Today is the birthday of Martin Milner (b. 1931). Milner is second generation show biz: his mom was a dancer and his father a film distributor. Both encouraged him in his acting ambitions, arranging for his training and the acquisition of agent.
Fortunately, Milner possessed an interesting quality that made him castable. He had contradictory aspects: an apple pie, All-American face…with a slightly edgy and sarcastic demeanor. His first major role was at age 16 in the 1947 film Life with Father. Later stuff included the reefer smoking jazz musician in Sweet Smell of Success (1957), the two faced shyster in William Castle’s 13 Ghosts (1960), the rambling drifter on the tv series Route 66 (1960-1964) and Patty Duke’s cuckolded husband in Valley of the Dolls (1967).
But that’s really so much prologue. Milner had long been a favorite of Jack Webb, appearing in numerous episodes of both the radio and tv versions of his hit show Dragnet, as well as the 1955 film Pete Kelly’s Blues. In 1968, Webb devised a spin-off of Dragnet, another police procedural, this one following a couple of uniformed beat cops around in their squad car. On Adam-12 Milner played LAPD veteran Pete Molloy, mentor to rookie Jim Reed (Kent McCord). The show which ran until 1975, was unintentionally hilarious at the time, and is side-splitting (to me) today.
Designed by Webb to be as realistic as possible, Adam-12 takes “low key” to new heights. After all, beat cops have a proverbial connection to coffee and donuts for a reason. They need it to stay awake; exciting moments on the job are few and far between. Every episode of Adam-12 consists of Malloy and Reed driving around gabbing to each other about mundane subjects, punctuated by the occasional highly minor crime (a shoplifting, a breaking and entering, a bowdlerized domestic dispute) usually played by some recognizable character actor. The reason I say the show is more hilarious than before, is that police procedurals have come a long way in the realism department since the 1970s. Webb’s aesthetic was very stripped down and minimalist, rated G, and unabashedly uncritical of the police, who can do no wrong. Malloy and Reed don’t go around solving murders every two seconds, but that doesn’t mean they’re not saintly and infallible. Thus, Adam-12 is neither fish nor foul, neither real nor romanticized. I imagine it’s not too different from the “hard hitting, realistic” police procedural they’d put out in Soviet Russia.
To find out more about show biz past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc