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Wolfe Fans: Interview with TV's Archie Goodwin

Brian Sheridan

One Too Many
Erie, PA
Below is the article I wrote for the new issue of "The Gazette: The Journal of the Wolfe Pack." It is an interview with Lee Horsley, the first actor to play Wolfe's Man of Action in a weekly TV series. He is probably better know for his follow-up role as "Matt Houston." Learn more about the Wolfe Pack at www.nerowolfe.org. I am hoping to write another piece looking at the clothes Goodwin wore in the Stout novels.

By Brian Sheridan

American Nero Wolfe fans had their dreams come true in 1981, when the NBC network allowed viewers a weekly, prime time visit to the infamous New York brownstone on West 35th street. The series also realized the dream of the Lee Horsley, the actor playing Wolfe’s “man of action,” Archie Goodwin, to become a full-time working actor.

“What a blast from the past,” Horsley recently said when asked about playing Archie, over 25 years after being cast in his first major role.

Horsley, who hails from Muleshoe, Texas, had been scraping by as an actor in New York City, hoping for that big break. “I was on my last leg, eating chicken wings every night, and trying to get work”, recalled Horsley.

His agent called him with possible work - but it wasn’t to play Archie. NBC had a mini-series they were casting called “The Gangster Chronicles.” Horsley flew to Los Angeles to test but did not get a role in the production.

“I felt good about it (the test) but I didn’t get it (the role). I was totally deflated,” said Horsley. “I thought ‘that was that’ but my agent said that NBC still really likes me. About six months later, they called and wanted me to come out and test for Archie Goodwin.”

Horsley was not TV’s first Archie Goodwin. Tom Mason played him in a 1977 “Made for TV” movie that starred Thayer David as Wolfe. David died a year later so the pilot never became a series. The movie would air on the ABC network in 1979, dumped unceremoniously into late-night. Paramount Television produced that film and still wanted Wolfe as a weekly series. Luckily for Horsley, they wanted a new face for Goodwin. Horsley, however, had to first win the part.

“I first read for it in New York and they (NBC) sent me to Los Angeles. I got all excited because, it being so early in my career, anything with a first class plane ride on it, I thought was heaven. I thought it was definitely the big time,” says Horsley.

Horsley said the first thing he did before the big test was visit a bookstore and buy a stack of the Stout novels. Though he had previously read “The Golden Spiders,” the books captivated the actor who would soon step into the gumshoes of the most famous legman this side of Dr. John Watson.

“I thought they (the books) were fantastic,” said Horsley. “I loved the way they were structured. It was perfect. I loved the characters.”

Screen tests narrowed the choice of Goodwin down to Horsley and Edward Albert Jr., the son of “Green Acres” star Eddie Albert. Albert already had a long acting resume. Horsley had no TV experience; however, executives picked him to co-star with William Conrad as Wolfe.

Horsley recalls he did not have much time to celebrate his big break. “Within twenty minutes of the last test, I went home, changed my clothes, and they sent me to the barber shop on the Paramount lot to chop off my hair. I was back on plane to New York to do stock footage and title shots.” He quickly returned to Paramount studios where the series began filming.

“Nero Wolfe” debuted as a mid-season replacement on Jan 16th with an adaptation of “The Golden Spiders.” Reactions were mixed. Stout purists disliked Conrad’s portrayal of Wolfe, from his laugh to his beard, and they were appalled by the changes made to the original stories. Horsley received good reviews as Archie, some even saying his looks perfectly fit the character. He couldn’t have been happier.

“We had a lot of fun with it,” he says. “Archie was good at a wisecrack now and then. I think we played it a little more tongue in cheek but that is really what made it so much fun. We had to update the dialogue but the feeling of the whole show captured the era when the books were written.”

Horsley remembers the great care the art director, set designers and wardrobe people took to create an atmosphere straight out of the novels. “I could not believe the clothes, especially the few times Wolfe ventured out of the brownstone. He had canes tipped with silver-headed dogs. The sets also were just amazing. It was so great to go into work.”

He also enjoyed working with his co-star, William Conrad. “He took me under his wing,” Horsley remembers. “I couldn’t have asked him to be any nicer. We would get together off-set. We both loved to fish, so we had lots of talk about other than show business.” He says the relationship away from the cameras helped create that special “father-son” bond between Archie and Wolfe for the show.

While some fans complained about how Conrad acted as Wolfe on-screen, Horsley does say his off-screen behavior fit the character perfectly. “He was definitely Nero Wolfe down to the toes. He was very brusque and demanding at times.”

Wolfe always left his desk for the plant rooms at 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Conrad also had a similar schedule.

“I remember the days when he would shoot the final scene (of an episode) when Wolfe called all the suspects together,” says Horsley. “Bill (Conrad) had in his contract that he would only work so many hours a day. If the clock struck whatever, and it was time for him to go, he’d put on his bedroom slippers and he was gone. It didn’t matter if we were in the middle of a scene or not. He loved the work but he was that way. When he decided he didn’t want to play anymore, that was it. We’d have to figure it out how to shoot the rest of the scene just to get it done.”

Unfortunately, despite the talent involved, the series never caught on with the public. NBC cancelled it but the network did telecast all 14 episodes something that is rarely done today. The final show aired on June 14th, 1981. Though not a ratings hit, the series did receive two Emmy nominations; for Outstanding Cinematography For a Series, and Outstanding Sound Mixing.

Today, Horsley says he most remembers the people he worked with on the series. From Conrad on down to the crew members, he says it taught him how to be a television actor.

“I remember the camera scared me so badly, instead of going to my trailer in between scenes, I would sit and watch. I would talk to our wonderful director of photography, Charles Short. He taught me so much. It got me comfortable in front of the camera,” says Horsley.

It also led to a bigger hit for Horsley. He followed up “Wolfe” a year later, playing the lead in another detective series, Aaron Spelling’s “Matt Houston.” The series ran for three years on ABC.

Today, Horsley still acts but says he is at an in-between age (53) where he is too old for some roles but too young for character parts. He has branched off into hosting cable shows about things he loves to do, fishing and bull riding, as well as writing Western novels.

As for Archie Goodwin, today’s TV viewers may see him as actor Timothy Hutton from the critically acclaimed A&E cable network adaptations of Stout’s work. Has Horsley compared Hutton’s Goodwin to his own? He says he doesn’t do that and holds Hutton in the highest regard as an actor.

“I saw only two of the (A&E) shows,” he says. “Character-wise, and the way it was shot, Hutton was much more introspective in how he played Archie. He was wonderful. I think it was just different interpretations. I don’t know if that was directorial or choices he made. I found it interesting but just different.”

He hasn’t even seen his own “Nero Wolfe” shows until about a year ago when a fan sent him copies taped from TV Land. He recalls the experience being a wonderful training ground, where he met many creative and generous people who gave him valuable insight into the creative process of acting. If it also helped sell more Rex Stout novels, Horsley today finds that - in the words of Wolfe- “very satisfactory.”


A-List Customer
Houston, Texas
This does not bode well for me.

I have autographed pictures from Peter Falk and Tony Shaloub. I am only missing a Hutton & Chaykin to complete my trifecta of favorite TV detectives.

One day, one day...

Brian Sheridan

One Too Many
Erie, PA
Kermez said:
I have autographed pictures from Peter Falk and Tony Shaloub. I am only missing a Hutton & Chaykin to complete my trifecta of favorite TV detectives.

One day, one day...

Wouldn't that be a quad-fecta?lol

I just an autographed copy of Robert Wagner's book. Alexander Mundy, Peterson Ryan, and Jonathan Hart...what a cool guy!

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