Friday, April 10, 2015

Longstreet: The Way of the Intercepting Fist

                                           James Fransicus  and Bruce Lee
from the great blog

In the 1971 made-for-TV movie Longstreet, James Franciscus played a insurance investigator who lost his wife and sight during an explosion intended to kill him. Determined to find the criminals responsible, Mike Longstreet has to learn first how to live with his blindness. He gets ample support from his assistant Nikki (Martine Beswick), best friend Duke (Bradford Dillman), and Pax, a white German Shepherd that becomes his seeing-eye dog.

Marilyn Mason and Franciscus.
As was often ABC's practice, the movie doubled as a pilot for a prospective TV show. The regular series debuted that fall with Marilyn Mason replacing Martine Beswick and Peter Mark Richman taking over as Duke. Set in New Orleans, the premise had Longstreet investigating various cases, often for the Great Pacific Insurance Company (where Duke worked). Stirling Silliphant created the series, which was loosely inspired by a series of novels by Baynard Kendrick about a blind private detective.

A prolific script writer, Silliphant's best television work was on Route 66, which he co-created with Herbert B. Leonard. Silliphant's teleplays on that show featured some of the elegant (but far from realistic) prose ever written for the small screen. For the most part, Longstreet seems far too straightforward for a Silliphant series, but some episodes were exceptions and the best example is the first one: "The Way of the Intercepting Fist."

James Franciscus and Bruce Lee.
It opens with Longstreet being assaulted in an alleyway by a crooked longshoreman and his cronies. A young Asian man named Li Tsung (Bruce Lee) fends off the attackers with an impressive display of martial arts. Later, Longstreet seeks out Li, an antiques dealer, and asks to become his martial arts student. Initially, Li refuses by saying: "The usefulness of a cup is its emptiness." However, he eventually relents and not only teaches Longstreet how to defend himself, but also about himself. The episode ends with Longstreet confronting and defeating the longshoreman. That act, we're led to believe, will end the villain's influence and lead the police to the businessman behind a large-scale hijacking scheme.

As with many of Silliphant's Route 66 episodes, the plot is secondary to the characters. It affords Lee the opportunity to describe jeet kune do, his "system" of martial arts and philosophy. In 1973's Enter the Dragon, Lee describes it succinctly as "the art of fighting without fighting." Still, it's this episode of Longstreet that includes perhaps Lee's best analogy: "Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. Now, if you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. Put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow, or creep or drip or crash. Be water, my friend."

Lee in Marlowe (1969).
If there is much of Bruce Lee in "The Way of the Intercepting Fist," that's no surprise as he worked on the script with Silliphant. The two had becomne friends after Silliphant sought out Lee in the late 1960s to learn martial arts. In fact, it was Silliphant who had Lee hired as fight choreographer and henchman in 1969's Marlowe. (Lee isn't in much of the movie, but has a most memorable encounter with James Garner.)

Lee earned strong reviews for his guest appearance on Longstreet and reprised his role in three more episodes. Yet, despite a likable cast and interesting setting (though the show was not shot on location like Route 66), Longstreet only lasted one season. Television audiences just didn't seem that interested in insurance investigators. (Despite that, George Peppard played one the following year in Banacek, though it only lasted for two seasons totaling 17 episodes.)

Meanwhile, Bruce Lee--who had previously rejected offers to make Asian "kung fu" movies--signed a contract with Raymond Chow to make two films. The first one, The Big Boss (aka Fists of Fury), was released the same year as his Longstreet appearances. It became an unexpected worldwide smash and made Bruce Lee an international star.

James Franciscus starred in two subsequent short-lived TV series: Doc Elliot (1973-74) and Hunter (1976-77). Interestingly, he later played a crooked politician in Good Guys Wear Black (1978), one of Chuck Norris' first martial arts films. Franciscus worked steadily in film and television until his death in 1991 at age 57 due to emphysema.

Posted by Rick29 at 8:35 PM 5 comments 

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