Friday, April 20, 2007

Their Finest Hours

With the exception of westerns (which, unfortunately, disappeared into the storied sunset some while ago), there’s no more venerable genre in TV history than crime dramas.

In the late 1940s, several American shows dramatized real-life offenses or combined whodunits with game shows (Public Prosecutor, for instance). But the first program that justly belongs under the “crime drama” rubric is probably Barney Blake: Police Reporter, a live series that premiered in the spring of 1948, with Gene O’Donnell as a brave newsie who, assisted by his secretary (Judy Parrish), interviewed suspects and witnesses involved in a breadth of criminal acts. (If that sounds a bit dry, it might explain why Barney Blake remained on the beat for only a few months.) NBC-TV had considerably more luck in 1949 with Martin Kane, Private Eye. Adapted from a popular radio show, and sponsored by U.S. Tobacco Company (which insisted that the protagonist and others regularly go for their smokes on the air), Kane featured “a New York detective who solved his cases through determination, cooperation with the police, and just a little bit of roughhousing,” wrote Richard Meyers in his 1981 book, TV Detectives. Lloyd Nolan (who’d previously portrayed Miami P.I. Mike Shayne in a series of 1940s films), was one of four actors to play Kane during the series’ run.

Martin Kane was quickly joined by another private eye series, Man Against Crime, starring Ralph Bellamy. But it took somewhat longer for a cop hero to make his name in series television. In 1950, the DuMont Television Network (an early rival of ABC, NBC, and CBS) debuted Rocky King, Inside Detective, starring Hollywood character actor Roscoe Karns as a middle-aged Manhattan police inspector with a never-seen wife who often served as his sounding board. Although most Rap Sheet readers have likely never heard of Rocky King, Meyers calls it “the best-loved mystery of its time.”

In the more than five decades since, television--particularly American TV--has introduced myriad other crime dramas, packed with clever, sexy, physically impaired, or in some other way distinctive characters. The high-water marks for this genre were in the late 1950s, early ’60s, when series such as 77 Sunset Strip, Peter Gunn, and Richard Diamond, Private Eye ruled the airwaves; and again in the 1970s and early ’80s, when there were so many sleuths on the set, that wags mused on the lengths to which screenwriters would soon have to reach, if they hoped to distinguish any new characters from the existing pack (since blind, wheelchair-bound, fat, old, religiously devout, historical, and even dead detectives had already been done). Those days are gone, at least for the time being. But with the recent introduction of Jeff Goldblum’s Raines and a bumper crop of cop and P.I. shows in the works for the fall 2007 season, it’s possible that detective dramas could make a comeback, displacing some of the redundant forensic series and lawyer serials that fill up the networks today.

Meanwhile, The Rap Sheet recently asked its readers to choose the best TV police detectives and private eyes of all time. Our survey proved very popular, with hundreds of votes being registered over three weeks. Some of the results could have been predicted, but others showed that Rap Sheet visitors have both longer memories and, well, better taste than the average TV watcher.

Here are the top five vote-getters in each category.

Best TV police detective in history:
1. Lieutenant Columbo, Columbo (Peter Falk)--71 votes
2. Andy Sipowicz, NYPD Blue (Dennis Franz)--43 votes
3. Tie: Joe Friday, Dragnet (Jack Webb); and Robert Goren, Law & Order: Criminal Intent (Vincent D’Onofrio)--21 votes apiece
4. Christine Cagney, Cagney & Lacey (Sharon Gless)--20 votes
5. Sledge Hammer, Sledge Hammer! (David Rasche)--16 votes

Best TV private eye in history:
1. Jim Rockford, The Rockford Files (James Garner)--79 votes
2. Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett and others)--25 votes
3. Harry Orwell, Harry O (David Janssen)--24 votes
4. Joe Mannix, Mannix (Mike Connors)--21 votes
5. Jake Axminster, City of Angels (Wayne Rogers)--18 votes

(You can look through the complete tallies of police detective votes here, and of P.I. votes here.)

Now do you understand what I mean when I say that this survey offered at least some predictable results? Although there have certainly been other excellent TV cops, Columbo may be most fondly remembered by the greatest number of watchers. He boasted all of the intelligence of Holmes, but in a disarming package highlighted by his rumpled raincoat, his on-its-last-legs Peugeot, and a patient persistence familiar from Crime and Punishment’s Porfiry Petrovich. It’s nice also to see Joe Friday and Chris Cagney putting in good showings here, since neither of them has been around for a while. Polls of this sort usually demonstrate the short memories of respondents; this one didn’t. On the other hand, I am flabbergasted to find the goofy Sledge Hammer among our foremost five. I’d have bet that Miami Vice’s Sonny Crockett would have jet-boated right past Hammer in voting. Instead, Hammer proves that TV Squad’s Bob Sassone was (partly) right, when he put that rules-breaking, .44 Magnum-toting San Francisco police inspector in his own recent ranking of TV’s five greatest police detectives.

