Friday, January 3, 2014

"Houston," We Have No Problem!

In the 1970s and '80s, it seemed as if nothing Aaron Spelling produced for television could fail (though there were the occasional bombs along the way.) He produced The Mod Squad (1968-1973), The Rookies (1972-1976), Starsky and Hutch(1975-1979), Family (1976-1980), Charlie's Angels (1976-1981), The Love Boat (1977-1987), Fantasy Island (1978-1984), Hart to Hart(1979-1984) and Dynasty (1981-1989) to hit only the highlights!

In 1982, while the machine was still chugging along powerfully, he put forth a detective series meant to capitalize on the success of Magnum, P.I. (1980-1988), seen here at left, which starred charismatic, mustached, 6' 3-1/2” Tom Selleck. To this end, he cast 6' 3” Lee Horsley as Matt Houston, a Texas-born multi-millionaire transplanted to L.A. who solved crimes in his spare time.
Horsley was a stage actor who'd recently made his television debut on the short-lived William Conrad detective show Nero Wolfe (1981.) He played the handsome right-hand man to the overweight Conrad, a brilliant crime solver who preferred to let someone else, in this case Horsley, take care of the physical end of things while he tended to his greenhouse (located within a well-appointed brownstone.)

The series was a disappointing adaptation of a series of beloved Rex Stout novels and was cancelled after only fourteen episodes had been shot. Horsley then went on to film the campy, but later beloved, fantasy film The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982.) That film's initial failure meant that he was free to portray Mattlock Houston, the kindhearted cowboy millionaire with a gorgeous ranch located only a helicopter ride away from his high-rise office in Los Angeles, California.
Horsley was often shown at the start of episodes tending to his horses (and sporting a pair of jeans that provided an eye-popping crotch shot, one which was used as the first scene in the credits sequence before being edited out later!) A couple of grizzled ranch hands were on site to provide “comic relief” until Horsley's pretty assistant and all-around Girl Friday Pamela Hensley would show up in order to whisk Horsley away to the city.
Once atop the Houston, Inc. skyscraper, viewers would see the “only in the '80s” office complex. The main room sported a full service bar, a small dining table and a hot tub! (Yes!) Then an arc-shaped couch with a green velvet coffee table would suddenly convert into a computer workstation.

The middle seats would creep forward electronically, the table would flip up to reveal an Apple III computer (cornily nicknamed "Baby") and the vertical blinds on the windows would flip shut to provide a viewscreen!
(This part was quite illogical as the dark wooden slats couldn't possibly provide the proper backdrop for the projected images, which were in reality superimposed on the screen in post-production.)
The outer office, near the elevator door, had stations for three different secretaries who were always pursuing Horsley's signature on important documents, usually to no avail. Then a side office off the main room was Hensley's domain. Finally, an elaborate rock wall with foliage and a fountain housed a staircase that took Horsley down to (again, you gotta love the '80s!) a sizeable private gym, complete with two glass-enclosed showers, and a closet/changing area.

As seen above, the showers had completely clear glass doors which meant that anyone in the gym could see through perfectly. (Only a perv like me would pick up on this.) However, in one episode that had Hensley relaying information to Horsley (how odd that their last names are so similar!), there was allofasudden a frost on the glass which made the shower door opaque from the collarbone down! Boo!
Other cast members included a handsome Italian police detective played by John Aprea, who would either assist Horsley or accept assistance from him during the investigations. Penny Santon (over)played his mama mia restaurant proprietress, meaning that once per episode, someone was likely going to be eating at her establishment. This sort of set-up hamstrung the storytelling somewhat since a scene always had to be scripted that would include her, even if only for a walk-on.

One regular, who was actually billed as a guest star, was George Wyner as Horsley's put-upon accountant/financial advisor who was forever jumbling papers and chasing after Horsley for either his okay or his signature on something. Wyner had appeared in nearly all of the Nero Wolfe episodes with Horsley and was likely hired based on their previous familiarity with one another.

