Toma


Based on the life of Newark undercover detective David Toma, this police drama debuted to poor ratings and so-so reviews in September 1973. Moved to a new day and time in January 1974, the ratings improved, but star Tony Musante shockingly quit the series after one season (just as he had promised he would). When its 1974-1975 schedule fell apart, ABC decided to revive the show with Robert Blake in the title role. Things didn’t quite work out that way, however.

The Real David Toma

Accounts vary, but Detective David Toma had between 7,000 and 10,000 arrests under his belt — and a conviction rate of either 98 or 99% — when the story of his life was adapted for television [1]. For twelve of the seventeen years Mr. Toma had worked for the Newark Police Department, he operated as a member of the Bureau of Investigations [2]. Universal Studios decided his career was fit for a television movie and even allowed him to audition for a role — as himself [3].

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Tony Musante was eventually given the lead role, but Mr. Toma served as technical adviser and appeared in a minor role in the ABC Movie of the Week installment, aptly titled Toma. The plot of the telefilm was based on the largest bust Mr. Toma was ever involved with: an illicit gambling operation that handled $20 million a year [4]. Produced by Roy Huggins and Jo Swerling, Jr. and directed by Richard T. Heffron (with music by Pete Rugola), the telefilm was written by Edward Hume.

Hume spent a week in Newark with Mr. Toma to learn about his job and background. He got more than he bargained for:

At this point Toma and the surprised Hume (who was thrown a gun and told to use it) arrested the money messenger and took over the bag. On the way to be booked the suspect finally asked, “Hey, are you Dave Toma?” “Yeah, why?” Toma answered. The guy shook his head. “The reason I turned out of that first alley all of a sudden,” he said,” was ’cause I thought the guy up on the ladder painting the building was Dave Toma.” [5]

Mr. Toma’s success as a detective came from his mastery of disguise, using a combination of costume and attitude to convincingly impersonate anyone from a priest to a bum [6]. This chameleon-like ability — a trademark, of sorts, for Mr. Toma — would be reproduced in the telefilm, with Tony Musante pretending to be a variety of characters.

Toma — An ABC Movie Of The Week

ABC broadcast Toma on Wednesday, March 22nd, 1974 from 8:30-10PM, opposite a repeat on Banacek on NBC and the second half of The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour and Medical Center on CBS. Starring alongside Tony Musante were Susan Strasberg as his wife Patty, Simon Oakland as his boss, Lieutenant Spooner, and Nicholas Colasanto as the head of the syndicate Toma was battling. The real David Toma played Detective Vinnie Cecca.

Tony Musante as David Toma
Tony Musante as David Toma

The telefilm was received well by critics. Writing in The New York Times, John J. O’Connor praised the cast, stating that “the performances were almost uniformly first-rate” [7]. And Don Page of The Los Angeles Times called Toma a “realistic, fast-paced police drama” with a “forthright, crisp and gutsy” script [8]. In early April, when ABC announced its schedule for the 1973-1974 season, a weekly version of Toma was given the Thursday 8-9PM timeslot, replacing The Mod Squad [9].

New Fall Season Delayed

Even as ABC was finalizing its fall schedule, the Writers Guild of America was on strike against major production companies and the networks were soon added [10]. Nevertheless, the networks continued promoting the upcoming fall season. In mid-June, ABC flew almost 80 television critics to Pebble Beach, California to meet with the stars of three of the network’s new fall shows: Griff, Toma and Cyborg: The Six Million Dollar Man [11].

Regarding Toma, The Chicago Tribune‘s Clarence Petersen was relieved to learn that Susan Strasberg and Simon Oakland, along with Tony Musante, would reprise their roles in the weekly series (he called them “competent and interesting in the pilot film”) [12]. He did note, however, that it was unlikely the “disguise gimmick” would be left out of even a handful of episodes, as Musante hoped.

Susan Strasberg as Patty Toma
Susan Strasberg as Patty Toma

The writers strike ended, for all intents and purposes, in late June (a separate strike against the networks involving live and video programs continued). But the damage had been done. Although many independent producers had signed individual contracts with the Writers Guild, the major production companies responsible for much of the network’s content lost up to sixteen weeks to the strike [13].

The fall season would begin as expected on Monday, September 10th, but the networks would be forced to delay over a dozen shows. Production on Toma would not begin until August and it would be early October before the first episodes were ready for broadcast [14]. The pilot telefilm was repeated on Wednesday, September 5th. That same day, an article penned by Roy Huggins appeared in The Los Angeles Times.

