Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Gene Barry, R.I.P.

By Mitchell Hadley

Speaking of obituaries, we should also note that Gene Barry died last week, at the age of 90. The name may not be as familiar now, but back in the late 50s and 60s, Gene Barry was a staple of television. For three seasons he played the Western dandy Bat Masterson, whose fancy-dan manner concealed a tough cookie with whom you didn’t mess around. For three more seasons he played Amos Burke, the wealthy, devil-may-care chief of detectives who arrived at crime scenes in a chauffered Rolls-Royce, in the tongue-in-cheek police drama Burke’s Law. (He would reprise this role in a brief series comeback in the mid-90s.) For another three seasons he was one of the rotating stars in The Name of the Game, where he played a – naturally – wealthy tycoon, this time in the magazine business. If Gene Barry wasn’t a big star, he was a bankable one.

He’d come from movies, most prominently the 1953 sci-fi epic War of the Worlds, where he helped Earth fight off the godless Martian invaders. (He also had a small role in the 1995 Tom Cruise remake.) While between Masterson and Burke, he started a nightclub act, presenting yet another dimension to his talent. After television, he had one more hit up his sleeve, in the original Broadway production of “La Cage Aux Folles,” which won him a Tony nomination.

I recall reading a fairly unflattering article about him in TV Guide in the early 60s, during the first season of Burke’s Law. The writer portrayed Barry as insecure, a poseur, constantly concerned with what people were thinking of him or saying about him. Of course, to say that Barry was insecure is to say that he was an actor, since so many of them share the same trait. Perhaps there was a side to him that he preferred to have as the public one, but that hardly makes him different from the rest of us. No, while the article may have been accurate, it was also a reflection of the TV Guide of the era, when they built up stars in order to knock them down a little. Not as bad as other publications, perhaps, but they did it all the same.

My impressions of Gene Barry came from watching him in reruns. Bat Masterson was perhaps not a show that one would run out to buy on DVD, but it remained a fun, diverting (if dated) half-hour. Amos Burke was Barry at his best – smooth, sophisticated, unwilling to take anything from anyone, but always with a twinkle in his eye and a bevy of beauties surrounding him (which perhaps helped explain the twinkle). Burke’s Law is out on DVD, and it’s worth a few bucks to pick it up, as an example of a nice mix of drama and comedy; and in these days of the oh-so-self-important crime show, it’s good to see a series that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Gene Barry may not have been the biggest, or the best, star of the 50s and 60s, but television could use a few more like him today.

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