‘Night Games’ (1974): Petrocelli returns…on TV

In anticipation of reviewing the recent DVD release of the cult 70s TV courtroom mystery, Petrocelli, starring Vanishing Point’s Barry Newman, we thought we’d first look at the two movies that directly led to the creation of that fondly-remembered NBC series, this time with a look at the TV film, Night Games, from 1974.

By Paul Mavis

So, with the ho-hum reception of The Lawyer back in 1970, why in the world did someone decide to revisit it four years later as a made-for-TV movie pilot? Well…your guess is as good as mine, because unless someone digs up an old TV Guide I may have missed, I couldn’t find anything definitive concerning the origins of Night Games, the 1974 MTV pilot written by E. Jack Neuman, directed by Don Taylor, and starring Barry Newman again as attorney Tony Petrocelli, that aired on NBC on March 16th, 1974.

RELATED | ‘The Lawyer’ (1970): Petrocelli on the big screen
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If I had to hazard a guess, however, I might point to the fact that network television in the early to mid-70s was enjoying a boom of big-screen movie-inspired TV series (most of them from movies far more sucessful than The Lawyer, however). Examples from that time period include The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Barefoot in the Park, M*A*S*H, The Odd Couple, Anna and the King (The King and I), The Interns, Shaft, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, The Cowboys, Madigan, Born Free, Paper Moon, and Planet of the Apes (these last three debuting the same year as Night Games’ subsequent Petrocelli). ABC even went so far as to quickly scrounge up an unrelated romantic anthology series and labeled it Love Story—complete with that hit movie’s popular theme song—just to snag unsuspecting fans of the blockbuster (didn’t work). Scripter Neuman, who also executive produced Night Games, must have seen something in The Lawyer that he thought might transfer into a potential TV series. After all, if he hit it right like Herman Miller and NBC did when they adapted the Clint Eastwood actioner Coogan’s Bluff into the smash TV hit, McCloud, he’d be sitting pretty while the Petrocelli residuals rolled in for years to come.

In adapting The Lawyer into Night Games, the producers didn’t tamper too much with the feature film’s plotline or the characters. Harvard lawyer Tony Petrocelli (Barry Newman) has grabbed his pretty wife/legal secretary Maggie (Susan Howard) and escaped grimy, crowded NYC for the spectacularly clear skies of hot San Remo, Arizona. Operating out of a small second-floor office, Petrocelli isn’t exactly rolling in dough, but he’s happy doing what he does: getting innocent people off bad raps. He’s got a camper truck and a trailer out on a stretch of desert where he’s building his own house. A call from corporate lawyer Clayton Nikell (William Prince) may lead to a whole lot of brick money: Nikell’s wealthy client, Pauline Hannigen (Stefanie Powers) is being arrested for the murder of her husband, Dale (Jon Cypher), and Nikell needs someone low key to keep things quiet. That’s not Petrocelli, who immediately ticks off Sheriff Dutch Armbreck (Ralph Meeker) and Ciovica (William Hansen), the county coroner, with his brash, rock-the-boat confidence. With the help of investigator pal, Pete Toley (Albert Salmi), Petrocelli might be able to best sharp operater Jaimie Martinez (Henry Darrow), the D.A. who thinks he has an airtight case against Pauline, a feeling reinforced by the media bashing her nightly. It will be up to Petrocelli to find a plausible alternative theory for the murder, a theory that involves insanely hot stewardess, Thelma Lattimer (JoAnna Cameron) and thug D.D. Franklin (Luke Askew).

Well…at least it’s shorter. Night Games won’t win any made-for-TV awards, particularly since it was produced during a time when superior examples of the format were seemingly debuting every week, but it beats The Lawyer at least in terms of getting to the point. It tells essentially the same story, it brings up essentially the same character points, and it does so with 44 minutes to spare.

Still…it necessarily doesn’t have the careful production that The Lawyer did. They shot those TV movies fast back then, so everything’s done quick and clean and without fuss or adornment. Director Don Taylor was a competent helmer who could turn out an anonymous TV movie as fast and easy as he could manage some surprisingly adroit big-screen genre fare (Escape from the Planet of the Apes, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Damien: Omen II, The Final Countdown). He doesn’t have time to do more than head and shoulder stuff here with the framing, but at least the individual scenes have a peppy pace (he manages a very nice action sequence, too, as Petrocelli’s camper truck plays chicken with Askew’s motorsickle).

Veteran scripter Neuman’s TV version of the Sheppard murder is unavoidably toned down for 1974 TV viewers in Night Games: no nasty carnage, no blood, and sure as hell no nudity. Still, it’s a reasonably well put together mystery, with TV-lite references to then-current topics of interest, such as the “new Man” (Newman corrects Howard when she announces she’s pregnant: “No, no, no, no…we’re pregnant,”), and that whole “getting back to nature” kick (Newman building his own home, his way, one brick at a time while not “selling out”).

As with The Lawyer’s Colorado Springs work, one of Night Games’ biggest selling points is its use of the surrounding Tuscon, Arizona territory. Taylor gets good mileage out of this equally unfamiliar (at least to TV audiences then) terrain. Also improved, frankly, are the performances. Howard, soon to be one of the few “nice” characters on one of the biggest TV hits ever, Dallas, is far more warm and appealing than Muldaur as Newman’s wife (don’t get me wrong: I’m crazy about Muldaur…just for different reasons). Much improved, too, is the choice of steely-eyed pro Henry Darrow as Newman’s prosecutorial nemesis (now there’s a lawyer you’d be afraid to go up against in court).

As for Newman, looking a bit shaggier, a bit grayer, he just seems glad to be back in front of the cameras. Riding the heat that went along with The Lawyer’s shoot, Newman scored his most recognizable role in the cult drive-in actioner, 1971’s Vanishing Point, a huge hit that kept his name in front of A-list producers. However, his two big-scale studio follow-ups in 1972, The Salzburg Connection and Fear is the Key—both more than respectable actioners—failed at the box office, and the Hollywood cliche about only being as good as your last picture held for Newman. His leading man days in feature films were essentially over. However, television must have seemed like a good fallback, and the successful ratings for Night Games would lead to Newman’s other recognizable role (as well as some surprisingly hefty paychecks): Petrocelli.

Read all the reviews in our 4-part Petrocelli series.

Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

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