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Chris Hicks: TV series 'It Takes a Thief' comes to DVD

Published: Thursday, Nov. 24 2011 3:00 p.m. MST

Two crime films became international hits in the mid-1950s and set the pace for heist pictures ever after — the French "Rififi," about a gang of thieves pulling off an intricate jewel theft, and Alfred Hitchcock's "To Catch a Thief," set in France, with Cary Grant as a suave, debonair retired cat burglar who is being framed.

Overnight, sophisticated crooks became a staple of the movies, and a string of caper pictures — some serious, some comic — followed over the next decade and beyond.

Then, James Bond made a splash in the early 1960s — a splash that became a cinematic tsunami — and crime films found themselves competing with myriad spy flicks, some serious, some comic.

So it was only a matter of time before someone would combine the two, and thus, the TV series "It Takes a Thief" was born.

Starring Robert Wagner as Alexander Mundy, cat burglar par excellence, the series has him recruited to work for a government agency, stealing in the name of American service.

"It Takes a Thief: The Complete Series," which makes its DVD debut this week (eOne, 1968-70, 18 discs, retailing at $199.98 but available for half that), owes a lot to both Hitchcock and Bond.

And the show has its tongue planted firmly in its cheek, which is what helps it to hold up in the 21st century — in a "Man From U.N.C.L.E."-"I Spy" kind of way, to name just two contemporaries.

The expected TV cliches of the period are all here, but the stories are witty, the dialogue is fun and Wagner, in his first television series, is youthful (although he was pushing 40), charming and gets to impersonate an array of characters.

And if you're a fan of the current USA show "White Collar," you'll notice a lot of resemblances: The pilot has Mundy in prison when he's paroled by the agent who caught him. He's placed under "house arrest," of sorts, and commits sanctioned thievery and con games.

The main difference is that in this series Mundy goes all over the world.

Baby boomers will also enjoy the array of Hollywood faces climbing up and down the ladder of stardom over the show's three-season run.

The pilot alone features Susan Saint James, Raymond Burr, Leslie Nielsen, boxing champ Joe Louis, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson and Wally Cox.

Later, Saint James shows up as a different character and repeats this role a few more times. Joseph Cotton and Ricardo Montalban also have recurring roles.

Other guests throughout the series include Ida Lupino, Suzanne Pleshette, George Takei, Teri Garr, Sally Kellerman, Edward Everett Horton, Carol Lynley, Roddy McDowall, Julie Newmar, Jessica Walter, Edmond O'Brien, Frankie Avalon, Tina Louise, Bill Bixby and Dick Smothers.

Best of all is Fred Astaire, who comes onboard during the third and final season for a quartet of episodes as Mundy's father — a con artist who believes his son has sold out. Astaire is priceless and effortlessly engaging and amusing in his twilight years.

The third season is notable for having been filmed on location in Italy, a rare decision for a successful show in its third year. Usually by this point producers are looking for ways to cut back instead of expand. But for the viewers, it was a great decision as these episodes gain a lot of traction from the exotic locations.

In addition to Astaire, the third season also brought aboard a couple of other A-list guest stars who didn't do much TV at this point — Bette Davis, as an aging jewel thief whom Mundy recruits to give her a reason for living, and Peter Sellers, who does a cameo as a grumpy Italian harbormaster. (Wagner co-starred with Sellers in the original "Pink Panther" movie a few years earlier.)

There are 66 episodes here, including an extended feature-length version of the pilot, and featurettes about the making of the show. Items in the box set include a senitype (35mm frame reproduction) from the show, a four-piece set of coasters and a 20-page booklet.

By the way, the show also has a Mormon connection. This was the first series for prolific writer-producer Glen A. Larson, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose later shows included Wagner's second series, "Switch," as well as "McCloud," "Quincy, M.E.," "Knight Rider," "Alias Smith and Jones," "Get Christie Love!" and … wait for it … the original "Battlestar Galactica," among many others.

EMAIL: hicks@desnews.com

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