This is the greatest TV series you’ve never seen.
A one season wonder, a critical hit that never made an appreciable dent in the ratings, and as such was soon lost and forgotten.
“Out of the night comes a man who saves lives at the risk of his own. Once a circus performer – an aerialist who refused the net. Once a cat burglar – a master among jewel thieves. Now a professional bodyguard: Primitive – savage – in love with danger – T.H.E. Cat!”
At age 12 ½, T.H.E. Cat was exactly what the doctor ordered for young Buzz Dixon. While I’d absorbed a certain amount of knowledge on cool jazz and the beat generation through sheer osmosis, T.H.E. Cat was my first prolonged exposure to those intertwining currents of American pop culture.
My immediate response was
(a) how long has this been going on? and
(b) where can I find more?
Half-hour standalone dramas are extremely rare to come by on TV nowadays (home grown DIY YouTube webseries not withstanding) but back in the day they were common and popular.
Their advantage over hour long episodes was that they tended to be streamlined bits of efficiency, little wasted time and effort, characterization boiled down to sharp, vivid dialog, and scripts that crammed a lot into that thirty minute slot.
Thomas Hewitt Edward Cat (Robert Loggia) was different from most of the other TV show heroes of the era. They were creatures of light, even when their occupations as policemen and private eyes took them into darker corners of human nature.
T.H.E. Cat was a creature of the night; indeed, with only one memorable exception, I can’t recall an episode that didn’t take place almost entirely at night and almost entirely in the narrow streets / tiny alleys / dizzying architecture of The City.
He was not a “good” man,
not in the moral sense,
but he was ethical and dependable,
always faithful to his own code.
That code did not automatically include always informing the authorities of what he knew or had witnessed, or to adhering to the strict letter of the law depending on the circumstances (my first introduction to the concept of situational ethics).
One episode had him waiting patiently across the street with a sniper’s rifle, waiting for the one moment when somebody would open a window and he’d get one clean shot at the hostage taking killer.
Combat! and a few other military oriented shows might do a story about a sniper, but I can’t recall one pre-S.W.A.T. show where the police ever laid in ambush, much less deliberately killed their target instead of at least offering the chance to surrender first.
TV censors of the day wouldn’t permit it and only T.H.E. Cat’s spotty personal background enable him to be the only non-military character who could do it.
And that may explain why the show, despite being a critical success and a long time cult favorite, never picked up much of an audience when it was on.
Running at 9:30 on Friday nights, the audience that would be most likely to be entertained by it (i.e., older teens and young adults) were more likely out of the house and socializing with friends than at home watching TV.
At 12 ½ I was at the perfect age to appreciate the show while still being too young to go out alone on evenings.
The ambiguous morality of T.H.E. Cat resonated with my own coming of age questioning and introspection, and the questionable (albeit always heroic) ethics of the hero (or rather, the anti-hero) fit in easily with a lot of wondering I was doing about the world around me.
It proved to be a rather sharp and decisive break from the glorious Technicolor yet still morally black and white cop and PI shows found elsewhere.
The jazz ambiance was infectious, and seeing the musicians in their after dark shades and sharp suits — playing music that evoked emotions and feelings impossible to articulate otherwise — pretty much nailed the coffin shut in ever enjoying Lawrence Welk or Dean Martin without irony again.
I didn’t know what it was that the jazz musicians were doing,
but I did know whatever it was I wanted to be part of it,
and whatever it was that Welk and Martin were doing,
that wasn’t it.
T.H.E. Cat was created by Harry Julian Fink (who went on to create another epically morally ambiguous character: Dirty Harry) and produced by the grossly under appreciated Boris Sagal; Fink also wrote and Sagal directed several episodes.
It helps to understand the relationship of the three shows,
comparing and contrasting their specific points.
All three were about lone wolf (or in Loggia’s case, lone cat) operatives who had an uneasy alliance with the authorities and a base of operations in an after hours jazz club (“Mother’s” in Peter Gunn’s case, “Waldo’s” in Johnny Staccato, and “Casa Del Gato” in T.H.E. Cat).
Past that, they were pretty different. Peter Gunn was essentially an old school private eye, just with snazzier threads and better music. His episodes, particularly in the second and third seasons which were filmed at MGM and had full access to their prop / set / wardrobe / stock footage departments, look lush and opulent compared to the other two.
Despite this, even as a kid I always found Peter Gunn bland and talky, with the action beats delivered pretty perfunctorily and not as a truly organic part of the story (Johnny Staccato and T.H.E. Cat, on the other hand, could have violence suddenly flare up yet still seem logical and motivated).
Johnny Staccato seemed poverty row in comparison, and that worked to its advantage. Though filmed in Hollywood, Johnny Staccato took place in NYC, and the production company sent Cassavetes there to film various connecting shots of him going into / out of various buildings / cabs / subway stations / etc. As a result this gave Cassavetes’ more of a lonely, isolated feel than either Peter Gunn or T.H.E. Cat.
And as the character name implies, Johnny Staccato has a jagged, driving edge to him. Though described as a jazz musician who supplemented his income by serving as a sleuth or a bodyguard or a bag man, seen in modern light Staccato is clearly a drug user if not a full fledged junkie. His nervous, anxious energy simply cannot be contained, and I’m sure more than a few viewers of the era wondered what was wrong with him.
In the end, it’s probably just as well that Cassavetes enjoyed only a single season on TV and didn’t become a TV star; it would have probably ruined his unique talent as an actor and film maker in later years.
Still, the lineage is quite clear, and while Peter Gunn only imperfectly broke away from the old PI mode and Johnny Staccato was just too twitchy for its own good, T.H.E. Cat found that perfect sweet spot and became the epitome of cool.
 The exception was an episode that involved a car vs helicopter chase across the desert.
 The lead ins were Tarzan and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. at 7:30 and 8:30, followed by Laredo, a well made but by-the-numbers standard grade Western. There was a large audience segment that could enjoy those three shows but would find T.H.E. Cat to be a big bitter pill hidden in their bag of popcorn.
 Yes, Fink and Sagal had their hero operating out of a cat house. Apparently nobody at NBC Standards & Practices spoke Spanish.
 The image quality is only so-so, with blurry soundtrack and multi-generation VHS tape video, far too often in black and white instead of the original color, but ya know what? It actually works and enhances the raw, desperate feel of the original.