Father Dowling Mysteries

Father Dowling Mysteries (also known as Father Dowling Investigates in the United Kingdom)[1] is an American mystery television series that aired from January 20, 1989 to May 2, 1991. Prior to the series, a TV movie aired on November 30, 1987. For its first season, the show was on NBC; it moved to ABC for its last two seasons.

Father Dowling Mysteries
Based onCharacters from the Father Dowling Mystery Books by Ralph McInerny
Developed byDean Hargrove
Joel Steiger
StarringTom Bosley
Tracy Nelson
James Stephens
Mary Wickes
Country of originUnited States
Original language(s)English
No. of seasons3
No. of episodes43 + 1 TV movie (list of episodes)
Running time40 minutes (per episode)
Production company(s)The Fred Silverman Company
Dean Hargrove Productions
Viacom Productions
DistributorCBS Television Distribution
Original networkNBC (season 1)
ABC (seasons 2-3)
Original releaseNovember 30, 1987 (1987-11-30) (TV movie)
January 20, 1989 (1989-01-20) 
May 2, 1991 (1991-05-02)

The show features a Catholic priest, Father Dowling, who solves murders, abductions and other mysteries in his Chicago parish, assisted by a young streetwise nun, Sister Stephanie, in spite of hindrance by the bishop's representative, Father Prestwick.

It is based on characters created by Ralph McInerny[2] in a series of mystery novels; but neither the pilot TV movie nor the subsequent regular season episodes are actual adaptations of any of McInerny's stories.

The series was developed for television by Dean Hargrove and Joel Steiger, and produced by The Fred Silverman Company and Dean Hargrove Productions in association with Viacom Productions.


The program featured many notable guest stars, some before they had achieved fame, including: John Astin, Jack Bannon, Roscoe Lee Browne, Steven Culp, Stacy Edwards, Fionnula Flanagan, Michelle Forbes, Kurt Fuller, Annie Golden, Grant Heslov, Laurie Holden, Stanley Kamel, Andreas Katsulas, Yaphet Kotto, Diane Ladd, Anthony LaPaglia, Scott Marlowe, David McCallum, Colm Meaney, William R. Moses, Craig Richard Nelson, Leslie Nielsen, Ethan Phillips, John Slattery, Brenda Strong, Robin Thomas, Sada Thompson, Tony Todd, John Vernon, Kate Vernon, Robert Walden and David Warner.


SeasonEpisodesOriginally aired
First airedLast airedNetwork
TV-movieNovember 30, 1987 (1987-11-30)NBC
18January 20, 1989 (1989-01-20)March 10, 1989 (1989-03-10)
213January 4, 1990 (1990-01-04)April 26, 1990 (1990-04-26)ABC
322September 20, 1990 (1990-09-20)May 2, 1991 (1991-05-02)

After its first season, NBC cancelled the show. It was picked up by ABC and aired for two more seasons. In total, Father Dowling Mysteries comprises a 2-hour TV movie plus 43 one-hour episodes.

Production credits

  • Executive Producers Fred Silverman and Dean Hargrove
  • Executive in Charge of Production Mike Moder
  • Supervising Producer Robert Hamilton (season 1)
  • Supervising Producer Robert Schlitt (season 2)
  • Produced by Barry Steinberg (season 1,2)
  • Co-Producer David Solomon (season 1,2)


The pilot was a two-hour TV movie titled Fatal Confession, which originally aired on NBC on November 30, 1987.

There were few similarities to the books written by McInerny, with the principal character even changing his name (in the novels, he was Roger Dowling), while the setting was moved from a rural parish in the small town of Fox River to the city of Chicago  a setting which was borrowed from another series of novels by McInerny, concerning a Chicago nun. For TV, the nun changed her name, became streetwise, lost many years of age, and metamorphosed into Father Dowling's youthful assistant.[3]

Father Prestwick did not appear in the pilot. The first episode of the series, "The Missing Body Mystery", has him brought in to evaluate Father Dowling's parish, and Prestwick is initially appointed to replace him. At the end of the episode, Father Prestwick is reassigned to a parish in Alaska: hence he does not appear in the next 5 episodes, reappearing only in the final Season 1 episode, "The Pretty Baby Mystery" (when it's said he had offended the Bishop in Anchorage, Alaska, and been kicked out there). From the start of Season 2 he becomes one of the regular cast.

Regular series

The show was due to begin in 1988, but because of a writer's strike it did not begin to air weekly until January 1989.

For the first season, on NBC, the episodes were principally written by Supervising Producer Robert Hamilton, who contributed five of the scripts, but Hamilton was dropped when NBC cancelled the show after just eight episodes.

