They are the sleuths.
We can’t call them all cops, not even private eyes, because they are not.
But in the history of television, they have been packaged in all sizes and shapes:
Suave and young, “Mannix”; “Richard Diamond, Private Detective”; “Magnum, P.I.”; “77 Sunset Strip”; “Hunter”, and “The Hunter”; just young, not suave: “Simon and Simon”, and “Richie Brokelman, Private Eye”.
Not young, “Barnaby Jones” and “The Snoop Sisters”; fit – “Hawaiian Eye” and “Surfside 6”; fat, “Cannon”; completely bald, “Kojak”; female, “Charlie’s Angels”, “Amy Prentiss”, “Mrs. Columbo”, “Cagney and Lacey”, “The Snoop Sisters” and “Murder She Wrote”; rich, “Matt Houston”; poor, “Harry O”, and “The Rockford Files”; blind, “Longstreet”, and combos, “Hardcastle and McCormick”, “Scarecrow and Mrs. King”, and “Remington Steele”.
They started their sleuthing in the ’50s, and are still at it today. But the ’70s was their peak. Over the next several columns we will look at many of them. I’m not sure I can say all, because there have been a lot.
There are even three guys who’ve had more than one bite at the apple.
Actor David Janssen was one of the original sleuths, playing the suave, ex-New York City cop-turned-private eye Richard Diamond. He later moves to Los Angeles, California, where he tooled around in a convertible with a car phone. His sexy receptionist Sam, whose face we never see, minds the office, while Diamond solves his cases. That series lasted three years, 1957-60.
The next series was Janssen’s best, but this time he was not the hunter – he was the hunted.
As “The Fugitive”, Janssen portrayed Dr. Richard Kimball, who was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. After being convicted, Kimball escaped thanks to a train wreck, and spent four TV seasons on the lam before proving the existence of the one-armed man he saw running from his house right before he discovered his wife’s body. The story was loosely based on the real-life story of Dr. Sam Shepherd of Cleveland, who was convicted and served about a decade in jail before it was discovered he was innocent.
Janssen’s next series was “O’Hara, U.S. Treasury”, in which he plays a Treasury agent who works to stop illegal activities such as smuggling contraband and tax evasion.
It only lasted one season, 1971-72, but Janssen got right back in 1973 with “Harry O”, a private investigator forced to leave the San Diego Police Department after a bullet became lodged near his spine. He lived on the beach.
Sound familiar? Yes, Jim Rockford, the other poor private eye, also lived on the beach. Janssen got three seasons out of “Harry O”, which co-starred Anthony Zerbe as Harry O’s cop connection, Lt. K.C. Trench. Zerbe is notable to Hazleton area residents as Dougherty from “The Molly Maguires” movie made in the historic village of Eckley near Hazleton. Dougherty was one of the three Mollies executed for his crimes.
Then there was Robert Wagner.
The suave actor who was married to the gorgeous Natalie Wood and acted opposite another of my favorites, Stephanie Powers, always seemed to be on the small screen, no matter the year.
First, he showed up as cat burglar Alexander Mundy in “It Takes A Thief”, who did his burgling officially and unofficially for the U.S. government. His boss was Noah Bain, played by Malachi Throne. “Hogan’s Heroes” fans will remember Throne as Pruhst, the Gestapo agent who tries to catch Hogan, only to be outwitted by a disguise.
That series lasted three seasons, 1968-71.
Between 1975 and 1978, Wagner played a similar part on “Switch” along with Eddie Albert, Oliver Wendell Douglas from “Green Acres”.
Albert played ex-cop Frank McBride to Wagner’s ex-con character Pete Ryan who start their own detective agency.
Maybe his most famous part, because it was the final of the three and lasted the longest, was as self-made millionaire Jonathan Hart, who along with his wife, Jennifer, partake in globe-trotting adventures as amateur detectives. “Hart to Hart” was on five TV seasons, from 1979-1984.
At the same time, another actor who got more than one try was getting his first as a lead actor, and his second at a TV series.
Actor Robert Urich was Las Vegas private eye Dan Tanna in “Vega$” which lasted three TV seasons, from 1978-81. He tooled around Sin City in his classic 1957 Ford Thunderbird convertible.
