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10 crime-busting facts about 'The Untouchables'

This classic 1959–63 TV series has fascinating ties to Al Capone, Frank Sinatra, J. Edgar Hoover and… Bugs Bunny.

Image: The Everett Collection

G-Men, gats and golden guest stars. Is it any wonder that The Untouchables stood out as one of the premiere shows of the early 1960s? The 1959–63 series fictionalized the exploits of real-life crime-fighters and mobsters. Toting a Tommy gun and sporting a sharp suit, Robert Stack was a true action hero and role model in the lead as Eliot Ness. He and his boys took down bootleggers, bookies and crooks week after week.

The series proved to be a major hit for Desilu Productions — though it also caused some headaches for executive producer Desi Arnaz, the I Love Lucy star at the head of the studio. The behind-the-scenes story of The Untouchables could fit right in with one of its scripts, as Mafiosi, government figures and pop idols all tie into its fascinating tale.

Let's dive into this case file.

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1

Robert Stack was not the original actor in mind for Eliot Ness

The show was the work of Desilu Productions, and celebrity studio boss Desi Arnaz hoped to book Van Johnson in the lead role. However, Johnson, a former A-list movie star of the 1940s, wanted twice the salary. So Desilu instead looked to other actors, including Fred MacMurray and Jack Lord, who would instead go on to My Three Sons and Hawaii Five-O. Robert Stack, of course, eventually accepted the role, after some hesitation.

Image: The Everett Collection

2

It began as an episode of 'Desilu Playhouse'

The pilot movie for "The Untouchables" aired as a two-part installment of Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse in April 1959. The story was based in large part on the memoirs of real-life T-man Eliot Ness, and his quest to take down Al Capone, who was portrayed in the film by Iowa native Neville Brand. The two-hour tale was later repacked into a TV movie called The Scarface Mob. The show was picked up as a full series later that fall, though much of the cast around Stack was replaced.

Image: The Everett Collection

3

Italian-Americans protested the series — especially Frank Sinatra

Not everyone was impressed by the pilot, as it villified Italian-Americans and featured a cast of actors laying on thick, stereotypical accents. In addition, a faction of Italian-American congressmen, FCC head Newton Minow, Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York, and Frank Sinatra all criticized the show. For Sinatra, it was a little more close to home, as the singer had a production office on the Desilu lot. According to the book The Outfit, Mafia boss Sam Giancana "ordered" Sinatra to pay a visit to Desi Arnaz. The two Hollywood icons argued about the show. Arnaz insulted Sinatra, calling him a "television failure." Sinatra immediately moved his offices to Samuel Goldwyn Studios. The Untouchables, meanwhile, added an Italian-American hero and diversified the bad guys.

Image: The Everett Collection

4

J. Edgar Hoover was no fan, either

As head of the FBI, Hoover kept a long list of enemies, so The Untouchables was certainly in good company. Hoover was particularly upset at how Ness, an agent of the Department of Treasury, was depicted on television as having cracked cases which were the work of the FBI in real life. In particular, the second episode, "Ma Barker and Her Boys," shows Ness taking down Ma Barker. The FBI took her down in the real world, not Ness. Hoover convinced the producers to add a disclaimer on future reruns of the episode declaring that Ma Barker's end was brought about by the FBI.

Image: AP Photo / Byron Rollins

5

Ayn Rand wrote an essay defending the show

Objectivist icon and Atlas Shrugged author Ayn Rand stood up for the TV show, penning a think piece titled "The New Enemies of 'The Untouchables'". She cited the program's unflinching moral purpose, which is her philosophy in an nutshell.

Image: Associated Press

6

Desi Arnaz went to school with Al Capone's son

Albert "Sonny" Capone, Jr., pictured here in the center receiving an autograph from a Chicago Cub, had personal ties to Desi Arnaz, too. One year younger than the Cuban star, Sonny Capone attended St. Patrick Catholic School in Miami Beach, Florida. As some biographies tell it, the two were friends as teenagers.

Image: Associated Press

7

A Mafia hit man claimed that the mob tried to kill Desi Arnaz over of the show

Being chummy with the son of Scarface isn't worth much as an adult, it seems. Confessed Mafia hit man turned informant Aladema "Jimmy the Weasel" Fratianno once testified that he and other gangsters met at La Costa resort in California with plans to whack Desi Arnaz, due to the Mafia's displeasure over The Untouchables. However, another taped interview with Fratianno revealed the guy had never been to La Costa, and could not name its location. So, turns out, you might not be able to fully trust the word of a man named "Jimmy the Weasel."

Image: The Everett Collection

8

Bugs Bunny parodies the show with "The Unmentionables"

From weasels, we move on to wabbits. Warner Bros. produced a spoof called "The Unmentionables" in 1963 as part of its Merrie Melodies series. In the cartoon, Bugs played "Elegant Mess," a crime fighter taking on Rocky and Mugsy with a carrot.

Image: Warner Bros.

9

The was a tie-in comic book that explained FBI recruitment

Hoover might have huffed and puffed about the TV series, but the comic book adaptation did a good job promoting the FBI. The Dell Comics series featured pages such as this, which explained the requirements of a G-Man. He must be between 25–40, with 20/20 vision and a law degree, and at least 5' 7" in height.

Image: Dell Comics / Saved from the Paper Drive

10

Dozens of celebrities appeared on the show

When it comes to big-name guest stars, The Untouchables is, well, untouchable. Robert Redford, Peter Falk and Leonary Nimoy, seen here, are a mere few of the celebrities who turned up on the series. TV headliners like Telly Savalas, Barbara Stanwyck, Elizabeth Montgomery, Jack Klugman, Martin Landau and Ed Asner popped up, as did movie stars like James Caan, Charles Bronson and Rubert Duvall.

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