First and Last: How Naked City Acted as a More Humanistic Cop Show

Tristan Ettleman
10 min readJan 8, 2024

This is First and Last, an essay series examining my favorite TV show debuting each year through its first and last episodes. The sixth installment features NAKED CITY, created by Sterling Silliphant. The show ran for four seasons from 1958 to 1963 across 138 episodes, the first being “Meridian” and the last “Barefoot on a Bed of Coals.”

I’m not generally a huge fan of cop shows, which often function as “copaganda.” There is a certain appeal to the black-and-white morality they portray, but of course, the reality is never so simple as the cops and robbers narrative. NAKED CITY, marginally based on but mostly inspired by the gritty film of (almost) the same name, THE NAKED CITY (1948), lived in a grey area of nuance, accented by its stark black-and-white cinematography shot on location in New York City.

NAKED CITY’s extensive chronicle of what is now historic New York, much of which has of course changed in the nearly 66 years since its debut, is nearly its biggest relevant factor to interested parties today. But the biggest ticket item is the immense array of guest actors, a roster full of then and mostly future stars that recalls the way every up-and-coming New York actor appeared on LAW AND ORDER (1990–present) decades later. The list goes on and on, but suffice to say, Christopher Walken, William Shatner, Mickey Rooney, Dennis Hopper, Gene Hackman, and Dustin Hoffman make up just a fraction of the recognizable names. Indeed, Hoffman made his second and final appearance in the last episode of NAKED CITY, “Barefoot on a Bed of Coals.” Comparing that finale with the premiere “Meridian” illustrates a host of casting changes, if not thematic reworkings, that came to the pioneering series, sometimes called “not just another cop show.”

NAKED CITY was a half-hour show for its first season, with many of its scripts written by its creator Stirling Silliphant. Silliphant was a prolific television writer who soon expanded his credentials. The first-season NAKED CITY episode “Four Sweet Corners” served as a backdoor pilot for ROUTE 66 (1960–1964), a road-tripping drama also created by Silliphant. With his attentions divided, ROUTE 66 got the benefit of his talents. It may have also had something to do with the fact that NAKED CITY was canceled by ABC in its first season, which was reversed a year later when the show’s sponsor, Brown & Williamson Tobacco, successfully lobbied for the series’ return on the same network, a rare feat. Silliphant’s focus on ROUTE 66 did not noticeably depreciate the quality of NAKED CITY, but other forces led to its cast being drastically changed as early as midway through the first season.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The dynamic in NAKED CITY’s premiere, “Meridian,” is thus: newly minted detective Jimmy Halloran (today’s his first day of the promotion) is paired with veteran Lieutenant Dan Muldoon. Halloran and Muldoon are ostensibly based on characters of the same names from the film but they’re played by entirely different actors in the form of James Franciscus and John McIntire. Franciscus is a good, pretty leading man and McIntire is a solid, craggy presence, seeming world weary but not so cynical so that he can’t preach patience and wisdom to the newbie. But this partnership is not depicted until later in the episode, reflecting NAKED CITY’s “semi-anthology” approach that often focused more on the criminals and the people they affect than the recurring police presence that brings them to justice.

What we are really treated to at the beginning of “Meridian,” besides producer Herbert B. Leonard’s narration introducing us to the new series, its multitude of stories, and this one in particular, is the poverty-stricken home of Puerto Rican kid Arturo (Pat De Simone). Arturo isn’t a bad kid, just a poor one, Leonard informs us, and his falling in with the much more nefarious Lefty (Joey Walsh) is shown to be a hesitant circumstance so he can help out his six siblings and parents. This relatively sympathetic approach is replicated many, many times throughout NAKED CITY, and its humanistic streak is on display right away. Also on display right away is the show’s cinematic and rich visual style. The location shooting wasn’t just a marketing ploy; it truly has an affect on the realism of the stories.

Lefty and Arturo rob a jeweler in the middle of the day and the former shoots a cop who happens upon the scene. This commences a run through the streets around Columbus Circle into a sports convention at New York Coliseum, now the Deutsche Bank Center. Meanwhile, Halloran is shown getting ready at home with his wife and five-year-old girl, establishing him as the likable family man. He meets Muldoon on the roof of the precinct, where the veteran is tending to his pet project: a coop of pigeons, which establishes him as a sensitive yet wise leader, especially in conjunction with his conversation with Halloran. As the young man puts it, “we have to have feelings,” basically putting into words the central credo of NAKED CITY.

In any event, Halloran and Muldoon head over to the Coliseum, where Lefty and Arturo have taken two hostages. The latter gets a woman out from Lefty’s clutches, and in return, the older boy knocks his unlikely accomplice out. Muldoon establishes his patient bona fides by chiding another cop who says Lefty doesn’t deserve mercy and Halloran comes up with tripping the sprinklers to distract the kid, successfully leading to both boys’ arrests. It’s implied Arturo will have an easier time of it, but the episode closes with his distressed parents being shown into a cop car, reflecting the social circumstances that could lead to such an event. NAKED CITY could be seen as a bit patronizing in its evaluation of “poor person equals potential criminal,” but I think its point is a bit more critical of a concrete jungle and the country in which it resides than an elitist perspective of the lower classes.

“Meridian” is a solid crime story. Halloran and Muldoon are immediately sympathetic characters, not to mention Arturo, and its action-packed conclusion is not a disservice to the sensitivity of the storytelling leading up to it. It may not be a top-tier episode in the whole scope of NAKED CITY, but it’s perfect as a premiere because it contains everything that would define the show, except the retroactive fame of any significant up-and-comers.

