Created by Eric Ambler
In Checkmate, a fondly-remembered television show from the early sixties, DON COREY and JED SILLS run a very fancy, very expensive, high-tech San Francisco detective agency whose aim is “to thwart crime and checkmate death (by) stopping the slide downhill to tragedy.” It was a lofty and intriguing concept, arguably ahead of its time, but then, the show was created by Eric “The Mask of Dimitrios” Ambler, who knew a thing or two about pumping out thrillers.
The show borrowed some of its concerns from Ambler’s spy novels, which often raised questions of responsibility and accountability of our goverments, and how far they should go to keep us safe, and so while most TV eyes tried to solve crimes that have already been committed (when they weren’t driving around in their snazzy cars or swapping glib patter with babes), the men of the San Francisco Checkmate Agency were out to stop crimes from happening in the first place, by taking on clients felt like they might be in danger, and to stop crimes before they happened.
The earnest Corey (played by Anthony George), the young, hunky Sills (Doug McClure), and the professorial DR. CARL HYATT (Sebastian Cabot) would take cases where people felt like they were in danger, and would work to draw out and thwart potential villains. The show ran for two seasons and never became a big hit, though it was well-respected by critics and genre fans for the cleverness of its premise and the seriousness of its approach. (Checkmate even spawned a Gold Key comic book series, which ran for two issues in 1962.)
Sills was the senior partner, handsome and experienced. His relationship with Jed, his younger and at times clumsy partner (Doug McClure!), is one of teacher/student. Aiding the duo was former Oxford criminalogist DR. CARL HYATT (Sebastian “Mr. French!”) Cabot, a rotund, bearded professor and handwriting expert who studies ransom notes, death threats, and other evidence for clues to suspects’ personality and intended moves. In the last season, another detective, CHRIS DEVLIN (Jack Betts), was added to the team.
Checkmate was the Tiffany of detective shows in its day. Produced at Revue, the television production arm of Universal Studios, it had a “name” guest star policy that mirrored that of two other high-profile Revue productions of the day, Wagon Train and GE Theatre. And “name” often meant “BIG NAME!” Even by today’s standards, show boasted some honest-to-Norma Desmond MOVIE stars: Charles Laughton, Joan Fontaine, Joseph Cotten, Peter Lorre and Lee Marvin, as well as a passel of once and future Oscar winners ranging from Patricia Neal and Mary Astor to Jane Wyman and Martin Landau. Performers like Claire Bloom, who have done virtually no series television before or since, appeared. Checkmate also indulged in stunt casting: Cyd Charisse as a dancer, Tony Randall as a killer, Sid Caesar as a disc jockey, and Jack Benny as a much-revered entertainer not unlike . . . Jack Benny. Scripts were written around the guest stars, exploring their characters’ reactions to the death threats.
In the second season, in particular, social issues and character studies were larger elements of the story. Dick Berg, who took over as line producer late in the first season must have sensed that a simple death threat of the week setup by itself could be weak. The second season also brought in younger directors, a number of whom (William A. Graham, Elliott Silverstein) were also working in New York on Naked City at the same time.
Not only was the show created by a top notch thriller writer, but it boasted a number of other Grade A mystery writers who contributed scripts and/or story outlines, including Helen Nielsen, Leigh Brackett, Jonathan Latimer, James Gunn, Douglas Heyes, William P. McGivern, and Howard Browne. Story editor for much of the run was Dorothy Hechtlinger.
Since creator Eric Ambler’s wife, Joan Harrison, was a producer of Alfred Hitchcock Presents at the same time, one must wonder if she did some uncredited producing on Checkmate?
The episodes date somewhat in attitudes, but then the series is almost sixty years old, and the generally high level of production holds up. Even when you can figure out the ending of an episode, it’s still an enjoyable view. The memorable opening sequence, featuring throbbing, swirling black, white, and grey liquid shapes was ahead of its time, a percursor to the light shows that would become a standard of 60s rock concerts. The theme music was provided by one “Johnny” Williams, who later went on to minor success with the music for Star Wars, E.T., Jaws and the Boston Pops. He also scored every episode of the first season. The background music for his episodes was usually soft and subtle, tuneful but neither loud nor heavy. According to Jon Burlingame’s book on television scoring, Television’s Greatest Hits, Williams only scored about four episodes for the second season; the slack was taken up by a number of fine composers, including Mort Stevens and Pete Rugolo. Cinematography was polished, with a lot of day for night shots, duties being rotated among a variety of Revue regulars — including John F. Warren and Lionel Lindon, who also worked on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Johnny Staccato (as well as such classic films noir as The Blue Dahlia).
