The Mod Squad: “We Spy”
by Marguerite Krause, originally published in the ORACLE newsletter
When René talks about his TV guest star roles, he often expresses appreciation for the first such role he ever did, on the hour-long police drama The Mod Squad. That show, like many that followed, was produced by the prolific Aaron Spelling, and it made René popular with casting directors in search of a guest who could play a “dual” character: as René has described it, someone who seems to be a good guy but turns out to be bad, or seems to be bad but turns out to be good, or in some other way is more complicated than he first appears to be. Two recent examples of such characters were “Rudy” on the BlackBoxTV (YouTube) episode “Execution Style”, and of course his recurring character “Hugo Miller” on Warehouse 13 who, in his first appearance (the episode “13.1”), has been living for years with his consciousness divided into two parts: the impulsive, child-like mind in his body existing separately from the logical intellect that inhabits the Warehouse computer system.
Given the wide range of programs that show up in reruns on cable and satellite TV channels, I’ve seen a lot of René’s guest appearances over the years—but the one that I could never find was The Mod Squad. Until now! ORACLE member Leta received a box set of the series on DVD as a gift this past Christmas and, after she watched René’s episode, she kindly loaned it to me so that I could enjoy it, too. Thanks, Leta!
“We Spy” • written by Walter Black & Harve Bennett
First aired March 16, 1971
The story opens in a darkened room, with a pair of black-gloved hands cautiously turning the dial of a safe. Then the scene shifts to (series regular) Captain Greer in a car in an alley with several other police officers, one of whom announces that the safe has been opened. It’s a stake-out, and they’re here to catch their criminal in the act. Back in the darkened room, a sheaf of papers is removed from the open safe, several sheets are photographed, and then the papers are returned to the safe and the door closed. The thief soon appears in the alley and is arrested by the police, who find that he’s carrying a bag full of camera equipment and film.
The scene shifts again, to a well-lit office, where Smith is on the phone, hearing news of the arrest. His employer, Endicott Farraday (René), is furious at this turn of events. Smith tries to assure him that the man won’t talk, but Farraday dismisses the comment; what angers him is that now they’re short a safe-cracker, and they can’t provide the services expected by their clients without one.
From the first moment you see him, with his trim business attire, keen gaze, and slicked-back hair, it’s clear that Farraday is a dangerous man. His movements are brisk and decisive, his attitude impatient, with the threat of violence simmering just below the surface. He often ends a sentence with a rising, interrogative tone, but he’s not asking a question; when he says to Smith, “You’ll take care of it, yes?” he’s giving a command with complete confidence that he’ll be obeyed…and Smith’s immediate, deferential response makes it evident that he very much wants to avoid his boss’s unspoken “or else.”
All of the above occurs in the episode teaser. The first act begins with another pair of black-gloved hands turning the dial on another safe, only this time the hands belong to Pete Cochran (one of the three young series leads). Pete is learning safe-cracking skills in order to go undercover and infiltrate an industrial espionage ring. In an exposition scene, Captain Greer quizzes Pete and his partner, Linc Hayes, on the aliases they’ll adopt for their mission: Pete as safe-cracker “Eddie Jordan” from Detroit, and Linc as his bodyguard, “Happy.” (The female member of the team, Julie, contributes nothing to the episode beyond some inconsequential dialogue in a couple of exposition scenes…but, for the purposes of this article, we’ll skip any discussion of the quality of roles for women in 60s and 70s television shows.)
Pete/Eddie goes to a bar, the Chéz When, and introduces himself to the waitress, Alma. She’s already heard that certain people are expecting the arrival of “Eddie from Detroit” and promises to let Eddie know as soon as anyone leaves a message for him. Meanwhile, at a table near the back of the bar, a young man, Nelson (also René!) watches their conversation with interest and, when Alma approaches, he eagerly asks her whether the guy she was talking to is Eddie Jordan. Alma tells him he doesn’t want to get mixed up in such things. During the course of their conversation, Nelson manages to knock his glass of milk all over the rest of his dinner and then make even more of a mess as he tries to clean up. Flustered and apologetic, he asks Alma if she’s angry with him and she assures him that she’s not.
