Nero Wolfe (1981 TV series)

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Nero Wolfe
StarringWilliam Conrad
Lee Horsley
George Voskovec
Robert Coote
George Wyner
Allan Miller
ComposerJohn Addison
Country of originUnited States
Original languageEnglish
No. of seasons1
No. of episodes14
Executive producersIvan Goff
Ben Roberts
ProducerJohn A. Fegan (associate)
Running time60 minutes
Production companyParamount Television
Original release
ReleaseJanuary 16 (1981-01-16) –
June 2, 1981 (1981-06-02)

Nero Wolfe is an American drama television series based on the characters in Rex Stout's series of detective stories. The series aired on NBC from January 16 to August 25, 1981.[1] William Conrad fills the role of the detective genius Nero Wolfe, and Lee Horsley is his assistant Archie Goodwin. Produced by Paramount Television, the series updates the world of Nero Wolfe to contemporary New York City and draws few of its stories from the Stout originals.


Nero Wolfe (William Conrad) enjoys a life of refined self-indulgence in his comfortable Manhattan brownstone — reading, dining, spending regular hours in his rooftop plant rooms, and only reluctantly involving himself in the detection of crime. Famously sedentary, Wolfe relies on his legman Archie Goodwin (Lee Horsley) to collect the clues and the suspects in any case at hand, while he spars with his live-in chef Fritz Brenner (George Voskovec) and bickers with his resident orchid nurse Theodore Horstmann (Robert Coote, in his final role). Often assisted by freelance detective Saul Panzer (George Wyner), Wolfe and Archie customarily gather the suspects in Wolfe's office and present the solution to the exasperated Inspector Cramer (Allan Miller) of Manhattan Homicide.


In March 1980, Nero Wolfe was one of half-a-dozen new series being considered by the team of Brandon Tartikoff and Fred Silverman at NBC, according to Peter Boyer of the Associated Press. "The idea has been tried unsuccessfully on TV before, most recently by ABC," Boyer reported. "But NBC has an angle going that will certainly make this Nero Wolfe worthy of notice — the distinct possibility that Orson Welles will play the lead role."[2] The pilot episode was to be written by Leon Tokatyan (Lou Grant).[3]

When filming of the TV series was under way later that year, columnist Marilyn Beck wrote that Nero Wolfe had been planned as a starring vehicle for Welles until he decided that he wanted NBC to change the concept from a one-hour weekly series to a series of 90-minute specials, and that he wanted his scenes filmed at his Los Angeles home.[4] Some 20 years later, in a story about the A&E Nero Wolfe series, the Toronto Star reported that Welles had bowed out of the NBC series because he was unable to learn the dialogue.[5] Other reports had it that Welles had refused to work with Paramount's producers, who wanted to "make Nero Wolfe more human."[6] Welles and Paramount had already had creative differences over the Rex Stout adaptations; Paramount had purchased the entire set of Nero Wolfe stories for Welles in 1976, but in 1977 Welles had bowed out of Paramount's first effort to bring Nero Wolfe to television, in an ABC-TV movie.[7]

On June 30, 1980, the Associated Press reported that William Conrad would play the title role in NBC's Nero Wolfe.

"I've loved the novels for 25 years," Conrad said. "And I love his life-style. I don't have to run any more. My poor feet are still aching from all the running I had to do in Cannon."[8]

In December 1980, NBC announced that Nero Wolfe would begin airing in January 1981, as "an ideal alternative to the competition in this time period" — The Dukes of Hazzard.[9] The Dukes of Hazzard was then ranked number 2 in the Nielsen ratings.[10]

"American Nero Wolfe fans had their dreams come true in 1981, when the NBC network allowed viewers on a weekly, prime time visit to the infamous New York brownstone on West 35th Street," wrote Brian Sheridan in the Spring 2008 issue of The Gazette: The Journal of the Wolfe Pack. Sheridan interviewed Lee Horsley, who found his first major role when he was cast as Archie Goodwin. Horsley recalled an enjoyable relationship with William Conrad, whose off-screen demeanor was a perfect fit for the character. "He was definitely Nero Wolfe down to the toes," Horsley said.

"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."

