Fat Man, The: The Thirty-Two Friends of Gina Lardelli (1959 TVM)

US / 59 minutes / bw / Laxman, Screen Gems Dir: Joseph H. Lewis Pr: E.J. Rosenberg Scr: Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts Story: characters created by Dashiell Hammett Cine: Fred Jackman Cast: Robert Middleton, Tony Travis, Frank Gerstle, Jan Arvan, Leslie Bradley, Argentina Brunetti, Herb Armstrong, John Bryant, Patrick Sexton, Rita Moreno.

A while ago I posted on this site about the movie The Fat Man (1951). In 1959 there were plans to create a Fat Man TV series, with Middleton taking over the central role from the movie’s J. Scott Smart (who also played that role in the radio series that started it all), and with the central character inexplicably undergoing a name change, from Brad Runyan to Lucius Crane; his sidekick Bill Norton (played by Clinton Sundberg in the movie) here becomes Bill Gregory, again for no apparent reason. This is the pilot for that unmade TV series.

Fat Man pilot - 1 Crane Quizzes Scott

Lucius Crane (Robert Middleton) quizzes small-time hood Larry Scott (John Bryant).

Glamorous model Gina Lardelli is found dead in her apartment in the Golden State Towers, having committed suicide—or at least that’s what the cops think. But elderly schoolteacher Mario Carvello (Arvan), who knew Gina since she was a child, believes her strong Catholicism would have prevented her from taking her own life. He and 31 of her other friends, most of them direly poor, have collected $300 which they believe will hire famous PI Lucius Crane (Middleton) for three days of investigation. This is just half his usual fee but, partly because of some arm-twisting by assistant Bill Gregory (Travis), Crane takes the case anyway.

He squares matters with his cop friend Lt. Brecler (Gerstle). Brecler’s currently investigating the murder of mobster Frankie Martel, whose ventilated corpse has just been found in the river with a slot machine tied to its ankles. Later we’ll find, not at all to our surprise, that the Martel killing is intimately linked to the Lardelli case.

There are the usual suspects. The creepy supervisor of Gina’s apartment building, Harry (Armstrong), clearly entertained some untoward thoughts about the dead woman. Small-time hood Larry Scott (Bryant), her boyfriend until the very night of her death, when the two bust up after an argument at a party hosted by shady entrepreneur Royal Milliken (Bradley), is an obvious suspect despite his airtight alibi. But then evidence turns up that Scott was hoping to shake down the real killer. When Scott’s plugged in his turn, he survives at the hospital just long enough to grunt the name of Frankie Martel into Crane’s ear. After visiting Gina’s mother (Brunetti) and dowdy twin sister Maria (Moreno), Crane’s attacked by three knife-wielding punks. (“Interesting psychological fact about punks,” he summarizes. “They’re all jellyfish trying to be sharks.”) Later his antennae quiver when Milliken, accompanied by thuggish chauffeur Charley (Sexton), attempts to bribe him with $10,000 to investigate the matter of a forged Van Gogh, a case that would conveniently involve his having to go to Paris . . .

Fat Man pilot - 2 Mrs Landrelli

A distraught Mrs Landrelli (Argentina Brunetti).

This is all good sub-Marlowe stuff and, although Crane’s gourmandizing isn’t really put to any good use, his hobby of playing the harpsichord is—indeed, it’s because of playing a Bach piece that he finally joins the two dots that will help him solve the case. It’s clear that Crane doesn’t watch nearly enough detective shows on TV, because those two dots are ones that we as audience joined the instant we heard that Gina had a twin sister . . .

Fat Man pilot - 3 The dowdy Maria remembers her glam sister Gina

The dowdy Maria (Rita Moreno) remembers her glamorous sister Gina.

