The Wisdom of Charlotte: Review – The Magician

Photo of Bill Bixby as Tony Blake from the television program The Magician
NBC Television, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Last year, as a birthday present to myself, I purchased a copy of “The Magician” on DVD. I had never seen the series, outside of a mention in the X-Files, until I found someone had uploaded episodes to YouTube. I liked what I saw and tried to buy a copy on Amazon, only finding that it had a US release but it was very hard to find, let alone buy. After some searching, I found one for sale on Ebay and bought it directly from America. It wasn’t cheap but not too extortionately priced to put me off the purchase.

For the uninitiated, The Magician was a US TV series that ran for two seasons from 1973 to 1974. It starred Bill Bixby as Anthony “Tony” Blake (his name in the pilot episode was Anthony Dorian but this was changed after a real entertainer called Anthony Dorian complained). Blake is a famous magician and illusionist with a back story identical to that of the Count of Monte Cristo. Ten years previously, he had been arrested in South America on a trumped up charge and thrown into prison. There he was shackled and met a man there and they escaped. This experience ignited an interest in escapology but his cellmate died and left Tony Blake all of his (considerable) wealth. The experience scarred him deeply and now, aside from the day job, he helps those in trouble or need.

In the first series, he lives in a Boeing 720 jetliner and drives a cool car (a helpful Puffin informed me it was a white Chevrolet Mako Shark) with a car phone.  He has help from an acerbic columnist called Max Pomeroy (played brilliantly by Keene Curtis) and his disabled son Dennis (Todd Crespi) who uses a wheelchair. The plane’s pilot, plane and car mechanic and all round investigative helper is a black guy called Jerry Anderson (Jim Watkins).

The pilot episode, “The Magician”, has Kim Hunter starring and is a good set up for the series. I love Kim Hunter as “A Matter of Life and Death” is my all-time favourite film. I wonder what happened to her after she made “Planet of the Apes” and it’s good to see her doing some TV stuff.

Season 1

The first series has some great episodes and a decent cast list. The stand out episodes for me in Season 1 are:

  • The Manhunters – Max Pomeroy’s life is in danger and it leads to an alcoholic, gambling addict played by Marlyn Mason. I will say the interaction between Marlyn Mason and Bixby is rather charming, especially the scene where he’s spraying water into her face to sober her up. The banter in that scene (which appears improvised in places) is quite amusing, especially as Bixby can’t stop laughing at her.
  • Lightning on a Dry Day – A hospital patient becomes disturbed by Tony’s magic act and the investigation uncovers some very dark deeds in a small town. The episode is notable as we have a pre-Star Wars Mark Hamill playing the hospital patient. A good story with a few twists and turns.
  • Man on Fire – During an argument with her boyfriend, a woman falls and dies. Her boyfriend is co-erced into stuffing her body into a suitcase and throwing it in a lake. He is then blackmailed. Another really decent story with lots of action.

Notable here is the appearance of the British actress, Jane Merrow. Merrow is best known for being a stock ITC actress in the 60’s. If you watch any of the ITC shows at the time, she’s in at least one or more episodes. She was also nominated for a Golden Globe for her role as Alys in the 1968 film “The Lion in Winter”. She moved to the US in around 1970/71 and worked there until the 1980’s. She and Bixby would meet again when she starred in an episode of the Incredible Hulk.

  • Lady in A Trap – Tony meets a rather ditzy curator/librarian and then rescues her when she’s thrown overboard by her boyfriend. The investigation leads to a major investigation into the theft of a valuable copy of Machiavelli’s, “The Prince”. An enjoyable episode this.

Season 2

It was “all change” in Season Two. Tony Blake was re-located to living above The Magic Castle in a penthouse. This really doesn’t work for me, as I liked the whole idea of him living in a plane which made the plots and locations more flexible. All of his associates disappear aside from Jerry Anderson. Introduced is a new character called Dominick (Tony Sirola) who is the manager of the Magic Castle. I like Dominick but he’s more of a lightweight than Max Pomeroy. Dominick is likeable and the interplay between him and Bixby is rather good.

The lift to Tony Blake’s flat plays some fairground tune that, quite frankly, would have driven me insane every time I used it. I would have magicked it away with a sledgehammer within a week. There is also an appearance of an owl that sits there staring a lot but doing very little (a job on EastEnders awaits). However, it adds to the “mystical” décor of the penthouse flat.

