The Untouchables (1959 TV series)
The Untouchables: The Frank Nitti Story
The Untouchables is an American crime drama that ran from 1959 to 1963 on ABC. Based on the memoir of the same name by Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraley, it fictionalized Ness’ experiences as a Prohibition agent, fighting crime in Chicago in the 1930s with the help of a special team of agents handpicked for their courage and incorruptibility, nicknamed the Untouchables. The book was later made into a film in 1987 (also called The Untouchables) by Brian De Palma, with a script by David Mamet, and asecond less successful TV series in 1993.
Stack as Eliot Ness with Gloria Talbott, 1962.
The stories often revolved around Ness’ enmity with the criminal empire of Chicago mob boss Al Capone, and many focused on crimes related to Prohibition. The show stars Robert Stack as Eliot Ness and was narrated by Walter Winchell. Neville Brand played Al Capone in The Desilu Playhouse episodes, and in a few episodes of the regular series.
The pilot for the series – a feature length TV movie later marketed as “The Scarface Mob”—was first broadcast on January 22, 1959. It dealt with Ness’s crusade to put Al Capone in prison. The weekly series first began broadcasting on October 1959, with the plotline commencing from the power struggle within the mob to establish the new mob boss in Capone’s absence (for the purpose of the TV series, the new boss was Frank Nitti, although this was contrary to fact). In the pilot movie the mobsters generally spoke with a Chico Marx-style Italian accent, but this idiosyncratic pronunciation was dropped when the series itself debuted. Early in the first season of the series, perhaps also in response to some public criticism, the character of “Agent Rossi,” identified as a person of Italian extraction, was added to Ness’s team as a driver, despite Rossi having no previous training or experience in law enforcement. Rossi was given a back-story— that of a barber who was deeply traumatized when one of his customers, and a young co-worker, a manicurist named Tessie DiGiovanna, were machine-gunned by mobsters.
The show drew harsh criticism from some Italian-Americans including Frank Sinatra, who felt it promoted negative stereotypes of them as mobsters and gangsters. The Capone family sued the show for $1,000,000 for its unauthorized use of Al Capone’s likeness for a profit.
On March 9, 1961, Anthony Anastasio, chief of the Brooklyn waterfront and its International Longshoremen’s Association, marched in line with a picket group who identified themselves as “The Federation of Italian-American Democratic Organizations.” In protest formation outside the American Broadcasting Company, (ABC) New York headquarters, they had come together to urge the public boycott of L&M, (Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company) products, and its Chesterfield King cigarettes, which sponsored “The Untouchables”. They expressed displeasure with the program, which to them vilified Italian-Americans, stereotyping them as the singular criminal element.  The boycott and the attendant firestorm of publicity had the effect Anastasia and his confederates wanted. Four days after the picket of ABC, L&M, denying that they had bowed to intimidation, announced it would drop its sponsorship of “The Untouchables”, maintaining their decision was based on network-scheduling conflicts. The following week, the head of the production studio Desilu, Desi Arnaz, in concert with ABC and the “Italian-American League to Combat Defamation,” issued a formal three-point manifesto:
- There will be no more fictional hoodlums with Italian names in future productions.
- There will be more stress on the law-enforcement role of “Rico Rossi,” Ness’s right-hand man on the show.
- There will be an emphasis on the “formidable influence” of Italian-American officials in reducing crime and an emphasis on the “great contributions” made to American culture by Americans of Italian descent.
The Untouchables was considered one of the most violent television shows when it aired and was described by the National Association for Better Radio and Television “not fit for the television screen.”
Episodes and cast
The series had 118 episodes which ran 50 minutes each. Though the book it was based upon chronicled the experiences of Ness and his cohorts over a span of time ranging from 1929 to 1935, the overwhelming majority of the television episodes were broadcast in no chronological timeline, but were set in the early 1930s (for example, one episode, “You Can’t Pick the Number”, begins with Winchell’s words, “October 1932 … the depth of the Depression“). A few episodes were set primarily in a locale other than Chicago (such as the one dealing with the shootout involving Ma Barker and her gang). Characters and “facts” in the majority of the episodes were more often than not entirely fictitious or loosely-based composites of true-life criminals of that era. The gripping theme music was by Nelson Riddle.
Quinn Martin produced the show’s first season, which contained elements that could be found in future TV series produced by Martin.
The other Untouchables were played by:
- Abel Fernandez as Agt. William Youngfellow (not “Youngblood”)
- Nick Georgiade as Agt. Enrico “Rico” Rossi
- Paul Picerni as Agt. Lee Hobson, (2nd season on)
- Steve London as Agt. Jack Rossman*
- Jerry Paris as Agt. Martin Flaherty, (1st season only)
- Chuck Mitchell Hicks as Agt. LaMarr Kane (1st season only)
- Anthony George as Agt. Cam Allison, (1st season only)
Other recurrent actors were:
- Bruce Gordon as Frank Nitti
- Frank Dekova as Jimmy Napoli
- Neville Brand as Al Capone
- Announcer: Les Lampson – Very distinctive dramatic voice.
- Narrator: Walter Winchell
* Contrary to popular belief, Steve London’s character of Untouchable Jack Rossman (played in the “Scarface Mob” pilot by Paul Dubov), was in the series since the original season 1 series episode, “The Empty Chair”, not from Season 2 on as is commonly reported.