It’s hard to know quite why the series didn’t get picked up. The radio show—E.J. “Mannie” Rosenberg, who produced this pilot, was producer of the radio incarnation too—was popular, and this pilot is very nicely put together. An obvious suspicion might be that the lawyers for Rex Stout—whose detective Nero Wolfe, also an extraordinarily plump gourmet with a younger sidekick to do the legwork, was created a dozen years before The Fat Man first broached the airwaves—finally raised an objection, but I’ve found no trace that this was the case. And the only copy of this pilot that I’ve been able to find was on YouTube, clearly derived from a somewhat worn VHS tape—which is why the quality of the screengrabs here is so poor.



10 thoughts on “Fat Man, The: The Thirty-Two Friends of Gina Lardelli (1959 TVM)

  1. Too bad the source material is compromised, but based on your reasonably solid evaluation I’ll definitely take a look John. You do such a fantastic job with this kind of material especially, and at the end of the day this seems a very engaging mystery yarn. Admittedly I have never come across it, but I was never actively searching. I rather like that device of the Bach piece too! Ha! obviously the big names here are director Joseph H. Lewis (GUN CRAZY) and actress Rita Moreno, not to mention source material from none other than the literary icon Dashiell Hammett.

    • Thanks for the kind words as always, Sam.

      obviously the big names here are director Joseph H. Lewis (GUN CRAZY)

      Yep, it was because of the Lewis connection as much as the Hammett/Fat Man one that I tripped over this item.

  2. This pilot came up at MYSTERY*FILE blog a few years back.

    Basically, I go with the theory that this FAT MAN pilot is more Nero Wolfe than Brad Runyon, with credit going to Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts.
    It’s well-known that G&R were after WOLFE rights, which Rex Stout refused to sell – he’d already quashed a WOLFE pilot at CBS at about the same time.
    The radio FAT MAN was all but forgotten by 1959. Screen Gems bought the title – all by itself – and likely told Ivan ‘n’ Ben to just do WOLFE with name changes, which the pilot clearly shows.
    Its failure to sell was probably more a lawyer’s decision than anything else.

    Incredible Coincidence Dept.:
    When NBC finally mounted its WOLFE series in 1981 (after Stout’s death), they gave the showrunning reins to –
    – Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts.

    • Many thanks for this valuable additional information! I’d suspected something like this might have been the case, but couldn’t immediately find any evidence to support the suspicion.

      I have a copy somewhere of the Nero Wolfe pilot, too, and should probably make notes on it here at some point.

      Thanks again!

      • Excuse, please …
        Which NERO WOLFE pilot are you referring to?
        The pilot I referred to in my comment – made in 1959 forCBS, with Kurt Kasznar and William Shatner – is, as far as anyone knows, lost, at the insistence of Rex Stout.
        In 1976, after Stout’s death, ABC and Paramount TV made a WOLFE pilot with Thayer David and Tom Mason, written and directed by playwright Frank D. Gilroy. David died before the pilot could be aired, and the project became dormant.
        In 1981, NBC bought a new WOLFE series from Paramount with William Conrad, produced by Goff and Roberts. As far as I know, no pilot was produced for this one.
        It wasn’t until 1999 that WOLFE was revived as a TV property; this was the A&E series with Maury Chaykin and Tim Hutton.
        May I make a wild guess that the pilot you have is the Thayer David-ABC pilot from ’76, which isn’t really connected with what we’ve been talking about here?

        • Oh, wait a minute, you’ve just inspired me as to where I might have put my copy of the thing. Yes, it’s the Thayer David version, although I have it as 1979, not 1976. (IMDB agrees the 1979.) Was it made in 1976 but sat in the can for three years?

  3. May I make a wild guess that the pilot you have is the Thayer David-ABC pilot from ’76

    That’s very likely. However, before I could answer definitively I’d have to find the thing!

    • The ABC/Thayer David pilot was made in ’76.
      David died unexpectedly in ’77.
      ABC burned off the pilot in ’79, in its late-night mishmash programming, which caught a lot of otherwise unusable shows.
      At about the same time, and in that same time period, ABC ran the Ross Martin/CHARLIE CHAN pilot, which Universal made for NBC in 1971.
      That was pre-cable, and also pre-home video.
      Those were the days …

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