Dr. Cook's Garden Gave Bing Crosby His Only (Great) Villain Role

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<i>Dr. Cook's Garden</i> Gave Bing Crosby His Only (Great) Villain Role

It took Bing Crosby the entirety of his movie career to get truly dark. There were flirtations, sure—he won plaudits for his role as an alcoholic has-been actor in The County Girl in 1954, and for playing the bitter divorcé determined to retain custody of his child through whatever means necessary in Man on Fire (1957)—but nothing to seriously undermine his persona as a silky-voiced crooner with a heart of gold. Still, by 1971, Crosby was 68 and ready to try something new.

Dr. Cook’s Garden, based on a short-lived Broadway play by the redoubtable Ira Levin, was a TV movie that aired in the second season of ABC’s iconic Movie of the Week slot. It stars Crosby as the beloved—and, crucially, sole—doctor of the tiny town of Greenfield. In Ira Levin terms, Greenfield is Stepford Wives territory: The lawns are all perfectly tended, and the neighbors all perfectly polite.

And this strikes prodigal son Jim Tennyson (a bountifully-haired Frank Converse) as all a bit…suspicious. He’s returned to his hometown to pay his old mentor a visit—Jim knows he’s getting on a bit and, as a fellow doctor, he wants to offer to share the load. To his surprise, Dr. Cook vehemently refuses. A baffling amount of poison in his medical cabinet, troubling codes that imply a connection between the weeds in his precious garden and the patients in his precious town, and a rash of recent deaths that seems to have only hit Greenfield’s most “difficult” citizens only add to the young doctor’s incipient panic.

You know where this is going. Yes, Dr. Cook’s Garden does see Bing Crosby as a small-town doctor with a murderous god complex—quite the elevator pitch. We know Dr. Cook’s secret before the opening credits have rolled, and then dive into Jim’s pursuit of the truth, and what he’ll do with the information when he has it.

Because it’s not quite as simple as just “tell the police.” For one thing, the citizens of Greenfield—including the police chief Cook appointed—are so grateful to Dr. Cook that it’s impossible to imagine them believing such an outlandish-sounding story. Most importantly though, Jim really loves this deranged old man. Cook was his childhood physician, and the two developed a father/son bond after Dr. Cook fixed the arm that Jim’s abusive biological dad broke. He helped him get through that difficult childhood, helped train him as a doctor and paid his way through college. No other person has had as big a hand in making him the man he is than Dr. Cook, and—despite the horrors he’s committed—the thought of turning him in remains heartbreaking.

From early on, both Dr. Cook and Jim know what the other knows. Yet for large swathes of time, they engage in this mutual deception that everything is as rosy as it always has been; the doctor’s murderous eugenics sit between them like a burst of particularly noxious flatulence that everyone’s too polite to acknowledge.

When Dr. Cook realizes that he might actually be in jeopardy from his former protegee, Crosby’s already excellent performance finds an extra level. It would be easy to play such a character BIG, to coast on the grabbiness of that elevator pitch as a cartoon villain, but Crosby makes Dr. Cook’s downward spiral into despotism disconcertingly understandable. We never doubt that he believes he’s doing the right thing. There’s a real poignancy to his desperation to cling on to the job that has given his life meaning for so many decades; he squirms and wheedles, pleads and manipulates. The shell that seemed so secure, so smooth when we first met him is cracked open to reveal something shudderingly human. Crosby just did not get the chance to express such a side to his acting ability in his big screen ventures.

That’s the thing about TV movies, particularly those that ABC produced under the iconic Movie of the Week banner between 1969 and 1975—not inventing the concept (NBC’s 1964 See How They Run is widely accepted as the first true example), but popularizing it. Yes, the production values are minimal, and the music cues maximal even when they shouldn’t be. Yes, there are a fair proportion that really are just fun trash, or plain old trash. But within that chronically under-respected subgenre, there are still plenty of examples of big stars, either on their way up or down, giving performances unfairly lost to the annals of time.

Thanks to their tight production schedules, these modest movies—which would generally run to around 73 minutes, filling 90 minutes of airtime with ad breaks factored in—could tackle current social issues with much more immediacy than their high-budgeted cinematic siblings. They could launch megastars like Steven Spielberg, whose Duel started life as a Movie of the Week before being picked up for theatrical distribution. In an era with a tiny fraction of the home viewing options we have today, TV movies could reach enormous audiences with very little competition. However much their overall quality is derided now, and however few managed to gain any lasting foothold in the public imagination, the Movie of the Week as an entertainment phenomenon was responsible for a myriad of films and individual performances well worthy of rediscovery.

Dr. Cook’s Garden went the way of almost all its contemporaries; though it got positive notices, it was pretty much forgotten by the time the following week’s feature—The Feminist and The Fuzz (!)—aired. The sole mark it seems to have left on the culture is in a positive comment from Stephen King in his book-length meditation on the horror genre, Danse Macabre: “A modest but chillingly effective made-for-TV movie, starring Bing Crosby in a wonderfully adroit performance.”

As for Crosby? Well, Dr. Cook’s Garden unfortunately was not the beginning of a trend reimagining the great crooner as a great killer—except for a cameo in an unremarkable vehicle for his old pal Bob Hope, it was the end of his film acting. In poor health, he’d be dead six years after its airing.

A little TV movie at the end of a career as long and multi-stranded as Bing Crosby’s was never going to even make the obits. Nevertheless, as a late showcase for his unexpectedly wide acting range, Dr. Cook’s Garden deserves to be remembered.

Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.