All Over The Map: Few clues in mysterious disappearance of ‘Wheeler & Murdoch’

Jan 12, 2024, 10:56 AM

Wheeler & Murdoch...

Jack Warden (left) and Christopher Stone starred as private detectives in "Wheeler & Murdoch," a one-hour pilot for a never-produced TV series; it was filmed in Seattle in November 1971 and premiered on ABC in March 1972. (Photo courtesy of Feliks Banel)

(Photo courtesy of Feliks Banel)

When a long-forgotten detective TV show – for which the pilot episode was shot in Seattle – disappears from pop culture consciousness, where can we turn in a dogged search for clues?

The story of Seattle’s “soft power,” or how the city and region is perceived from afar, and how its image influences distant people through pop culture like film, literature, music and TV, is an unfinished history whose compiling and telling is woefully incomplete. It’s also a part of the city and region’s narrative which is still in progress, and likely to be so for years to come.

Late last year when the “Frasier” reboot began, we examined “The Night Strangler,” a spooky TV movie that was filmed in Seattle and still has a long tail of influence.

More from Feliks Banel: ‘Frasier’ wasn’t the first influential Seattle TV show

In researching that story, some newspaper clippings turned up about a more standard kind of hard-boiled and campy detective show for which a pilot episode was filmed in Seattle in November 1971. The one-hour TV movie aired on KOMO via the ABC network on March 27, 1972, but it was never made into a regular series. One of those old newspaper clippings said that Chicago was the original choice of the filmmakers, but somehow or other the Windy City shoot got scrapped, and so Seattle became a handy second choice.

The pilot was called “Wheeler & Murdoch.” It starred Jack Warden, who appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows over the years, including “Shampoo” with Warren Beatty and “Brian’s Song” as Chicago Bears’ Coach George Halas. Warden’s co-star was Christopher Stone, a lesser-known actor who eventually married Dee Wallace (who portrayed the mom in “E.T.”). Warden was the grizzled older private eye, while Stone was the young handsome one. Guest stars included Golden Age of Hollywood stalwarts Van Johnson and Jane Powell.

One likely reason that the pilot never became a regular series was because the pilot got really bad reviews from multiple TV critics, some of whom savaged its overall cheesiness or singled out its bad dialog. The TV critic for the Buffalo Evening News wrote that “Wheeler & Murdoch” was “[c]rammed with outdoor action and nightclub scenes as phony as a $3 bill” and the show “noisy, nasty and overblown.”

After it premiered in March 1972, a search of newspaper archives reveals just a handful of rebroadcasts in the 1970s and early 1980s and no other appearances since. No evidence of “Wheeler & Murdoch” can be found on YouTube, and Seattle’s iconic Scarecrow Video doesn’t have it, either (not even on VHS).

That’s a shame because, as theatrical-released movies such as “Cinderella Liberty” demonstrate, there’s nothing that quite compares to how Seattle looks on 35 mm motion picture film, especially during the gritty years of the early 1970s.

A check with the Seattle Municipal Archives shows they have no copies of any filming permits or other official paperwork that would have been associated with the local part of the production.

Meanwhile, the two stars Jack Warden and Christopher Stone have both since passed away.

Reached by email, Stone’s widow Dee Wallace Stone, whom he married in 1980, wrote, “I so wish I could help, but I do not recall him ever speaking about that project! Maybe it was pre-Dee.”

Fortunately, KIRO Newsradio discovered that the actor who played one of the main supporting characters in “Wheeler & Murdoch” is retired and living in California with his wife.

Veteran actor Charles Cioffi, who that same Buffalo TV critic called the “one redeeming quality” of “Wheeler & Murdoch,” shared his recollections of briefly working on the pilot in Seattle more than 52 years ago.

“I enjoyed the views more than anything,” Cioffi said. “Looking across the lake and looking at that big hunk of mountain. That’s something I’ve never seen before, something that big. And downtown at the fish market, the Pike’s Market.”

“The thing that I remember the most about it was going out and having a good time with Jack Warden,” Cioffi continued. “He was such great company.”

Christopher Stone, Cioffi said, enjoyed visiting Seattle nightspots.

“Chris like to do that in the evening, because he was an attractive young man,” Cioffi said. “So the girls really liked him.”

As for the production itself, Charles Cioffi said most of what was shot in Seattle took place outside, or the “exteriors,” as they might say in the biz.

“I think they got some kind of a deal shooting there because Seattle didn’t have filming studios, so we had to shoot more or less almost all outdoors,” Cioffi said. “I think maybe we might have come back to shoot some indoor stuff at the Paramount Studios in California.”

When asked if the “Wheeler & Murdoch” storyline had specific ties to Seattle or if it was more generic and could have taken place anywhere, Cioffi said that in his recollection, it was more on the generic side. Cioffi can’t remember the plot and said he did not keep a copy of the script.

Upon hearing the full quote of what that Buffalo TV critic said about him, that “Wheeler & Murdoch” had “one redeeming quality, the classy work of Charles Cioffi as a hard-working Seattle police lieutenant,” Cioffi was clearly impressed.

“I never heard that before,” Cioffi said. “I like that.”

Charles Cioffi’s career was many decades long, and he appeared in several well-known films, such as “Shaft” and “Klute,” but he’s most proud of the serious stage acting he took part in, including a production of “Hamlet” with Sam Waterston at Lincoln Center in New York.

With those other more notable roles, where does the Seattle detective show “Wheeler & Murdoch” fit into the arc of Charles Cioffi’s career?

“It was at the very beginning of my film career, my television career,” Cioffi said. “I don’t think about it very much because it was just one of those jobs that I had to do, that’s all.”

Cioffi’s wife Anne was part of the conversation, and she reminded her husband about one additional distinctive part of Seattle that he enjoyed visiting during the production of “Wheeler & Murdoch.”

More from Feliks Banel: Mystery stretches from Cedar River ghost town to “Boys in the Boat”

“Didn’t you buy something at Eddie Bauer’s?” Anne Cioffi asked. “A brown jacket?”

“Eddie Bauer’s wasn’t in Seattle, was it?” Charles Cioffi asked.

When told that yes, Eddie Bauer was indeed founded in Seattle, Cioffi fondly recalled shopping there back in November 1971.

“Yeah, ok. Well, Yeah, I bought a lot of stuff at Eddie Bauer,” Cioffi recalled. “Camping stuff for me and my two sons.”

If you have any personal insights or first-hand memories about “Wheeler & Murdoch,” please email me via my contact info below.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.

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