Sunday, October 31, 2010

Kraft Suspense Theatre; Charlie, He Couldn't Kill a Fly; Keenan Wynn; Richard Kiley

Click here for the previous episode review.

Season #1, Episode #25

Charlie, He Couldn't Kill a Fly

Original Air Date - May 7, 1964

Setting/Time - New York City in the present. (Update - After viewing the episode again, I think this is a mistake. I believe the episode takes place in a generic city instead of New York. I was misled by the reference to the "Mets." See below for details.)


From the very beginning of "Charlie" it becomes apparent to the viewer that there can be no happy ending to this story.

Charlie is a nice and gentle man who happens to be an alcoholic. He fails to provide for his wife and teenage son. He constantly talks about big plans, but he never follows through. His wife and teenage son live in relative squalor because of Charlie's failings. The situation has dragged on for years.

Charlie's wife works and provides for the family. (Today, Charlie and his family would be on "disability" and/or would receive subsidized housing and other assistance.) The wife plans to leave Charlie for her boss. The story begins as she struggles with the decision of how and when to tell Charlie and her son.

The story is doomed to an unhappy ending because the wife faces a choice between two bad outcomes. Either way, Charlie will continue to be miserable. The wife must choose between continued misery and guilt, depending on whether she leaves Charlie.

The story is complicated when Charlie witnesses a murder early in the episode and is wrongly charged for the killing by the police. The murder victim is a notorious drug dealer in Charlie's neighborhood. Charlie suddenly receives respect from the neighbors when they think he killed the drug dealer. He enjoys the role of hero, sobers up and begins spending time with his son. The son develops a new respect for his dad. The false accusation is the best thing that has happened to Charlie in years.

This scenario sets up the choice that Charlie must face. If he accepts the blame for the murder, he will be a somebody. The one man who believes Charlie is innocent is Lou, his wife's boss. Lou begins his own investigation to prove that Charlie is innocent.

As Lou continues getting closer to discovering the real killer, it becomes apparent that this discovery will destroy all of the progress that Charlie has made. Lou presses on anyway, despite (or because of) his genuine desire to help Charlie and Charlie's family. Charlie, Lou and Charlie's wife are each caught in their own dilemma where any resolution will lead to a different bad consequence. All of these dilemmas are forced to the forefront when Lou finds and confronts the real killer. The episode then proceeds to its climax (involving multiple verbal and physical confrontations), with each dilemma wrapped up and concluded in its own neat and miserable package.

Despite the hopelessness of the situation(s), the story is absorbing. The plot depends on the resolution of the personal conflicts and the decisions the characters must make. The physical confrontations provide a stepping stone for the plot to advance, but are not the object of the plot.

The writer is Irv Pearlberg, who wrote mostly for TV crime, law and police shows (Paper Chase, Quincy, Hawaii Five-0, Police Woman, Baretta, The Rookies, Cannon, F.B.I., Ironside, Columbo, etc.). He would later contribute to Season #2's "That He Should Weep For Her."

Despite Pearlberg's eventual resume', the crime and police aspects of this episode are relatively minor. This is not a mystery story. At its heart, this episode is not a crime story. The crime in this episode merely interfered with an already unfolding tragedy and sent that tragedy in a new direction. The crime forced the characters to reexamine their lives and their choices. It forced the characters to make new choices. The drama came not from the anticipation of an arrest or conviction, but from the human interactions that both preceded and followed the crime.

At one point, I recall Lou making reference to Charlie and his son attending the Mets game, even though the stock footage appears to be from Yankee Stadium. I will have to pay more attention to this part when this episode airs again. It is possible that the baseball players that appear briefly in the stock footage are among the legendary Yankees of that era. (Update - After viewing this episode again, I no longer believe this episode takes place in New York. Lou refers to the Mets being "in town." Lou refers to Charlie having a choice between seeing the Mets or waiting for the Dodgers. This reference implies that both the Mets and Dodgers would be visiting teams if they played "in town." Also, I cannot tell what stadium the stock baseball footage is from. There are a few clues, such as a distance marker on the outfield wall and a few player numbers. A true baseball trivia expert could probably identify the stadium.)

