Car 54, Where Are You

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Car 54, Where Are You?

The situation comedy Car 54, Where Are You?, which ran on NBC from 1961 to 1963, occupies a unique place in television history. While it is a truly humorous look at the shenanigans of the police officers assigned to the fictional 53rd precinct in the Bronx, it is most often remembered as a minor cult classic filled with performers better known from other series and for its catchy opening theme song. The show focused on patrol-car partners Gunther Toody (Joe E. Ross) and Francis Muldoon (Fred Gwynne) as they attempted to serve and protect the citizens of New York. A more unlikely pairing of police officers had never been seen on television. Toody was a short and stocky, often slow-witted, talkative cop, and Muldoon was a tall and gangly, usually laconic, intellectual. Episodes were filled with the usual sitcom fare as the partners' bumbling caused misunderstandings within their squad, such as the time Toody attempted to make a plaster cast of a fellow patrolman's aching feet and chaos ensued. Each week the pair caused their superior, Captain Block, to become infuriated as they made more trouble for the Bronx than they resolved.

In many respects, Car 54, Where Are You? can be considered somewhat of a sequel to the popular 1950s sitcom You'll Never Get Rich, which is also known as The Phil Silvers Show. That series, created by writer-producer-director Nat Hiken and starring comedian Phil Silvers as Sergeant Bilko, focused on the misadventures of an oddball assembly of soldiers at Fort Baxter, a forgotten outpost in Kansas. Hiken was a gifted writer who had worked on Fred Allen's

radio show and later contributed to Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater. The Silvers show had been a great hit as Sgt. Bilko and his motor pool staff schemed, gambled, and tried to avoid all types of work. When that series ended in 1959, Hiken decided to translate some of its comic sensibility to another setting. Like its predecessor, Car 54 was a series about men who failed to live up to the dignity of their uniform. Unlike the schemers of Fort Baxter, however, the police of the 53rd precinct were trying their best—though often failing. Hiken filled the series with many performers featured on the earlier show. Joe E. Ross had played Mess Sergeant Rupert Ritzik "the Lucretia Borgia of Company B." The character of Gunther Toody was an exact replica of the Ritzik character even down to his trademark expression of "oooh-oooh-oooh." Toody's nagging wife Lucille was played by Beatrice Pons, the actress who had appeared as Mrs. Ritzik. Fred Gwynne, who had been a Harvard educated advertising man, was also a featured player on the Bilko show. Furthermore, many of the other officers had been seen as soldiers at the mythical Fort Baxter.

The core of the series was the great friendship Toody and Muldoon had forged from their many years patrolling the streets in Car 54. Their contrasting natures had meshed perfectly despite the fact they had absolutely nothing in common. Author Rick Mitz best captured their relationship when he described the pair by noting, "Toody was the kind of guy who would say that he thought he should get a police citation for 'having the cleanest locker.' Muldoon was the kind of guy who would say nothing." Many episodes took place away from the police station and explored the partners' home lives. Toody and his frustrated wife often included the shy bachelor into their evening plans. One of the series' best episodes centered on Toody's mistaken idea that Lucille and Muldoon were having an affair. Surrounding them was a cast of top character actors including Paul Reed, Al Lewis, Charlotte Rae, Alice Ghostley, and Nipsey Russell. Many of these performers would later graduate to star in their own TV shows. All the characters on the program depicted an ethnic reality little seen on early television. Toody's Jewishness and Muldoon's Irish-Catholic background were more realistic than the bland characters, with no discernable heritage, seen on other programs. The series was also distinguished by Hiken's decision to film on the streets of New York. Sets were constructed on the old Biograph Studio in the Bronx. For street scenes, Toody and Muldoon's patrol car was painted red and white to indicate to New Yorkers that it was not actually a police vehicle. In black-and-white film, Car 54's unique colors looked identical to the genuine New York police vehicles.

When it premiered in 1961, the series caused some controversy after several police associations claimed it presented a demeaning picture of police officers. The police department in Dayton, Ohio dropped their own Car # 54 from the fleet after constant teasing from the public. However, most viewers understood the series was intended as a satire that bore little relation to the lives of actual police officers. Viewers' affection for the show was evident in Nyack, New York where a patrol car stolen from the police station parking lot was nicknamed "Car 54." The series ended in 1963 after failing to match the success of Hiken's earlier Phil Silvers program. Neither Nat Hiken, who died in 1968, nor Joe E. Ross, who passed away in 1982, ever again achieved the limited success they found with Car 54. Following the show's cancellation, Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis (who played Sgt. Schnauzer) achieved TV immortality playing "Herman" and "Grandpa" on the monster sitcom The Munsters. Gwynne died in 1993.

The sitcom Car 54, Where Are You? is an energetic series that never really attained a mass audience. Its presentation of the misad-ventures of Officers Toody and Muldoon gained a small cult audience that only expanded after the series began to be replayed on cable's Nick at Night network. An awful 1994 movie version update of the show (which was filmed in 1991) starred David Johansen and John C. McGinley as Toody and Muldoon. It also featured rising stars Rosie O'Donnell and Fran Drescher. Viewers of the original sitcom can ignore the film and enjoy a quirky short-lived series that offers an amusing update of the Keystone Kops. Furthermore, after one viewing it's almost impossible to forget that opening theme, which began: "There's a holdup in the Bronx /Brooklyn's broken out in fights /There's a traffic jam in Harlem that's backed up to Jackson Heights…."

—Charles Coletta

Further Reading:

Brooks, Tim. The Complete Directory to Prime Time TV Stars. New York, Ballatine Books, 1987.

Castleman, Harry, and Walter Podrazik. Harry and Wally's Favorite TV Shows. New York, Prentice Hall Press, 1989.

Mitz, Rick. The Great TV Sitcom Book. New York, Perigee, 1983.