Other than some basic physical similarities (height, build, shape of face, eye color) caused by Nelson and Farraday being played by the same actor, Nelson is completely unlike the crime boss Farraday. His clothing is loose and casual, his hair collar-length and shaggy, and his behavior clumsy, apologetic, diffident, and eager to please.
When Pete leaves the bar, Nelson follows him—and Linc follows Nelson. At the apartment of “Eddie”, we (and Pete) hear someone talking to himself as he fumbles with a credit card to jimmy the lock on the door, then enters and, in the darkness, trips over a suitcase. Linc follows him in and knocks him to the floor, eliciting a panicked cry of “Don’t hurt me!” from the intruder. It’s Nelson, and he earnestly explains that he broke in because he wants to prove that he’s a “professional” and worthy of Eddie’s time. He has plans for an important theft, but first he needs Eddie to teach him how to open a safe. Pete tells Nelson to come back the next day.
Later, when Greer asks Pete whether Nelson could be the contact “Eddie” is hoping to meet at the bar, Pete dismisses the possibility, insisting that Nelson is just a harmless, sweet, “funny little guy,” a “teddy bear” who has nothing to do with the case. However, when Pete, in describing Nelson, says that he has a “high, nasal voice and hesitates when he talks” (doing a not-very-convincing impression of Nelson in the process), Greer thinks that he could be the person who left an anonymous phone tip for the police earlier, and warns Pete and Linc to keep an eye on him.
The next day’s safe-cracking lesson provides more evidence of Nelson’s ineptitude. But Pete is patient with him, and when Nelson finally gets the lock to open, he almost dances around the apartment in his excitement, giggling with happiness. He reveals that the safe he plans to open is in police headquarters, and invites Eddie to be his partner. Eddie insists that such a target is too dangerous, and warns Nelson not to try it.
That evening, Smith makes contact with Pete/Eddie at the bar. Pete asks questions about the job he’s being hired to do and tries to learn more about the overall criminal organization, but Smith tells him such details are all taken care of by “the man topside, a man you’ll never get to meet.”
At police headquarters, as Captain Greer is locking up for the night, he notices that a light was left on in one of the offices, and goes to turn it off. A shadowy figure comes up behind him…someone wearing the same shoes and vertically striped jeans we saw on Nelson earlier. The figure hits Greer on the head, Greer falls to the floor, and we hear Nelson’s soft, distressed voice saying, “Oh my goodness, oh my!”
We next see Greer holding an ice-pack to the back of his head and discussing the latest turn of events with Pete, Linc, and Julie. Nelson successfully got away with the entire police payroll, and Greer wants the team to put aside the industrial espionage investigation and concentrate on finding Nelson and the money. What little they’ve been able to learn about Nelson is that he’s a “loose screw in a very rich family” and the last thing Greer wants is for word to get out that the police safe was cracked by someone who learned his skills from Pete.
While out searching for Nelson, Linc catches a glimpse of what he thinks is a familiar figure striding into an office building. Linc asks the guard in the lobby who just came in, and the guard explains that it was Mr. Farraday, the owner of the building. Linc goes upstairs, brushes past the secretary and into Farraday’s office, and then, confronted with the sharp, dangerous glare of the crime boss, asks, “Nelson?” Farraday is annoyed by Linc’s intrusion but curbs his temper long enough to explain that he’s the “sensible brother”. He thanks Linc for his concern but insists that he will take care of Nelson. After Linc leaves, Smith comes in and is witness to Farraday’s explosion of anger (violently slapping the top of his desk, pacing the room with tightly wound energy). Smith’s advice is that Nelson needs to be eliminated, and Farraday promises that he will deal with him personally.
