The CBS legal drama “The Defenders” debuted in 1961, when TV was being described as a “vast wasteland.” But it would be right at home in the era of peak TV.
The series starred E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed as a father-and-son team of defense attorneys who tackled complex legal and social issues on a weekly basis. It won 13 Emmy Awards during its four-year prime-time run.
Yet most fans of the current wave of quality TV have likely only gotten a glance at the series in clips used in the 2008 season of “Mad Men.” Ad agency Sterling Cooper attempts to persuade a client to buy discounted commercial time on “The Defenders” after its regular sponsors drop out of a show that deals with abortion. The plot line is based in reality.
The full abortion-themed episode, called “The Benefactor,” and the rest of the first season of “The Defenders” are finally seeing the light of day in a DVD box set released in July by Shout! Factory. While the series has been revived once as a Showtime movie, the original has remained on the shelf since a brief syndication run in the 1960s.
Producer Herb Brodkin changed the name and developed the play into a series, casting stage veteran Marshall as Lawrence Preston, an august, analytical attorney. Reed played his idealistic and at times brash son Kenneth, fresh out of Harvard Law School. They often debated the moral and ethical aspects of their work and occasionally experienced defeat in the courtroom.
“The Defenders” first went into production in 1960, and spent months in limbo as its high-minded approach did not ascribe to the “broads, bosoms and fun” formula favored by then CBS president James Aubrey. But the series had a fan in the network’s founder, William Paley. He added “The Defenders” to the 1961-62 lineup, staving off growing criticism in Congress and at the Federal Communications Commission over TV’s lack of quality fare. By that time, the aspirations of TV’s first golden age had largely given way to the Hollywood studios, which supplied the networks with westerns and caper shows filled with pretty-boy stars. “The Defenders” countered that trend. Filmed in New York, the series used Broadway players and Actors Studio members, who brought authenticity and ethnic diversity to the guest casts in most weeks. Martin Sheen and James Earl Jones landed their earliest TV roles in the first season.
Brodkin was a notoriously frugal producer who contained most of the action in “The Defenders” to the courtroom. The show’s visual style was defined by tight close-ups of the actors because it was said to be the only way Brodkin could enjoy it through the snowy over-the-air TV reception in his Greenwich Village apartment.
But Brodkin was a formidable supporter of his producers and writers as they explored provocative issues during an era of prime-time timidity and “The Benefactor” cemented its legacy in that arena. In the script, written by Oscar-winner Peter Stone, the Prestons take up the case of an esteemed physician who gives up his lucrative practice to devote himself to providing women with safe and inexpensive, albeit illegal, abortions after his own daughter died from a botched procedure.
The companies that sponsored “The Defenders” each week wanted no part of a TV episode that offered a frank depiction of a polarizing subject. CBS executives stood firm on running the episode – even without advertiser support and the defection of 10 affiliate stations. Eventually, Speidel Corp. – maker of the Twist-O-Flex watchband -- stepped in to buy the vacated commercial time on the episode.
After CBS aired “The Benefactor” on April 28, 1962, Brodkin told the Los Angeles Times that viewer mail he received about the show ran 90% favorable. Fifty-four years later, abortion is legal, but it’s still rarely mentioned in scripted TV programs and remains a radioactive topic for advertisers.
Other shows were inspired by “The Defenders” to attempt bold portrayals of hot-button issues, most notably “East Side/West Side,” which starred George C. Scott as a social worker. It was a short-lived trend. After President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, the TV audience gravitated toward more escapist shows for the rest of the decade. But over 132 episodes, “The Defenders” offered viewers an early glimpse of what risk-taking, quality TV could deliver.