Most of us remember the Brian De Palma 1987 gangster film “The Untouchables.” As U.S. Treasury agent Eliot Ness, Kevin Costner forms a squad to go after notorious mob boss Al (Scarface) Capone during the Prohibition era. His squad was nicknamed The Untouchables.
Did you know that the two-hour 1959 pilot episode of “The Untouchables” serves for the film’s inspiration? Since the beginning of Desilu 1951 sitcom “I Love Lucy,” the CBS network had a very good relationship with its executive, Desi Arnaz, who had gone to high school with Al Capone’s son Albert.
Arnaz had presented other successful TV program scripts to the chairman, William S. Paley. However, he rejected the television pilot from the advice of CBS network vice-president Hubbell Robinson.
The two-hour pilot titled, “The Untouchables” aired on CBS Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse on April 20 and 27, 1959. It was based on real-life agent Eliot Ness’s memoir with Oscar Fraley. Ness never lived to see his best-selling autobiography “The Untouchables” published and adapted into a hit crime drama TV series, because he died suddenly in May of 1957.
Eliot Ness was portrayed by Robert Stack. If he sounds familiar, you probably remember him more recently on television as the “Unsolved Mysteries” host. However, I like him best in his Eliot Ness role. So there!
Controversy grew surrounding Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse TV episode “The Untouchables.” Unsuccessfully, the Capone family sued Desilu Productions and Westinghouse Electric Corporation for depiction of their family. Also, singer Frank Sinatra gave harsh criticism of the negative stereotype of Italians portrayed in the episode.
The ABC network, however, agreed to air the weekly series. Newspaper columnist Walter Winchell came on as the TV narrator and Nelson Riddle provided the music for the film noir effect. Stack returned as Eliot Ness.
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“The Untouchables” premiered on ABC on Oct. 15, 1959. In the first season opening episode, an Italian character by the name of Agent Enrico “Rico” Rossi (Nicholas Georgiade), who witnessed a gangland murder, was added to the Ness’s team. The team went up against Al Capone’s right-hand man Frank Nitti, the new mob boss. Future storyline plots involved such gangsters as Dutch Schultz, Lucky Luciano, Bugs Moran, Vincent “Mad Dog” Cull, and Legs Diamond. There was even one episode that centered around Nazi agents in 1930s America. Nevertheless, the addition of an Italian agent didn’t calm the general public down.
On March 9, 1961, Anthony Anstasio, chief of the Brooklyn waterfront and its International Longshoremen’s Association, identified themselves as “The Federation of Italian-American Democratic Organizations” led a protest march against ABC, citing negative Italian stereotype on “The Untouchables.”
They publicly boycotted the Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company (L&M) and Chesterfield King Cigarettes. These products sponsored the weekly crime drama TV show.
Four days after the picket of the ABC network, L&M bowed to the strong pressures of Antasio’s demands and dropped its sponsorship of “The Untouchables.” Also, Desi Arnaz, the head of Desilu, was concerned about the negative publicity.
The following week, Arnaz met with ABC and the Italian-American League. He issued a formal three-part manifesto: There will be no more fiction hoodlums with Italian names in future productions. There will be more stress on law-enforcement role of Rico Rossi, Ness’s right-hand man on the show. There will be an emphasis on the “formidable influence” of Italian-American officials in reducing crime and an emphasis on the “great contributions” made to American culture of Americans of Italian descent.
J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was also displeased with the fictional television scripts for “The Untouchables.” After the TV pilot, the crime drama series strayed away from Eliot Ness’s memoir and were fictional accounts. Hoover especially didn’t approve of the episode “Ma Barker and her Boys” since the program gave credit to the the U.S. Treasury. Actually, the actual shooting of Ma Barker and her sons was solely handled by the FBI. National Association for Better Radio and Television said that this was considered a violent TV program and not fit for the screen. The organization criticized episodes containing prostitution and drug abuse. In later reruns, the pilot episode was retitled, “The Scarface Mob.” It featured Neville Brand as Al Capone.