Robert Wagner will have dueling appearances on CBS this week: As handcuffed character on "NCIS" Tuesday and subject of Saturday night's "48 Hours" segment on Natalie Wood's death almost 30 years ago.
The network put together what now seems like a rather jolting promo spot for Tuesday night's episode of "NCIS," which show Wagner's character being handcuffed and brought in for questioning on suspicion of murder.
His guest-starring role on TV's top crime drama is not, of course, to be confused with his appearance on the same network's "48 Hours Mystery," which is looking into whether the his wife's death, deemed an accidental drowning in 1981, warrants a criminal investigation.
Is this the kind of situation for which the word "awkward" was invented?
"The episode is running as scheduled," CBS spokesperson Chris Ender said Saturday, asked by The Wrap if any thought had been given to either postponing the Wagner-centered "NCIS" or re-editing the commercial spots.
The network's episode of "48 Hours," meanwhile, is not running as scheduled. The segment about Wood's death was originally slated to air Thanksgiving weekend, which would have allowed for Wagner's "NCIS" guest spot and promotion to be over and done with before any provocative questions got raised by CBS' news division.
But the news show got suddenly bumped up by a week, immediately after the L.A. County Sheriff's office held a news conference Friday announcing their reopening of the Wood case — an announcement that, in turn, was likely spurred by the imminence of the "48 Hours" segment.
"Timing is everything," said Susan Zirinsky, the executive producer of "48 Hours" told TheWrap Saturday afternoon during a quick break in the editing room as her team rushed the Wood segment toward completion.
Zirinsky acknowledged the irony of having Wagner be a featured actor on the network within days of guests on her news program reviving insinuations about his actions before and after his wife's death in 1981. But she said that never figured into the initial decision to run the segment after "NCIS" aired, nor did her team worry when it became clear they should move their "48 Hours" up to 72 hours before "NCIS."
"That's what's great about CBS: there is a division of church and state," said Zirinsky. "We in the news division would never be asked to hold a show because of something in the entertainment world. There was never a discussion about 'Should we not air this '48 Hours' this week?'"
Another source connected close to "NCIS" said that they fielded questions about whether the commercials should be re-cut, but with Wagner's character being so central to the show, those thoughts weren't seriously entertained — "and anyway, the sheriff's office said he isn't a suspect" in the Wood case.
Still, much of the speculation around Wood's death continues to pivot on Wagner's actions that night, either before her disappearance or after everyone on board the boat was aware she was missing.
The "48 Hours" segment includes an interview with an EMT who believes Wood survived adrift in the ocean for hours and might have been saved if a search had been called earlier. Also interviewed is the captain of the boat, who says he lied to authorities during the initial police investigation and has co-authored a book largely dedicated to putting the blame for Wood's death on his former friend, Wagner.
Meanwhile, "NCIS" and Wagner have been very good to each other in recent years, as he's become the most popular recurring guest star on TV's most popular scripted show.
The former "Hart to Hart" star made his first appearance two seasons ago as Anthony DiNozzo Sr., the lovable-scoundrel dad of Michael Weatherly's character. That episode proved to be one of the most acclaimed in the show's entire nine-season run, so Wagner has been brought back for annual appearances, last season and again now.
TV watchers may also recall that Weatherly played Wagner in the 2004 TV movie "The Mystery of Natalie Wood," directed by Peter Bogdanovich and co-produced by Lana Wood, Natalie's sister. The "NCIS" actor has said in the past that the telepic was a touchy subject he and Wagner avoided discussing after they began working together.
Knowing what they know now about the news flurry of recent days, CBS might have avoided promoting Wagner's "NCIS" appearance with plot synopses like: "When DiNozzo's dad… is found in a car, minus his memory but plus one dead body, the NCIS team must determine whether the man is capable of murder."
By the end of next Tuesday's "NCIS," Wagner's much-loved character will have been found blameless. Only a public-opinion poll will reveal whether viewers walked away from "48 Hours" with the same sense of relief.