Hunting the legacy of classic TV
The Untouchables Retrospective
Local filmmaker hopes to complete dad’s book
Photos provided by Kelly Lynch
December 12, 2019
The holiday season reminds us how traditions and shared experiences can unite generations, providing families with bonds that transcend time.
But often the arts can do that — through favorite programs or beloved films — in a way that is just as powerful.
For Fort Wayne filmmaker Kelly Lynch, that connection to family, that joining of generations, is a television show with a storied history and enduring legacy. That show brought Lynch to a special celebration of its 60th anniversary and a touching tribute to his father Dan’s devotion to it. That show is The Untouchables.
Conceived in the late 1950s during a time when television was still a relatively new medium and classic shows were still a phenomenon, The Untouchables was a product of Desilu Productions, a studio formed when Desi Arnaz purchased RKO Studios. That studio had produced Too Many Girls, a film which featured Arnaz and a young starlet named Lucille Ball.
The pair eventually fell in love and in an effort to bridge the gap between her film career and his music career, which kept the couple apart for months at a time, they proposed a television series called I Love Lucy, a show that continues to reap rewards for the Ball/Arnaz estate almost 70 years after the show debuted.
But as that series ended and the marriage began to crumble, Arnaz looked for material that would continue the success of their studio. The Untouchables, telling the story of Eliot Ness and his war against gangsters of the era, provided just such a vehicle for Desilu to continue with works far removed from the I Love Lucy juggernaut.
For Kelly Lynch, the series is much more than an old television show. His father had grown up with the series, sharing it with his own father. When Kelly came along, his father passed it along to another generation. Along the way, he shared much more than fond memories.
“When the show was still on, my father would record episodes on a reel-to-reel tape deck he had,” Lynch said. “As he got older he started formalizing things a bit more, and it became a research interest. It became really overt by the late ’80s, and he started working on a dedicated manuscript. In 1993, the Museum of Television and Radio celebrated The Untouchables, and my father went and interviewed some of his favorite veterans from the show, the surviving actors and directors that were there.”
As an editorial cartoonist for The Journal Gazette, Dan Lynch published a cartoon which paid homage to his favorite show and sent it to Ness’s portrayer Robert Stack, who returned the favor with a phone call.
The elder Lynch also amassed a collection of memorabilia, all of which was meant to provide fodder for his book.
But there was a fly in the ointment. A 1987 film version, starring Kevin Costner and directed by Brian DePalma, was followed by a 1993 series revival, leaving little interest in someone reliving the 1959 series.
“Around ’93 or ’94, he started the process of finding a publisher,” Lynch said. “But he wasn’t going to be able to do that without permission from Paramount and CBS who by that time were focusing on a more modern version. But he never really let go of the idea of doing it. After he died, I had harbored the idea of doing something with it because even after his stroke, we would watch the show and bond over it.
“This year when I realized it was the 60th anniversary, I decided I had run out of excuses.”
Lynch began seeking out people at Paramount and CBS, and he made contact with Lucie Arnaz and Tom Watson, who himself has chronicled the history of I Love Lucy in various forms. Lynch decided to publish the book in downloadable PDF form, and as each chapter is released, he’s found a contemporary way to supplement that work through a podcast.
“I started doing it on the 60th anniversary of the first broadcast of the show, and I’m using my Dad’s chapters as a springboard for what I cover in the podcast,” Lynch said. “I keep talking to people, but a lot of them are no longer around. I did interview Nehemiah Persoff who appeared in the show five or six times and turned 100 in August. I talked to Patricia Crowley who appeared in the original pilot as Ness’s wife.”
Lynch is planning another podcast for mid-December and hopes to continue them every other month.
Tracing the rise and fall
Lynch provides context for the series culturally and politically and even confronts the ultimate demise of the show, which began in the fourth and final season.
“The second and third seasons are the best,” Lynch said. “But it pretty much destroyed itself with the fourth season. There was a lot of political correctness with concern about violence on television and the portrayal of Italian Americans, and forces really undermined what had made the show so great in the seasons before. They changed the music and the way Walter Winchell narrated it, and the writing was awful. So I’m examining what took a great show and neutered it, with someone even calling it My Fair Eliot.”
He compares the process of releasing parts of the multimedia projects even as he continues to research and hone it with building a car while you’re driving it, but he hopes people will check out the podcasts and other materials and learn about a show that many have forgotten.
“I don’t expect it to have a huge following or anything,” Lynch said. “It’s become an obscure TV show from another time, another era. But I do hope that maybe some people will rediscover it.”
And maybe share it with another generation.