The most famous one-armed man in television history is, of course, the murderer hunted by Dr. Richard Kimball on The Fugitive. But I don’t have him in mind in this post. I never actually watched The Fugitive much.
But I have fond memories of two television series from my childhood, each of whose main characters had one arm. Why one-armed characters resonate with me, I cannot say. The reasons are probably emotionally complex and embarrassing (I had one character lose a hand in my novel Wolf Time, and another lose a whole arm in Troll Valley). But I’m delighted that YouTube has made it possible to rediscover these series, at least in part. My viewing report follows.
The character of detective Mark Saber had an interesting evolution. According to my internet research (not always coherent), he began as a British detective working (for some reason) on the police force of a large American city on an early US TV series called Mystery Theater. He was played by Tom Conway (not to be confused with comedian Tim Conway). Tom Conway was the brother of famous movie heavy George Sanders, and spent his career in his brother’s shadow. His character dressed nattily, and (judging by the one episode I found on YouTube) fought crime more with fisticuffs than with deduction or forensics.
The show ran from 1951-1954. Then in 1955 the character was resurrected back in the old home country in a new series called The Vise. Mark Saber was now a London private investigator, and was now played by Donald Gray, a native of South Africa who lost his left arm in France in World War II. I’ve only found a couple episodes of this series on YouTube. Here’s one:
I found my re-viewing of The Vise a little disappointing. It’s a low-rent production, but I think my real problem is with the way the show handles Mark Saber’s disability, which is by not addressing it at all. Anyone who (like me) has spent time with an arm in a cast has some idea of the difficulties inherent in going through life unidexterous. When Saber walks into a room and (always the gentleman) takes his hat off, it occurs to me that he now has no hands free, in case he should be attacked. When he goes to a restaurant and comes back praising the steak, I wonder how he cut it (perhaps he tipped the waiter extra to do it for him). I wonder if the scripts were written before Gray was cast in the role. There’s a lot of dramatic possibilities in a one-armed detective, and the series seems to exploit them not at all.
The Tate series ran one summer only, in 1960. It was a summer replacement for the Perry Como show. I liked it immensely back then, and I’m happy to report that it holds up pretty well today.
Tate (we’re never told his first name) is a wandering gunfighter. Most episodes are dated 1871 in the opening shots (with the usual historical anachronisms, like Colt Peacemaker revolvers, not yet invented then, in full display. Though Tate himself carries a Remington, but the same principle holds). He lost the use of his left arm in the Civil War (“I didn’t run fast enough at Vicksburg,” he explains in the pilot).
Tate was played by an actor and model named David McLean. McLean had achieved fame as the Marlboro Man, and he would die of emphysema in 1995 (if you’ve read the book Thank You for Smoking, by Christopher Buckley, or seen the movie, the dying cowboy actor in that story, played in the movie by Sam Elliott, was loosely based on McLean’s story. However the real McLean, a man of principle, never sued the tobacco company over a contract he’d entered into with open eyes. His heirs brought the lawsuit after his death).
Here’s the pilot episode, which features James Coburn as the heavy:
Other episodes (most of the full run is on YouTube) feature Leonard Nimoy as a Comanche, Robert Culp as a bounty hunter, and a young Robert Redford twice, in small roles.
The character of Tate is, as you would expect in a series of that vintage, a gunfighter with principles. He won’t take a job he considers dishonorable, and will change sides if he’s been deceived. One wonders why he went into gunfighting at all, but he explains at one point that his choices with one arm were to be a clerk, push a broom, or be a gunfighter. He generally tries to talk people out of violence, and most often fails. If you believe that violence never solves anything, you’ll get no support here. Most conflicts are resolved through Tate killing somebody. This was pretty standard in Westerns of the period.
The quality of the production is relatively high. Lots of location filming, which looks good. The scripts seem to me of pretty high quality (biblical references abound, and we learn that Tate carries a Bible in his saddlebag). The plotting is weak, but that’s a congenital problem in half-hour dramas, a format which has pretty much disappeared, and it’s just as well.
In summary, I enjoy watching the old shows, and found Tate particularly satisfying. I’d like to see more of The Vise if it became available, but it was a low budget production and has to be taken on its own terms.
All in all, I’m glad both my arms work.