As was the case for many Spelling productions, the costuming was handled by Nolan Miller, famous for all those elaborate and sometimes over-the-top Dynasty creations. Here, we see two ladies from the Matt Houston pilot, Jill St. John and Barbara Carrera, in examples of some of the era's get-ups. Elegant, sleek Carrera always seemed to pull off these dramatic, potentially overwhelming outfits the way some lesser mortals could not.

From the beginning of the series, episodes centered on a killing or an attempted killing, drawing together a collection of performers that was sometimes mind-boggling. Just as The Love Boat, Fantasy Island and, later, Hotel would resurrect once-popular stars who were now past their best “sell-by” date, Matt Houston employed a large selection of Aaron Spelling's pals from Tinseltown as the victims and the suspects. (Visible here are Forrest Tucker in the middle and Scott Brady on the right.)

In this respect, the show was similar to one of Spelling's early hits Burke's Law (1963-1966), which starred Gene Barry as the wealthy chief of Los Angeles detectives, riding around in a Rolls Royce and interviewing an assortment of glamorous suspects. (As an example, that show once featured Mary Astor, Zsa Zsa Gabor, John Saxon, Lizabeth Scott and Paul Lynde all within ONE single episode! The mind reels! Another one had Arlene Dahl, Sammy Davis Jr, Diana Dors, John Ireland, Burgess Meredith, Suzy Parker and Jan Sterling in it! Reruns, please!!!) Shown here is Barry with guest Jayne Mansfield (and in the inset, his hunky assistant, Mr. Gary Conway!)

While Houston wasn't nearly as star-laden as Burke's Law, the actor combinations were no less amusing. Where else do you think you were going to see Troy Donahue and David Cassidy enacting a scene together? How about Vic Tayback and Britt Ekland? (Seen here.) Werner Kleperer leaving behind four ex-wives: Janis Paige, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Patricia Crowley and Barbi Benton?! Debonair Cesar Romero (below) guest-starred in one episode (with his name misspelled as “Caesar” in the credits!)
Mamas and the Papas vocalist-turned-actress Michelle Phillips turned up (with uncharacteristically brown hair.)
Spelling's good luck charm Heather Locklear also somehow found time to appear as a guest even though she was already part of the cast of Dynasty and was costarring on T.J. Hooker as well! Later, she would help save his prime-time soap Melrose Place from oblivion from 1993-1999 by becoming one of its key vixens after a dismal first season.

For someone like me who loved seeing the parades of stars on Spelling's aforementioned series and (the non-Spelling show) Murder, She Wrote, this first season of Matt Houston is camp heaven! There was a tendency to unearth a star who'd been off the radar for a time to play the murder victim, such as the aforementioned Troy Donahue, Brett Halsey (seen here in brownface with a luscious Stella Stevens!) or Miss Diane McBain (whose on-screen love interest was Dennis Cole.)

Any given episode contained at least four or five familiar faces. (A selection below-not all from the same episode-includes: Hope Lange, Sid Casear, David Hedison, Dorothy Malone, Anne Jeffreys, Robert Goulet and George Chakiris.)
Here, we see Jayne Meadows and Don Defore, Natalie Schaefer, Bo Hopkins, Donahue and Cassidy, Jessica Walter and Norman Fell. These are but a few of the stars who showed up.
No matter who the guest stars were, though, Horsley was the main attraction. Handsome as all get out, with thick, golden brown hair and a friendly drawl that more than a little recalled that of James Garner on The Rockford Files (1974-1980), he was never a tougher-than-tough macho man. 
Instead, he often could be found undercutting that approach by reacting bug-eyed at the things that were happening to him. He also would have trouble bursting down doors, found himself on the receiving end of some burly antagonists and even one tore the seat out of his slacks (revealing a flash of white bikini underwear) while scaling a fence during a chase!
He also didn't regularly pack a gun, though could be coerced into doing so if pushed to the limit (such as when Hensley was kidnapped by a deranged psychopath – played by Chuck Connors -- in an uncharacteristically downbeat season-one episode.)