But if you fast forward to NAKED CITY’s finale “Barefoot on a Bed of Coals,” you’ll realize none of the characters were carried forward. Indeed, Muldoon was written out in the middle of season one with a death stemming from a criminal car chase. McIntire was weary of the New York shooting and wanted to get back to his Montana ranch, although he would go to the West Coast for filming both WAGON TRAIN (1957–1965) and THE VIRGINIAN (1962–1971) in the following years. Horace McMahon, as Lieutenant Mike Parker, ostensibly replaced him, but he served as less of a partner to Halloran, and definitely more of a cranky office superior than McIntire’s mellow on-the-ground leader (although Parker usually ended up at the scene).

As for Franciscus, he was presumably not available when NAKED CITY was brought back after its year off, although he wasn’t starring as a regular in any show. He was appearing in numerous guest spots on some of the biggest shows of the time, however, like THE TWILIGHT ZONE (1959–1964), and eventually led a few series like MR. NOVAK (1963–1965).

So when NAKED CITY came back for its second season, there was an entirely different cast than the “Meridian” lineup. That group came to be led by the sensitive yet firm Detective Adam Flint (Paul Burke) and included the great support character Sergeant Frank Arcaro (Harry Bellaver) and Nancy Malone as Flint’s girlfriend and actor Libby Kingston (the show no longer being centered on a family man).

These changes are the most obvious ones with “Barefoot on a Bed of Coals.” But otherwise, even the hour-long format doesn’t disrupt the approach of focusing at least half of the episode’s runtime on the criminal element, including the whole beginning. Steven Hill is Stanley Walenty, an apparent cop who we quickly learn is only posing as such after not being accepted to the police academy and is in reality a barber. Stanley isn’t really a bully, but he’s obviously unstable as he starts to take extreme action against a man berating his girlfriend. Then, however, a man begins holding up a bar on the corner, and Stanley responds to the situation with great trepidation. He shoots this potential robber, Finney, and flees the scene. We learn in short order, after Flint, Arcaro, and Parker arrive on the scene, that Finney’s gun was just a toy. This would-be criminal, by the way, is played by Hoffman. It’s a small part, smaller than his earlier role on NAKED CITY, but he proves the saying that “that there are no small parts, only small actors.” It’s somehow remarkable that in four years time he would be starring in THE GRADUATE (1967).

In these early scenes, where Stanley is established as a fake, there is a more overt police-friendly narrative that implies that such an unnecessary shooting could only be perpetrated by “not a real cop.” However, this perspective of Parker’s is countered by the admittedly arrogant Quale (Henry Lascoe), who was the verbally abusive boyfriend that tried to bribe Stanley. But a broken clock is right twice a day, as Quale proclaims rightly that he’s seen some trigger-happy “bulls” in his day. “Where?” asks Parker. “Everywhere,” Quale answers. NAKED CITY would become a bit more of a rote police procedural by its end (doing 138 episodes, most of them an hour long, may do that to you), but it never totally dropped a critical and/or sympathetic angle.

That sympathy even extends to Stanley. Hoffman’s Finney is quickly removed from the picture and the manhunt for Stanley begins. But most of the episode concerns the perspective of this Travis Bickle-like character, although Stanley is not nearly as extreme, which of course American TV at the time could never have facilitated anyways. He is fixated on a woman (Elizabeth Allen as Ola Martin) who only gives him the time of day because she believes he’s a cop, and he brushes off the downstairs neighbor Clara (Zohra Lampert), who obviously has a crush on him. I would have definitely responded much more to Clara’s attentions. Lampert is probably the acting MVP of the episode, in spite of Hoffman’s future accolades, as an upbeat and funny woman with a touch of realism to her ease and attention she pays to Stanley.

The cops narrow in on Stanley as the phony, but he puts on his uniform one last time and heads to the scene of a police standoff with a shooter who has already killed one cop and wounded two others. Flint and Arcaro learn from Clara that Stanley is the poseur and head after him. But when Stanley arrives at the scene, he walks forward in a daze, ready to prove he matters in this world, when he is shot by the perp. The shooter is taken into custody and Stanley is loaded into an ambulance. The last shot of “Barefoot on a Bed of Coals,” and therefore NAKED CITY, is a first-person view from Stanley’s perspective as he looks through the back of the vehicle at a gradually receding image of Flint, Arcaro, Parker, and Clara, the latter waving reassuringly. It’s a great distillation of the show’s premise of treating so-called criminals as humans and how it nevertheless did often marginalize them into a neat conclusion of being taken away for their wrongdoings. But it probably wasn’t conceived as such a thematic wrap-up. Like many shows of the time, NAKED CITY didn’t have an intended conclusion and simply ended with what is essentially a routine episode of the show. There’s no kind of resolution to any of the recurring characters’ arcs, if there were really any present to begin with.

But as mentioned, NAKED CITY took a semi-anthology approach to its stories. It wasn’t really about the cops, although the way they came into the criminals’ lives was of course integral. And there was a certain amount of recurring camaraderie between first Halloran and Muldoon, and then Flint, Parker, and Arcaro, that had an affect on the stories for this viewer. Like “Meridian,” “Barefoot on a Bed of a Coals” is not one of the better episodes of this ten-time-major-Emmy-nominated show (it never won awards outside of what would now be called the Creative Arts categories). But like the premiere, the finale does carry what defines the episodes that could distill the series’ ambitions most effectively. NAKED CITY’s nuance is reflected by the realism afforded by New York’s streets and buildings and the show’s status as a kind of informal acting school for an array of superb performers, making it a great show of its day. There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been two of them.