Horsley spoke of his love for Rex Stout's books and characters, and credited the care taken with the production's art direction, set design and wardrobe in creating the atmosphere of the stories. "It was so great to go into work," he said.[11]

The sets for Nero Wolfe were designed by John Beckman, whose credits include Casablanca, Lost Horizon and The Maltese Falcon.[12] The plant rooms were stocked by Zuma Canyon Orchids of Malibu, California, which on the eve of the series registered the hybrid Phalaenopsis Nero Wolfe with the Royal Horticultural Society.[13]


Lee Horsley and William Conrad

Guest stars included Richard Anderson, Ramon Bieri, Delta Burke, Linden Chiles, Charles Cioffi, Patti Davis, John de Lancie, John Ericson, Mary Frann, David Hedison, Katherine Justice, Robert Loggia (albeit, uncredited), Darren McGavin, Barry Nelson, John Randolph, Russ Tamblyn and Lana Wood.


Although the series was titled Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe, the scripts departed considerably from the Stout originals. Only seven of the 14 episodes are credited as being based upon Stout stories. All episodes were set in contemporary New York City.[14]

Title Directed by: Teleplay by: Original air date
1"The Golden Spiders"Michael O'HerlihyWallace Ware,
Peter Nasco
January 16, 1981 (1981-01-16)
Adapted from the novel The Golden Spiders (1953)[15]
2"Death on the Doorstep"George McCowanStephen DowningJanuary 23, 1981 (1981-01-23)
uses elements from the novel The Doorbell Rang (1965)[16]
3"Before I Die"Edward M. AbromsAlfred HayesJanuary 30, 1981 (1981-01-30)
Adapted from the story "Before I Die" (1947)[17]
4"Wolfe at the Door"Herbert HirschmanLee SheldonFebruary 6, 1981 (1981-02-06)
5"Might as Well Be Dead"George McCowanSeeleg LesterFebruary 13, 1981 (1981-02-13)
Adapted from the novel Might as Well Be Dead (1956)[19]
6"To Catch a Dead Man"Edward M. AbromsJohn Meredyth LucasFebruary 20, 1981 (1981-02-20)
7"In the Best Families"George McCowanAlfred HayesMarch 6, 1981 (1981-03-06)
Adapted from the novel In the Best Families (1950)[21]
8"Murder by the Book"Bob KelljanWallace WareMarch 13, 1981 (1981-03-13)
Adapted from the novel Murder by the Book (1951)[22]
9"What Happened to April"Edward M. AbromsStephen DowningMarch 20, 1981 (1981-03-20)
Adapted from the novel Death of a Doxy (1966)[23]
10"Gambit"George McCowanStephen KandelApril 3, 1981 (1981-04-03)
11"Death and the Dolls"Gerald MayerGerald SanfordApril 10, 1981 (1981-04-10)
12"The Murder in Question"George McCowanMerwin GerardApril 17, 1981 (1981-04-17)
13"The Blue Ribbon Hostage"Ron SatlofDick NelsonMay 5, 1981 (1981-05-05)
14"Sweet Revenge"George McCowanBen RobertsJune 2, 1981 (1981-06-02)

Broadcast history[edit]

First telecast January 16, 1981, Nero Wolfe aired Fridays from 9 to 10 p.m. ET — as NBC's challenge to the hit CBS show, The Dukes of Hazzard. In April 1981 Nero Wolfe was moved to Tuesdays from 10 to 11 p.m. ET,[29] where it continued to air until June 2, 1981. Repeat episodes continued to air until August 25, 1981.

Nero Wolfe was victim to an NBC programming strategy that was changed not long after the series left the air. Brandon Tartikoff was named president of the network's entertainment division in 1981, and he began to turn around the fortunes of the last-place network. "In the past, a series thought to have 'breakout' potential has been scheduled in a depressed timeslot," Tartikoff told the Associated Press in December 1981. "So Gangster Chronicles was played off against Love Boat, Nero Wolfe against Dukes of Hazzard, Hill Street Blues against Fantasy Island." Tartikoff implemented a new approach — programming to strengthen an entire evening's primetime schedule rather than challenging another network's hit show.[30]

In April 1996, when the TV Land network made its debut, Nero Wolfe was featured in its "Saturday Cavalcade" lineup of great detectives.[31] In 1999 the series was part of an afternoon block of TV Land's counterprogramming to network soap operas, and it also aired in the wee hours of the morning.[32]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Year Result Award Category Recipient
1981 Nominated Emmy Award Outstanding Film Sound Mixing Nick Gaffey, Gary C. Bourgeois, Lee Minkler, Terry Porter (For episode "Gambit")
Outstanding Cinematography for a Series Charles W. Short (For episode "Death and the Dolls")

Reviews and commentary[edit]

