens a policeman who turned up to crime scenes in style, sitting in the comfortably upholstered rear of a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce.
The millionaire Amos Burke was also seen at home, in his luxurious mansion, where a string of beautiful women visited the eligible bachelor. Burke's Law (1963-65) was the tongue-in-cheek antithesis of established American crime dramas such as Dragnet, with its mundane but eminently watchable police procedurals, and The Untouchables, which presented a weekly bloodbath of murders and massacres.
Amos Burke was born in "Who Killed Julie Greer?" (1961), the first episode of The Dick Powell Show, with Powell himself playing the detective. When Barry's series began, it was notable for all of its episode titles starting "Who Killed..." and big-name guest stars such as Zsa Zsa Gabor, Cedric Hardwicke, Sammy Davis Jr, Dorothy Lamour, David Niven, Diana Dors, Mickey Rooney, Cesar Romero and Frankie Laine.
"This ain't gonna be no Mickey Spillane drama," the Burke's Law producer, Aaron Spelling, announced. "There'll be no hoods in it. The criminals will be the kind who prey on high society in the grand manner. You won't see any violence, either. We're doing something that's always been done in the cinema – shooting for glamour and forgetting about being too believable."
Such glitz brought wordwide fame, as well as a 1965 Golden Globe Best Actor award, but he later expressed some regret at becoming typecast as a dapper character. "I have not been able to play just an ordinary human being," he said. "They don't give me those roles – a father, a grandfather, a man who is not the elegant head of an industry. I didn't like it much – the fact that I trapped myself or got entrapped in that type of performance."
Seeking to capitalise on the success of the James Bond films and the television series The Man from U.N.C.L.E., the final season of the crime drama was retitled Amos Burke – Secret Agent (1965-66), with Barry's character working for US Intelligence. Three decades later, with fewer jobs being offered to him, the actor reprised the role – working once more as Chief of Detectives – for 27 new episodes of Burke's Law (1994-95).
In between, Barry played another agent working for US Intelligence, Gene Bradley, in the less successful British-made action series The Adventurer (1972-73). Described by one critic as "a knight in designer clothing", Bradley was a film star who donned various disguises as he jetted around the world rescuing threatened women, defecting scientists and others. However, even location filming in Europe failed to save the programme, which was dropped in the United States after two episodes.
Barry was born Eugene Klass in New York City in 1919, the son of a violinist father and singer-actress mother, and had early ambitions to act himself after playing Bluebeard, wearing home-made pantaloons and turban, and an absorbent-cotton beard dipped in ink, in a school production.
While attending private schools in New York he also learned to play the violin but gave up after breaking his arm and switched to singing, performing in clubs and choirs. His baritone voice led him to be awarded a singing scholarship to the Chatham Square School of Music. Then came a job performing on a weekly radio show and he changed his professional name to Gene Barry, borrowing from his actor idol John Barrymore's surname.
Still determined to act, he joined a company touring with the play Pins and Needles in 1940 and within two years was making his Broadway début as Captain Paul Duval in a short-lived revival of the musical The New Moon (1942). But he quickly bounced back as Falke – known as "the Bat" – in the operetta Rosalinda (44th Street Theatre, Imperial Theatre and 46th Street Theatre, 1942-44), based on Die Fledermaus. A string of Broadway roles followed over the next 10 years.
After travelling from New York to Los Angeles in 1951, Barry landed a film contract with Paramount at $1,000 a week and made his big-screen début as a nuclear physicist in The Atomic City (1952). He was a scientist again in his best-remembered film role, as Dr Clayton Forrester, in The War of the Worlds (1953).
But television became the medium in which Barry made his mark. Following his appearance in an episode of the suspense series The Clock (1950), he worked his way up the cast list, via programmes such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955), to play the PE teacher Gene Talbot during the run of the sitcom Our Miss Brooks (1955-6).
Then came the title role of the suave, dapper, Arizona gambler-lawman, with a black derby, pinstriped suit, gold vest and a sword disguised as a gold-tipped cane, in the Western series Bat Masterson (1958-61). Masterson, "the fastest cane in the West", who also carried a gun, was a 19th-century former Dodge City sheriff – and the character established Barry's line in debonair roles.
Following Burke's Law, he was cast as the snappily dressed publishing tycoon Glenn Howard in The Name of the Game (1968-71), a lavishly made series that rotated Barry, Tony Franciosa (as a journalist) and Robert Stack (as a senior editor) in a three-weekly cycle of stories. When leading roles dried up, Barry made guest appearances in programmes such as Fantasy Island (1978, 1981), The Twilight Zone (1987) and Murder, She Wrote (1989).
Returning to the stage, he played the gay boulevardier Georges in the original Broadway production of La Cage aux Folles (Palace Theatre, 1983-84), before taking the musical to Los Angeles and San Francisco (both 1984), then going back to the New York show (1986). He made a cameo appearance in the 2005 War of the Worlds film remake by Steven Spielberg, who had previously directed him in an episode of The Name of the Game.
Barry's wife of 59 years, Betty Kalb – who acted under the name Julie Carson – died in 2003.
Eugene Klass (Gene Barry), actor: born New York City 14 June 1919; married 1944 Betty Kalb (died 2003; two sons, one adopted daughter); died Los Angeles 9 December 2009.
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