When ABC picked up the show for the second and third seasons (initially as a mid-season replacement), the show's executive producer, Dean Hargrove, together with Joyce Burditt, became the backbone of the writing team, frequently writing episodes jointly (Hargrove had begun his career as a scriptwriter, on the TV series The Man From U.N.C.L.E.). And Gerry Conway, whose career began as a well-regarded writer at Marvel Comics, was now appointed as a script consultant, initially acting as script editor on the series before being promoted to co-producer for the third season, as well as writing many of the episodes.

For the third and longest season (the show's only full season), Brian Clemens, who had been producer and executive producer on The Avengers and had written many of its best episodes, was added as a script consultant, and wrote or co-wrote many third season episodes - a number of them in collaboration with co-producer Gerry Conway.

The theme music for the regular series was composed by Dick De Benedictis.


The show courted controversy with viewers in its third season, which led to a second, and final, cancellation. Executive producer Dean Hargrove wrote several episodes which did not sit well with viewers of a religious disposition, nor with the network, moving the show away from being a murder mystery series and straying into theological areas, including appearances by the Devil and by angels, presenting them as real characters within the storylines.


Father Francis ("Frank") Dowling is a Catholic priest who continually stumbles upon murders, abductions and other crimes in his parish (the fictional Parish of St Michael's) in Chicago, Illinois. Because of the Chicago connection, many of the cases are mob-related. His legal first name of Francis is revealed in the episode The Movie Mystery, when he's talking to the detective in charge of the case.

Fr. Frank is assisted by Sister Stephanie ("Steve") Oskowski, a nun assigned to the parish to minister to its members. It is Sr. Steve who does much of the legwork in the investigations. Sister is a streetwise nun, who grew up in a rough housing project in the diocese. She can hotwire a car and pick any lock, among other things. Because Sr. Steve knows the "language of the streets" she uses this to her advantage, not just when investigating a mystery, but also in her vocation ministry. Although she is much younger than Fr. Frank, the two work smoothly together as a team. He is not just a mentor to her, it's obvious she looks up to him as the father she never had, and he, in turn, treats her as if she's his daughter.

Fr. Dowling has an identical twin brother, Blaine (also played by Bosley). A thief and con artist, who isn't above framing his brother for his crimes, Blaine appears three times: in The Face in the Mirror Mystery, The Woman Scorned Mystery, and The Fugitive Priest Mystery.

Father Philip Prestwick, who provides comic relief, is a social-climbing assistant to the Archbishop. Fr. Phil just happens to drop in before every meal.

Mrs. Marie Gillespie is both the parish secretary and housekeeper for the rectory (where priests reside).

The other recurring character is a female Chicago police officer, Detective Sergeant Clancy (Regina Krueger), who is Father Dowling's friend and principal police contact in the two ABC seasons. In season 3, Dick O'Neill replaced her as Lieutenant Foster, an old friend of Frank's in the police force, whom Frank browbeats into doing favors during the investigations.

The mysteries usually begin with a mysterious visitor to St. Michael's church, or the parish office and rectory next door where Fr. Dowling lives. Sr. Steve apparently does not live in community (in a convent or house with other nuns in her order) and eats her meals at the rectory. She is also the chauffeur for Fr. Dowling, who doesn't drive. Because she is a car enthusiast, she handles the parish station wagon like a professional stuntman. While attending to parish secretarial and administrative duties, Marie takes phone messages for the duo while they travel all over Chicago investigating their latest case. Meanwhile, Fr. Phil pops in and out of the rectory, almost always at mealtimes. Marie and Fr. Phil provide light comic relief together, forever squabbling over Father and Sister's crime-solving involvement, general parish duties and staying on the Archbishop's good side. However, Marie always emerges victorious. As stated, a running gag is Fr. Phil's devotion to never missing a meal at the rectory.

In the episode The Legacy Mystery (which aired on April 4, 1990), Bosley was reunited with his Happy Days co-star, Marion Ross who played the mother of a wealthy businessman accused of stealing valuable artwork.

Home media

CBS DVD (distributed by Paramount) has released all three seasons on DVD in Region 1.[4][5][6]

On June 6, 2017, CBS DVD released Father Dowling Mysteries: The Complete Series on DVD in Region 1.[7]

In Region 2, Acorn Media released the first season on DVD in the UK on June 18, 2012. However, it was released under the title Father Dowling Investigates.

In Region 4, Madman Entertainment released the first season on DVD in Australia on November 2, 2011.

There was also a VHS released in region 1 on the 24 of January 2000 of the "Fatal Confession" TV movie.

DVD Name Ep # Release dates
Region 1 Region 2 Region 4
The Complete First Season 9 February 7, 2012 June 18, 2012 November 2, 2011
The Complete Second Season 13 July 10, 2012 N/A N/A
The Complete Third and Final Season 22 March 12, 2013 N/A N/A
The Complete Series 44 June 6, 2017 N/A N/A


  • Lovece, Frank, The Television Yearbook: Complete, Detailed Listings for the 1990-1991 Season (Putnam / Perigee, 1991) ISBN 0-399-51702-2
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