  • Donn Downy, The Globe and Mail — Wolfe violated most of the rules in his well-ordered universe, probably because of the scriptwriters' misguided desire to make the character more palatable. In the process, he becomes just a run-of-the-mill private eye who is fatter and wealthier than most, but certainly no smarter or eccentric. Scriptwriters Peter Nasco and David Knapp undermine the character almost from the outset: Wolfe actually discusses a case during the sacred hours in the greenhouse, he smiles, and even leaves his beloved Manhattan brownstone in the final scene to visit a boy recovering in hospital after being hit by a car. Stout, who could never be accused of sentimentality, had the lad dead in the second chapter. But the transgressions don't end there. ... Given these limitations, William Conrad as Wolfe comes off rather well [and] supplied a workmanlike performance, so any faults lie with the writers, not the actor.[33]
  • Peter Boyer, Associated Press — I know, I know, the show pales next to The Rockford Files. But I've tried it a couple of times and I think there's a good TV series there, obscured, admittedly, by some inane scripts. Nero Wolfe has some very valuable assets: It is adult, it has at least the broad outlines of mystery and it has a charismatic central character. The character, of course, is the wonderfully eccentric Wolfe of the Rex Stout novels, a rotund, sedentary savant who fusses over orchids and has others do his physical work. NBC and the producers can't take credit for the character, of course, but they did have the good sense to hire William Conrad, who is perfectly suited to the part, to play Wolfe. Conrad seems to delight in the role.[34]
  • Los Angeles Times — Not quite Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe but still head and shoulders above most crime series ... Certainly the Tuesday night series has a quality worth more than all the Dukes who ever came out of Hazzard.[35]
  • William Conrad — How the hell should I know what makes a hit TV series? I was really excited about doing a show called Nero Wolfe. I thought it couldn't fail. Here we had one of the most popular characters in mystery fiction; everybody has read a Rex Stout novel. The books still sell, although they were written 50 years ago. But do you know how long we lasted? Just 13 weeks. Try to figure that one out.[36]
  • Stuart M. Kaminsky — When Nero Wolfe came to television, I made my love of Archie and Wolfe known to NBC, and one of the great disappointments of my professional life is that the series was cancelled after I had been assured that I would write the opening episode of the next season. I wanted to bring The Doorbell Rang to life even if it wasn't the right Wolfe and Archie.[37]
  • Diane Holloway, Cox News Service — NBC's woefully inadequate series in 1981 ... tried to update the characters and the language, and the whole thing fell flat.[38]
  • Paula Vitaris, Scarlet Street (2002) — Nero Wolfe did give us the brownstone, the rooftop nursery, a housebound Wolfe, and an active Archie, but that was about it. The NBC series updated the setting to contemporary times (1981), which meant Archie, always so fastidious about his wardrobe, could be seen wearing turtlenecks and (horrors!) blue jeans. Inspector Cramer was a brisk professional in three-piece suits rather than Stout's rumpled detective, and Wolfe himself was transformed into a not particularly fascinating eccentric, who in one instance became uncharacteristically nostalgic about a lost love. The show was a mix of new stories and none-too-faithful adaptations of the books.[39]

Home media[edit]

Cover of the Visual Entertainment, Inc., DVD release of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe: The Complete Series (2017)

On May 3, 2017, VEI announced a DVD release for Nero Wolfe. Reported to be "coming soon", Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe: The Complete Series comprises all 14 episodes and the 1977 pilot starring Thayer David.[40]


