JOHNNY STACCATO - The Best TV Noir You've Never Heard Of
The series was simply titled Staccato when it premiered on NBC in September 1959. Ten episodes later it was renamed Johnny Staccato after its main character, a jazz pianist who doubles as a private detective. Set in New York City, Johnny Staccato shows the seedy underbelly of the crime-ridden metropolis. Jazz is the backdrop of this series and it follows many of the conventions of film noir, which had played a part in television since the medium’s inception in the late 1940s. Johnny Staccato may be one of the least known of the noir series from television’s early days. However, the series is notable for being the only TV series to star the influential director John Cassavetes. Here are even more reasons why you should be watching Johnny Staccato on getTV.
1. Johnny Staccato saved Cassavetes’ career.
Johnny Staccato offers a unique opportunity to watch John Cassavetes – the actor – in action in a series. However, Johnny Staccato was even more important to Cassavetes the director. Having spent so much time working exclusively on Shadows, his first feature film as a director, Cassavetes admitted he’d fallen off the radar as an actor by 1959. Johnny Staccato reopened doors in that regard and facilitated future projects in a way even he could not have envisioned.
2. Cassavetes was both actor and casting agent.
Cassavetes accepted the role in Johnny Staccato only after he was guaranteed the ability to choose his own producer, an unheard of request at the time. He also insisted on casting input as often as possible and used that power to give roles to many of the actors he knew from his New York acting circles. Notable in the group was his wife Gena Rowlands, who co-stars in the episode of Johnny Staccato entitled “Fly, Baby, Fly.”
3. Cassavetes took matters into his own hands.
Cassavetes was dissatisfied with the quality of the Johnny Staccato pilot. To remedy this, he decided to take matters into his own hands by directing five episodes beginning with the second of the series “Murder for Credit.” That episode features an exterior shot of the entrance of the Variety Arts Studio in which Cassavetes and Burt Lane offered lessons to aspiring actors. Although Johnny Staccato is set in New York City, it was actually filmed in Hollywood with only exterior shots coming from the East Coast.
4. Johnny Staccato often features Cassavetes’ distinctive style.
The other Johnny Staccato episodes helmed by Cassavetes are “Evil,” “A Piece of Paradise,” “Night of Jeopardy,” and “Solomon.” His episodes are noticeably different in style and theme from the rest of the Johnny Staccato series. True to form, Cassavetes focuses on the characters in the stories as his film work exemplifies. Also evident in those episodes is the natural style of filming that made him a legend.
5. The series features an impressive list of guest stars.
Johnny Staccato boasts an impressive list of acting legends as part of its legacy. Aside from John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, the series employed the talents of such future TV notables as Cloris Leachman, Mary Tyler Moore, Elizabeth Montgomery, Martin Landau, and Michael Landon. Reliable and familiar character actors like Elisha Cook, Jr., Nita Talbot, Dean Stockwell, and Jack Weston are also featured.
6. Staccato’s “office” is a jazz club.
The primary setting in Johnny Staccato is a Greenwich Village jazz club owned by Staccato’s friend, Waldo, played by Eduardo Ciannelli. Working at “Waldo’s,” and often featured in musical numbers, was the jazz combo of Pete Candoli. Condoli’s band included jazz legends Barney Kessel, Shelly Manne, Red Mitchell, Red Norvo, and Johnny Williams. Because Staccato spends most of his free time playing the piano at “Waldo’s,” this is also where he meets many of his clients.
7. Cassavetes has a deep jazz connection.
The memorable Johnny Staccato theme was composed by Oscar-winner Elmer Bernstein. While U.S. audiences may not have appreciated its style at the time, the theme became hugely popular in Britain. The show’s music was supervised by Stanley Wilson. Cassavetes himself had a professional connection to jazz beyond his portrayal of a pianist in the series. As a director, he put great stock in the music and both of his early directorial efforts featured jazz musicians as part of the stories.
8. Johnny Staccato transitioned from cancellation to cult classic.
Johnny Staccato lasted only one season (27 episodes) with Cassavetes forcing an early break to his five-year contract. The show was not well received by the public partly due to the fact that there were other similarly-themed programs on the air. After its initial run on NBC ended Johnny Staccato was picked up by ABC, which aired the reruns during the summer of 1960. A year later the show became a big hit on the BBC, which proved beneficial to Cassavetes who was interested in promoting Shadows in Europe. Today Johnny Staccato is a cult favorite.
9. Johnny Staccato became a book, too.
Johnny Staccato became a novel in 1960. Written by Frank Boyd (pseudonym of Frank Kane), it describes the Staccato character as “…a smooth man on the ivories, hot on the trigger, and cool in a jam – he’s the toughest private eye to hit America in a decade.” Boyd wrote 30 novels and numerous short stories featuring the private eye Johnny Liddell. Boyd strayed from the Liddell character only once in order to write about Staccato, and his story follows the TV series.
Due to the time constraints inherent in a half-hour show, Johnny Staccato is reminiscent of classic radio noir with resolutions reached almost as quickly as crimes are introduced. However, the speed with which each story plays out adds to its enjoyment. With a tagline that reads “The beat of a jazz combo is his hobby - mystery is his business!” Johnny Staccato may well be the best TV noir you’ve never heard of.
Tune in to getTV every Saturday at 8:50 am ET to catch a glimpse of Johnny Staccato and the dark world he works and lives in.