A 1950s Hit
Eliot Ness was a stalwart young federal agent when he was assigned to the Chicago office and began his campaign against Al Capone. He and his elite corps were called “untouchable” because they couldn't be bribed. This set them apart from many of their brother officers at the federal level and on the Chicago police force.
Ness got Capone on tax evasion charges, despite his many more malevolent transgressions. J. Edgar Hoover was intensely jealous of Ness's successes and did his best to thwart his upward mobility.
Ness wrote his memoirs in the 1950s and died shortly thereafter, bitter and in obscurity. He did not live to see his autobiography become the source material for one of the most successful television shows in the new medium's history.
The First TV Gangland Hit
Robert Stack played Eliot Ness in The Untouchables TV series, which first aired in October 1959. The show ran until September 1963. After the 1987 movie was a big hit, Stack starred in the TV movie The Return of Eliot Ness. This was a purely fictional rendition, and Stack was a little long in the tooth to play Ness, who died in his middle fifties.
The machine guns were not the only things with a rat-a-tat-tat delivery on The Untouchables. The show was narrated by the notorious newspaper and radio personality Walter Winchell, no stranger to covering real-life gangsters. Winchell's delivery was as rapid-fire as the Tommy guns in the garage on St. Valentine's Day.
A slower yet nevertheless measured staccato was intoned by TV's Eliot Ness, Robert Stack. Stack later used his trademark delivery on Unsolved Mysteries.
There was also a 1993 television version of The Untouchables that emulated the look and feel of the 1987 movie. Elliot Ness was played by Tom Amandes, who later went on to star on the show Everwood. Al Capone was played by character actor William Forsythe. While Capone's bribes and bullets could not touch Ness and company, bad ratings could. The show lasted only two seasons.
The two-part pilot revolved around Ness's pursuit of Al Capone. The earlier episodes were done in documentary style, and the gangsters Ness battled were based on real people, hence the controversy and the lawsuits. When real-life crime figures were exhausted, Ness took on fictionalized hoods and some real hoods that the real Ness never encountered, such as the malevolent matriarch Ma Barker.
Though the real Untouchables were long gone by World War II, the fictional Ness was still operating in Chicago in the 1940s and matching wits with Nazi saboteurs. The Untouchables ran for four seasons and has been in reruns ever since. It even inspired a movie version in 1987.