Huggins, producer of Toma, recounted how MCA Universal chairman Lew Wasserman had initiated the lengthy chain of events that would ultimately lead to the creation of Toma by sending a magazine article to Sid Sheinberg (president of Universal’s television division) [15]. Sheinberg met with another top studio man, Frank Price, and the two sent the article to Huggins.

Huggins read the article and then discussed it with his wife, spent some time with police officers in Hollywood, and met with David Toma. After introducing Mr. Toma to his wife and spending five hours talking, Huggins set about making the telefilm. Huggins closed by saying, “If the Toma series fails I will have no excuse to offer” [16]. It would prove to be a prophetic statement.

Toma Premieres To Low Ratings, Mostly Favorable Reviews

On Thursday, October 4th, Toma debuted on ABC, opposite The Waltons on CBS and The Flip Wilson Show on NBC. The premiere episode saw Toma trying to clear the name of his friend Eddie (played by Martin Sheen), an ex-convict who has been arrested for killing a councilman. Unfortunately, opposite powerhouse The Waltons and successful The Flip Wilson Show, Toma ranked a disappointing 56th for the week — out of 65 shows — with a 14.0/21 rating (by comparison, The Waltons drew a 26.9/41 rating and ranked third while The Flip Wilson Show ranked 21st with a 20.8/32 rating) [17].

Like the telefilm, Toma received mostly positive reviews, especially for Tony Musante’s acting. Cecil Smith, writing in The Los Angeles Times, praised Musante:

Tense as a wound spring, urgent as snakebite, he’s an actor with authority in every movement, making the device of the disguises solidly real, whether as a prissy accountant or a rum-dumb telephone repairman. He can be sudden and tough; he can be equally slow and gentle with his wife. [18]

There were, however, complaints that the plot was trite. Regarding the storyline to the premiere, Smith said, “It’s nicely done, but it’s very familiar stuff” [19]. John J. O’Connor of The New York Times was worried that Toma would fall victim to “script clichés” that would see Toma facing “the Syndicate” week after week [20]. In The Chicago Tribune, Gary Deeb called Toma “offensive,” because “the story and supporting dialogue ring 100 per cent false” [21].

Ratings Remain Low, Moved To New Day

Despite critical praise for Tony Musante, viewers simply did not tune in. The second episode, broadcast October 15th, matched the numbers for the premiere, but the third episode fell to a 12.2/19 Nielsen rating [22, 23]. The following three episodes grew slightly, reaching a high of a 17.1/25 rating for the November 1st episode, before falling again [24].

Because Toma premiered so late in the season, when the first rumblings of midseason changes and cancellations began in late October, only four episodes of the series had aired. Reportedly, the network was happy with Toma and planned on moving it to a new timeslot rather than cancel it [25]. Indeed, in late November the network announced it was renewing Toma for the remainder of the 1973-1974 season and shifting it to Fridays at 10PM [26]. It would replace the canceled Love, American Style.

The shift would take place in January; the final first-run Thursday episode would air December 6th. A new episode was scheduled for December 13th but replaced by a repeat of the first episode at the last minute. Another new episode, planned for December 27th, was also pre-empted. Chopper One premiered in Toma‘s former timeslot on January 17th and the following day, Friday, January 18th, Toma debuted in its new Friday timeslot.

New Day Shows Ratings Rise

The episode, originally scheduled for December 13th, was based on a story written by star Tony Musante and his wife Jane [27]. The two wrote both the story and teleplay (using the pen names Peter Salerno and Jane Sparkles) for the January 25th episode, which was originally scheduled for December 28th. The episode, titled “Rock-a-Bye,” pulled together three real-life stories: the tragic death of the real David Toma’s son, the attempted selling of a baby on a subway in New York, and a troubled adoption by a woman who stumbled upon an abandoned infant [28].

In the episode, Toma and Patty are shocked when a stranger asks if they want to buy the baby he has in a shopping bag. Recalling the death of their son they decide to adopt the baby but run into problems when their other son becomes upset (the real Tomas had four additional children, the television Tomas only two) [29]. The episode was praised by The Los Angeles Times‘ Dick Adler, who called it “one of the best shows in this generally ignored series” [30].

Simon Oakland as Detective Spooner
Simon Oakland as Detective Spooner

Preliminary Nielsen numbers for the evening of January 18th, when ABC’s new Friday programming — including Toma in its new timeslot — debuted, saw the network easily outpace the other networks [31]. The network’s midseason schedule as a whole allowed ABC to rise to second place for the four weeks beginning Monday, January 14th, with Toma showing “marked gains in audience” [32].