Overall, a most enjoyable show to watch. Although never a big hit, it’s well-respected by critics and fans both its premise and ambitions — it didn’t rely on gunplay or chase sequences, and tended to be a bit more cerebral than most of its contemporaries, with the boys usually calling in the cops to make an arrest.
There was even a Gold Key comic book tie-in, although it only lasted a couple of issues. Then again, the first issue, thanks to the vagaries of publishing, made its debut just a month before the show itself was canned.
- CHECKMATE | Buy the Complete Series
70 60-minute episodes
Black and white
Created by Eric Ambler
Writers: James E. Gunn, John Kneubuhl, Leigh Brackett, Howard Browne, Michael Morris, William McGivern, Jameson Brewer, Leonard Heideman, Helen Nielsen, Jonathan Latimer, Harold Clements, Warner Law, Douglas Heyes, Halsey Melone, Betty Ulius, Robert Yale Libott, Stuart Jerome, Rik Vollaerts, Sheldon Stark, Steve Thornley, Bob & Wanda Duncan, Robert Bloomfield, Alfred Brenner, Robert C. Dennis, Berne Giler, Dick Berg, Richard Fielder, Richard DeRoy, Juarez Roberts, William Shatner, John Falvo, Peter Mamakos, Mark Rodgers, Robert J. Shaw, Lewis Reed, Don Taylor, Anthony Spinner, John Mantley, Max Ehrlich, Harold Jack Bloom, Dick Nelson, Mann Rubin, Sy Salkowitz, Oliver Crawford, Richard McCracken, Larry Cohen
Directors: Jules Bricken, Herschel Daugherty, Don Weis, Frank Arrigo, John English, Don Taylor, Alex Singer, Tom Gries, Paul Stewart, John Newland, Elliott Silverstein, William A. Graham, Robert Ellis Miller, James Wong Howe, Ron Winston, Bernard Girard, Byron Paul, Lewis Allen, Alan Crosland, Jr.
Cinematographers: Dale Deverman, Lionel Lindon, John F. Warren, Jack MacKenzie, Benjamin H. Kline, Fred Mandl, Ray Flin, Richard J. Gough
Theme composed by John Williams
Performed by The Johnny Williams Orchestra
Music: Johnny Williams, Morton Stevens, Pete Rugolo, Fred Katz
Producers: Dick Berg, Herb Coleman, Maxwell Shane
A Revue/J and M Production
Starring Anthony George as DON COREY
Doug McClure as JED SILLS
Sebastian Cabot as DR. CARL HYATT
and Jack Betts as CHRIS DEVLIN
Guest stars: Anne Baxter, Robert Vaughn, Inger Stevens, Dean Stockwell, Joseph Cotten, Julie Adams, Jane Wyman, Anna Maria Alberghetti, Margaret O’Brien, Barbara Rush, Janice Rule, Cloris Leachman, Charles Laughton, Peter Lorre, Joan Fontaine, Scott Brady, James Gregory, Norma Crane, Gary Merrill, Dick Shawn, Jimmie Rogers, Everett Sloane, Robert Lansing, Bethel Leslie, Richard Conte, Martin Landau, Terry Moore, Diana Lynn, Dan Duryea, Lee Marvin, Cyd Charisse, Nina Foch, Mickey Rooney, Eve Arden, Audrey Meadows, Charles Bickford, John Williams, Joe Mantell, Julie London, Harry Guardino, Simon Oakland, Jack Warden, Beverly Garland, Jack Lord, Elizabeth Montgomery, David Janssen, Ralph Bellamy, Chester Morris, Tony Randall, Jeffrey Hunter, Claire Bloom, William Windom, Dorothy Malone, Perry Lopez, John Dehner, Jack Benny, Tina Louise, Larry Gates, Patricia Neal, Eleanor Parker, Herschel Bernadi, George Sanders, Mary Astor, Susan Oliver, Sid Caesar, Keenan Wynn, Angie Dickinson, Celeste Holm, Dan O’Herlihy, Don Taylor, MacDonald Carey, Edward Binns, Buddy Ebsen, Vera Miles, Laraine Day, Dana Andrews, Walter Pidgeon, James Whitmore, Lloyd Bridges, Nick Adams, James Coburn, Alan Napier, Werner Klemperer, Victor Buono, Susan Kohner, Dina Merrill, Mary Tyler Moore
- SEASON ONE | Buy Season One on DVD
- “Death Runs Wild” (September 17, 1960)
- “Interrupted Honeymoon” (September 9, 1960)
- “The Cyanide Touch” (October 10, 1960)
