Way before there were shows like CSI or Diagnosis Murder, there was the man, the one man who refused to be denied. If someone came across this man’s metal slab and it didn’t seem kosher? That something might be amiss? This man would bull his way forward to the truth, until that truth had been uncovered. (Had to be an Aries, right?) He was the police forensics version of Don Quixote. No medical windmill too tall, no killer too tough… whether a corporate monster, or an evil plastic surgeon… or even a corrupt, mob-backed, union leader. No, this man…. this man, never gave up. And you know of whom I speak, yes?
Of course I speak of Quincy M.E.
Quincy M.E. ran for seven years, 1976-1983, and starred The Great One, Jack Klugman. One of his Twilight Zone episodes, from 1963, called “In Praise of Pip” is carved into the Mount Rushmore of my favorite T.Z. episodes. The Klug was an actor who never, ever called it in. Just watch him chew the scenery when he played Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple. The stuff of legends, and then some.
But when he played Quincy?
He was something else entirely. As much as Peter Falk was Columbo, Klugman was Quincy.
These were two very different sorts of detectives. Columbo never raised his voice, maybe two times. Raising his voice was pretty much all that Quincy did. Columbo would work the case from the outside in. Quincy would work it straight from the bomb crater. Part of me would love to see Quincy, Columbo, and Harry O. playing poker out on the back deck of Quincy’s boat during some late summer evening. That conversation would be one for the ages, I’m sure.
Anyway… I’m off topic here. Back to the man, and the show.
Quincy M.E. began with 90 minute episodes back in 1976, as part of the NBC Mystery Movie rotation that included Columbo, McCloud, and McMillan (patience please… I’m working on the McMillan & Wife post). The Klug did such a great job (as did the writers) that Quincy M.E. was spun off only about halfway through that show’s first year.
And deservedly so.
No television show had gone this in-depth regarding the forensics side of police work. Every episode was filled with words you cannot pronounce; words that represent very private parts of the human body, along with the damage that had been inflicted on them.
One of the things I really love about Quincy is the influence of what were considered at the time to be “modern forensics method of police work”. I went through my vault of cop shows from the 60’s and 70’s and I could not find one that really put that forensics aspect anywhere near the forefront of the case. Columbo came close, naturally, because Columbo was cerebral. I didn’t even look through my discs of Baretta, Starsky and Hutch, SWAT, and Vegas. Those shows were about muscle and guns. Quincy was about brains and knowledge.
And this brings us of course to Quincy’s assistant, Sam Fujiyama, played by Robert Ito. Ito is an actor who’d really paid his dues through the years, playing any role out there that would suit him: Soylent Green. Police Story. Ironside. Kung-Fu. Midway. The character of Sam is akin to Sherlock Holmes’ Watson, but on cerebral steroids. He plays Q’s caretaker, his Sancho Panza. One of the differences between the two sidekicks is that unlike Watson, Sam is more active. He goes off on his own, formulating his own answers and ideas, giving them to Quincy whether Quincy likes it or not. Watson never did that. Robert Ito ended up being the perfect foil for Jack Klugman. The two fit together so well. I have no idea if they got along off camera, but man? On camera? It works.
And then there was Aston, played by John S. Ragin. Aston played a character that was the necessary part in any detective story or series. Aston was the hard hand of bureaucracy that our hero doctor/detective, our perhaps our slightly wounded white knight hero/doctor, would butt up against. And Aston’s character did his work, and well, for the first couple years. It was really into the fourth year, when Aston began to try to work with Quincy, that the shine of the show began to fade. The episode I remember most from that season was episode 4, “The Depth of Beauty.” A total nutbag cosmetic surgeon is doing work reserved for guys slicing steaks for Safeway. Quincy, during his investigation, comes up against a brick wall of suit-wearing guys who were elected to office and don’t know shit from shinola. Aston offers to help Quincy. Asks Quincy to let him, Aston, use his bureaucratic knowledge to gain some leverage on the case. It’s a good episode, but it doesn’t have the same edge that other episodes possess. However, what can you do, right? A good series has to grow. The characters, if you want them to be more than cardboard, have to grow. All you need to do is look at some of the shows that came later, like Hill Street Blues, to see how character growth within a series can be done.
But all this aside, Quincy was one for the ages. To be honest, I hadn’t watched it since the 80’s, but I’d always remembered the show fondly. I was more than happy to revisit it after all this time. The greatest testament to a TV show is whether it holds up over the years, or even decades.
Quincy is definitely one of those.
Bay Area resident Robert K. Lewis has been a painter, printmaker, and a produced screenwriter. In addition to contributing here, Lewis is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and the International Thriller Writers. Untold Damage was the first novel in the Mark Mallen series, followed by Critical Damage. Visit him at his website, at needlecity.wordpress.com, and on Twitter @robertklewis.