I mentioned George Murdock when I wrote about Don Calfa and Oliver Clark on Barney Miller. He is one of those faces that I love to see show up in my reruns because given the kind of reruns I watch, I’m pretty sure I know who he’s going to be in the context of the episode. Mr. Murdock has a knack for playing insufferable, arrogant men of authority. Obviously, he didn’t always play these sorts of characters (and it throws me off when I he doesn’t), but I’d be lying if I said that this isn’t when I like him best.
For all of his 200+ credits on IMDB, he only had a few regular or minor recurring roles on TV. He was Captain Krupnik on No Time for Sergeants; Frank Devon on It Takes a Thief; Cavanaugh on Banacek; Dr. Salik on Battlestar Galactica; Laslo Gaboy on What a Country; The 2nd Elder on The X-Files; Judge Andrew Walker on 14 episodes of Days of Our Lives (a mere blink in soap time, but I think it’s still worth a mention); and he was Lt. Ben Scanlon on Barney Miller.
Scanlon is a great example of the kind of character that Mr. Murdock had a gift for playing. Scanlon worked for internal affairs. He was a cop, so he was technically a good guy, but he spent his time trying to get Barney and the men of the 12th in trouble, so he wasn’t THAT good. He was an insufferable, gruff, irritant and you love to see him get his comeuppance.
The curious thing is that his guest spot as Master Sgt. Reville in the “Group Home” episode which also guest starred Don Calfa came after he’d already played Scanlon in one episode in the previous season. He then proceeded to play Scanlon in every subsequent appearance, including the series finale.
Though Scanlon was a pretty unlikable character in his own way, George Murdock had a challenge in playing Sgt. Reville in “Group Home”. He comes in to report a bombing threat on the recruiting station and finds himself working with Nick. Reville, a WWII vet, isn’t shy about his prejudiced dislike towards the Japanese detective. This character has the potential to be deeply unpleasant, but Mr. Murdock is able to show Reville for the joke that he is. Reville asking why anyone would want to blow up an American military instillation and Nick replying with, “Nostalgia,” is one of my favorite jokes. This might be the first time Nick has dealt with Reville, but not the first time he’s encountered an anti-Japanese bigot.
As I mentioned in the Don Calfa and Oliver Clark post, most of Mr. Murdock’s time is spent building up to the entrance of Don Calfa’s character, particularly his rather disgusting cough. He lays the groundwork for the punchline of Calfa’s character and he does so well.
When Reville leaves, Nick informs him that he also served in the army as part of the Nisei Division, which was made up almost entirely of Japanese-American men who’d been put into interment camps by the US government. There’s no great Coming-to-God moment for Reville -this is a cop comedy after all- but the joke he makes about Nick not caring who won the war has much more friendly tones for the character to leave on than what he entered with. George Murdock runs that gamut beautifully.
One of his other memorable guest spots is in a Season 3 episode of Hawaii Five-O called “The Gunrunners”. Okay, full disclosure, it’s probably only memorable to me because he’s a bit gruff, but he’s not acting like a pompous ass. He’s actually the voice of reason! I went into the episode fully expecting him to be behind the shenanigans in some capacity and…he wasn’t. He wasn’t exactly what you might call a completely good guy -he and his partner (who was behind the shenanigans) were legal arms dealers- but he was pretty good in comparison.
It seems that George Murdock frequently played law enforcement characters, graduating to judges in later years, and therefore showed up on a lot of cop shows including Mod Squad, Adam-12 and The New Adam-12, Ironside (once a season except for the last, playing different characters each time), The FBI, Police Woman, Police Story, Lanigan’s Rabbi, The Streets of San Francisco, Hill Street Blues, T.J. Hooker, The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo, CHiPs, McCloud, Dragnet ’89, Law & Order, and CSI.
He also showed up in plenty of legal shows including The New Perry Mason, Night Court, Judging Amy, and Eli Stone.
He privately investigated on Banyon, Longstreet, Hec Ramsey, Mannix, 77 Sunset Strip, Harry O, The Rockford Files, The New Mike Hammer and Mike Hammer Private Eye, The Law and Harry McGraw, and Scarecrow and Mrs. King; got soapy on Dynasty and General Hospital; saddled up on Rawhide, Death Valley Days, The Wild Wild West, Cimarron Strip, The Virginian, and Gunsmoke; went to war on Combat! and went wild on Tarzan; got bold on The Bold Ones: The New Doctors and The Bold Ones: The Lawyers; checked in on Ben Casey, Trapper John MD, Chicago Hope, and ER; entertained talking cars on Knight Rider and Team Knight Rider; spied on I Spy and Search; tangled with extraordinary fellas on The Invisible Man and The Six Million Dollar Man; got laughs on Bosom Buddies, Seinfeld, Dave’s World, The Nanny, Malcolm & Eddie, The Gregory Hines Show, and Just Shoot Me!; got a little ESP on The Sixth Sense and The Dead Zone; tangled with wolves on Lucan, magic on The Magician, meddling kids on The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, robots on Small Wonder, the Duke Boys on The Dukes of Hazzard, and Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote; went out of this world on The Twilight Zone, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Smallville, and Torchwood; spun off on spin-offs Fish, Benson, and Lou Grant; and he even got animated on Batman: The Animated Series.
George Murdock had a knack for playing a variety of characters, but that gruff voice and demeanor lent itself so well to playing a tough, arrogant irritant that it’s hard to imagine him playing anything else, and yet he does so well.
And we’re all better for it.