Nero Wolfe (film)

Nero Wolfe is a 1977 American made-for-television film adaptation of the Nero Wolfe novel The Doorbell Rang by Rex Stout. Thayer David stars as Nero Wolfe, gourmet, connoisseur and detective genius. Tom Mason costars as Archie Goodwin, Wolfe's assistant. Written and directed by Frank D. Gilroy, the made-for-TV movie was produced by Paramount Television as a pilot for an ABC television series, but the movie was shelved by the network for more than two years before finally being broadcast December 19, 1979.

Nero Wolfe
Based onThe Doorbell Rang
by Rex Stout
Written byFrank D. Gilroy
Screenplay byFrank D. Gilroy
Directed byFrank D. Gilroy
StarringThayer David
Tom Mason
Brooke Adams
Biff McGuire
John Randolph
Anne Baxter
Theme music composerLeonard Rosenman
Country of originUnited States
Original language(s)English
Executive producer(s)Emmet G. Lavery, Jr.
Producer(s)Everett Chambers
Production location(s)Paramount Studios - 5555 Melrose Avenue, Hollywood, Los Angeles, California
CinematographyRic Waite
Editor(s)Harry Keller
Running time120 min.
Production company(s)Emmet C. Lavery, Jr. Productions
Paramount Television
Original networkABC
Original releaseDecember 19, 1979


Disappointed with the Columbia Pictures films based on his first two Nero Wolfe novels, mystery writer Rex Stout was leery of further Hollywood adaptations in his lifetime. "I've had offers," Stout told author Dick Lochte in 1967, "but I haven't been to a movie in 30 years and I despise television. ... Anyway, the money, in addition to what the books are bringing in, would put me in a tax bracket where I wouldn't see much of it. If the characters are any good for films or television they'll be just as good 10 years from now." Ten years later, a little more than a year after Stout's death, literary agent H.N. Swanson negotiated an agreement for a Nero Wolfe television movie.[1]

In 1976 Paramount Television purchased the rights for the entire set of Nero Wolfe stories for Orson Welles.[2][3] Paramount paid $200,000 for the TV rights to eight hours of Nero Wolfe.[4] The producers planned to begin with an ABC-TV movie and hoped to persuade Welles to continue the role in a mini-series.[5] Frank D. Gilroy was signed to write the television script ("The Doorbell Rang") and direct the TV movie on the assurance that Welles would star, but by April 1977 Welles had bowed out.[6]

"I was told to discover someone for the role since no other name actors were acceptable to them (ABC/Paramount) or to me," Gilroy wrote in his memoir, I Wake Up Screening (1993). "After a bicoastal search, which acquainted me with just about every corpulent middle-aged actor available, I, close to giving up, encountered Thayer David. No sooner did he start to read than Emmet Lavery, the producer, and I exchanged a look: We'd found our man."[7]

At a cost of about $1.5 million,[8] Nero Wolfe was filmed in March, April and May 1977, in locales including Van Nuys and Malibu, California, and New York City.[9] The scene in which Mrs. Rachel Bruner (Anne Baxter) goes ice skating was filmed at Rockefeller Center.[10]

In June 1977, UPI reported that the two-hour film would air during the 1977–78 season, with the possibility of it becoming a weekly series in January 1978.[11] But the film had still not aired when Thayer David died in July 1978. In a November 1979 interview, Gilroy mildly complained to the Associated Press that Nero Wolfe had still not been broadcast by ABC, and praised the performance of David. "It doesn't affect my career one way or the other that they haven't shown it, but that was the most important thing he ever did on film, and I'm determined to get it aired," Gilroy said.[12]

Nero Wolfe was finally broadcast by ABC-TV at midnight December 18, 1979.[13] Asked why the movie had not been run before, a former ABC executive familiar with the movie's development said, "It wasn't very good. It was very slow and plodding and talky. We just felt it wouldn't get any numbers." Asked why it had finally been scheduled, a network staffer speculated, "It's called 'dusting off the shelf.'"[8]

Frank Gilroy was recognized with an Edgar Award nomination by the Mystery Writers of America in 1980.

In January 1981, Paramount Television's one-hour weekly series Nero Wolfe, starring William Conrad, began a 14-episode run on NBC.


Reviews and commentary

  • James Bawden, Toronto Star — This adaptation of Rex Stout's The Doorbell Rang is way above average.[14]
  • Paula Vitaris, Scarlet Street — Not surprisingly, this version played fast and loose with the original story, even implying a romantic relationship between the notoriously woman-shy Wolfe and wealthy widow Rachel Bruner (Anne Baxter), at whose behest Wolfe had taken on one of his most formidable foes, the FBI.[15]

Home media

In 2003 AudioVision Canada released Nero Wolfe on DVD, in a described edition for the blind and those with diminished vision. ISBN 0-7789-8107-X

On May 3, 2017, VEI announced a DVD release for the 1981 TV series starring William Conrad. Reported to be "coming soon", Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe: The Complete Series will include the 1977 pilot starring Thayer David.[16]


  1. Lochte, Dick, "TV finally tunes in Nero Wolfe," Los Angeles Times, January 30, 1977
  2. Pre-production materials for Nero Wolfe (1976) are contained in the Orson Welles – Oja Kodar Papers 1910–1998 (Box 17) at the University of Michigan Special Collections Library.
  3. Kleiner, Dick, Oakland Tribune, December 30, 1976; Smith, Liz, The Baltimore Sun, March 14, 1977
  4. Rosenfield, Paul, "Have You Seen Any Good Novels Lately?" Los Angeles Times, March 4, 1979
  5. Kleiner, Dick, Oakland Tribune, December 30, 1976
  6. Gilroy, Frank D., I Wake Up Screening. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993, ISBN 0-8093-1856-3 pp. ii and 147
  7. Gilroy, Frank D., I Wake Up Screening. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993, ISBN 0-8093-1856-3 p. 147
  8. Margulies, Lee, "Clues to Stout Mystery Revealed"; Los Angeles Times, November 29, 1979
  9. Jacobs, Julie, "Valley News newsroom used in pilot TV movie about Nero Wolfe"; Valley News (Van Nuys, California), April 17, 1977
  10. Gilroy, Frank D., I Wake Up Screening. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993, ISBN 0-8093-1856-3 p. 309
  11. United Press International (June 26, 1977). "Nero Wolfe Film Will Be TV Show". Times Daily. Florence, Alabama. Retrieved 2015-05-09.
  12. Sharbutt, Jay, The Associated Press, November 11, 1979
  13. Terrace, Vincent, Television 1970–1980. San Diego, California: A.S. Barnes & Company, 1981, ISBN 0-498-02539-X page 266
  14. Bawden, James, Toronto Star, February 23, 1991
  15. Vitaris, Paula, "Miracle on 35th Street: Nero Wolfe on Television"; Scarlet Street, issue #45, 2002, p. 34
  16. 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.
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