Jack Cleary & Johnny Betts

Created by Anthony Yerkovitch

Betts (Josh Brolin) & Cleary (Michael Woods)

 

After the success of Miami Vice and Crime Story, NBC tried for a hat-trick with another stylish, snazzy crime show.

Alas, Private Eye just never caught on. In some ways, it probably makes sense — even its title was as generic as they come. Because this was really just a standard P.I. show, straight out of the box. But man, did it look good!

It was done with so much style one could almost overlook the fact nothing much else was going on, but it didn’t really break any new ground, although it was built on some pretty sturdy, reliable clichés. You could call it “eye candy.”

It’s 1956. Moody, scruffy JACK CLEARY‘s an honest, but rebellious cop booted out of the LAPD on a bum rap (bribery). Unemployed, with his reputation in tatters, it doesn’t make Jack feel any better to know his big brother Nick is a successful, big shot Hollywood private eye.

And then Nick gets a bad case of the deads. The cops say it was an accident, but Jack’s got this gut feeling. Hmmm….

Sound familiar? So, anyway, Jack reluctantly teams up with his brother’s sidekick, smartass rockabilly cat Johnny Betts (played by a young, almost baby-faced Josh Brolin), to find Nick’s killers. Johnny’s a real piece of work, right out of the Kookie playbook: a wouldbe rock’n’roller with a JD rep, an attitude, and a real gift for hotwiring.

Suffice it to say that Jack and Betts eventually nab the bad guys and decide to continue as a team, keeping Nick’s agency going. Rounding out the gang was Charlie Fontana, Jack’s former partner and current police contact, and Dottie Dworski, the agency’s gum-popping, starstruck secretary.

Jack and Johnny made an odd couple, to be sure, but it wouldn’t be the first, that’s for sure. Plus, the rock’n’roll angle added an extra dimension, making the whole thing just not just look but sound good, I hoped the recycled plots wouldn’t matter — I really thought this one had potential.

Apparently so did the producers. The pilot alone apparently cost 6.5 million dollars, and the budget for the remaining eleven episodes topped out at $18 million dollars, most of it spent on  period-perfect cars, clothes and sets. They might have blown a million on venetian blinds alone.

But we were both wrong. The show was canned after a dozen shows. But who knows how far it would have gone if it had been allowed to develop? Or if they’d spent a little more money on writing, and less on venetian blinds?

UNDER OATH

  • Private Eye should have worked. It lasted four months. The public hated it. Especially, the public hated Michael Woods as Jack Cleary, so stiff he could have been a ’57 Chevy. By blaming an actor instead of questioning the concept, TV would waste another decade trying to confect a private eye, any private eye, the masses might like: priests (Tom Bosley in Father Dowling), bounty hunters (John Schneider and Paul Rodriguez in Grand Slam), ex-cons (James Earl Jones in Gabriel’s Fire and D. W. Moffatt in Palace Guard). . . .”
    — John Leonard, noted television critic (apparently not quite clear on what a private eye is)

TELEVISION

  • PRIVATE EYE
    (1987-1988, NBC)
    One 120-minute episode, 11 60-minute episodes
    Writers: Anthony Yerkovitch, Ron Hansen, John Leekley, Alfonse Ruggeriero, Jr.,
    Directors: Mark Tinker
    Music: Joe Jackson
    Producers: John Leekley, Fred Lyle
    Executive Producer: Anthony Yerkovitch
    A Universal Television Production
    Starring Michael Woods as JACK CLEARY
    with Josh Brolin as Johnny Betts
    Bill Sadler as Lieutenant Charlie Fontana
    and Lisa Jane Persky as Dottie
    Also starring Anthony Charnota, Gary Lee Davis, Hugh Gillin, Faye Grant, William Sadler, Jay O. Sanders

    • “Private Eye (Pilot)” (September 13, 1987)
    • “Nicky the Rose” (September 18,1987)
    • “War Buddy” (September 25, 1987)
    • “Blue Movie” (October 2, 1987)
    • “Blue Hotel, Part One” (October 16, 1987)
    • “Blue Hotel, Part Two” (October 16, 1987)
    • “Barrio Nights” (November 6, 1987)
    • “Nobody Dies in Chinatown” (November 13, 1987)
    • “Both Sides of the Coin” (November 20, 1987)
    • “Light and Shadows” (December 4, 1987)
    • “High Heels and Silver Wings” (December 11, 1987)
    • “Hollywood Confidential” (Janiary 8, 1988)

NOVELIZATIONS

 

  • Private Eye #1 (1988, by T.N. Robb) | Buy this book
  • Private Eye #2: Blue Movie (1988, by David Elliot) | Buy this book
  • Private Eye #3: Flip Side (1988, by T.N. Robb) | Buy this book
  • Private Eye #4: Nobody Dies in Chinatown (1988, by Max Lockhart) | Buy this book
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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