The music score worked in this episode. The background music was soft and ominous, long before the episode reached its climax. The music contributes to a general feeling of despair as the story progresses.

I have written earlier that KST episodes always exuded class. In this case, Charlie always wore a suit and tie, even when he was stumbling home drunk from a night at the bar. While more recent programs would give their subjects a more "realistic" appearance, realism comes not from appearance, but from the plot and dialogue. Modern shows and their visual effects do not compensate for the lack of plot that could be found in shows like KST. KST and this episode work even today despite the supposedly outdated appearance.

Update - Upon viewing the episode again, I was struck by the fact that there were no "bad guys" in this episode, except for the drug pusher who was killed early in the story. The main conflict is internal, as the characters struggle with decisions as to what to do. The conflict also exists between good guys, which often makes for the best and most subtle kind of conflict.


The cars in this episode are the standard 1963 and 1964 Plymouth Fury police cars, parked cars and taxis in the background. Vehicles did not play a major role in this story.


Keenan Wynn played Charlie. His acting credits span more than 40 years, including guest roles on many of the most prominent TV series of the 1960's and 1970's. I will always remember him for his role in Herbie Rides Again - the 1974 sequel to The Love Bug.

Beverly Garland played Charlie's wife. Her 50+ year career included regular or recurring roles on such shows as 7th Heaven, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and My Three Sons (and others).

Richard Kiley played Lou. His 50+ year career included numerous roles in TV series and mini-series (including recurring roles on Kraft Theatre in the 1950's), two Tony Awards (including one for his role in "Man of La Mancha") and movie roles such as the pilot in 1974's The Little Prince and the "tour voice" in 1993's Jurassic Park.

Michael Burns played Charlie's son. He had previously played in Kraft Mystery Theatre in 1963 opposite Jack Kelly and Broderick Crawford. Berkeley Harris played in the second of his two KST roles as the real killer. He had previously played in the same Kraft Mystery Theatre episode as Michael Burns. Myron Healey (who played the police detective) is another KST repeat actor, having previously starred in "One Step Down." Joan Staley played a witness in this episode. She would later star in Season #2's "Kill Me On July 20th."

Fans of The Bob Newhart Show will recognize the actor who played Benny Galati in the bar scenes. Noam Pitlik would become a semi-regular guest on Dr. Newhart's couch in the 1970's.

Walter Brooke played a minor role in this episode. He previously played in The Case Against Paul Ryker. He uttered the famous line about "plastics" in The Graduate.

Roy Glenn played the piano player. He is rumored to be the original voice of Tony the Tiger, but that rumor is apparently denied by Kellogg's. (The voice sounded right to me.) Update - upon watching this episode again, I noted that Glenn's character was the only one unhappy that the drug dealer had died - because Glenn would now need a different source for his narcotics.

Star Trek connection states that Joseph Mell played a character named "Harry" that I will have to pay more attention to the next time I see this episode. Mell played a small role with symbolic dialogue on the Star Trek pilot "The Cage" (along with several other KST actors). If you have trouble recognizing him in this episode, he is a stocky bald man who also played in Twilight Zone in the same episode as future KST and Star Trek guest actor Warren Stevens. Update - After seeing this episode again, I identified Mell/Harry as Berkeley Harris' neighbor who was present on the stairwell during the final confrontation.

Update - Lessons I learned from "Charlie, He Couldn't Kill a Fly."

  • If your friends and neighbors get tired of listening to your BS, kill a local drug dealer and they will like you again.
  • Black musicians will be inconvenienced if you kill a drug dealer.
  • You can kill in self-defense only once. Any more than that and the cops will think that you are "a killer."

1 comment:

  1. Well made and nicely acted episode. Keenan Wynn's spot on performance as am alcoholic dreamer was spot on even as he was, as pointed out by the comment above, too well dressed for the character he plays so well, and with such understanding. A few twists and turns along the way, some heart tugging moments, and a predictable ending did not detract from the show's emotional power.