When is it ever the right time, the moment to call it a day after all those years and retire that greasy old trenchcoat—or whatever fashion-defying trademark you might have worn out long before your welcome? Who’s to say, or decide? Peter Falk, apparently, is having a tough time convincing executives that he’s still kicking anything but the bucket. He simply can’t get them to greenlight another Columbo mystery, not even one that closes the book on the four-decades old franchise. I was reminded of the booted gumshoe when, walking around Pest (as in Budapest), we came across that dive in the doctored snapshot.
Columbo is a legend, all right; but to those with an eye for fresh blood, that’s just a fancy way of saying “past it.” Those bags under your eyes sure can get you sacked. These days, wrinkles don’t give a guy character; they take it away from him. And unless you can pass yourself off as Miss Marple, your days in the business are numbered if you can still manage facial expressions.
It wasn’t a matter of putting a stud out to pasture, though, when Sam Spade was kicked out of the radio branch of his office on this day, 27 April, in 1951, after solving what those who got paid to put words into his mouth called, “for obvious reasons,” the “Hail and Farewell Caper.”
Spade wasn’t too old, see. Just ask his secretary, Effie, who would have loved to straighten more than his tie. Besides, on radio you’re as old as your voice can make others imagine you are; and tough-talking Spade was a good enough egg to make you think hardboiled rather than rotten. It was his father who got him axed. Dashiell Hammett, I mean, who got blacklisted for being so un-American as to exercise his right to a political position. After Washington started to dig and got red dirt on Hammett, no broadcaster dared to touch his Spade. That’s when they got out the axe.
There was some retooling, initially. But dropping Hammett’s name just wasn’t enough to appease the network, just as giving Spade a new voice (Stephen Dunne taking over for Howard Duff) did little to please prospective sponsors, the old one (Wildroot Cream Oil) having defected. What was left of Spade after the blunt instruments in the business of commercial broadcasting had operated on his larynx just wasn’t enough to convince listeners, who had fought to get their favorite detective back on the air and lift Spade’s two-month suspension in the fall of 1950.
Radio was a queer racket in those days. You could be a a Communist for the FBI, but not a pink private eye. As I said, a new agenda called for a new kind of scouring agent. It mattered little that Hammett had nothing to do with the writing of the show (he just collected the royalties, which is pretty good business sense for a Commie), or that the Spade on the air was about as red as the greenbacks he was after but always short of.
At the close of the “Hail and Farewell Caper,” Spade makes a final sales pitch, a word to prospective advertisers; but, being that it wasn’t yet time for the obligatory summer hiatus, during which executives decided the fate of radio heroes, the plea sounds out of place. If you ask me, it was a ruse intended to quiet listener protest by leaving some hope for a commercially sponsored resurrection, a denial of the politics behind the show’s death warrant. It was the spirit of the age that dug Spade‘s grave.