“M Squad”

America was treated to a real Chicago TV program on May 20, 1957.  That’s when “M Squad” premiered on NBC.

Cop shows were popular in the 1950s.  Los Angeles had “Dragnet,” San Francisco had “The Lineup.”  The new series was about an elite unit of the Chicago police.  There wasn’t really anything called the M Squad, but the concept gave the writers a lot of story latitude.

Lee Marvin as Lt. Frank Ballinger

Lee Marvin as Lt. Frank Ballinger

Lee Marvin starred as Lieutenant Frank Ballinger.  Marvin had appeared in supporting roles in The Caine Mutiny, The Wild One, and other movies.  A tough-guy Marine combat vet, he was perfect as the no-nonsense Ballinger.

“M Squad” was a 30-minute, black-and-white drama.  Much of the action was at night, giving it a film noir look.  Jazz filled the soundtrack.  Some of the background music was composed by a very young John Williams.  The later shows opened with a knock-out theme from Count Basie.

The program also featured many up-and-coming stars.  Look carefully, and you’ll see Burt Reynolds, Charles Bronson, Angie Dickinson, and others.  The episode called “The Fire Makers” had James Coburn and Leonard Nimoy as brothers who operate an arson-for-hire service. (And Nimoy is no Mr. Spock here–he’s bug-eyed crazy.)

Coburn and Nimoy in "The Fire Makers"

Coburn and Nimoy in “The Fire Makers”

For today’s Chicagoan, the best part of “M Squad” is the location photography.  It’s a chance to see what the city looked like a over fifty years ago.

Most of the series was really filmed in Hollywood.  Chicago’s mayor, Richard J. Daley, refused to help, since one of the scripts had a city cop taking bribes.  So the producers had to get their exterior shots on the run.

“We’d shoot locations twice a year,” Marvin said.  “No permit, no cooperation, no nothing.  They didn’t want any part of us.  We’d shoot and blow.”  The most memorable sequence was the opening credit, where Marvin has a night shoot-out on lower Wacker.

"Miranda rights? You got no stinkin' Miranda rights!"

“Miranda rights? You got no stinkin’ Miranda rights!”

There are scenes all over the city–Hyde Park, South Chicago, under the old Ogden Avenue viaduct, pre-Sandburg Clark Street.  The episode “Ghost Town” was shot among buildings being torn down for an expressway.  M Squad Headquarters itself was a shuttered police station at Racine and Superior, where the Kennedy comes through today.

The show ran for three seasons.  Lee Marvin used it as a springboard to movie stardom.  In later years, the series was hilariously lampooned by “Police Squad.”

All 117 episodes of “M Squad” are available on DVD.  Now that this post is finished, I’m going to pop a disc into the machine, and see what Ballinger and his buddies are up to.



3 Responses to ““M Squad””

  1. 1 SWSIDEFAN July 29, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    Love the Edsel behind Lee Marvin’s car in the photo of him driving (or supposedly driving 🙂 ).

    On a more serious note, this piece is well-timed given the unfortunate passing of Dennis Farina and another great period piece of police drama set in 1960s Chicago – Crime Story. One scene in the pilot episode was filmed at Janson’s drive in in West Beverly at 99th & Western.

    • 2 J.R. Schmidt July 29, 2013 at 2:23 pm

      I wondered if anybody besides me would notice the Edsel. I’ll have to watch the pilot again and look for Janson’s. I did see a Wimpy’s in one of the shows.

  2. 3 Loyolamatt July 29, 2013 at 2:56 pm

    This show looks pretty entertaining; I will be sure to check it out!

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