The episodes are watchable but you do feel that not enough effort was put into either the storyline and/or scripts by then. The actors sometimes appear that they are struggling against the dialogue and the plots. There are still a good few watchable episodes here:

  • The Illusion of the Queens Gambit– Tony is performing on the Queen Mary when robbers interrupt his act. His friend, Ed Cassidy is blamed and Tony must prove his friend’s innocence.

It’s a good romp of a storyline. All I need to say here is that William Shatner stars as Ed Cassidy. ‘Nuff said. Full of Shatner wonderfulness for you “Captain Kirk” fans.

  • The Illusion of the Fatal Arrow – A hitman is murdering people with a bow and arrow. Tony partners with a psychic who accurately predicts the first death. This is quite an interesting storyline and has lots of twists and turns. The psychic is played by the British actress, Pamela Franklin. I know her only from her appearance in The Strange Report (another ITC series).

Like Jane Merrow, she and her British husband, moved to the States in 1970. They still live there and now run a bookshop.

  • The Illusion of the Cat’s Eye – Tony is called in to investigate the theft of a valuable Egyptian artefact from a museum. Not a bad storyline although a little predictable in places.
  • The Illusion of the Lost Dragon – Tony is asked by an old friend to find a sacred jade dragon which has been stolen from a friend in Chinatown. The story is a bit “Kung Fu meets the Talons of Weng Chiang” but without the decent scripts. Still very enjoyable though.

It’s Magic

Bill Bixby was a keen amateur magician and, on agreeing to take the role, insisted on performing all of the tricks and illusions himself. The announcement over the opening title for Season Two states that no trick photography was used in the making of the series and that Bill Bixby performs all the tricks himself.

Bixby’s technical adviser was a magician called Mark Wilson. He appears in Season Two performing his own magic tricks as well as helping Bixby with his.

I am quite in awe of Bixby’s magical skills. He performs sleights of hand, mind tricks and stage illusions with real professionalism. If he hadn’t been an actor, or got fed up of acting, he would have made a great magician.

The series shows quite a number of magical tricks including, sawing a woman in half, escapology, card tricks, animal tricks and disappearing acts. I am not a fan of magic per se, but this has really ignited a real joy of watching skilled craftsmen at work.

In Summary

If you can buy the DVD and you don’t mind the cost, I would recommend it. It seems to be rarer than hen’s teeth to get hold of now, so I must have been lucky.

I can’t understand why this series has never been shown again on network TV. It was produced by CBS or Paramount so shouldn’t have any issues that way. I’m hoping Talking Pictures TV or Forces TV consider showing it, as it is a really decent series that deserves an airing.

Not that I care about such things, but it’s got diversity, no offensive language, no gratuitous sex scenes or nudity. It’s entertaining and engaging, the magic is great and the acting is good. What is not to like here?

I was surprised to discover that the idea for the series came from Bruce Lansbury, the brother of the Hollywood actress, Angela Lansbury. Lansbury later went on to work with his sister on “Murder She Wrote”.

For those of us who love the 70’s, it has plenty of nostalgia to excite us with. There’s more sheepskin and leather being worn to make the animal activists heads explode.

Those 70’s tight trousers on the men don’t leave much to the imagination for sure. After eating half a packet of Galaxy Counters and drinking two mini bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream, I started to ponder if they even wore underpants in them as there wasn’t much room to spare. But enough of the porno…back to the series.

Flares, long skirts, flowing dresses, long, pointed collar shirts and kipper ties. It has the lot for all of you 70’s fiends. I can only describe some of Bill Bixby’s shirts as being “psychedelic to the point of inducing a seizure” level. In fairness, he looks really great in a tux or a waistcoat.

I love this series immensely. The more I watch it, the more it grows on me. It had an effect on Chris Carter, the creator of the X-Files, as it is the programme Fox Muldur is watching when his sister is abducted by aliens. It was my first real exposure to the series as I can’t remember “The Magician” being shown on UK TV or perhaps I was too young to have noticed.

That is my appraisal and I hope you Puffins enjoy it as much as I have done watching it.

© Middleearthbarbie 2021

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