Best of all was when he shucked down to take a swim in some black Speedos or took a (implied) nude dip in the hot tub. During the pilot, he was caught one morning by Hensley and another employee as guest star Barbara Carrera was leaving his office.
Clearly, the two had made love the night before and he was left naked in the tub with a bevy of female onlookers peering away. He used his hat to shield himself before giving up and submerging (even though it's clear to prying eyes like mine that he was wearing some flesh-toned briefs throughout.)

He and Hensley, while not a couple on or off the show, played their roles as if it was no big deal for her to be in the room with him “naked.” She was all business no matter what he was (or was not) wearing, though my prying eyes were able to detect that in this ostensibly nude scene, Mr. H. had on some white briefs.

By far the most horrifying hot tub moment came when the two grizzled cowboys Dennis Fimple and Paul Brinegar got in fully dressed and decided to make the whole thing into one large margarita! They poured in tequila, lime, salt, etc... and Horsley and Hensley even tried a sip!!

More entertaining were the workouts that Horsley and Apprea would take together. In their velour track suits, they'd discuss cases over a few weights or exercise machines. 
Then in one unforgettable episode, they took side-by-side showers in that glass-enclosed area I referred to earlier! True there was a divider of sorts (made more private by towel placement), but yowza!
In real life, Horsley had married in 1980 (the couple is still together now, thirty-three years and two children later.) This may account for why so little of him ever appeared in gossip rags and the like. He seemed to be quite a stable, ordinary person. As Matt Houston, though, he was called upon to not only show off his physique at times, but also to occasionally be surrounded by a bevy of beauties such as in this shot from when he briefly went undercover as a football quarterback.

...or this one when seven Playboy Playmates showed up on the series. (Is it me or are a few of these rather, um, “flat” for centerfold models??)

The budget of the show, while moderate, sometimes showed some fraying around the edges. Take the aforementioned football episode. The fictional team, The California Bearcats, had a mascot that was inexplicably in the form of a tall brown bear! The costume couldn't possibly have been more cheap, cheesy or lame. In the climax, the killer dons the costume and tries to do in Horsley.
Then just an episode or two later, Horsley is investigating a case on a (fictional) movie studio lot and winds up falling into a huge dumpster. Upon exiting, he comes upon the bear again (this time dressed up like Smokey the Bear) who is for reasons unknown walking down the street with a very unlikely ballerina! (Why did so many TV series with scenes on studio lots ALWAYS try to pepper the location with all sorts of idiotic costumed people when no one was making movies with anyone of the sort in them?!)

There were many cheesy moments, including David Cassidy devising a preposterous life-size video game, but perhaps the nadir came when Horsley was slipped a drug and wound up encountering little green space men out in the desert!! (Aaron Spelling would later return to this bizarre scenario when it came time to wrap up The Colbys, 1985-1987.)

At least Horsley had a truly distinctive and glamorous car to drive, though it always seemed to escape danger without a scratch while other characters' cars were often crashed and/or totaled! Oddly enough, the car used in the pilot (and subsequently in the opening credits) was not the same car used in the series. The pilot car was white and the series car was cream with tan detailing.

As the first season drew to a close, a decided (and unwelcome) change in tone began to emerge. Where the show was once a breezy, deliberately campy murder mystery, it started to inject more serious violence and a far stronger feeling of menace. Where there had once been little or no blood, we now saw plenty. This made the inclusion of the bumpkin characters and Santon's Italian mama oddly incongruous and in fact the cowpokes were dropped before the year was out.

When the show returned for season two (1983-1984), everyone but Horsley and Hensley was let go. Horsley, naturally, was still the star and Hensley was soon to be the wife of producer E. Duke Vincent, so clearly she wasn't going anywhere, though her obvious chemistry with Horsley and her own visual appeal made the decision to keep her an easy one. 

The appealing Aprea was dumped along with his mother. Wyner, who'd occasionally been replaced by John Moschitta Jr (the fast-talking Federal Express spokeperson, seen here!) due to his juggling of Houston and Hill St. Blues, was also out, but would return a half-dozen times in the future.

