Thursday, 15 August 2013

Jack Klugman: Grandfather of medical examiners

Jack Klugman in his role as Quincy, medical examiner.
TV is full of medical examiners now – whether it is the crew of CSI, Maura Isles on "Rizzolli and Isles", Megan Hunt on "Body of Proof", or others. They are the next generation who owe it all to one man, someone we only knew by a single name: Quincy.

Watching some of these shows and the death of Jack Klugman over Christmas reminded me just how versatile an actor he was.

What is an autopsy?
Jack Klugman is perhaps best known in the 1980s for his role as the medical examiner with one name: Quincy. Fans never discovered what his first name was, even late in the series when he got married. The show debuted in 1976, and it is just on the outer edge of memory. I recall it being part of the rotation of the "NBC Mystery Movie" with "McCloud", "McMillan and Wife", and "Columbo". "Quincy" soon spun into its own show, that settled into a Sunday night time slot on peasant vision on CFCN-TV Channel 13. The first episode I recall seeing involved the discovery of a bone with a bullet hole in it at a construction site, and how Quincy and company re-constructed that and solved the case.

It also had a great opening. Quincy is doing a demonstration with a body on his table for police officers. As he proceeds, they begin to pass out and fall over one by one, until none are standing around his table any longer. Somewhat taken aback, Quincy just peers over his table.

The show introduced terms foreign to television before that: coroner, forensic medicine, autopsy, pathology. Apparently, the origin of the series lies in several sources. According to Wikipedia, Quincy is based on the novel "Where Death Delights" by Marshall Houts; as well as on Thomas Noguchi, known in Los Angeles at the time as "Coroner to the stars".

When I was a kid I also recall seeing a Canadian talk show with actor John Vernon as a guest. They talked about this show Vernon once starred on CBC called "Wojeck", and said it was the inspiration for "Quincy" which was then on the air. Steve Wojeck was the fictional coroner in Toronto in the 1960s.

The show had a strong ensemble cast, led by Canadian actor Robert Ito who played Quincy's assistant Sam Fujiama. There was also John S. Ragin, who played Quincy's supervisor Dr. Robert Asten; Garry Walberg who played LA homicide detective Frank Monahan; and Sal Bisoglio, who played Danny, the owner of the waterfront bar and restaurant they all frequented.

The relationships with Sam and Asten were particularly interesting. Sam started out as a trusty assistant, but his character evolved. I recall one episode where he was drawn into a web of intrigue that involved his family and the Yakuza, the Japanese version of the mob. As for Asten, there was always a healthy tension between Quincy and Asten who was his boss. Asten vacillated between being a bureaucrat and bean counter, and a pathologist himself who wanted to seek the truth as passionately and unhindered as Quincy did.

Unfortunately, as the series wore on, it became much more preachy, and less about mystery. It began to take on issues of social justice, with mixed results. At times it shone a light on issues such as the glorification of drugs in music; eating disorders; the condition of foster homes; and the definition of criminal insanity. However, Quincy became more prone to lecturing rather than examining, and there more and more soliloquies.

The last season, the show's eighth, ended in 1983. By then Quincy had met Dr. Emily Hanover, played by Anita Gillette, fallen in love and married her.

Dr. Megan Hunt, played by Dana Delaney, is a medical
examiner in Philadelphia on "Body of Proof".
Dr. Maura Isles, played by Sasha
Alexander, is a medical examiner
in Boston on "Rizzoli and Isles".
No matter how preachy and over the top the show became, the impact of Quincy on pop culture is cemented into history. The show introduced television to a part of crime investigation not before seen. Obviously, it was a rich mine for material given the explosion of medical examiners and crime scene investigators, such as Megan Hunt and Maura Isles. The technology may be more sophisticated, and the television production more slick, but there was no one better at solving a mystery than Quincy.

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