Blacke’s Magic made its debut as a made-for-TV movie on NBC in January of 1986 as a midseason replacement show. It had an excellent pedigree, being the creation of Peter Fischer, Richard Levinson and William Link — the team behind Murder, She Wrote, which had debuted impressively in 1984 (Levinson and Link were also the creators of Columbo). The formula for the new show had certain similarities to Murder, She Wrote: both featured a celebrity figure entering the private eye realm to find a new career investigating a slew of crimes happening all around them. But where Jessica Fletcher had a sort of intuitive magic in solving crimes that seemed unsolvable, Alexander Blacke (Hal Linden) made explicit use of his learned tricks to turn whodunits into howdunnits.
Linden had rejected many TV series offers before saying yes to the retired crime-fighting magician. He found Alexander Blacke appealing because unlike the good-natured Barney Miller, Alexander was doing more than just reacting to everyone else. Linden also got the chance to work with the redoubtable Harry Morgan, who was coming off the failed MASH spinoff AfterMASH. For his part, Morgan hadn't been looking for a new weekly series, but after the death of his first wife he felt it best to put himself back in circulation. Between Linden and Morgan, and creators Levinson and Link — and the promising premise — the odds looked good that Blacke's Magic could be a hit.
Critics called it the new Banacek, and they had a point — for good and for ill. Banacek was known for tackling his share of mind-boggling crimes, but the plots sometimes baffled viewers. The same shortcoming threatened the new show. The pilot, as fun and entertaining as it was, threw a great many rabbits into its hat. Too many, for some.
The pilot episode, “Breathing Room”, begins with Blacke executing a hotly-anticipated escape act, only to end up wet and retired. Bored and dispirited, he's invited to a magician's conference, where he's set to get an award. On the plane to the event he encounters one of his magician friends (Ceasare Danova as the Great Gasparini), whose daughter, Carla (Kathleen Beller), is dating a hot new magician named Michael (Joseph Cali). Gasparini takes one last (forgive us) gasp at his dunked coffin routine, deciding to push it an hour further than usual. Everything appears to be going swimmingly, but when Gasparini emerges from the pool, it turns out that he’s been shot... from... inside the coffin.
Luckily for us, Alexander's daughter (Claudia Christian) is dating a hunky homicide detective (ahem) portrayed by Mark Shera. He's so flummoxed by the murder he invites Alexander to help him (discretely) solve it for him.
And that's just half the story, folks — there're plenty of twists and turns to come. Harry Morgan shows up early on as Leonard Blacke, Alex’s ne'er-do-well father — an aging con artist who's bored by retirement and eager to join Alexander in San Francisco to stir things up.
Blacke’s Magic got mixed notices from the critics, and for good reason — the pilot left much to be desired. Morgan's presence could've been punchier, and the story wilted under its weight of subplots, complications, and extraneous characters. Red herrings are part of the genre, but between the abused housewives, dishonorable doctors, con-man illusionists, and hotel managers, the writers overly taxed themselves and the audience — and ended up hurting their own cause to boot.
Blacke’s Magic ran just 12 episodes before pulling its own vanishing act. Pity, really. The show probably had some great tricks up its sleeve — if only it'd had the time to pull them.