Paul Burke will best be remembered for the three years he spent as the star of the highly regarded television series, The Naked City, which was filmed on the streets and in the buildings of Manhattan.
Inspired by the 1948 film of the same name, it was innovative in its use of location shooting all over the metropolis, from the Staten Island Ferry to Times Square, which gave it a semi-documentary feel, and though Burke was not the most animated of actors, he was handsome and had a tight-lipped doggedness that suited his portrayal of the tough police detective who manages to maintain his integrity and idealism despite confronting the worst aspects of Manhattan life. (The show could never be accused of glamorising New York City.)
"There are eight million stories in the naked city... this has been one of them," intoned the narrator-producer Mark Hellinger at the end of the movie, and the same words were uttered at the climax of every episode of the television series (shown in the UK by ITV). Although Burke starred in other television shows and had a recurring role in Dynasty, his film career was chequered, despite his playing the leading male role in the colossal hit Valley of the Dolls (1967) and giving arguably his finest performance as the police detective determined to outwit bank robber Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968).
Born in New Orleans in 1926, Burke was the son of the prize fighter Martin Burke (who once fought the world heavyweight champion Gene Tunney). After retiring from the ring, he opened a restaurant and night club, Marty Burke's, in the city's French Quarter. Paul used to help out in the club, and later stated that seeing some of the customers affected his outlook: "I stayed up late watching the barflies, the brawlers. I watched the effect of wasted lives. It gave me a strong feeling of urgency about my own life."
In his early 20s he moved to Hollywood and studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse. The director Lloyd Bacon, one of his father's friends, got him his first screen roles, uncredited parts in the musicals Golden Girl and Call Me Mister (both 1951), the latter a Betty Grable vehicle in which he played a soldier. He was a soldier also in Sam Fuller's Fixed Bayonets (1951), and he had small roles in two films featuring Francis, the talking mule – Francis Goes to West Point (1952) and Francis in the Navy (1955), plus South Sea Woman (1953), with Burt Lancaster and Virginia Mayo.
He graduated to guest-star roles in such television series as Highway Patrol, Dragnet and M Squad, and in 1964 he co-starred with Joan Crawford and Diane Baker in a TV movie, Della, a fanciful tale in which he was Crawford's lawyer who falls in love with her daughter, unaware that she has a skin disease that will be fatal if she is exposed to sunlight. His first recurring role on television was that of a veterinarian in a short-lived television series, Noah's Ark (1956-57), followed by Harbourmaster (1957-58) with Barry Sullivan, and an unsuccessful spy series, Five Fingers (1959), which was loosely based on the Joseph L. Mankiewiez film of 1952.
The Naked City began its television life as a weekly 30-minute show in 1958, with John McIntire and James Franciscus playing the roles originated in the movie by Barry Fitzgerald and Don Taylor. Despite good reviews, its ratings were poor. McIntire's character was killed off halfway through the season, and the show itself was cancelled at the end of the year, but the production staff and one of the sponsors successfully lobbied the network, ABC, to revive it as an hour-long series, which first aired in 1960, starring Burke as Detective Adam Flint with Nancy Malone playing his loyal, if sometimes stressed, girlfriend. Harry Bellaver was Burke's older partner and Horace McMahon his crusty superior.
Burke received two Emmy nominations for his performance, and was admired for doing several of his own stunts. "Once I had to jump from one roof to another," he told the columnist Hedda Hopper, "when the stuntman refused because it was too windy to take a chance." To prepare for the role, he accompanied police detectives on raids, commenting, "I know areas of the city that are truly jungles. I wouldn't be a detective there for $1,000 a day." Before an episode in which his character was to witness an execution, he spent a night in Sing Sing prison. "The area of the condemned has barred windows that look down over the Hudson," he said. "You can see trains going by, as if to emphasise the life outside that is to be taken away. I was not against capital punishment before we made that show – but now, I don't know."
When The Naked City ended its run in 1963, it was described by the Los Angeles Times as, "television's finest weekly hour. It took the police show and gave it a dignity and compassion that at times approached high tragedy." Stirling Silliphant, later to win an Oscar for scripting In The Heat of the Night, was primary writer on the series, Billy May provided the jazzy theme music, and directors included John Brahm, Buzz Kulick, Arthur Hiller and Tay Garnett.
The New York location offered a pool of theatrical acting talent, some of them newcomers on the threshold of distinguished careers – they included Robert Redford, Tuesday Weld, Walter Matthau, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Peter Falk, Martin Sheen, Rip Torn, Jon Voight and Christopher Walken. The show's quality, and its tradition of building shows more around the guest stars than its regular cast, also prompted seasoned performers to seek out roles, among them Eli Wallach, Viveca Lindfors, Betty Field, Sylvia Sidney, Steve Cochran and Kim Hunter.
Burke had further success on television when he starred as a Second World War Air Force colonel in the series Twelve O'Clock High (1964-67). He played his first starring role in a movie when given the male lead (billed third to Barbara Parkin and Patty Duke) in Valley of the Dolls (1967), Mark Robson's screen version of Jacqueline Susann's best-selling novel about addiction to pills (the "dolls" of the title). Though Robson had made a splendid job of transferring a similarly exploitative novel, Peyton Place, to the screen in 1957, Valley of the Dolls was a tawdry effort which nevertheless made a fortune while doing little for Burke, whose role as a young lawyer who befriends the film's three heroines and has an affair with Parkin, was colourless.
Norman Jewison's The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), primarily a glossy vehicle for Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, gave Burke his best screen role, as a police detective partnering insurance investigator Dunaway to trap millionaire bank robber McQueen. He was a lawyer again in Mark Robson's Daddy's Gone A-Hunting (1969), a thriller in which his wife (Carol White) is terrorised by an ex-boyfriend who wants her to kill her own baby because she once concealed an abortion from him. Risibly melodramatic, it effectively ended the Hollywood careers of both Burke and White.
Burke returned to television, guest-starring in such shows as The Love Boat, Starsky and Hutch, Charlie's Angels and Murder, She Wrote. In the lavish soap opera Dynasty, he had a recurring role from 1982-88 as Congressman Neal McVane, who murders the ex-husband of Krystle Carrington, a crime for which Alexis Carrington (Joan Collins) is convicted. He also had a recurring role as Rear Admiral Hawkes in Magnum, P.I., starring Tom Selleck.
In 1990, after a role in Columbo, Burke retired to Palm Springs with his second wife, Lyn, whom he had married in 1979. "Acting is more exciting than living," he told TV Guide during the run of The Naked City. "It's more electric, more immediate. That's because life is full of random elements. In acting, you select, you choose the elements. This selection allows you to get to the essence of the character, the essence of an experience." He is survived by his wife, and three children from his first marriage.
Paul Burke, actor: born New Orleans 21 July 1926; twice married (two daughters, one son); died: Palm Springs, California 13 September 2009.