The answer is: McCloud (Dennis Weaver), McMillan and Wife (Rock Hudson and Susan St. James), and Columbo (Peter Falk). The year is 1973. A few years earlier, NBC and Universal signed a multi-year deal to develop feature length mysteries for television. The “wheel” format was born. Sensing a winner, Campbell-Ewald inked a deal making Chevrolet the “presenting sponsor” of the Sunday Night Mystery Movie, as well as giving Chevrolet automotive exclusivity in the program. “Exclusivity” is an arcane term used years ago when a sponsor could purchase an exclusive sponsorship to lock out category competitors. Today a sponsor can’t even get the fall-back “ten minute separation” cushion. This was also back in the era when clients had some control over the programming. Before each episode was shot, we received a script to make sure there was nothing “objectionable” in the show. Also, no Chevrolet could be used depicting the commission of a crime, or in any other negative light. Chevy wasn’t the only one doing this. Did you ever notice that every car parked outside of Charlie’s office in “Charlie’s Angels” was a Ford?
To sweeten the deal, Chevrolet agreed to provide 40 loaner cars made up of different Chevrolet models. They were to be used as cars for the filming of the shows. They were generously sprinkled throughout each exterior scene. Everyone was happy. Until the start of the 1974 model year. Chevy was anxious for us to recall the current fleet and replace them with 1974 models. I was tasked with calling our Universal contact to arrange for the fleet to be returned to Chevy’s LA Zone Office. I was told that they would all be returned by the end of the following week. I informed Chevy. On the appointed day, I called Universal and was told that the cars had been returned. Late that afternoon, I was informed by the Zone that only 26 cars had been returned. I called Universal, and left a message for my contact. The following Monday I called him again. “Uhhhh, Mike, you only brought 26 back. We’re missing 14 vehicles.” Mike actually seemed surprised. “Tom, that was all of them. There aren’t anymore in our garage.” Hmmmm. “Mike, we’re missing 14 cars.” “Tom,” he said, “what’s the big deal? GM is a big company. What’s 14 stupid cars?” I instantly knew where they were. Universal heavy-breathers had gone to the production vehicle candy store and were personally driving the missing units. I’ll get back to you, Mike.” I called the Zone. They said that they would “handle it.” Two hours later, I received, via fax, a copy of a letter messengered to Mike at Universal. The letter listed the VINs (Vehicle Identification Numbers) of the missing cars. It also listed the model, color, and option package of each one. They were all Chevy Blazer 4X4s and Corvettes. Surprise, surprise, surprise!!! The letter went on to state that at 12:01 AM the following Wednesday, these units were being reported to the California Highway Patrol as stolen vehicles. Less than an hour later, I got a frantic call from Mike. The Universal lawyers were apoplectic. The missing cars had to be found. They couldn’t have some big exec arrested for driving a stolen vehicle.
The next day 12 of the missing 14 were turned in. We were still missing a Blazer and a Corvette. The Blazer was located at the Napa vineyard a Universal director. It was being put on a truck and shipped to the LA Zone. One to go. A fully-loaded 1973 orange Corvette. “Mike, GM’s gonna find it.” He was terrified. The next morning I got a call from a famous producer with the motion picture division of Universal. He had given the Corvette to his girlfriend as a “gift.” He explained that he couldn’t give it back as it was a gift to her. If he took it back, his girlfriend might do something crazy…like tell his wife! I explained to him how you can’t give things away that don’t belong to you. He then said that he’d pay for it. The Zone came up with a price…well above MSRP. The next day a cashier’s check was delivered to the Zone.
The bloom was now off the rose. Chevy was starting to put more money into sports programs like NCAA Football and NFL Monday Night Football, both on ABC. One of the nails in the Sunday Mystery Movie coffin came on january 27, 1974. That night’s episode of McMillan and Wife was about Rock Hudson’s character attending a reunion of his college football team. One by one, the attendees were being murdered. In one scene, an attendee is crossing the street when, suddenly, a car races around the corner and accelerates straight toward him. As the car approaches the poor soul, the Chevy bow tie logo is clearly scene on the grill of the advancing car. It was a 1974 Chevy Caprice. The murderer used it to run the man down. SPOILER ALERT!!!….the murderer turned out to be that legendary screen villain and evil-doer, Buddy Hackett. The following Monday morning was highlighted by many angry calls from GM and Chevy, as well as a lot of professional grade ass covering. The hit and run scene was in the script. Universal knew the rule about not using Chevy products with bad guys driving them. They had always obliged by having the villains drive Fords. Someone at Universal was getting even for the stolen car fiasco! Chevy did not renew their sponsorship of the Sunday Mystery Movie.
This did not, however, mean that Chevy was done loaning out cars. They became the “Official Vehicle” for the Glenn Campbell LA Open…now known as the Northern Trust Open. Several weeks after Buddy Hackettgate, I was told that some gentlemen from the LA Junior Chamber of Commerce were in the lobby to see me. Sensing the opportunity for a possible free lunch, I had them sent to my office. I was surprised by their mission. Apparently, someone in Detroit had given them my name as the LA Open contact. The Junior Chamber was the service organization handling the staging of the tournament. They presented me with a list of vehicle needs for the tournament. I had been told that we only needed one vehicle which was to be parked in front of the clubhouse. Not so. To get the “Official Vehicle” honor Chevy had to provide,in addition to a boatload of cash, 20 vehicles for “tournament officials” to use as courtesy vehicles. Here we go again! We scrambled to find 20 cars to loan them. I reminded them that Chevy kept records of the VIN numbers on each car.
The tournament went off without a hitch. Nineteen of the cars were returned within two days of the tournament’s finish. On Wednesday morning I received a call from the Chamber member who had given me the list. “Hey Tom,” he said, “uhhh, we want to bring the Chevy Caprice back, but there’s a slight problem.” Uh oh. “Last night we were kind of celebrating, and, uh, we were looking for a place to have dinner. We pulled up in front of The Palm and told the valet guy we didn’t have reservations and were going to just run in and check it out.” “And…..?” I queried. “Well, you see, we were in such a hurry, and we’d already stopped at a few places, that we all jumped out of the car and accidentally locked the keys in the ignition.” This wasn’t going to end well. “You see, the valet guys were getting mad because we were blocking the driveway, and we’d left the engine running. So we, so we found a rock and smashed out the driver’s side window to get back in the car. The door frame got dinged a little too. We’ll pay for all the damages. Sorry.” I told him that I’d call him right back and phoned our show car manager. “Don, we’ve got a slight problem. The Chamber guys smashed out the driver’s side window of the burgundy Caprice Classic with the white vinyl roof.” “Oh shark” (he really didn’t say shark), he screamed. I borrowed that car from Let’s Make A Deal. That’s the grand prize behind Door #2! They tape in three hours. We can’t have the door open up on an empty turntable.” There was no time to fix the car. I told the Chamber guy to deliver the car directly to the studio. We explained our predicament to their production people. Our solution was to have one of the models sit behind the wheel with her forearm resting on the doorframe…which had been cleared of glass, smiling broadly at the camera. If this didn’t work, I was sure that I was going to be saddled with the blame. The moment of truth arrived. Mrs. Fendeker, from Ottumwa Iowa, and dressed as an ear of corn, had to choose. “Don’t pick Door #2, don’t pick 2,” I prayed. She picked Door #3 and was on her way to Hawaii.
Next: “Baseball, Something, Apple Pie, and Chevrolet”