Pete has gone back to “Eddie’s” apartment, and Nelson comes to see him there. Highly agitated, Nelson explains that he did it—he successfully cracked the police safe and got away with all the money. But he’s convinced that he killed a man in the process, and he’s so distraught at the idea that there are tears in his eyes. Pete assures him that no one died, and when Nelson asks how he knows, Pete explains that he has “connections” at the police department. Nelson begs Eddie’s advice on what he should do next, and Pete says he should give back the money and turn himself in. Before they can converse further, they’re interrupted by a knock at the door: it’s Smith, coming to give Eddie further instructions about the industrial espionage job. Pete urges Nelson to hide in a closet and keep quiet, and goes to the front door to admit Smith. The next thirty seconds or so are a mix of silliness and suspense, the camera switching back and forth from the serious conversation between Smith and Eddie in the living area to Nelson hiding in the closet and back again. Nelson frantically tries, and fails, to avoid making noise: he loses his balance, gets tangled in the clothes hanging from the closet bar, almost knocks over but then catches items leaning against the wall, stumbles over something on the floor. Eventually he tumbles out of the closet with a crash. Smith recognizes him and draws his gun; he and Eddie fight briefly before Nelson runs off. Smith now knows there’s something fishy about “Eddie from Detroit” but chooses to go in pursuit of Nelson.
It’s now clear to Pete and his colleagues that “funny little” Nelson is somehow mixed up with Smith and the people behind the industrial espionage ring—and in real danger of getting himself killed. They need to find him, and Pete needs to close up “Eddie’s” apartment, since his cover is thoroughly blown. However, when Pete returns to the apartment, he discovers Nelson waiting for him, innocently asleep in a chair. Nelson admits that he robbed the police safe because he wanted to show his brother that he “could do something”—but now he’s decided that Eddie was right, and he should turn himself in. Pete reveals that he works for the police and tells Nelson his real name, and promises to help him. The first thing they need to do is return the money, and Nelson agrees to take Pete to where he hid it.
Nelson and Pete arrive at the Farraday building, where the guard greets Nelson with friendly familiarity. Nelson says that he left something in his brother’s office, and the guard is happy to let him and his friend go upstairs; all he asks is that Nelson sign in for both of them. Nelson writes “Pete Cochran” in the book, writes an “N” for himself, then looks over his shoulder uncertainly at Pete, who is already walking toward the elevator. “Real names?” Nelson asks, his voice worried, and Pete assures him that real names are fine. Nelson turns back to the book to sign, and his original “N” becomes “Nendicott Farraday.”
Up in Farraday’s office, Nelson grows increasingly uneasy. Pete asks him a couple of times if he’s all right, and Nelson insists he is; it’s just that he’s never been comfortable in his brother’s office. He says that he hid the stolen money in his brother’s safe and shows Pete where it is, but when Pete asks him to open it, he says he doesn’t know how. Pete points out that if he put the money in there he must know the combination; Nelson admits that he did, but now he doesn’t, and he insists that he needs Pete to open it for him. As they talk, Nelson ends one or two statements with a rising, interrogative, “Yes?”
Pete sets to work cracking the safe. He leans his ear against the door, concentrating, his back to the room. Nelson paces nervously for a few seconds, wanders behind his brother’s big desk, and then slowly, uneasily, lowers himself into the chair. He looks down at his clenched fists, which gradually relax. The camera focuses on Nelson’s face, and we watch a subtle shift in his expression…Nelson ceases to exist, and we’re now looking at the cold, calculating features of Endicott Farraday. Soundlessly, smoothly, Farraday reaches into his desk drawer, pulls out a gun, and points it unwaveringly at Pete. Then, voice sharp, he commands Pete to step away from the safe and explain who he is and what he thinks he’s doing.
Pete, confused, addresses him as “Nelson.” Farraday’s anger sharpens, and he snaps, “I don’t like being confused with my moronic brother.” Farraday addresses Pete as Eddie the safe-cracker and accuses him of trying to pull some kind of double cross. He rises from his chair and gestures for “Eddie” to precede him out of the room. As they move, Farraday catches a glimpse of himself in a full-length mirror…or, rather, he sees Nelson, because he’s still dressed in Nelson’s casual clothes and has Nelson’s shaggy hair. Nelson says, “Pete?” and then urges him to get away, to run. When Pete replies, Nelson’s eyes leave the mirror to look at him…and he’s instantly Farraday again. Pete has finally figured out what’s going on, and gets Farraday to glance at the mirror again. Farraday hesitates…or is it Nelson?…then slowly pulls off Nelson’s wig of shaggy hair. The distraction is enough for Pete to dash into the reception area, where Linc is waiting. Linc pounces on Farraday as he comes through the door, disarming him. Looking down at him, Linc asks, “Which one is he?”