The broadcast of a two-part story, begun February 1st, was interrupted the following week by a pre-emption. The second half would be shown the following week, which pushed that week’s planned episode to February 22nd. Ratings for Toma remained strong; the April 19th episode even managed to break it into the Top Twenty, ranking 18th for the week [33].

A Surprise Cancellation

On Wednesday, April 24th, ABC announced its 1974-1975 schedule [34]. Among the ten programs being cancelled were The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family and The FBI. Six of the ten cancellations were programs that had been introduced during the previous season, including Toma. It would be replaced in the fall by Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

The final first-run episode of Toma aired on March 31st. A week earlier, the real David Toma ripped into Tony Musante, blaming the actor for the cancellation of the series that bared his name [35]. Toma, it seems, was not canceled due to low ratings. Instead, Tony Musante declined to return for a second season, angering Mr. Toma:

Everybody [throughout] the country is hollerin’ and bitchin’ about it. I feel sorry for so many kids who are writing letters and calling me. I’m very dismayed and I’m surprised at Musante. He’s supposedly a compassionate human being. But if he was compassionate, he’d think about how many millions of lives, how many people he’s hurting. [36]

Furthermore, both ABC and Universal vetoed Mr. Toma’s desire to take over the lead role — in effect, to play himself. He also contradicted Roy Huggins’ contention that Lew Wasserman was the man responsible for the original pilot telefilm. Instead, Mr. Toma insisted he convinced Universal to approach ABC (after the series was turned down by CBS). He also kept them from calling the series “Supercop,” saying he “fought with the network and with Universal. But I got my way. I went thru living hell for it” [37].

Additionally, Mr. Toma accused the writers of Toma of stealing story ideas from him by altering them just enough so they could claim them as their own. He wanted fans of the show to write to ABC, despite the fact that the network insisted Toma was through [38].

Musante Walks Away From Success

Whether or not his charges against Toma‘s writers — or much of what he alleged — Mr. Toma was correct regarding the reason for the show’s cancellation. Tony Musante did refuse to return for second season, as producer Jo. Swerling, Jr. confirmed in a letter to The Los Angeles Times [39]. But there was more to the story.

In an account he gave to TV Guide, Roy Huggins explained that when he first approached Musante about the role, the actor would only accept as long as it was understood that he was committing for a single season of twenty-two episodes. After that, he would only agree to ten episodes a season.

Huggins felt that “if we went into a second year, no actor could walk away from such a successful series” [40]. So Musante took the role and, just as he said from the very start, when ABC wanted to renew Toma for a second year, Musante said no. He gave up $11,000 an episode and left ABC with no choice but to cancel the show [41].

Tony Musante as Detective David Toma
Tony Musante as Detective David Toma – September 8th, 1973
Copyright © TV Guide, 1973 [1]

Musante gave his reasoning to The New York Times in July. After being offered the role in the telefilm, he learned that he would have to sign a five-year series contract, so he turned it down. Universal asked him to reconsider and he met with officials at the studio and again turned down the role. His offer of a single season followed by either a shortened season of ten episodes or a slew of ninety-minute specials was eventually accepted by both Universal and ABC [42].

The telefilm was broadcast, the reviews were good and ABC, although uncomfortable with Musante’s unusual contract, ordered the project to series. Said Musante, “I guess they believed that if the series was successful I was going to change my mind” [43]. He stuck to his guns when the topic of a full second season was broached at the end of the 1973-1974 season:

I have no desire to play the same guy show after show. For me, it’s not an exciting way to act. I grew up believing in versatility, while trying to keep myself available to all the media–stage, films and television. [44]

Another season of Toma would require nine months, months that Musante was unwilling to give up. So Toma came to an end. The final summer repeats were broadcast on Thursday, September 5th and Friday, September 6th, respectively, when the two-part story was repeated. Both episodes ranked in the Top Twenty for the week [45].

An Unlikely Resurrection

The 1974-1975 season began Monday, September 9th. Within a matter of weeks it was obvious that ABC’s new schedule was a disaster. The network’s midseason changes weren’t expected to produce strong results, but something had to be done. In early November, in what Joyce Haber of The Los Angeles Times called an “unprecedented move,” ABC announced it was returning Toma to its schedule with Robert Blake taking over the lead role [46].