Now the more conventional detective series would focus more on the two leads and a new police detective associate played by Lincoln Kilpatrick. While, just like any other TV series, there might be an occasional guest star or two of note, it wasn't long at all before the camptastic guest casting fell to the side during this format change.

As the third season rolled out (1984-1985), the decision was made to bring on Matt Houston's Uncle Roy, played by the seemingly ancient Buddy Ebsen! Ebsen's own successful detective series Barnaby Jones had run from 1973-1980 and along the way Mark Shera had been added in order to provide some youth appeal. No clue what the strategy was in bringing Ebsen to this show...! In any case, Matt Houston was cancelled and off the air by March of 1985.

Chief interest in the show for me is season one, as amply demonstrated above. I was always right in front of the set (still am!) any time a show came along that paired up a gaggle of unusual stars. Other short-lived shows that featured clumps of careworn celebrities were the infamous Supertrain (1979), cancelled after five episodes, Aloha Paradise (1981), which starred Debbie Reynolds, and Finder of Lost Loves (1984-1985), starring Anthony Franciosa. Then there was the update of Burke's Law (1994), which still starred Gene Barry, but this time with a son played by Peter Barton. Unsurprisingly, it couldn't gather an audience (I can't keep this stuff going alone, people!! Ha!)
After Matt Houston left the air, Horsley kept busy in various TV movies and miniseries (which were incredibly popular at the time.) There was Crossings (1986) in which he costarred with Jane Seymour, Cheryl Ladd and Christopher Plummer.

Then there was North and South, Book II(1986), which paired with with luscious Lesley-Anne Down.
These projects afforded him the chance to meet up with even bigger stars than he'd rubbed shoulders with during Matt Houston. He's seen here with North's James Stewart and Crossings' Joan Fontaine!
From here, he proceeded to work in several more series including Paradise (later retitled Guns of Paradise,1988-1990), a western in which he was the uncle-turned-makeshift father to a group of kids.
Then came the short-lived crime solving drama Bodies of Evidence (1992-1993), which placed him next to a then unknown actor who would soon become a worldwide sensation.
Nobody was much interested in watching George Clooney back then, however...
In 1994, he and Lynda Carter starred in a syndicated show called Hawkeye, based on the then-hot character from Last of the Mohicans (1992), though Horsley was no Daniel Day Lewis! That series ended after one season.
Things slowed down considerably after that, though he continued to work. He even had a small part in 2012's Djanjo Unchained. Today he is fifty-eight and continues his interests in ranching and even penning the occasional novel. (And, no, this isn't a recent photo!)  Below are shots of him from more recent years.
Hensley has a tribute here in The Underworld already so I won't go on too much more about her. I can see how her overstated facial expressions and reactions on Matt Houston might annoy some folks, but to me she was always so pretty and so enthusiastic, not to mention engaging, that it doesn't bother me much at all. I thought she and Horsley were wonderful together.
Despite his being unfairly kicked to the curb, Aprea (who'd been working in movies since the late-'60s from Bullit, 1968, to The Godfather: Part II, 1974) went on to a long, busy career. He guested on countless TV shows and worked semi-regularly on both Falcon Crest and Knots Landing along with a three-year stint on Another World. Today a very handsome silver daddy at seventy-two, he is as busy as ever in TV and independent film projects.
Both Fimple and Brinegar continued their long careers as character performers pretty much right up until their deaths. Fimple, the younger of the two, died in 2002 at age sixty-one, while Brinegar had passed away in 1995 at age seventy-seven. 

Santon, who'd been on TV since the early-1950s died in 1999 at age eighty-two and had also worked until just a couple of years prior to that.

No one is going to receive a wealth of knowledge watching Matt Houston. It's pure escapism and feather-light entertainment. However, if you are like me and enjoy seeing a lot of actors getting the chance to keep their benefits current and their SAG dues paid up, it's worth a look! Even so, one can't go wrong admiring the amiable, handsome Horsley for the better part of an hour either! (I came very close to naming this post “Wanna Ride a Horsley?”)