Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 581, August 1, 2010

"The definitive Nero Wolfe"

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Maury Chaykin as Nero Wolfe
Publicity photograph of Maury Chaykin as Nero Wolfe
in the A&E TV series A Nero Wolfe Mystery

Photo by John Medland, still photographer, for
Jaffe/Braunstein Films and the A&E Television Network

Maury Chaykin, 1949-2010
by L. Neil Smith

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Attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise

Maury Chaykin died this week on his 61st birthday, long before his time.

I first noticed him in Cutthroat Island, a big action picture starring Geena Davis, reputed to be the greatest box office flop of all time. Always out of step with the rest of my fellow human beings, I liked it very much and still do. Chaykin played a 17th century writer supposedly chronicling the exploits of the female pirate Morgan Adams.

I saw him next in Mystery Alaska, a hometown hockey movie in which he played an odd but likeable lawyer, and then he appeared as an unusual and interesting New York police detective in Art of War with Wesley Snipes. During the same period, he also played an insane U.S. Cavalry commander in Dances with Wolves and, incredibly, a sort of spacegoing hillbilly on Lexx but I didn't see them until a long time later.

What I remember Maury Chaykin best for, what he will be remembered for by everybody who cares about such things, is his portrayal of a famous private detective. Just as Jeremy Brett became the definitive Sherlock Holmes, displacing in their minds all others who came to the role before him, just as David Suchet became the definitive Hercule Poirot in exactly the same way, Chaykin became the definitive Nero Wolfe.

Reportedly, he was excited as a little kid to play Wolfe.

I'm not going to explain the Wolfe stories to those who don't know them. I'll make it a homework assignment they'll eventually love. I began reading the tales because my mother introduced me to them. They may be the most civilized, wise, and humane works of all 20th century fiction.

I have read each of the novels and collections aloud, at least twice, because it helped my wife and me get to sleep during another highly stressful period in our lives. I know the Wolfe lore well, and thought Chakin perfect to play Wolfe, just as I believed Timothy Hutton was perfect to play his assistant, legman, and goad, Archie Goodwin.

Rex Stout wasn't happy with the sloppy and inaccurate way the movies and TV treated his creation. After a couple of false tries in the 30s (Edward Arnold played Wolfe in one of them), he gave up on movies altogether. Thayer David played Wolfe a couple of years after Stout died. He's the actor who played "Mr. Dragon" in The Eiger Sanction. William Conrad (Cannon) played Wolfe in the early 80s, and it was an absolute travesty. Conrad's Wolfe leered at women (he avoids them in the stories), and didn't even bother to remove his beard.

Conrad had played Gunsmokes's Matt Dillon on the radio. I had considerably less respect for him after the butchered mess he made of Wolfe.

In those bleak times, B.C. (before Chaykin), I had always thought that the ideal individual to play Wolfe might have been Orson Welles, preferably with Cary Grant as his "legman" Archie. Even after the sad deaths of both great men, I looked ahead to a time when computers were sufficiently sophisticated to allow us to produce adventures like that.

Now I'm not so sure.

Chaykin brought to the role not only Wolfe's genius, his everyday quirkiness, but an infantile silliness Wolfe displays when he doesn't get his way, especially in the matter of his many creature comforts. There is a scene in one of the episodes where he engages in an argument with his personal chef Fritz Brenner over how many juniper berries should be used to garnish some venison steaks. That scene alone, is worth the price of admission. Timothy Hutton, I gather, is largely responsible for the production of the series, which appeared on A&E, and it is very probably his doing that Stout's books were treated—for the first time by TV or the movies—with such respect.

My favorite of the series is The Doorbell Rang, in which Wolfe is hired to thwart J. Edgar Hoover. My favorite of all the stories are Black Mountain, in which Wolfe—an agoraphobe who almost never travels even a few blocks—returns to his native Montenegro, and Death of a Dude in which he's compelled to go to Montana to rescue Archie.

Unhappily, neither was ever made into an A&E program, and now never will be. No matter. What's there is prime, and if I could, I'd say, goodbye, Maury Chaykin, and thank you for what you did so very well.

You will be badly missed.

[A good starting point is:

Seven Complete Nero Wolfe Novels

Kings Full of Aces: A Nero Wolfe Omnibus

and of course:

Nero Wolfe—The Complete Classic Whodunit Series (all 20 episodes on 8 DVDs)


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