The new version of Toma, which would premiere January 17th, would be given the same Friday at 10PM timeslot it had occupied during the 1973-1974 season [47]. In December, ABC changed the name of the series to Baretta, “apparently to protect innocent ABC from another plagiarism lawsuit,” according to Gary Deeb [48]. The main character would be called Tony Baretta. Robert Blake felt strongly about not being seen as Musante’s follow-up:

But this Toma thing–I never saw Toma, I never read Toma, I never heard of Toma. If they want to sell the series as being like Toma because it’s about a flatfoot, fine, but don’t tell them I’m playing Toma under another name and my producer hopes this will be as good as the original Toma. What kind of bull is that? [49]

Blake explained that the name “Baretta” came from a different series Roy Huggins had been considering called “Baretta 690″ and that the character’s backstory was intricately devised [50].

Baretta: Strong Reviews, Weak Ratings

Cecil Smith called Baretta “a show like a closed fist, tough and menacing and explosive, containing a funny, mean, desperate kind of reality as taut as the G-string on a carnival fan dancer” [51]. Even Gary Deeb was impressed, writing that the premiere episode was “one of the toughest, most sizzling episodes ever presented as part of a weekly crime series” [52]. Deeb also praised Blake, who “infuses the part with an energy and vitality rarely displayed by the somnambulant, superficial actors normally cast as TV cops” [53].

All the praise in the world could not help Baretta in the Nielsen ratings. It premiered in 48th place [54]. Nevertheless, ABC was happy enough to renew the series for a second season, which saw Baretta bust into the Top Thirty; the following season it would climb into the Top Ten. After four seasons and 82 episodes, Baretta was cancelled. It’s connection to Toma is now mostly forgotten, and the series itself has been overshadowed by Robert Blake’s troubled personal life.

Works Cited:

1 A March 21st article in The New York Times (“Newark Detective of Many Disguises Gets a Bit Part in TV Film of His Life,” Page 94) lists “nearly 7,000 arrests” and “a conviction rate of 98 per cent.” A February 21st article in The Los Angeles Times (Don Page, “A Superstar Cop and His War With the Jungle,” Page G1) lists the statistics as “more than 10,000 arrests, 99% conviction record.”
2 Page, Don. “A Superstar Cop and His War With the Jungle.” Los Angeles Times. 21 Feb. 1973: G1.
3 Ibid.
4 “Newark Detective of Many Disguises Gets a Bit Part in TV Film of His Life.” New York Times. 21 Mar. 1973: 94.
5 Galanoy, Terry. “Till Cancellation Do Us Part.” TV Guide. 30 Mar. 1974: 16-19.
6 Page, Don. “A Superstar Cop and His War With the Jungle.”
7 O’Connor, John J. “TV: N.B.C. Crime Film.” New York Times. 22 Mar. 1973: 87.
8 Page, Don. “TV Movie Review: ABC’s ‘Toma’ Story of a Cop in Disguise.” Los Angeles Times. 21 Mar. 1973: G15.
9 Smith, Cecil. “Six Out And Five In: ABC Announces New Lineup.” Los Angeles Times. 7 Apr. 1973: B3.
10 Bernstein, Harry. “Writers Extend Strike to Include 3 TV Networks.” Los Angeles Times. 12 Apr. 1973: D1.
11 Petersen, Clarence. “ABC has some ‘unusual’ detectives.” Chicago Tribune. 20 Jun. 1973: B16.
12 Ibid.
13Smith, Cecil. “The Script Reads ‘Fall TV Assured’.” Los Angeles Times. 4 Jul. 1973: D1.
14 Ibid.
15 Huggins, Roy. “New Series – Toma Captures an ‘Anticop’ Producer.” Los Angeles Times. 5 Sep. 1973: D19.
16 Ibid.
17 “All in the Family Tops Ratings Again.” Los Angeles Times. 23 Oct. 1973: C18.
18 Smith, Cecil. “Wambaugh Series a Genuine Article.” Los Angeles Times. 3 Oct. 1973: D17.
19 Ibid.
20 O’Connor, John J. “TV: For Chronic Dial Flipper, Mixed-Bag Season.” New York Times. 5 Oct. 1973: 63.
21 Deeb, Gary. “Police Story debut unmasks real cops.” Chicago Tribune. 4 Oct. 1973: C13.
22 “CBS Shows Still 1st, Last In Nielsen List.” Los Angeles Times. 25 Oct. 1973: D20.
23 “World Series Tops Week’s Nielsen List.” Los Angeles Times. 1 Nov. 1973: E20.
24 “All in Family Tops Nielsen Ratings Again.” Los Angeles Times. 12 Nov. 1973: D22.
25 Haber, Joyce. “New TV Season: The Axman Cometh.” Los Angeles Times. 30 Oct. 1973: C10.
26 Deeb, Gary. “Phase II replaces losers with losers.” Chicago Tribune. 28 Nov. 1973: A14.
27 Adler, Dick. “Toma – ‘Rockabye’ – Reality Enriches ‘Gimmick’ Series.” Los Angeles Times. 25 Jan. 1974: E21.
28 Ibid.
29 Ibid.
30 Ibid.
31 Gold, Aaron. “Tower Ticker.” Chicago Tribune. 23 Jan. 1974: C2.
32 Brown, Les. “Midseason Correction Lifts A.B.C. to Second Place.” New York Times. 14 Feb. 1974: 82.
33 “All in Family Moves Back to Top Spot.” Los Angeles Times. 29 Apr. 1974: C16.
34 Smith, Cecil. “ABC Kills Ten Shows, Adds 12 to Fall List.” Los Angeles Times. 25 Apr. 1974: A3.
35 Deeb, Gary. “Gun-downed Toma is ready for a showdown with ABC.” Chicago Tribune. 23 May 1974: B7.
36 Ibid.
37 Ibid.
38 Ibid.
39 “TV Talk Back.” Los Angeles Times. 30 Jun. 1974: M31.
40 Finnigan, Joseph. “TV Teletype: Hollywood.” TV Guide. 29 Jun. 1974: 28.
41 Ibid.
42 O’Connor, John J. “TV: Star of Dropped ‘Toma’ Tells What Happened.” New York Times. 24 Jul. 1974: 83.
43 Ibid.
44 Ibid.
45 “Beauty Pageant Tops National Nielsens.” Los Angeles Times. 16 Sep. 1974: G22.
46 Haber, Joyce. “Networks Running Out of Seasons.” Los Angeles Times. 4 Nov. 1974: E11.
47 “ABC Shakes Up Schedule.” Los Angeles Times. 14 Nov. 1974: H28.
48 Deeb, Gary. “Networks crank out more ethnic fuzz.” Los Angeles Times. 6 Dec. 1974: B14.
49 Smith, Cecil. “TV Review – Baretta: Like a Closed Fist.” Los Angeles Times. 17 Jan. 1975: F1.
50 Ibid.
51 Ibid.
52 Deeb, Gary. “Now The Jeffersons battle Nielsens, not the Bunkers.” Chicago Tribune. 17 Jan. 1975: B13.
53 Ibid.
534 “Jeffersons, Smothers Bows Place in Top 10.” Los Angeles Times. 24 Jan. 1975: G24.

