Air Date: Jan. 19, 1971 (ABC Movie of the Week)
Production Companies: Paramount Television
Running Time: 75 min.
Available on: YouTube
Written by: Art Wallace
Based on the play by Ira Levin
Directed by: Ted Post
Cast: Bing Crosby, Frank Converse, Blythe Danner, Barnard Hughes
Bing Crosby as a serial killer? Sold! In his last television acting appearance, he (and his toupee) plays the titular Dr. Leonard Cook, a small town doctor that has spent his career weeding the town of its ne'er do wells and riff raff. It’s practically the happiest place on Earth. If only he weren’t so diligent about marking his patients’ index cards with “R’s” (for “remove”), he may never have been caught.
However, Jimmy Tennyson (Frank Converse) returns home with a medical degree hoping to follow in Cook’s footsteps, minus the serial killing, and spends a little too much time flipping through the card catalogue and asking questions. In fact, from the moment he steps off the bus, Tennyson seems to have a burr under the saddle about something. Whether Converse is miscast or it’s a subtle plot point, his need to solve a mystery is never explained.
Dr. Cook’s Garden is based on a flop Broadway play by Ira Levin. Burl Ives played Dr. Cook and Keir Dullea played Tennyson. Supposedly, George C. Scott was going to direct it, but Levin replaced him at some point during rehearsals. In any case, you can tell the TV version is based on a play. It’s very talky. Crosby spins an almost understandable list of explanations for what he does... over and over again.
In fact, I was almost sold that what he was doing wasn’t completely despicable; that is, until Tennyson’s curiosity turns him into another potential victim. The fact that Dr. Cook views Tennyson as an enemy casts doubt on his noble motives, placing him confidently in the serial killer family. It’s not necessarily a twist ending, but Cook gets the last word. It may not mean Tennyson is going to take his place, but he’ll be eaten away by guilt for the rest of his life.
There are a lot of great credentials associated with Dr. Cook’s Garden, besides Levin (Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives.) Art Wallace (Dark Shadows) wrote the teleplay. Blythe Danner co-stars as possible love interest for Tennyson and Barnard Hughes plays Dr. Cook’s literal gardener. Finally, it was directed by Ted Post, who a year earlier directed another 70s TV horror movie I wrote about here: Night Slaves.
There’s more to like than dislike here. It’s definitely not horror, and barely thriller. Even with the subject matter, it’s never played for suspense. With a few tweaks, it may have even been a simple drama with shades of Dr. Kervorkian. Luckily, it filled a 90-minute time slot, not a two-hour time slot. That’s the last thing Dr. Cook’s Garden needs: more space to grow. It’s just the right size as it is.