The Umbrella TV Series of the 1970s

Cheyenne: Featuring Clint WalkerGuest blogger Rick 29 presents this look at the saga of The Bold Ones, the NBC Mystery Movies, and Others:

In 1955, U.S television launched one of its most interesting experiments: the umbrella series, in which different TV shows were rotated in the same time slot under a single title. The original umbrella series was Warner Bros. Presents, in which the TV shows Cheyenne, Casablanca, and King’s Row were all shown in the same time slot. The only one of the three to be renewed was Cheyenne, the Clint Walker Western that evolved into a launch pad for other TV series. The umbrella series concept seemed to die a swift death.

However, it was revived unexpectedly in 1969 when NBC borrowed the format for The Bold Ones—which was three separate series linked only by the fact that (apparently) the protagonists were bold! The rotating shows were The New Doctors (with John Saxon, David Hartman, and E.G. Marshall), The Lawyers (Burl Ives, Joseph Campanella, and James Farentino), and The Law Enforcers (with Leslie Nielsen and Hari Rhodes). The last series performed poorly and was replaced the following year with The Senator, starring Hal Holbrook as an idealistic politician. For the third year, only The New Doctors and The Lawyers were retained. In its final season, The Bold Ones consisted only of its three physicians, even though the umbrella title was still used.

In 1970, NBC introduced the umbrella series Four in One. This time, there was no attempt to connect the separate shows even loosely. Each series consisted of six episodes shown back-to-back…and then the next series would start. The four shows were: McCloud (with Dennis Weaver); San Francisco International Airport (with Lloyd Bridges); Night Gallery (hosted by Rod Serling); and The Psychiatrist (with Roy Thinnes). The advantage of the format was that each series got a limited try-out. It worked out well for Night Gallery, which was renewed and given its own time slot, and McCloud, which moved to The NBC Mystery Movie the following year. The downside to the format was that viewers didn’t have time to get invested in a series before the next one started. As a result, Four in One was deemed a failure.

That didn’t stop NBC from continuing to experiment with the umbrella series concept. In 1971, it launched the most successful of all umbrella series: The NBC Mystery Movie. In its original form, this 90-minutes series consisted of three shows: the previously mentioned McCloud; Columbo (starring Peter Falk); and McMillan & Wife (with Rock Hudson and Susan St. James). The NBC Mystery Movie was a hit from the start and finished among the Top 15 TV series in its first year. Realizing it had a lucrative franchise on its hands, NBC tried to add a fourth show to the original three and eventually expanded to a second night of mysteries with The NBC Wednesday Night Mystery Movie. Alas, detectives came and went quickly, including: Richard Boone as Western detective in Hec Ramsey; Tony Curtis as a con man detective in McCoy; James Farentino as an expensive detective in Cool Million; James McEachin as an African-American family man detective in Tenafly; and Helen Hayes and Mildred Natwick as The Snoop Sisters. The only segments that really clicked were Banacek (with George Peppard as an insurance investigator) and Quincy, M.E. starring Jack Klugman. They each earned their own time slots, though Quincy was the far more successful of the two.

The success of the mystery movie prompted ABC and CBS to develop their own umbrella series—although neither was successful. ABC’s attempt was The Men (love that title!), a 1972 one-season wonder consisting of Assignment: Vienna (with Robert Conrad); The Delphi Bureau (with Laurence Luckenbill); and Jigsaw (with James Wainwright). CBS opted to go with big-name stars with the 1973 New CBS Tuesday Night Movie. Each month, CBS showed two original made-for-TV movies and then one episode each of Hawkins and Shaft. The former series starred James Stewart as a “countrified” crafty lawyer. In the latter series, Richard Roundtree reprised his film role as private eye John Shaft (the violence displayed in the movies was toned down considerably for the small screen).

