‘Wheel’ series have just about disappeared now. What’s a ‘wheel’ series? Well, imagine a series with some high-profile stars, but they’re so high-profile, there’s not room for them in each episode. So each week, you have an episode that invariably features only one of those stars.
One of the pioneers of wheel series was NBC’s The Name of the Game, which starred Tony Franciosa, Gene Barry and Robert Stack. Running for 76 episodes, it was based on the TV movie Fame is the Name of the Game and looked at three characters working at Howard Publications, a large magazine company. Franciosa played Jeff Dillon, a crusading reporting with People magazine; Gene Barry played Glenn Howard, the company’s owner and publisher; and Robert Stack played Dan Farrell, the editor of Crime magazine.
Here’s the ever-so-60s title sequence. Well, one of them. I’ll explain after the jump.
So here’s how the titles worked. The titles originally put the featured lead first, then the other two ‘starring in’. Each episode then carried individual credits with the featured lead name ‘in’ followed by the episode title and then the guest cast. So the Gene Barry episode L.A. 2017 (a bizarre science-fiction episode directed by Steven Spielberg) was “Gene Barry in… L.A. 2017… Robert Stack…Tony Franciosa…”.
As you can probably guess from the respective job titles of each of the characters, the stories that The Name of the Game featured varied, depending upon which lead was up.
- Tony Franciosa’s segments were current affairs stories ranging from industrial espionage to bogus doctors and racial tensions. Franciosa’s journalist was a likeable guy with a dogged investigative style not a million miles from the later Columbo‘s.
- Gene Barry’s were normally stories of either big business or political intrigue, but the star of The War of the Worlds also had a couple of surreal ‘offbeat’ escapades, such as one where he’s abducted on a desert road by fanatical hippies, as well as the aforementioned L.A. 2017, in which he’s hunted down in a fascist state of the future. His character – again not a million miles from his Burke’s Law character – was a millionaire playboy figure, a cool self-made businessman.
- Robert Stack’s ‘Dan Farrell’ stories were normally crime stories, although unusual types of crimes such as spree killers, illegal use of prisoners as slave labour and crooked charities. In contrast to Franciosa’s Jeff Dillon, Farrell was an ex-FBI investigator who seldom smiled.
Although there were a few ‘crossovers’, with Barry and Franciosa appearing in four episodes in which they weren’t the stars, Stack never made any cameos in other episodes and Franciosa never appeared in any of Stack’s episodes. And they never all appeared in one episode together.
As well as the leads, there was a small supporting cast. Susan Saint James played the company’s editorial assistant, Peggy Maxwell, something for which she won an award, and even shared the lead with Robert Stack for one season two episode. Barry had an assistant played by Cliff Potts, who appeared in some first season episodes, as did Mark Miller’s Ross Craig. Ben Murphy of Alias Smith and Jones and The Gemini Man played Stack’s assistant Joseph Sample.
The stars also got to take a couple of breaks, which allowed ‘guest leads’ in their segments. Darren McGavin of Kolchak: The Night Stalker fame got to play freelance journalist Sam Hardy during one of Barry’s segments, while Vera Miles played top female reporter Hilary Vanderman in a similar, Barry-lite episode. And during the third season, Franciosa was fired after three episodes and his stories got a whole new range of stars, including Peter Falk, Robert Culp and Robert Wagner, although Franciosa still got to stay on in the titles. Again the titles stayed the same, but they got top billing.
To say the show had many famous guest stars would be to underuse the word ‘many’. Notable names in the roster included: Boris Karloff, William Shatner, Roddy McDowall, Steve Forrest, Barry Sullivan, Pete Duel, Jack Klugman, Dennis Weaver, Leslie Neilsen, James Whitmore, Louis Jourdan, Burl Ives, Frank Sinatra, Kevin McCarthy, Robert Young, Joseph Cotton, Charles Boyer, Donald Sutherland, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Peter Graves, David Carradine, Honor Blackman, Julie Harris, Sal Mineo, Dorothy Lamour, Peter Lawford, Russ Tamblyn, Sharon Farrell, Sammy Davis Jnr, Noel Harrison, Suzanne Pleshette, Ike and Tina Turner, Mel Torme, Shirley Jones, Dionne Warwick, Barry Nelson, Anne Baxter, Brandon de Wilde, Claudine Longet, Robert Webber, Yvonne De Carlo, John Kerr, Hoagy Carmichael, Rosanno Brassi, Chuck Connors, Van Johnson, Pernell Roberts, Laurence Naismith, Jessica Walter, Frank Gorshin, Nigel Davenport, Pamela Franklin, Gypsy Rose Lee, Will Geer, Brenda Vaccaro, Ricardo Montalban, Ivan Dixon, Edward Andrews and Robert Goulet.
And that’s just for starters.
The show lasted for three seasons, each episode clocking in at 90 minutes, making it a format frontrunner for the likes of Columbo, The Bold Ones and NBC Mystery Movie. Despite being one of the most expensive TV series of its time, it’s not available on DVD, it’s all but forgotten – it’s a Lost Gem. And these clips on YouTube are probably the most you’ll ever see of it.