Joe Dancer

Created by Robert Blake

You want to know how much moolah Robert Blake made for ABC during his run in Baretta?

Here's a hint: when Baretta ended, NBC -- no doubt sniffing a cash cow --was willing to air not one but several pilots for a hard-boiled private eye series Blake had concocted, and gave him carte blanche.

Blake was going to play JOE DANCER, a tough-but-tender Los Angeles private eye "on the edge." According to Blake himself, this was going to be the "best show ever produced for television." And just to make sure, Blake was not just going to star in it, but was also going to executive produce the thing, and generally have a hand in almost every facet of it, to ensure it was a "class act."

Most people saw it another way. Ric Meyers in TV Detectives, for example, noted that although Blake was supposed to be "part John Garfield, part Dick Powell and part Humphrey Bogart... as he stood, Dancer was all Robert Blake--and that was just the problem. The Dancer two-hour episode fluctuated between casual brutality, forced humour, and self-concious pathos."

Certainly there was no doubt whose show it was. Blake was listed in the credits not just as the star but as the producer and the creator. His wife at the time, Sondra Blake, co-stars as Joe Dancer's physically challenged assistant, Charlie, and there are enough odd cameos in the show (the guy at the taco stand, for instance) to suggest casting was often a matter of friendship, and there were enough peculiar mannerisms, plot holes and WTF moments to suggest nobody was willing to challenge Blake.

I mean, sheesh, the guy has to be an orphan raised by nuns? He has to wear a fedora? He has to drive a clunker that needs a paint job? He has to meet clients on the beach despiute the fact he has an office? His assistant has to be in a wheelchair? The dialogue has to be forty years out of date? He has to speak like fractured grammar is a badge of honour?

The show was further marred by Blake's dis-and-dat voice-over narration, a tin-ear symphony of overworked tough guy talk cribbed from better movies, meaningless philosophizing and constant reminders that Dancer was a man "on the edge."

So maybe it's not such a surprise that, despite several pilots, the subsequent series never materializied.

And dat's de name of dat tune.

Except...

So help me, there's something almost embarrassingly entertaining and delightfully cheesy about the whole thing -- all that pathetic earnestness and effort and ego and penny-pinching cheapness put out for all the world to see, with good ideas and intentions derailed at every possible turn. The problem was, perhaps, that Blake had in fact succeeded in evoking the spirit of 1930s and 40s only too well.

But not the great crime films or classic detective novels of that era. Nope, the Joe Dancer movies were the TV equivalent of the pulps. Not the A-list talent stuff either, but those who-the-hell-wrote-this? stories you'd skip over, and only go back to read after you'd read all the good stuff.

TELEVISION

  • THE BIG BLACK PILL
    (aka "Joe Dancer")
    (1981, NBC/Universal)
    Originally aired: January 29, 1981
    Story by Les Alexander, Richard Parks and Richard Smith
    Teleplay by Michael Butler
    Directed by Reza Badiyi
    Executive Producer: Robert Blake
    Starring Robert Blake as JOE DANCER
    Also starring JoBeth Williams, Neva Patterson, Sondra Blake, Wilford Brimley, Veronica Cartwright, Edward Winter, Phillip R.†Allen, Stanton Coffin, James Gammon, Eileen Heckart, Kevyn Major Howard, Deborah La Vine, Robert Phillips, Bubba Smith

Laughably bad, but the sequels were worse.

  • THE MONKEY MISSION
    (aka "Sweet Wine, an Old Line, One More Time")
    (1981, NBC/Universal)
    Two hour episode
    Originally aired: March 23, 1981
    Screenplay by Robert Crais
    Directed by Burt Brinckerhoff
    Starring Robert Blake as JOE DANCER
    Also starring Keenan Wynn, Mitchell Ryan, Clive Revill, John Fieldler, Pepe Serna, Sondra Blake, Logan Ramsey, Alan Napier

The absolute nadir of the series. For some reason, Dancer agrees to rob a museum of a valuable artifact. His crew? A couple of†washed up elderly criminals, two down-and-out vietnam vets (one an alcoholic) and a monkey. Yeah, a monkey. All allegedly†penned by a young Robert Crais, but I'm betting executive producer Blake added a few of his own ideas to "improve" things...

  • THE BIG TRADE
    (aka "Murder 1, Dancer 0)
    (1981, NBC/Universal)
    Two hour episode
    Original air date: June 5, 1983
    Teleplay by Ed Waters
    Directed by Reza Badiyi
    Executive Producer: Robert Blake
    Starring Robert Blake as JOE DANCER
    Also starring Kenneth McMillan, William Prince, Jane Daly, Royal Dano, Sydney Lassick, Robin Dearden, Sondra Blake

The plot makes no sense, but there is plenty of bad acting, brain-dead dialogue and pointless voice-overs to cover up the myriad†holes in the plot..

UNPRODUCED EPISODES

  • THE WEB OF JERRY G.
    Unproduced 60 minute episode
    Screenplay by Robert Crais

  • A CLEAR CUT CASE OF MURDER
    Unproduced 60 minute episode
    Screenplay by Robert Crais

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith, with thanks to Eric Harper for helping me get a Locke on things.


| Home | Detectives A-L M-Z | Film | Radio | Television | Web Comics | Comics | FAQs |
| Trivia | Authors | Hall of Fame | Mystery Links | Bibliography | Glossary | Search |
| This Just In... | Word on the Street | Non-Fiction | Fiction | Staff | The P.I. Poll |

Drop a dime. Your comments, suggestions, corrections and contributions are always welcome.
"...and I'll tell you right out that I'm a man who likes talking to a man that likes to talk."