VIEWER’S GUIDE S3E22 “Once Upon A Caper” February 10, 1961 Rex asks Jeff, Stu and Kookie how the firm was founded, and hears three wildly-divergent versions of the same basic story. Directed by George Waggner · Written by Roger Smith Guest cast: John Hubbard, Mr. Winterbottom · Carolyn Komant, JoAnne · Brad Weston, Jack Hood · Lennie Bremen, Pete · Mike London, Limy · Joan Staley, Miss Stanley · Jack Daly, Salesman. CAST & CREW NOTES There are several familiar faces in this episode: Brad Weston (eight episodes), John Hubbard (seven), and Carolyn Komant (five). Technically, Joan Staley beats them all with ten episodes, but eight of those are in The Season That Shall Not Be Discussed. This is the only appearance in the series for Lennie Bremen and Jack Daly, and according to IMDb, this is Mike London’s only appearance anywhere. Speaking of Joan Staley, isn’t it hilarious that even this early in the series, and playing a different character, she gives Stu the cold shoulder? EPISODE NOTES This seems to be one episode that everybody loves. And what’s not to love? It’s a thoroughly hilarious episode from the first shot to the last—and it never leaves Los Angeles! It’s a thoroughgoing farce, of course. It is not true to canon—we all know that Stu started solo at that location with Suzanne before Jeff or Kookie showed up, and neither Stu nor Jeff could ever have been the pathetic goofballs that they characterize each other as being when they met. But that just makes it more fun, because we’re in on the joke, and Rex isn’t, although he certainly figures out by about halfway through the episode that he is being fed a trough-ful of sheep dip. This is one of the truly ground-breaking episodes of the series, along with “The Silent Caper” and “Reserved for Mr. Bailey.” As with those episodes, “Once Upon A Caper” goes where no series had gone before. Smith mercilessly, if good-naturedly, lampoons the series’ three main characters, sparing not his own. Each of the three main characters is a strong, highly competent man, and thus naturally competitive and self-confident. Smith purports to peel back the controlled, polished, chivalrous outer layers of each to reveal the swashbuckling corsair underneath. But there’s nothing Freudian about his psychoanalysis. It’s a farce, and it’s all in fun, so pickled in hubris that one can’t take it seriously—although to be honest, there’s probably a tiny bit of truth regarding the characters to be found there. And good comedy always has a bit of truth to it. Speaking of truth, there is undoubtedly a rough draft of the true origin story of the firm to be found in the three stories, once one collates them and corrects for ego. Which brings me to perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the episode: it is a skilfully-rendered homage to the Akira Kurosawa film Rashômon (1950). In brief summary, the film depicts four differing accounts of an incident in which a samurai is found dead, and a bandit is accused of his murder. Three accounts are given by those involved in the incident: the alleged murderer, the dead samurai (told through a medium), and the samurai’s wife. While each of these accounts contradicts the others, all three contain the same essential events, obviously cast so as to serve the self-interest of the teller. Then, a witness to the incident gives his account, and while it seems quite evident that his version is the closest to the truth when considered in light of the others, it is nevertheless still colored by his own self-interest. Smith took this tragic story and made it a farce, with all three participants casting themselves as ninjas. This was a bold, risky move, taking the series' three heroic lead characters and poking fun at them in this way. The episode was quite an ambitious undertaking for what was only his third produced teleplay, and he pulled it off with remarkable skill. On the surface, 77 Sunset Strip was a thoroughly traditional series in that it sought simply to entertain its audience by telling a good story; it made no particular pretense to anything more ambitious artistically than that. And yet, no successful series before it, and few since, took such bold risks with highly experimental episodes outside of its format. Happily for us, the risks paid off resoundingly every time. To me, that sounds suspiciously close to art. 77 Sunset Strip was a product of the studio system. The show had all the vast resources of Warner Brothers to draw from: a large stable of veteran directors, writers and actors, a large number of standing interior sets, and a huge back lot full of streetscapes that could be dressed to represent pretty much anyplace in the world. It is true that the series had a tight budget, the result of its being funded by ABC, which was a fiscally-weak network in those days. Still, because of the studio’s considerable production capabilities and roster of talent both before and behind the camera, its producers were able to put out a first-class show, very polished for its time and still compelling today. Moreover, the studio provided an environment that nurtured talent and encouraged experimentation. They gave a prodigal talent like Montgomery Pittman free rein, and he in turn helped develop a number of actors into successful directors and writers. Without a doubt, Pittman’s most remarkable protégé was Roger Smith. According to Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., Smith was eager to get behind the camera in some way, and Pittman was instrumental in getting Smith started as a writer. And look at the results! Smith wrote two of the three most remarkable episodes of the series, and co-wrote (with Pittman) another memorable and distinctive episode, “Mr. Bailey’s Honeymoon.” Still, I think Roger Smith missed a sure bet by not carrying the homage out fully. I wish he had completed the story by making it a two-part episode, in the second part of which Suzanne, who after all must have been there at the formation of the agency, tells her version of the story. Imagining just how her version would go is a fun diversion for me, in idle moments. “Once Upon A Caper” next airs on Friday, November 30 at 4 AM PST.