Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Best TV Crime Drama Openers, #17

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Series Title: Ironside | Years: 1967-1975, NBC | Starring: Raymond Burr, Don Galloway, Don Mitchell, Barbara Anderson, Elizabeth Baur | Theme Music: Quincy Jones

You might not remember this, but there was a time in the late 1960s and ’70s when so many detectives (police and private) jockeyed for space on the American TV schedule, that they were distinguished to a great degree by their quirks. Lieutenant Columbo had his rumpled coat, his cigars, and his annoying habit of always asking “just one more question.” Lieutenant Kojak was bald and sucked on lollypops. Marshal Sam McCloud had his cowboy chapeaux, well-chewed toothpicks, and folksy drawl. Insurance investigator Thomas Banacek had his expensive cars and “old polish proverbs.” Harry Orwell had a bullet in his spine and a bad temper. Jim Rockford had his con games and allergy to guns. John Shaft was black. Joe Mannix was Greek American. Frank Cannon was fat. Barnaby Jones was old. Remington Steele was ... well, someone else entirely.

And Chief Robert T. Ironside? He was a self-described “cripple.” Not very PC, but there you have it. This was the era of Richard M. Nixon’s “expletives deleted,” after all.

After starring for nine years in the highly rated CBS-TV series Perry Mason (1957-1966), playing author Erle Stanley Gardner’s rabbit-out-of-a-hat-pulling criminal defense attorney, Canadian-born actor Raymond Burr took only a year and a half off before returning to the small screen as an irritable but brilliant cop in Ironside. The show was based on a story by Collier Young, who’d worked on General Electric Theater and The Wild Wild West before cooking up the character of Ironside. And what a character he was--ideal for Raymond Burr, a fine contrast with the more self-contained Mason.

When we met him in the March 1967 pilot film, Robert T. Ironside was a former navy commander and widower with 25 years experience in the San Francisco Police Department. His latest posting was as the SFPD’s chief of detectives--at 46 years old, the youngest person to ever hold that position. But Ironside lived up to his moniker, having a tendency to overwork and drive himself to exhaustion. So his superior, Police Commissioner Dennis Randall (Gene Lyons), finally convinced him to take some time off and visit his chicken farm up in Sonoma County, California--the first vacation Ironside had taken in a quarter-century. And, as it turned out, the most deadly.

The Internet Movie Database provides the film--and subsequent series--synopsis from there:
Citizens of San Francisco are stunned by the news that Robert Ironside, the city’s hard-nosed, tough-talking chief of detectives, has been shot and left for dead while vacationing at his friend the Police Commissioner’s rural retreat. Ironside survives the murder attempt, but the bullet has damaged nerves in his spine, leaving him a paraplegic. Unable to gain reinstatement as chief of detectives, Ironside gets permission to continue investigating criminal cases as a citizen volunteer. With the assistance of two former protégées, Det. Sgt. Ed Brown and Officer Eve Whitfield, and a newly-hired aide/driver, Mark Sanger, Ironside sets out to solve his first case as a civilian by finding the people responsible for the attempt on his life.
Naturally, he succeeded--and then proceeded to bring down other criminals and keep the streets of San Francisco relatively safe for another eight years. You might call Robert T. Ironside one tough mother. A critic with Amazon.com calls him “one of the more distinctive characters on the cop show landscape. Gruff, stubborn, impatient, and utterly unwilling to suffer fools, he commands respect with a combination of tough love and unwavering fairness. There’s nothing touchy-feely about this guy.”

Ironside and Co. had their headquarters on a capacious attic floor of the old Hall of Justice beside Chinatown’s Portsmouth Square, which is also where “The Chief” lived. They powered around town in an antique armored police truck (later exchanged for a specially equipped van). And they solved crimes through means of reasoning and solid investigative efforts, rather than confrontations. Confined as he was to a leopard-print wheelchair (sometimes motorized, sometimes not), Ironside wasn’t an action hero; he depended on his brains and knowledge of criminal behavior to get things done. But as Richard Meyers pointed out in his 1981 book TV Detectives,
[T]he wheelchair made Burr’s action scenes all the more suspenseful. Here was a man who was supposedly helpless, but time after time he proved himself to be as physical as necessary. Over the years, Ironside avoided being thrown down an elevator shaft by grabbing the hanging wires, karate-chopped a few villains, and kept from falling off a wooden raft when stuck out in the bay. None of this stuff seemed unbelievable because Burr made the character seem completely capable. And this made his rare moments of doubt and vulnerability all the more effective.
Loyal, by-the-book Ed Brown (Galloway) and Eve Whitfield (Anderson)--younger, warmer hearted, clothes conscious, and reared amidst wealth--took up joint responsibilities as Archie Goodwin to Bob Ironside’s Nero Wolfe. After the fourth season, former Tennessee beauty queen Anderson left the series, upset that producers weren’t giving her more to do. (She later appeared in Mission: Impossible, Harry O, Switch, and Simon & Simon). Her replacement was brunette Elizabeth Baur, a cousin of Sharon Gless of Cagney & Lacey fame, who came on board as policewoman Fran Belding, the daughter of a cop and slightly more outspoken than Whitfield had been.

