Mmmmmdoggies...Folksy, soft-spoken, slow-walking, elderly Los Angeles private detective BARNABY JONES was originally introduced on an episode of Cannon, when he came out of retirement to find his son's killer. He succeeded, and decided to come out of retirement, and resume control of the family detective agency, teaming up with his son's widow, Betty.
The rest was television history. The show went on to a long and successful run on CBS. As well, Barnaby was the probably first credible senior citizen P.I., setting the standard for all the superannuated eyes that followed.
Actor Buddy Ebsen, best known as the backwoods patriarch of The Beverly Hillbillies, was already a respectable 65 when he stepped into the gumshoes of Barnaby Jones, and 72 when CBS finally pulled the plug. Hoot all you want about Jed Clampett, P.I., and makes all the cracks you want about the office bottle containing Geritol. That was certainly the reaction when the show made its debut in 1973. But for anyone who gave this much-misunderstood show a chance, they were rewarded with some great entertainment.
To their credit, the producers didn't downplay Barnaby's age, nor did they get cute about it. They simply treated him with respect and dignity, made us aware of his limitations but focussed on his strengths. Not for Barnaby, then, the routine TV fare of fisticuffs and commercial-linking car chases. Rather he relied on his keen intellect, his home crime lab and good old detective work (a real rarity on the tube at the time) to get the goods on the bad guys.
And what bad guys they were! Barnaby Jones' villains turned out to be some of the nastiest sickos ever presented on network television. There was true evil here, and it was made all the nastier by the fact it often wore the face of middle-class, suburban banality. The bad guys were not just the usual gangsters and thugs — often, they were bank managers, neighbourhood kids, shop owners, and the like. Their motives, if you could call them that, often turned out to be nothing more than just plain boredom or the quest for “kicks.”
Yet, week after week, the mild-mannered, grandfatherly Barnaby, who looked like a strong wind would blow him away, proved to be more than a match for all of them. Every week, in his slow, methodical way, he analyzed the evidence, knocked on doors, took down names, and brought the bad guys to justice, even as they raced around like chickens with their heads cut off, growing increasingly frantic. All to no avail. As TV critic Ric Meyers once put it, “Barnaby Jones was the Droopy Dog of the TV private eye.”
And like that perpetually persistent cartoon pooch, the show itself just kept on rolling along. Believe it or not, this sucker ran for 174 episodes, becoming the second-longest running private eye series on television (only Joe Mannix lasted longer). As one TV executive put it, “You couldn't kill that thing with a stick!”
Of course, as with any long-running TV series, certain plot lines and even guest stars were recycled endlessly. Actor Gary Lockwood showed up as a villain at least a half-dozen times. “And he was a low-down skunk in every one of them!” Ebsen later recalled. “Every time I saw him, I'd say, ‘Didn't I put you in jail once?’”
And Barnaby's sense of family loyalty was beyond admirable, verging into parody. Simply put, his secretary/widowed daughter-in-law Betty had to be the stupidest and most danger-prone woman who ever walked the face of the earth. She was kidnapped, threatened and attacked so often she made Mannix's secretary Peggy look like a good insurance risk.
Still, for those of us who “got” this show, mere mention of it brings back a heapin' helpin' of fond memories. Jones, as portrayed by Ebsen, was a likable old coot. Likable enough, in fact, that he appeared in the 1984-85 season of Matt Houston as Matt's Uncle Roy, a retired CIA op and sometime private eye. And it was an even bigger treat to see him make one last appearance as Barnaby years after the show had faded away, in the 1993 Beverly Hillbillies movie. At one point in the film, Granny turns up missing and Miss Jane hires Barnaby Jones, amazingly still private eying at eighty-five, to look for her. A class act that — having the original Jed pop up.