As a kid, one of my favorite shows, after Adventures in Paradise, was The Untouchables.
Robert Stack’s portrayal of FBI agent Eliot Ness kept me glued to the television every week.
We never missed it, and even Dad was a fan.
He, like Ness, was a law and order kind of guy.
The TV show was based on the real life autobiography of the real Eliot Ness a real life federal agent.
The crime drama ran from 1959 to 1963 on ABC and was a production of Desilu Studios.
The Untouchables on TV may have glamorized the activities of Ness and his team, but there really was a team of agents in Chicago fighting crime and they really were called The Untouchables! They were handpicked prohibition agents chosen for their courage, moral character, and incorruptibility.
The real life Eliot Ness was born on April 19, 1903.
Ness, no slacker by any means, was born in Chicago, the youngest of five. He graduated High School, went to the University of Chicago and graduated with a degree in economics. Starting his career as an investigator for the Retail Credit Company of Atlanta was assigned a territory that included his home town of Chicago. While there, he earned a master’s degree in criminology.
Eventually, The Bureau came calling.
His brother-in-law was an agent of the Bureau of Investigation which JEgarHoover would eventually turn into the FBI. The BIL encouraged him to join the Treasury Department and he joined the 1,000 others working on Prohibition in Chicago.
1,000, one city!
Once Herbert Hoover was in the White House, he directed the bureau to take down Chicago gangster Al Capone and his organization.
Ness was chosen to head the operation and began targeting the illegal breweries and supply routes of Capone.
Capone responded by offering a bribe. He promised Ness $2,000 a week, every Monday morning, if he would turn a blind eye.
Ness refused the offer.
Ness was assigned a team of 50 men which he realized was too unwieldy, and pared it down to 11. They became known as the Untouchables and conducted raids on still, brewers, and within six months had seized assets worth over a million dollars.
Their main source of information was wire taps!
The efforts of the Untouchables had a significant impact on Capone’s operations. Capone was eventually prosecuted for income tax evasion, but in reality, the research, information, evidence, and witnesses at trial were all the result of the Untouchables’ work. Capone was convicted and sentenced to 11 years in prison.
After prohibition, Ness became a moonshine hunter in Southern Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee. He eventually transferred to Cleveland, Ohio where he supervised the police and fire departments and helped the mayor rid the police department of corruption and modernize the fire department.
Cleveland, a mafia hotbed – who knew? – was rife with gangland murders while Ness was in charge. His personnel life suffered, divorce followed and his critics referenced his marital problems, his high-profile drinking, and his questionable car crash.
The new mayor kept him on anyway.
He married his second wife and moved to Washington D.C. where he directed a battle against prostitution in the communities surrounding the military bases.
Seems VD was a big problem and the Nation’s Capitol was a tad embarrassed.
The job and the marriage didn’t work out and Ness found himself back in Ohio as the chairman of Diebold Corporation.
Back in Cleveland with a new wife and a newly adopted son, Ness ran for mayor.
Deibold fired him in 1951; his drinking increased and ran UP debt.
He took a series of odd jobs to pay the bills and landed a job with Guaranty Paper, a company specializing in preventing counterfeit documents.
Ness died practically broke at the age of 54 from a massive heart attack and was survived by his third wife and his adopted son.
No Chicago newspaper ran the story of his death.
A year after his death, his autobiography co-authored with Oscar Fraley came out and suddenly the world remembered the man who brought down Al Capone.
So did Hollywood.
That’s where I first heard of Eliot Ness and the Untouchables.
Now, I was just a boy in Ohio enamored with crime fighting and the right side of the law.
I was totally unaware of the controversy surrounding the show.
The Italian-American community – including Frank Sinatra, felt the show promoted negative stereotypes of Italians as mobsters and gangsters. The Capone family sued CBS, Dslilu, and Westinghouse Electric Corporation (the sponsor) for their depiction of the Capone family.
They were unsuccessful.
In 1961 Anthony Anastasio marched in line with a picket group identifying themselves as s the Federation of Italian-American Democratic Organizations. They were protesting Liggett and Myers Tobacco, another sponsor.
Anastasio was a known mobster and member of the Gambino family. He controlled the Brooklyn dockyards for over 30 years.
Four days after the picket of ABC, L&M – denying they had bowed to intimidation – made a statement announcing they would drop Chesterfield’s sponsorship of the show.
A week later, Desi Arnaz, the head of Desilu and a former high school classmate of Albert Capone, Jr., made the following statement…
“There will be no more fictional hoodlums with Italian names in future productions.
There will be more stress on the 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 by Americans of Italian descent.”
But, nobody caved.
In the meantime, JEdgarHoover was all huffy because the TV show showed Ness and his Treasury agents handling operations which would legally fall under the province of the FBI. JEdgar went nuts.
The fact that the show was an unusually violent program for its day featured frank depictions of drug abuse, prostitution, and gangland violence ran a close second, and one critic said it was “not fit for the television screen.”
Wonder what he’d think today?
Ayn Rand opined that the attacks on the show were due to its appeal and its virtues, its moral conflict and moral purpose.
But then, I’ve always liked Ayn.
Hollywood seemed to take the criticism in stride. Translation, actors and stars flocked to guest star on the show. Everyone from Peter Falk to Elizabeth Montgomery to Barbara Stanwyck played a roll.
The show ended in 1963.
In reality, the show was ground-breaking…shows such as S.W.A.T, The F.B.I, Crime Story, Hawaii Five-0, all owe their existence to The Untouchables.
Even Bugs Bunny got in on the act with The Unmentionables – he played Elegant Mess.
You may love ‘em or hate ‘em, but I’m a big crime drama fan. It matters not that they are based on real life characters, total fiction, or stretch the truth a tad.
Hollywood felt that way too. Robert Stack won an Emmy for his portrayal of Eliot Ness.
Bugs Bunny’s efforts were of course, ignored!
Which was a travesty.