George Peppard may have played the suave insurance investigator for just two seasons in the retro series Banacek
Before he became popular as Colonel John ‘Hannibal’ Smith in the hit 80s TV show The A-Team, George Peppard appeared in the biggest flicks of the 1960s including Breakfast at Tiffany’s and How the West Was Won. However, between his journey from a film star to a TV legend, he had a pitstop as Banacek, the Polish American insurance investigator who loved to solve impossible thefts that were unusual, to say the least.
For two years and 17 episodes between 1972 and 1974, TV audiences around the world were mesmerised by the Boston-based suave private investigator who was tech-savvy, smart, and always spouting Polish proverbs, on the sidelines of cracking cases that baffled others. At a time when mobile phones were non-existent, Wikipedia wasn’t conceived and computers were huge in size, Banacek drove around in a limousine with a telephone, sought help from a resourceful friend, and sometimes even out-thought computers, all for his usual ten percent fee of recovered items.
Not only was Banacek able to win every case, but he also got the time to dine around in the finest of places, date the most beautiful women, and carry himself around like a prince, because of the wealth he accumulated over the years. The running gag about his name and its pronunciation was also something that stood out throughout the series and re-established Peppard as a TV star until The A-Team pushed him toward the position of a TV legend, but that was more than a decade later.
What was Banacek and why did the title character stand out among other TV detectives?
Banacek was one of the few series that was part of the NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie anthology and aired for two seasons between 1972 and 1974. It revolved around Peppard’s character Thomas Banacek, a Polish-American private investigator with a knack for solving seemingly impossible thefts. Since he is a freelancer, he collects 10% of the insured value of the recovered property from the insurance companies who at times unwillingly had to pay him up for his services.
Banacek’s chauffer Jay Drury (Ralph Manza) often cames up with his own solution to the thefts which are never worth anything. However, since he travels around with Banacek and is part of his investigations, Jay gets a 10% share of Banacek’s 10%, after the crime is solved and the item recovered. Banacek’s resourceful friend Felix Mulholland (Murray Matheson) is always (literally!) a call away and since he sells rare books in his shop, he can get any information, in any language for the central character. Add to that Banacek’s rival and one-and-off love interest Carlie Kirkland (Christine Belford), and you have a series with eccentric characters, and bizarre mysteries all rolled into one.
Banacek stood out against its competition back in the day because of the impossible mysteries it offered to the viewers. There was one episode in which an insured prototype supercar (think Knight Rider!) was being transported via train and disappeared during a non-stop journey whereas, in another, an insured football player disappeared in front of thousands of fans during a match aired live on TV. If that’s not intriguing enough, how about an armoured car loaded with gold bullion that went missing on a highway under the watchful eyes of police or a huge medical computer that seemed to have vanished from a secure building? Interesting, isn’t it?
What’s more interesting is the way Banacek retrieved these missing items as well as more stuff behind which was crazy considering it all happened 50 years earlier. In each case, the perpetrators seemed to forget that there was someone smarter than them who loved to crack cases at will; the more impossible the mystery, the more thrilling the reveal. Banacek wasn’t shabbily dressed like Columbo, wasn’t always looking for murder like Quincy, or wasn’t eccentric like Kojak but even then he got the job done. His superpower seemed to be his inability to trust anyone and that’s what helped him close cases in record time, before any rival investigator could even think of a possible solution.
Since most of the cases revolve around insured items, Banacek doesn’t resort to violence until provoked. Also, he only takes the cases he likes or finds interesting and that’s why most of the items he retrieves are expensive. It is because of his ability to solve ‘locked mysteries’, the second season saw the addition of the insurance company’s very own investigator Carlie Kirkland (Christine Belford) who tried hard to solve the cases before Banacek to save her employers from embarrassing themselves but fails every time. Not even seducing Banacek helped, because he always kept business and pleasure, apart.
How a typical Banacek episode began, and concluded?
Every Banacek episode begins with the theft and it is only after the deed was done that Banacek would make his appearance. In the beginning, he would be at par with the viewers who had the advantage of watching the crime being committed onscreen, and in one of the episodes, he also sees what the audience saw, yet he cracks the case long before the viewers. Banacek would only go on the hunt after he has informed the insurance agency about his willingness to participate in the hunt, and while many times they let him do his thing, at times they have a rival investigator nearby to solve the case before Banacek and save them the money they are supposed to give him.
Banacek conducts his investigation alone but when his chauffer Jay discusses a theory of his own regarding the crime, his boss only shoots it down in the next sentence, with valid reasons, of course. The investigator is not just shooting his driver down but also the many viewers who hope to solve the case before the central character. Thus begins a cat-and-mouse chase featuring the perpetrator and Banacek and while the former might have unlimited resources to commit the crime, Banacek has a wealth of information in the form of Felix who knows everything about everything, and everyone.
Despite all the distractions from technically his (sort-of) employers or beautiful women trying to outsmart him, Banacek always cracks the case before anyone and takes the finder’s fee. Not only does he explain how the theft was committed ― be it involving an insured football player who went missing from a huddle, or the disappearance of the $1 million text from a highly secured room ― but also why and by whom. He usually ends the episode by quoting a Polish proverb and what it means and although the proverb might not be real, the meaning usually sums up the adventure.
When crime-solvers and crimes were both characters in themselves!
Those who had seen Steve McQueen’s The Thomas Crown Affair might draw a comparison between Thomas Crown of the film, and Thomas Banacek, both of whom were played by these film stars. While Steve McQueen was popular for his cool demeanour in the 1960s and the 1970s, the younger Peppard was the ladies’ favourite because of his perfect features. Had Peppard not agreed to play the character, producers of Banacek might have opted for someone like him or McQueen considering they both had a magical effect on the fair sex.
Enough of the character, let’s talk about the ‘locked room’ mysteries, in which a crime takes place under a set of seemingly impossible circumstances. In each episode of Banacek, the theft that occurs onscreen seems to have been committed without outside help but by the time the case is solved, the reveal makes everything seem simple. My favourite episode remains the one where the football player vanishes from the huddle, or the prototype car is stolen from a train where the adjoining compartments have policemen as guards. However, it is the pilot where the disappearance of an armoured car from a highway makes the audience forget everything but to use their brain to find out what really happened, and how.
How Banacek is still relevant in Pakistan and how to watch it?
First thing first, the best way to watch Banacek legally in Pakistan is to ask a relative or a friend to bring its DVD from abroad otherwise other options are always available. Since there are only 17 episodes, it wouldn’t be very expensive, hence worth the investment. Secondly, the show is as relevant to Pakistan as any other American show made in the 1970s. If they didn’t use computers back then, we don’t use them today. In fact, technology in the America of 1970s was at par with that in Pakistan in 2023, hence we can relate to the shows, even after 50 years.
Secondly, since Pakistani TV producers aren’t very fond of crime thrillers, shows like Banacek are easily the best way to escape the saas bahu dramas that seem to dominate the local industry. The locked-room mysteries attract crime enthusiasts who love reading books and believe in conspiracies and feel that everything is not what it seems. The episode ‘If Max Is So Smart, Why Doesn’t He Tell Us Where He Is?’ will certainly quench their thirst big time because it involves the theft of a know-it-all medical computer from a secure building. Another episode where a racehorse disappears from the track or where an airliner vanishes after an emergency landing is something that doesn’t happen on Pakistani TV, hence it will grab the audience’s interest in no time. To quote a Polish proverb, like Banacek, “Though the hippopotamus has no sting in its tail, the wise man would prefer to be sat upon by the bee.” Be wise, and watch Banacek, otherwise, the hippopotamus would have no issue about sitting at all.