Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Petrocelli: Purchase or Pass?

During Comfort TV’s classic TV tour of the 50 states, the legal drama Petrocelli was selected to represent Arizona. I recently finished my journey via DVD through all 44 episodes of this 1974-1976 series, and though this isn’t really a review site I thought I’d share a few thoughts while the show is fresh in my mind. 

For the uninitiated, Petrocelli stars Barry Newman as Anthony J. Petrocelli, a Boston-bred, Harvard educated attorney who becomes fed up with the big city rat race, and relocates with wife Maggie (Susan Howard) to the small town of San Remo. He is assisted on his cases by ex-cop turned investigator Pete Ritter (Albert Salmi).

In addition to his legal acumen, Tony had two quirks that were part of nearly every episode. The first was his aversion to parking meters, expressed through an array of creative tricks that were not always successful. The second was his decision to build his own house, brick by brick, out in the desert, while he and his wife lived in a trailer parked on the property. The home was nowhere near completion when the show was canceled. I like to think they eventually got around to finishing it. 

There was an obvious fish-out-of-water premise that I expected to be explored more frequently; Tony, the Italian in his shiny dark three-piece suits, didn’t mix naturally with the blue-collar, denim-clad locals. But such culture-clashes were surprisingly rare.

Instead, there were three successive phases of Petrocelli explored through 44 shows, suggesting a network and creative team struggling to find the right winning formula.

The “Yet Another Version” Phase
The first and best of these dominates the show’s first season, positioning Petrocelli within the tradition of crusading attorneys and courtroom climaxes.

A murder is committed in the opening scene, and someone is arrested that the cops believe they’ve got dead to rights. Tony takes the case after meeting with the accused and deciding that he or she is not guilty. He later shares his confidence with the district attorney, who will then casually mention evidence Tony did not know about (“Oh, your client didn’t tell you? We found his fingerprints all over the murder weapon”).

But just as the outlook seems dire, at some point during the trial Tony will say something like “With the court’s permission I’d like to take you back to the night of the murder, and present yet another version of what may have happened.” 

Inexplicably, the prosecution does not object, or ask the judge to tell opposing counsel to save any speeches for his closing statement. Tony's re-enactment that exposes the real guilty party is so convincing that the judge stops the trial without even giving the case to a jury.

The “Fighting Attorney” Phase
Between seasons one and two, somebody decided Petrocelli needed more action. Thus, in addition to defending his clients, Tony now had to defend himself while being chased by helicopters, having his camper run off the road, getting shot at and getting jumped in biker bars.

The “Oh, @&%$ it, let’s just make him Mannix” Phase
It must have been decided that the action scenes were working, because in the last few episodes Tony was so busy running for his life he sometimes never saw the inside of a courtroom.

Through all of these changes, the series could have relied on the relationship between Tony and Maggie to ground each episode, but sadly their scenes together are among the shows’ least compelling. 

You know that wonderful chemistry shared by Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers in Hart to Hart? That’s not here with Barry Newman and Susan Howard. It’s not Sonny-and-Cher-after-the-divorce bad; there’s just no heat.

Fortunately the series did have one consistent joy for Comfort TV fans, and that was an amazing collection of guest stars as defendants, witnesses and not-so-innocent bystanders.

“Edge of Evil” features William Shatner and Harrison Ford – where else can you see Captain Kirk and Han Solo in the same show? Star Wars fans will also enjoy spotting Mark Hamill in two episodes. 

There’s Rick Nelson in “Music to Die By,” performing one of the best songs from his country-rock phase (“One Night Stand”), playing a singer managed by gravelly-voiced David Doyle. And there’s Susan Dey, still looking Partridge-y, before she went blond and brittle on L.A. Law (“The Falling Star”). 

John Ritter was a client, as was Scatman Crothers, Mitch Vogel, Ned Beatty, Anne Francis, Denver Pyle and the aforementioned Stefanie Powers. Mark Goddard, Elinor Donahue, Cindy Williams, Barbara Luna, Joan Van Ark, Tim Matheson and Katherine Helmond are among the familiar faces that pop up in smaller roles.

As courtroom drama, Petrocelli is not up to the standard set by Perry Mason or The Defenders or even Judd for the Defense. As a whodunit, it mixes a few genuinely clever twists with mysteries so obvious you’ll have them solved in the first ten minutes. I still enjoyed most of my time with the show, but it falls just short of having that ‘re-watchability’ factor that is necessary for a permanent place in my collection. Of course, your mileage may vary. 


  1. I've never seen Petrocelli but this is exactly the kind of thing I'd love to see on Netflix or some streaming service - those short-lived series that haven't seen the light of day for decades.

    Also, Susan Howard! I loved her on Dallas.

  2. Han Solo and Captain Kirk together makes this a must-buy for me.

    1. If you're a Trek fan, that episode also features Glenn Corbett (who played Zephram Cochrane in TOS, the guy who invented warp speed) and the Green Girl herself, Susan Oliver!

  3. Mr. Hofstede, are ALL of the episodes in the DVD set uncut/complete? I would be interested in seeing "By Reason of Madness," the "Petrocelli" episode that has Lynda Day George in it.

    1. The episodes are all just a bit over 50 minutes. Hope that helps.

    2. That's a good sign, Mr. Hofstede! Thank you so much! I was worried because Visual Entertainment's "Barnaby Jones" DVD set has a LOT of syndicated-episode cuts. You might want to check out the following URL:


  4. It's always interesting to see how a show evolves as the producers try to tweak it (often based on "recommendations" from the network). I remember watching PETROCELLI a few times, but Barry Newman was always a little intense for my tastes. Didn't he originally create the character in a theatrical film?

    1. You're right, Rick - in a film called 'The Lawyer' which sadly was not included in the DVD set.

  5. Bought this in the last few days. It is fantastic! Have not seen the house completed yet haha.

  6. In addition to the two previous 'quirks' you mentioned (I prefer to call them 'trademarks' of the series, those and also the Rashomon-like testimony scenes from witnesses), there were a couple that you didn't mention...first, proud Italian Petrocelli talking to Mama on the phone. I'm guessing the producers did this to establish the totally non-Italian-looking Barry Newman's character as being pure Italian (additionally, in an episode where he's defending a client of Italian heritage, he pops into the kid's parents' Italian market and is so entranced by the sights and smells of genuine Italian foodstuffs. I found it delightful).

    Secondly, there's his tendency to correct anyone who mispronounces his last name (even calling a sidebar to the judge's bench in the pilot, "Night Games", just to correct the judge!)...it's 'Pet-ro-CHELL-ee', but most people call him 'Pet-ro-SELL-ee', only to be immediately given an earful. Naturally, this got played for laughs in a couple of episodes...in "Death In High Places", macho Sheriff Cameron Mitchell not only does the standard 'sell' pronunciation, he also tries to get Petrocelli's goat by calling him 'Peter Seller' and 'Pete-ro-sell-ee', but the dogged lawyer gets the final zinger in when he finishes questioning Mitchell on the witness stand. And in "Five the Hard Way", veteran character actor Eddie Firestone asks him if he's 'that Pet-RAH-sah-lee fella' before hiring him.

    One final observation...given all the accused killers that seemed to turn up in San Remo, I would say that it would have to be in the running of 'Most Dangerous Small Town in America', along with places like Cabot Cove, Maine or Sparta, Mississippi.