Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Magician: Purchase or Pass?

The Magician is one of those shows with a notoriety that endured well beyond its brief run.

Just 22 episodes aired from 1973-1974, but 40 years later the series could be found on many classic TV fans’ “most wanted” lists for a DVD release. Those wishes were finally granted last year.

I recently completed my journey through the set. Here are a few random thoughts.

New Missions
If you’re a credits-watcher as most classic TV fans are, you’ll notice a lot of producers, writers and directors associated with The Magician that used to work for Mission: Impossible, including Paul Playdon, Bruce Lansbury, Reza Badiyi, Stephen Kandel, Laurence Heath, Barry Crane, and Sutton Roley. Perhaps it’s not all that surprising, since for a time M:I also featured a magician character (Leonard Nimoy as The Great Paris). Seeing those names raised my expectations for the series, as they are the television equivalent of The Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

The Pilot – Not So Magical
As is typical of a TV movie that doubles as a pilot, “The Magician” delivers a more ambitious story and bigger-budget action sequences to help secure a series order. It’s an adequate introduction to Anthony Dorian (prudently changed to Anthony Blake for the series), a successful, wealthy magician compelled to help people in need, even at the risk of his own life. His friend, journalist Max Pomeroy (Keene Curtis) provides the backstory; Tony was once arrested on a false charge and sentenced to prison in South America. That ordeal transformed him into a crusader for truth and justice.

Chase scenes with helicopters and speedboats and Tony’s (very sweet) Corvette Stingray provided sequences that would play during the opening credits for the entire season. But the meandering, bloated story is not emblematic of the much better series that would follow. 

Bill Bixby
The series works because of Bill Bixby. He was so intrinsic to my enjoyment of every episode that I can’t imagine anyone else as Blake.

Bixby was already a familiar and well-liked TV presence after The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, and I wonder if it seemed a stretch at the time to cast the sensitive, sentimental father figure into a role that required more than a dash of James Bond cool. But he pulls it off. No other actor could intone such a wide range of responses into a simple “Yes” as an answer to a question. Sometimes he’s imparting empathy, sometimes resolution, and other times, said with a wry smile, it clearly means, “I’m not buying any of your crap.” 

Real Magic (Maybe)
One of the show’s selling points was that every illusion, from simple card tricks to elaborate feats of prestidigitation, was achieved without film editing or special effects. Bill Bixby was a magic fan and a talented amateur magician, who likely received additional pointers from frequent series guest Mark Wilson. But there were some potentially dangerous sequences, including an underwater stunt in “The Illusion of The Evil Spikes,” that I can’t imagine would be trusted to a series star to perform solo.

The First Season is Better Than the Second
While there are standout episodes from both seasons, I liked the first year’s shows better because of its supporting cast – the aforementioned Keene Curtis as Max Pomeroy, Todd Crespi as Max’s son Dennis, and Jim Watkins as Tony’s pilot Jerry Anderson. Why did Tony need a pilot? Because in season one he lived on his own plane, which was a great set in the episodes where the interior is seen. But in season two Curtis and Crespi are gone along with the plane, and Tony takes up residence in L.A.’s Magic Castle. Jerry is still around but rarely gets anything to do, and I didn’t care much for new regular Joe Sirola as club owner Dominick. 

Familiar Faces
As with many series from this era, The Magician earns bonus points from me for its guest casts, including Comfort TV favorites Carl Betz, Brooke Bundy, Lynda Day George, William Shatner, Anthony Zerbe, Susan Oliver, Yvonne Craig and Joseph Campanella.  

Best Stories
From the first season I particularly enjoyed “The Vanishing Lady,” filmed on location in Las Vegas, the twists and turns in “Lady In a Trap,” and the elaborate heist Tony foils in “Nightmare in Steel.” Season two highlights include “The Illusion of Black Gold,” with Eric Braeden as a particularly charismatic villain (who doesn’t find Tony’s tricks at all amusing), and “The Illusion of the Cat’s Eye,” which opens with a stunning museum theft, with a clever solution that would have not been out of place on Mission: Impossible.

The Verdict
Purchase or pass? This was an easy purchase decision for me. The Magician has the re-watchability I require for any series that takes up permanent residence in my DVD collection. 
 If you have checked it out or plan to, let me know your thoughts. 


  1. Not so much a correction as a clarification:

    The Magician only ran on NBC for a single season of 22 episodes.

    Exactly midway through the season, the producers, who barely managed a pickup for a full year from NBC (the show was losing to Hawaii Five-O and ABC's Movie Of The Week, elected to make The Magician more about magic itself, following an old pulp tradition.
    The network moved the show to Monday, which didn't really help (Gunsmoke and The Rookies dealt the coup de grace).
    You'll note that when the change was made, the episodes acquired a title format that they didn't have before: "The Illusion of (Whatever)", thus emphasizing the change.

    Plainly, Bruce Lansbury, the showrunner, who was a major magic buff himself (note many of his Wild Wild West episodes) felt that his new order would work ... but you don't always get what you want, do you?

    There's a postscript of sorts:

    A year or so after all this, Paramount TV struck a deal with ABC to use reruns of the just-cancelled Mannix as aprt of that net's late-night programming'
    As part of the deal, Paramount paired Mannix with other series from their inventory: initially Longstreet, and later The Magician - which is a TV afterlife of sorts ...

    All that said, I'll be picking up this DVD set in the due course, so there too.

    1. First time I saw the show was in that late-night timeslot, as a matter of fact. It stuck with me longer than Longstreet.

  2. Mr. Hofstede, do the episodes in the DVD set appear uncut? Do they look decent from a picture-quality perspective?

  3. Thanks for the detailed review! I'm more inclined to buy, but I'm a cheapskate and the current price of $35 for 22 episodes is a little steep. I too like Bixby on THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE'S FATHER (speaking of steeply priced DVDs). He's less domesticated on MY FAVORITE MARTIAN, which called for a lot of animated action and shouting. He was a talented actor done too soon.

    Mike Doran's mentioning the show's competition made me wonder what I would have done back in those pre-VCR days. I am a dedicated HAWAII FIVE-O fan, and likely would have stuck with Steve and Danno.

    Speaking of H5-O, Joe Sirola played Jonathan Kaye in several episodes and I wasn't a fan of him there, and would probably dislike him on THE MAGICIAN, moreso if he displaced Keene Curtis.

    I'll likely buy it, gambling on a price drop before it goes out of print. Same for LONGSTREET and THE IMMORTAL. Great review as always.

    1. Gary, I think you should be aware of the fact that the short-lived Robert Stack series "Most Wanted" is available on DVD via Amazon. "The Magician," "The Immortal," and "Most Wanted" each had an episode with Lynda Day George as a guest star.

      BTW, do you think it would've been a particularly bad idea for "Cannon" to have an episode involving male-on-male rape? "Cannon" was generally more violent than "Barnaby Jones," was it not? Going back to Lynda Day George, she appeared in the "Cannon" pilot movie as well as in two "Barnaby Jones" episodes. Unfortunately, most of the episodes in the DVD set "Barnaby Jones: The Complete Collection" are edited-for-syndication versions.

    2. Gary - I'm sure the price will drop eventually, and I think you'll like the show.

    3. By the way, Gary, how do you think the legendary Quinn Martin would've produced "Hawaii Five-O" back in the day? QM did produce "Caribe," a short-lived Stacy Keach series partially filmed in the West Indies.