  1. ^ Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh, The Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows 1946–Present. New York: Ballantine Books, 1988 (fourth edition), ISBN 0-345-35610-1 p. 557
  2. ^ Boyer, Peter J., "NBC Fall Schedule," Associated Press, March 24, 1980
  3. ^ Deeb, Gary, Chicago Tribune, March 26, 1980. Deeb also reported, "William Conrad probably will return to weekly TV in an NBC series called 'Battles'. He'll play a retired police chief who teaches criminology at a college."
  4. ^ Beck, Marilyn, Marilyn Beck's Hollywood, Milwaukee Journal (Chicago Tribune New York News Syndicate), November 24, 1980
  5. ^ Bawden, Jim, "Fiddling with Nero," Archived 2011-06-09 at the Wayback Machine Toronto Star, April 14, 2002. In September 2010, Bawden named his then-unidentified source Archived 2011-09-27 at the Wayback Machine, Anne Baxter, whom he had previously interviewed on the set of Nero Wolfe for an October 1977 Films in Review profile of the actress.
  6. ^ The Nero Wolfe Files (Wildside Press 2005, edited by Marvin Kaye), transcript of a 2001 address by Michael Jaffe, executive producer of A Nero Wolfe Mystery, ISBN 0-8095-4494-6 pp. 87–88
  7. ^ Kleiner, Dick, Oakland Tribune, December 30, 1976; Smith, Liz, The Baltimore Sun, March 14, 1977; Gilroy, Frank D., I Wake Up Screening. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993, ISBN 0-8093-1856-3 p. 147. Orson Welles was a great fan of the Stout books; in 1967 Rex Stout told author Dick Lochte that Welles had once wanted to make a series of Nero Wolfe movies, and Stout had turned him down.
  8. ^ Kahana, Yoram, "The Wolfe Man in His Lair." The Australian Women's Weekly, January 29, 1982, pp. 95–96. Retrieved from the National Library of Australia, March 27, 2011
  9. ^ Fraser, C. Gerald, "NBC will introduce 5 programs next month," The New York Times, December 27, 1980
  10. ^ Classic TV Hits TV ratings 1980; retrieved October 2, 2011
  11. ^ Sheridan, Brian, "Before Tim Hutton: An Interview with Lee Horsley"; The Gazette: The Journal of the Wolfe Pack, Spring 2008, pp. 29–33
  12. ^ "John Beckman Is Dead; Designer of Sets Was 91"; The New York Times, October 31, 1989
  13. ^ Phalaenopsis Nero Wolfe was registered January 11, 1981
  14. ^ Stories adapted for the 1981 Nero Wolfe series include The Golden Spiders, "Before I Die", Might as Well Be Dead, In the Best Families, Murder by the Book and Death of a Doxy (as "What Happened to April"). "Booby Trap" is credited as the basis of "Gambit," but the episode has no discernible relationship to the story. The episode "Death on the Doorstep" incorporates plot elements from The Doorbell Rang, although the novel is not specifically cited as a source.
  15. ^ "The Golden Spiders" at IMDb
  16. ^ "Death on the Doorstep" at IMDb
  17. ^ "Before I Die" at IMDb
  18. ^ "Wolfe at the Door" at IMDb
  19. ^ "Might as Well Be Dead" at IMDb
  20. ^ "To Catch a Dead Man" at IMDb
  21. ^ "In the Best Families" at IMDb
  22. ^ "Murder by the Book" at IMDb Edit this at Wikidata
  23. ^ "What Happened to April" at IMDb
  24. ^ "Gambit" at IMDb
  25. ^ "Death and the Dolls" at IMDb
  26. ^ "The Murder in Question" at IMDb
  27. ^ "The Blue Ribbon Hostage" at IMDb
  28. ^ "Sweet Revenge" at IMDb
  29. ^ Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh, The Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows 1946–Present. New York: Ballantine Books, 1988 (fourth edition), ISBN 0-345-35610-1 p. 557
  30. ^ Jory, Tom, "'Fame' and the Future at NBC," Associated Press, December 10, 1981
  31. ^ "Nick-at-Nite's TV Land joins U.S. Satellite Broadcasting Lineup"; Business Wire, April 30, 1996
  32. ^ Dempsey, John, "It's Boom(er) Time for TV Land"; Variety, March 8–14, 1999
  33. ^ Downy, Donn, "Fiddling ruins Nero's image," The Globe and Mail, January 19, 1981
  34. ^ Boyer, Peter, Associated Press, February 20, 1981
  35. ^ Los Angeles Times, Television Times, August 16–22, 1981, page 2
  36. ^ Bawden, Jim, Toronto Star, November 30, 1991
  37. ^ Kaminsky, Stuart M., introduction to the Rex Stout Library edition of The Doorbell Rang. New York: Bantam Crimeline, ISBN 0-553-23721-7, 1992, page viii. Kaminsky did write the final episode of the 2001–2002 A&E Network TV series, A Nero Wolfe Mystery — "Immune to Murder."
  38. ^ Holloway, Diane, "It's no mystery why A&E's 'Wolfe' works," Cox News Service, April 20, 2001
  39. ^ Vitaris, Paula, "Miracle on 35th Street: Nero Wolfe on Television"; Scarlet Street, issue #45, 2002, p. 34
  40. ^ Lambert, David (May 4, 2017). "Nero Wolfe - Contents, Bonus Item and William Conrad-Featured DVD Package Art". Archived from the original on May 9, 2017. Retrieved 2017-05-04.

External links[edit]