Tanna, a Vietnam vet, lives in an apartment in back of the Desert Inn and his boss is the owner of the hotel, Phillip Roth, played by superstar actor Tony Curtis. Dan is aided by his sexy, but efficient, secretary Bea Travis, played by Phyllis Davis, and his nerdy legman Bobby “Binzer” Borso, played by Bart Braverman, sadly the only surviving member of the cast. Dan’s contact on the police force is Lt. Dave Nelson, played by Barney Collins from “Mission: Impossible”, Greg Morris.
Four years later, Urich moves east to Boston to become “Spenser for Hire”, who lives in a former firehouse – they never do say his first name. The series is based on Robert Parker’s “Spenser” novels. That lasted three TV seasons, 1985-88.
Urich also starred in “Lazarus Man” in 1996. The series begins shortly after the Civil War, when a man pulls himself out of a grave in the South wearing Southern clothing, but carrying Northern gold and carrying a U.S. Army revolver. He has no memory save for some gorgeous brunette and being beaten over the head by a man in a derby just before John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln. He calls himself “Lazarus” after the man Jesus resurrected until he can figure out who he is and why he was buried alive and left for dead.
While Wagner has enjoyed a long life – he turned 90 earlier this year – Janssen and Urich were not so lucky. Janssen died of a heart attack at age 48 in 1980, and cancer claimed Urich at age 55 in 2002.
QUESTION: Who was Sam the telephone operator on “Richard Diamond, Private Detective”?
Q. What was Robert Urich’s first TV series and stage name?
Q. What other TV series did Urich star in after “Spenser”?
Q. Who starred in “The Molly Maguires” with Zerbe?
QUESTION: Peter Falk was not the first choice to play “Columbo”. Who was?
ANSWER: Bing Crosby turned the role down, and it went to Falk. But veteran character actor Bert Freed played the part first on the “The Chevy Mystery Show” in 1960.
Q. What film inspired “McCloud”?
A. The 1968 film, “Coogan’s Bluff”, starring Clint Eastwood. Arizona Deputy Sheriff Coogan, played by Eastwood, is sent to New York City to escort an escaped fugitive back for trial.
Q. What comedy movie franchise did the “Airport” movies inspire?
A. Ironically, Bridges also ran the airport in “Airplane!”, but didn’t know his head from a hole in the ground.
Q. What famous John Wayne movie did Richard Boone play the bad guy in?
A. In “Big Jake”, Boone played John Fain, the leader of a gang who kidnaps Big Jake McCandless’ grandson – who is really Wayne’s youngest son, John Ethan Wayne. Wayne’s older son, Patrick, plays his son in the movie, as does Robert Mitchum’s son, Christopher Mitchum, who is now 77 years old. Wayne died of cancer in 1979. Patrick Wayne turned 80 on July 15, and John Ethan Wayne is 58 years old. Richard Boone died at age 63 in 1981 of throat cancer.
Q. Who is Helen Hayes’ son?
A. James MacArthur, better known as “Book ‘Em, Dano, Murder One” Danny Williams from the original “Hawaii 5-0” with Jack Lord, was Hayes’ son. She played Danny Williams’ Aunt Clara in a 1975 episode of the show. MacArthur was married to two actresses – Joyce Bullifant, writer Murray Slaughter’s wife from”The Mary Tyler Moore Show”, and Melody Patterson, Wrangler Jane from “F Troop”.
Q. What other TV series did Susan Saint James star in?
A. “Kate and Allie” was two single mothers raising their children in a New York City apartment from 1984-89. Ironically, Saint James starred in another anthology series. She was Peggy Maxwell in “The Name of the Game” right before “McMillan and Wife”.
Q. Who is Susan Saint James married to?
A. The second time she hosted “Saturday Night Live”, Saint James said in her monologue, the first time she hosted the show, then producer Dick Ebersol, fell in love with her, got her pregnant, and married her. They had three children together. Married twice before, Saint James had two more children.
Q. The made-for-television movie “Prescription For Murder”, filmed in 1968, was the first appearance of Peter Falk as “Columbo”. It is the the story of a psychiatrist who murdered his wife, and made it look like a burglary. Who played the psychiatrist?
A. None other than the star of “The Name of the Game”, Gene Barry.