Then there was Mark Sanger, probably the most interesting character on this show, outside of Ironside himself. A boxer and ex-juvenile delinquent, Sanger started out with a gargantuan chip on his shoulder, angry at the world for treating him like a second-class citizen, just because he was black. But as the series went on, you could see Sanger softening, learning from The Chief, becoming somebody better than even he himself had imagined. He eventually went to law school and earned his degree, then got married. None of this program’s other characters accomplished such change over the course of the series. Sanger evolved to such a degree, that people thought he was being groomed to star in his own spin-off series, but no such show ever appeared. However, Ironside did generate another, extremely short-lived spin-off called Amy Prentiss (part of the NBC Mystery Movie “wheel series” from 1974 to 1975), which starred Jessica Walter as San Francisco’s new chief of detectives, a promotion that earned her scant applause among the SFPD’s old-boy network. And ex-Mr. Lucille Ball, 67-year-old actor Desi Arnaz, starred as a very quirky but competent doctor-investigator, Juan Domingo, in a March 1974 Ironside episode titled “Riddle at 24,000,” which had been conceived as the pilot for a fall 1975 series, but ultimately failed to make the cut.

Ironside featured a wide variety of other noteworthy guest stars during its run, including Susan Saint James, Harrison Ford, William Shatner, Bill Bixby, Jack Lord, sort-of-musician Tiny Tim, and football star Roman Gabriel. Even musician Quincy Jones made a brief appearance on the show, though he is better remembered for having composed Ironside’s trumpets-dominant, tension-producing theme music.

That theme was used to maximum effect in the series’ main title sequence, which I have embedded at the top of this post. It’s a modification of what novelist-screenwriter Lee Goldberg might call a “format sequence,” laying out (through brief storytelling action in this case, rather than narration) what the program is all about. After establishing, through a succession of high-contrast still shots, that the series takes place in San Francisco, we’re offered images of Chief Ironside strolling without warning into a bright red sniper’s bulls-eye, lighting a cigarette (something he didn’t in fact do before being shot in the pilot film), and then being felled by a bullet. Suddenly, what was black and white in this opening becomes a glaring red and black, signaling that everything has changed--as indeed it has for the show’s protagonist. The opener then proceeds with more high-contrast imagery meant to convey that Ironside has been restricted to a wheelchair, yet continues to operate under the SFPD auspices, and remains capable of getting around dexterously and using a gun, when necessary.

There are no fancy features to this main title sequence. No whiz-bang special effects or combinations of film and illustration. No clips from episodes to show The Chief and his assistants bringing down bad guys or displaying camaraderie. All we get is dramatic build-up, a decidedly dark mood, and rapid-fire photos to establish the series’ back-story. It is simplicity itself, made especially powerful by the overlaying of Jones’ theme music. In the early years, co-stars Galloway, Mitchell, and Anderson weren’t even credited up front; their names appeared at the end of each Ironside episode, along with those of guest performers, producers, and lighting technicians, and only Burr got top billing.

Over the last few months, I’ve been screening the first and second seasons of Ironside, both of which are available in DVD sets. I am surprised at how well they hold up 30 years later. Other than some story lines involving drugs, rock music, and abortion (which was still unsanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court when Ironside debuted), there aren’t any aspects of the series that make it seem particularly old-fashioned. You can’t say the same thing many other shows that broadcast concurrently with Ironside. I’m looking forward to seeing the remaining seasons of this show released on DVDs.

By the end of its eighth season, Ironside was sadly no longer the ratings powerhouse it had been, back when author Jim Thompson--yes, that Jim Thompson--could be persuaded to write a paperback novelization of the series for a hungry market. In the fall of 1975, its coveted Thursday night at 9 p.m. spot went to the William Link/Richard Levinson-created series Ellery Queen, starring Jim Hutton and David Wayne--a show that lasted only 22 episodes.

But following the resurrection of Raymond Burr’s Perry Mason in a succession of teleflicks, beginning in 1985, Burr and the gang decided to try their hands at a reunion movie. The Return of Ironside (1993) moved the action to Denver, Colorado, to which former Bay Area detective Ed Brown had transferred. Following the “untimely death” of Denver’s chief of police, Brown persuaded Ironside (recently retired, remarried, and sporting a goatee) to take on the job--if only on a temporary basis. When, shortly thereafter, a murder is committed and the prime suspect turns out to be Eve Whitfield’s daughter, Ironside calls on all of his former colleagues to help him solve the case. According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications Web site, that film was supposed to be the first in “a new series of Made-for-Television Movies, but only the first movie was completed.” Burr succumbed to cancer just five months after The Return of Ironside was broadcast.

As Ironside himself might have phrased it, “What a flamin’ shame.”

READ MORE:Bullet Points: ‘Come Monday’ Edition,” by J. Kingston Pierce (The Rap Sheet); “Ironside: A Cop and His Chair,” by Kathryn Ware (The Beachwood Reporter).

4 comments:

Cameron Hughes said...

There's a reason I call myself a cripple. I like it when people get offended for me

pattinase (abbott) said...

First came the cowboys and then the detectives. And I remember them all. I must have been quite addicted to TV as a child. Now there's this.

le0pard13 said...

A very nicely written piece that covers the series and the times that spawned this category of TV. Ironside was one of my favorites, along with many that you've listed for that high point of the detective series. Whether he played the villain (early in his career) or the iconic television figure (of Mason or Ironside), Burr was a very underrated actor. He didn't need a lot of dialog to get across to the audience the menace or strength of the character. Sadly, only a few in today's corral of actor's have this quality.

Anonymous said...

That was a pretty good intro. Reminded me of a hard "Rear Window" with guns (and no Grace Kelly).