Image Credits:

1 From TV Guide, September 8th, 1973, Page 59.

Originally Published August 19th, 2008
Last Updated June 23rd, 2012

6 Comments

  • wagner says:

    I remember Baretta. It was a good time with Robert Blake but TOMA was the best. Baretta was a action with some drama and Toma was drama with some action and I was a fan of every friday of 1976 in front of my tv. David Toma was a chamaleon-detective that uses violence as necessary but never shot anyboby. I’m waiting to see Toma in a dvd box!…

    Best wishes

    Wagner
    Rio de Janeiro/Brazil

  • YES, I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW IF THERE ARE ANY PLANS IN THE WORKS FOR ”TOMA” STARRING TONY MUSANTA TO BE RELEASE ON DVDS, IF NOT, WHY THEN?? WHEN I MEAN THEY EVEN GOT ”BARETTA” STARRING ROBERT BLADE, SO WHY NOT ”TOMA” ON DVDS?????

  • YES , ROBERT BLAKE IN ”BARETTA” IS ALREADY RELEASE ON DVDS ALREADY, SO WHY ISN’T TONY MUSANTA IN ”TOMA” RELEASE ON DVDS YET, AND DO YOU KNOW WHEN, ? AND IF ITS NOT GOING TO BE TELEASE ON DVDS, THEN , WHY, I MEAN EVEN ”BARETTA” IS ON DVDS ALREADY, SO THEN THAT IS WHY I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW WHY ISN’T ”TOMA” ON DVDS YET ? THANK YOU .

  • Richard Wiedner says:

    One of the problems is that so many of these older series were never transferred to video tape. I know for a fact that Universal still has faded 35mm prints of their older series sitting in a vault somewhere.
    Another thing is the costs to transfer from the original negative and do the encoding to DVD.
    With the slump in DVD sales these past few years we may never see these treasures.

  • Jo Swerling, Jr. says:

    It’s a shame this otherwise well-researched article failed to mention the writer-producer of the series, Toma, the late, great Stephen J. Cannell. The success of Toma and of the subsequent Baretta was largely due to his participation.

  • RGJ says:

    To be quite honest, Cannell’s name never came up during my research for this article.

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