- “Lady on the Brink” (October 15, 1960)
- “Face in the Window” (October 22, 1960)
- “Runaway” (October 29, 1960)
- “The Dark Divide” (November 5, 1960)
- “Deadly Shadow” (November 12, 1960)
- “Target: Tycoon” (November 19, 1960; aka “Kill or be Killed”)
- “Moment of Truth” (November 26, 1960)
- “Mask of Vengeance” (December 12, 1960)
- “The Murder Game” (December 17, 1960)
- “Princess in the Tower” (December 31, 1960)
- “Terror from the East” (January 7, 1961)
- “The Human Touch” (January 14, 1961)
- “Hour of Execution” (January 21, 1961)
- “Don’t Believe a Word She Says” (January 28, 1961)
- “Laugh ’til I Die” (February 4, 1961)
- “Between Two Guns” (February 11, 1961)
- “A Matter of Conscience” (February 18, 1961)
- “Melody for Murder” (February 25, 1961)
- “Phantom Lover” (March 4, 1961)
- “The Gift” (March 11, 1961)
- “One for the Book” (March 18, 1961)
- “The Paper Killer” (March 25, 1961)
- “Jungle Castle” (April 1, 1961)
- “The Deadly Silence” (April 8, 1961)
- “Goodbye, Griff” (April 15, 1961)
- “Dance of Death” (April 22, 1961)
- “Voyage into Fear” (May 6, 1961)
- “Tight as a Drum” (May 13, 1961)
- “Death by Design” (May 20, 1961)
- “The Thrill Seeker” (May 27, 1961)
- “Hot Wind in a Cold Town” (June 10, 1961)
- “A Slight Touch of Venom” (June 17, 1961)
- “State of Shock” (June 24, 1961)
- SEASON TWO | Buy Season Two on DVD
- “Portrait of a Man Running” (October 4, 1961)
- “The Button-Down Break” (October 11, 1961)
- “The Heat of Passion” (October 18, 1961)
- “Waiting for Jocko” (October 25, 1961)
- “Through a Dark Glass” (November 1, 1961)
- “Juan Morenoís Body” (November 8, 1961)
- “Kill the Sound” (November 11, 1961)
- “The Crimson Pool” (November 22, 1961)
- “The Two of Us” (November 29, 1961)
- “Nice Guys Finish Last” (December 13, 1961)
- “To the Best of My Recollection” (December 27, 1961)
- “A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to the Game” (January 3, 1962)
- “The Star System” (January 10, 1962)
- “The Renaissance of Gussie Hill” (January 17, 1962)
- “Ride a Wild Horse” (January 24, 1962)
- “The Yacht Club Gang” (January 31, 1962)
- “Death Beyond Recall” (February 7, 1962)
- “The Sound of Nervous Laughter” (February 14, 1962)
- “An Assassin Arrives, Andante” (February 21, 1962)
- “Remembrance of Crimes Past” (February , 1962)
- “The Heart is a Handout” (March 7, 1962)
- “A Brooding Fixation” (March 14, 1962; AKA “Shades of Hamlet”)
- “A Chant of Silence” (March 21, 1962)
- “Trial by Midnight” (March 28, 1962)
- “So Beats My Plastic Heart” (April 11, 1962)
- “In a Foreign Quarter” (April 18, 1962)
- “Referendum for Murder” (April 25, 1962)
- “The Someday Man” (May 2, 1962)
- “Rendezvous in Washington” (May 9, 1962)
- “The Bold and the Tough” (May 16, 1962)
- “Will the Real Killer Please Stand Up?” (May 23, 1962)
- “Down the Gardenia Path” (June 6, 1962)
- “Side by Side” (June 20, 1962)
(1962, Gold Key)
Artist: Jack Sparling
- “Double Profit Plot,” “Poison Pen Pals” (October 1962 , #1)
- “The Script for Blackmail,” “The Murder Mixture,” “The Chinese Doll Mystery” (December 1962, #2)
Respectfully submitted by Ted Fitzgerald. Additional info from Kevin Burton Smith.
One thought on “Don Corey, Jed Sills, Chris Devlin & Dr. Carl Hyatt (Checkmate)”
Eric Ambler and Joan Harrison had no ownership stake in “Checkmate”. The strangely capitalized JaMco Productions was an acronym for “Jack and Mary company”…as in Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone. This was one of three shows, and the only success, that came out of a development deal between Jack, CBS, and Revue.