“Both of them,” Pete replies.
In the epilogue, a heavily sedated Farraday is escorted down to the building’s lobby by two white-uniformed orderlies. Beneath Farraday’s slicked back, slightly mussed hair is Nelson’s sweet-tempered, apologetic face. He addresses Pete by name, then corrects himself and calls him Eddie instead, anxious not to give away his friend’s identity to the wrong people. He and Pete talk for a moment; Nelson apologizes for what happened, and promises that he will not let his brother hurt Eddie, if it’s the last thing he does. But his expression is uncertain, and his last line, to the orderlies, is, “Please hurry.”
They escort him outside and into a waiting ambulance as the closing music, a sad, haunting melody, segues into the closing credits.
Compared with today’s police procedurals, a 70s cop drama like The Mod Squad isn’t very exciting. The fights and stunts are too stagey and neat, all broadly thrown punches and careful choreography, and the acting of the series regulars is, honestly, a bit dull to my eyes: a version of the same straight-laced, reserved, “just the facts, ma’am” style used by Jack Webb on Dragnet or Peter Graves and company on Mission: Impossible.
Against this rather formulaic, low-key background, René’s two guest roles provide an excellent spark of excitement. And I call them two roles because, for most of the episode, the viewer has every reason to believe that Endicott and Nelson Farraday really are separate people, and that the story is, at least in part, a conflict of good twin versus bad twin. Farraday the crime boss is portrayed as a clever, dangerous antagonist for our heroes to go up against, and Nelson as the comic relief, part of a light “B” story to balance the more dangerous, industrial espionage “A” plot. We’re not surprised when Nelson’s badly timed escapades threaten to compromise Pete’s undercover investigation, and we eagerly anticipate when and how the show’s stars will figure out what we already know: that Nelson and Farraday are related. We worry about Pete’s safety, going undercover against dangerous men like Farraday and his right-hand man, Smith, and soon we worry about poor Nelson, too.
And then comes the unexpected “twist”: the scene in the lobby of the office building, when Nelson is signing the guard’s book, and hesitates over writing down their real names…and finally writes down “Nendicott” for himself. Throughout the episode, I enjoyed watching the contrasting performance styles that René used for each character: tight, contained body language for Farraday versus Nelson’s loose-limbed awkwardness, as well as distinctly different vocal mannerisms for each. However, the climactic scene in Farraday’s office, as first Nelson and then Endicott are “present”, is downright mind-boggling. I can’t describe how we, as viewers, can tell the difference, but there is never a doubt as to which of the “brothers” we are watching from one instant to the next. It’s not costume or make-up or tricks of lighting or camera angle: the “switch”, each time, takes only a heartbeat or two. It’s all in the acting.
It’s no wonder that people remembered René after this performance, and called on him to fill guest roles on other shows!
As for the ending of the story, I found it bittersweet. The writers left it unclear as to who was the “real” Farraday. Was it dangerous mastermind Endicott, or nice guy Nelson? Nelson seemed to be the dominant personality during the closing scene; does that mean he “won”? Had the sedative he’d been given stripped away his evil persona, allowing his true, gentle self to shine through? Or was it the opposite: had the drugs suppressed his natural, cruel personality, allowing his imaginary alter ego to surface, but only temporarily? Either way, I found myself feeling a lot of sympathy for Nelson—whatever the truth of his situation, his future looks grim.
If you ever have a chance to see this episode, via reruns on your cable service, Hulu, Amazon Prime, or any other source of old TV series, I highly recommend it. It’s a notable moment in René’s career—and a highly entertaining performance.