Young John(ny) Williams and the Best Main Title Sequence in Television History.

Running between 1960 and 1962 for 70 episodes, Checkmate was way-above-average TV detective fare. In a three-man San Francisco agency that didn’t solve crimes but rather tried to prevent them before they happened (clients would come to them saying, “Someone’s trying to kill me but I don’t know who.,” etc.), Anthony George played the serious, hard-working one, Doug McClure played the blond, dashingly good-looking one, and Sebastian Cabot played the intellectual criminologist one.

The show was created by the British spy novelist extraordinaire Eric Ambler, who was married to Joan Harrison, who was Alfred Hitchcock’s TV producer. She may have had something to do with Checkmate, uncredited. The guest stars also were a cut above. They included, over the course of the show, Charles Laughton, Peter Lorre, Elizabeth Montgomery, Claire Bloom, Lee Marvin, Joan Fontaine, Patricia Neal, James Coburn, Julie London, and others.  (Incidentally, the show came from Jack Benny’s production company, Jamco! This may explain why some of the guest stars also showed up on Benny’s program around the same time.)

In addition to these elements, the show had a fascinating main title sequence with music by John Williams, who then was going by the name Johnny. (In the YouTube video, skip ahead to about the 2:45 mark, if you like, for a gander at a few seconds preceding the title sequence, followed by the title sequence.) A noirish, suspenseful, exciting, foreboding, rhythmically tense and neurotic big-band jazz theme by Williams played over a black-and-white closeup image of oil swirling through water. An IMDB commenter says the sequence was designed by Saul Bass. I can’t confirm that, but it’s certainly good enough to have been:

A soundtrack LP of Williams’ Checkmate music came out at the time, which I acquired then and which to this day is one of the most treasured albums in my collection; every theme is memorable, and the arrangements are modal big band jazz of the very highest rank. Film Score Monthly reissued it on CD a few years ago. Once or twice you hear hints of Henry Mancini (who pioneered jazz TV scoring the year before with Peter Gunn, and who used Williams as the pianist on his tracks), but the music bears Williams’ highly individualistic stamp. And that main theme is a killer.

And good news. The complete series comes out on DVD on June 22.


One Comment on “Young John(ny) Williams and the Best Main Title Sequence in Television History.”

  1. Glad you mentioned this until lately forgotten, but excellent TV show. I am just old enough to have a vague memory of it. I’m glad the complete series is coming out. I bought a 6-disc “Best of Checkmate” a couple years ago and thoroughly enjoyed seeing episodes that were all new to me. A young Doug McClure and the inimitable Sebastian Cabot were excellent, but so was Anthony George, a prototypically early sixties’ guy who sadly got little more than small parts afterwards. The show featured an impressive roster of guest stars like Charles Laughton, Anne Baxter, Patricia Neal, and Mickey Rooney. And, of course, you’re right: the music was great.

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