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Series / Petrocelli

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Left to right: Maggie, Tony and Pete.

Petrocelli is a legal drama that aired on NBC from 1974 to 1976. It was the only drama series from Miller/Milkis Productions, who co-produced the series with Paramount Television. It was co-created by Harold Buchman and Sidney J. Furie, developed by E. Jack Neuman and Thomas L. Miller and Edward Milkis were the Executive Producers, with Leonard Katzman as the line producer.

The character of lawyer Anthony J. Petrocelli debuted in the 1970 theatrical film, The Lawyer, written by Neuman and directed by Furie. Barry Newman played the titular character, a Boston lawyer who relocates to the small Arizona town of San Remo. In the movie, Tony is hired to defend a doctor (Robert Colbert) accused of killing his wife in a story loosely based on the legendary Sam Sheppard case. Diana Muldaur played Petrocelli's wife, who was named Ruth.

Four years later, the Petrocelli character was revived for a TV-movie, Night Games, in which the lawyer is hired to defend a socialite (Stefanie Powers) accused of killing her husband. In this film, Petrocelli's wife is now named Maggie, and is portrayed by Susan Howard. He also gets a legman, a former Sheriff's deputy named Pete Toley (Albert Salmi).

The respectable ratings for the TV movie led to a series that debuted in the Fall of 1974, with Newman, Howard and Salmi reprising their roles for the series, though Pete's last name was changed to Ritter.

The fictional town of San Remo just may have been the Murder Capitol of Arizona, judging by this series, as Tony has no shortage of accused killers to defend, and he does so with style. The series had a number of 'trademarks' that were distinguishing. Viewers can count on at least one of these in every episode:

  • Tony's scheme to park his pickup truck illegally, using a sign that says 'Evidence'.
  • Tony and Maggie attempting to build their dream house in the desert. They live in a camper nearby while they are building the house. When the series ended, they hadn't as yet gotten past laying the foundation!
  • Tony calling his Mama back in Boston and speaking to her in Italian.
  • Those desert roads are awfully dangerous...many times, someone will try to run Tony off the road or shoot at him. In Night Games, when he and Maggie are run off the road, it leads to an accident that costs Maggie their unborn child.
  • Speaking of those desert roads, Tony drives that truck with no regard for the speed limit, whether or not someone is after him.
  • Someone will mispronounce Tony's last name, usually as 'Pet-ro-SELL-ee' rather than 'Pet-ro-CHELL-ee', and Tony is quick to correct them.
  • And finally, the most popular of the 'trademarks', the Rashomon-like recollection of the events, where we see the crime as a witness sees it, or maybe a police officer, or we may even see it through the eyes of the prosecutor, but we always see a variation as Petrocelli tells it, an 'alternate version of events' that raises enough reasonable doubt to clear his client.

The series continued on to a second season, but at some point in that season, Tony Petrocelli goes from being a lawyer to being an Action Hero, becoming involved not necessarily in cases, but stories of intrigue. After a couple of episodes in that vein, Tony goes back to the business of defending clients, but it was too little, too late, and the series was not renewed for a third season.

The series ran sometime later in the United Kingdom and Europe and developed a cult following there.

With the court's permission, I'd like to take you back to these tropes:

  • Always Murder: For all of the first season and most of the second season, Tony Petrocelli defends more than his share of accused killers.
  • And Starring: Also starring Susan Howard, Albert Salmi.
  • Asshole Victim: Plenty of these, including...
    • Beautiful nurse Lucille Bates in "Death In Small Doses", who cares more about looking good than taking after her elderly patient, is done in with a needle to the brain stem.
    • Gangster Leo Roman in "A Night of Terror", a creep who uses his 'kept' girlfriend as a punching bag, is shot to death.
    • Powerful Air Force General Drew in "Chain of Command", a stern, authoritarian type who takes over an aircraft company and fires a mechanic he doesn't like, gets his head bashed in with the mechanic's wrench. No prizes for guessing who's accused of the murder.
  • Berserk Button: In "By Reason of Madness", Vickie Richardson kills her husband Edgar because he couldn't stop humming a Grieg composition they heard earlier in the evening.
  • Better Manhandle the Murder Weapon: What do you do when someone tosses you a gun that they have just killed someone with? You instinctively CATCH it, which is how Adam North (William Shatner) gets framed for murder in "Edge of Evil".
  • Billed Above the Title: 'Barry Newman as...Petrocelli'.
  • Blackmail Backfire: A man who's blackmailing singer Country Boy White in "Music to Die By" winds up getting killed.
  • Boxing Episode: "Fallen Idol", where Tony defends Frankie Copa, a boxer he grew up with, who's accused of pummeling his manager to death.
  • Buzzing the Deck: In "Chain of Command", after Petrocelli's visit to the aircraft company, Leo Shane gets in his plane and buzzes the lawyer as he's returning to his vehicle.
  • Clear My Name: This being a legal show, Petrocelli's job is to clear the name of his clients. In "Shadow of a Doubt", however, it's his own name that needs to be cleared when a witness in a murder case accuses him of bribing her. A whiz-kid lawyer helps Tony clear his name, which is the good news. The bad news is, the witness did indeed see the murder, and she still maintains that Tony's client is the killer...which he indeed is.
  • Clear Their Name:
    • In "Six Strings of Guilt", Pete is the one that needs to be cleared of murder when he's accused of killing a man who was blackmailing his girlfriend.
    • In "The Pay-Off", Maggie's visiting Uncle Roy is the prime suspect in the murder of a hooker who was working at the luxury hotel he was staying at.
  • Death by Falling Over: The victim in "An Act of Love" was killed when she was knocked down and hit her head.
  • Death in the Clouds: Millionaire Sam Horton is killed in "Death In High Places" when his plane explodes in mid-air.
  • Fanservice: On the series' IMDB page, under Trivia, there's a list of episodes where viewers can see Barry Newman with his shirt off. There's also bikini-clad Shirley (Erica Hagen), Gigi the stripper from a pair of second-season episodes (Suzanne Zenor) and the busty hypnotist (Francine York) from the episode "The Sleep of Reason", and Susan Howard also has her moments in this trope.
  • Fiery Cover-Up: Petrocelli's client in "A Life for a Life" is a hippie biker charged with arson and murder in a hotel fire. It turned out that the arson was committed to cover up the murder...the victim was smothered to death with a pillow.
  • Friend on the Force: Petrocelli's first cop friend was Lt. John Ponce...or is he Lt. Clifford Ponce...or is he Lt. John Clifford Ponce? The one certainty is that David Huddleston played him. To make things even more confusing, Tony gets another cop buddy in the second season, Lt. John Clifford, played by Ken Swofford.
  • One-Word Title: The series' Protagonist Title, plus the episodes "Survival" and "Counterplay".
  • Power Trio: Tony, Maggie and Pete.
  • Sexy Secretary: Maggie is more than Tony's wife, she's also his office manager.
  • Split Personality: In "Face of Evil", a waitress hires Tony to clear her twin sister of a murder charge. One thing that puzzles him is that, while the two women live together and are sisters, they don't like each other much. Tony resorts to an odd demonstration in the courtroom that proves the two women to be the same person.