Investigators with offbeat gimmicks were a staple of mystery fiction long before television came along, but by the ’70s, Hollywood had perfected the art of repackaging the same old whodunit storylines by featuring unusual protagonists. Columbo hid his wit behind a façade of simple-mindedness, McCloud was a cowpoke in the big city, Ironside was confined to a wheelchair, Kolchak solved paranormal mysteries, and so on. Yet some of these gimmicks were so threadbare as to be almost laughable. The most notable attribute of private investigator Frank Cannon, who fought crime during five seasons spanning 1971 to 1976 and returned for a 1980 telefilm, is girth. Yep, he’s big. Corpulent, fat, morbidly obese, rotund—take your pick. The character has other traits, but his size is a point of conversation from his first appearance forward. Thanks to smart scripting and a winning performance by star William Conrad, Cannon spends the enjoyable pilot movie that preceded his weekly series coming across as clever and dogged and resourceful. He even gets into brawls and foot chases. Characters remark on his weight, as does Cannon himself, but mostly he gets down to the tricky business of solving a murder and untangling a conspiracy. Particularly because this pilot has such a fine supporting cast of versatile character actors, it’s unsurprising the movie connected well enough with audiences to trigger a series. But, still, the sheer laziness of the whole enterprise—this one’s different, see, because he’s fat! There’s a reason they used to call TV a vast wasteland.
One day, ex-cop Cannon gets a letter from Diana Langston (Vera Miles), the widow of an old friend. Traveling to the small desert town where she runs a motel, Cannon investigates the man’s death and gets stonewalled by local cops including Lt. Redfield (J.D. Cannon) and Deputy Magruder (Earl Holliman). Turns out the whole small town is under the thumb of crime boss Virgil Holley (Murray Hamilton), and things get even more complicated once Cannon discovers that Lt. Redfield’s sexy wife, Christie (Lynda Day George), has dangerous romantic ties outside her marriage. Despite several attempts on his life as well as threats of incarceration, Cannon helps Diana learn how and why her husband died, cleaning up Diana’s town in the process. Written by series creator Edward Hume, the Cannon pilot has the same qualities as other series from Quinn Martin Productions (The Fugitive, The Streets of San Francisco, etc.), notably crisp characterizations and strong visual interest, so even when the story gets garbled—a common trap for mystery shows—the action, locations, and performances command attention. (Also featured in the cast are Norman Alden, John Fiedler, Lawrence Pressman, Barry Sullivan, and Keenan Wynn.) Is the story about anything? No. And excepting a few twists, is the story genuinely fresh or surprising? No again. But detective shows are comfort food, and in that regard, Cannon is a hearty meal, suitable for the appetite of its protagonist.