Except for the NBC Mystery Movie, the umbrella series faded quickly. There were attempts to revive the format in 1979 with Cliffhangers (an innovative experiment worthy of its own article) and NBC Novels for Television (which were basically miniseries…not unlike PBS’s long-running Masterpiece Theater and Mystery!). Unfortunately, the business side of TV production killed the concept. It was simply cheaper to produce one series with a regular cast and standing sets than to multiply those costs by two or three. Variety may be the spice of life, but on television, it can be expensive!

Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café (http://classic-film-tv.blogspot.com/ and on Facebook). He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!

  • Joe Glaeser

    Thanks to Rick29. His comments are quite interesting & appreciated.

  • Trisha Johnston

    Good article. My favorite series like this was “The Name of the Game” from 1968-71. There were 76 ninety-minute episodes.
    There were 3 separate revolving series all about the Howard Publishing Company. Gene Barry was the publisher, Anthony Franciosa was the crusading reporter and Robert Stack was the editor of the crime magazine. Susan Saint James was Stack’s assistant.

  • Rick29

    Thanks for the comments, Trisha and Joe. Can believe I forgot to mention NAME OF THE GAME! Interestingly, Susan St. James was in it, too, so she starred in two umbrella series.

  • Hank Zangara

    Does it qualify as an Umbrella series? “The Hardy Boys-Nancy Drew Mysteries” alternated weekly between the Hardys and Nancy.

  • Butch Knouse

    How about anthology series? Bring back Police Story!

  • DIRK

    ABCs MOVIE OF THE WEEK — every week at new 90 min (running time with commercials) movie with great stars — and just a few are ever seen again because the actual running time of 72 to 76 minutes, there is no format for those; ya gotta pack it with commercials to pad it out to a full 2 hr time slot! BRIANS SONG is probably the most famous, but there are plenty of great stories and marvelous writing that went into these true Missing gems!!
    ABC even expanded to two nights worth the next season (Tues and Wed nights, if i remember correctly!). That kinda falls under umbrella show.

  • Matt Swoap

    I remember Cheyenne being on with Bronco and Sugarfoot.

  • Jefferson Thomas

    Wasn’t there another private investigator umbrella show on around that time on NBC called “Banyon”?

  • PAUL MUNK

    THE ABOVE SERIES HAD SO MANY WONDERFUL 1970′s ACTRESSES IN THEM SUCH AS LANE BRADBURY, KAY LENZ, TISHA STERLING, GRETCHEN CORBETT, LESLEY ANN WARREN AND SO MANY MORE. I MISS THEM.

  • LM

    Love Charlie’s Angels and Starsky and Hutch

  • Elizabeth

    I love most of the old TV Series and keep hoping they will release more of them on DVD.
    I would like to see ‘The Courtship Of Eddie’s Father’ (TV series as I have the film version), 77 Sunset Strip, the rest of ‘The Big Valley’ and ‘Wagon Train’. I actually enjoy the old black & white TV series as well.

  • Jackie

    I think I might be off on the time,But does anyone remember that terrific series ” The Roaring Twenties”? It was a cop show of course with Dorothy Provine and her two handsome co-stars( I can visualize them,but can’t place their names ) can anyone help me? Of course There was another really neat one about this guy with a rare blood type that everyone wanted because he could never get sick or killed. All anyone needed was one transfusion of his blood.

  • Bruce Beckwith

    You forgot one of NBC’s Wednesday Night Mysteries; “Madigan” starring Richard Widmark. It was originally supposed to be a series about a retired to California NYPD detective named Max Brock. The pilot for the series is “Brock’s Last Case”. At the last minute, NBC changed to a run of the mill series with Widmark playing NYPD detective Dan Madigan, a character Widmark had plaed in a movie also named “Madigan”. SPOILER! Interesingly, the Madigan character is killed at the end of the movie. Too bad Universal/NBC hasn’t seen fit to release the lesser series like “Madigan” and “Hec Ramsey” on DVD or Blu-Ray.

  • Lorraine

    SO miss ’70s television–and those great themes! I can hear the dynamic “The Name of the Game” tv theme in my head–is it Dave Grusin?–as I type this!