I wonder, though, whether the results would have been changed by the inclusion of a few more names to this mix. For instance, former San Francisco Chief of Detectives Robert T. Ironside (Raymond Burr), or frontier lawman Hec Ramsey (Richard Boone), or Lieutenant Mike Torello (Dennis Farina) from Crime Story, or Endeavor Morse (John Thaw) from Britain’s Inspector Morse series. And how might the results have been skewed by the addition of hip crime-fighters Pete Cochran, Julie Barnes, and Linc Hayes from The Mod Squad? Several people responded to my original post announcing these TV polls by saying that I ought to have included Baltimore Detective Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) from Homicide: Life on the Street. Indeed, I should have; however, it didn’t occur to me until the surveys were already up. There’s no telling whether, facing off against the cool power of Pembleton, Sledge Hammer might have slipped into this survey’s also-ran category beside Theo Kojak (Telly Savalas) and Hawaii Five-O’s Steve McGarrett (Jack Lord).

There were almost twice as many characters to choose from in our “best private eyes” list. Yet the results could hardly have been more unambiguous: Jim Rockford trounced all other contenders. (This might surprise the aforementioned Mr. Sassone, whose choices of the greatest private eyes on television didn’t even include Garner’s con man detective.) What makes Rockford stand out so? I think Ed Robertson hit it on the head when he wrote, in his book Thirty Years of The Rockford Files (2005):
He looked like Steve McGarrett. He dressed like Joe Mannix. But he acted like no other private detective prime time television had ever seen.

When he threw a punch, Jim Rockford ... was more likely to hurt his own hand than his opponent. He rarely carried a gun (he didn’t have a permit), and on those occasions when he did, he was more likely to point the weapon than fire it. Rockford hated trouble, wouldn’t hesitate to quit in the middle of a case if things got too rough, and had no qualms about telling you why (“You’re damned right I’m afraid!”). But he did like money: he charged $200 a day, plus expenses, so he’d hang in there no matter what if he could smell a fat check down the road. “I won’t kill for money, and I won’t marry for it,” he once said. “Other than that, I’m open to just about anything.”

Most private eyes--at least, the ones we see portrayed in movies and on television--have a lieutenant friend on the police force with whom they trade information in the course of a given case. But because Rockford was an ex-con (he was unjustly convicted of armed robbery and served five years in prison before receiving a full pardon), he didn’t always trust the police. For that matter, nearly everyone in the Los Angeles Police Department despised Rockford because he had a propensity for solving cases that the cops had either closed or considered unsolvable. In fact, whenever Rockford showed up at headquarters with a broken nose or a bloody lip, morale at the department automatically went up ten percent!
In many respects, Rockford was the logical descendent of Bret Maverick, the 19th-century West-roaming gambler Garner had played for three years (1957-1960) on the ABC series Maverick. They both steered a wide path around obvious heroism, yet were honorable in ways that viewers recognized. If television ever produces a private investigator with more charm, compassion, and honesty than Jim Rockford, it’ll be a frickin’ miracle.

Yet, TV has served up other magnetic gumshoes. Our poll found Sherlock Holmes in second place behind Rockford, even though he’s primarily a fixture of novels and short stories (not all of them written by Arthur Conan Doyle), rather than the small screen. The real interest in this P.I. survey could be found in the battle for third place, which found Harry Orwell, Joe Mannix, and Jake Axminster sharp-elbowing each other all the way to the finish line. Janssen (who’d previously played the role of Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive) gave us what I agree is American television’s second-best private dick, next to Rockford--an often grumpy and antisocial, yet endearingly vulnerable San Diego (later L.A.) investigator who deserves far more acclaim that he has received of recent date. Again, he didn’t figure into Sassone’s top eight. Neither did Mannix or Axminster, the latter of whom is certainly the more surprising top-five pick, since the Stephen J. Cannell/Roy Huggins-created series in which he appeared survived only one season, in 1976. Regardless, 1930s P.I. Axminster is recalled fondly by some heavy-hitting critics, including novelist Max Allan Collins (Black Hats), who’s called City of Angels “the greatest of all P.I. series.”

Sassone picked the single-monikered Spenser (Robert Urich) of Spenser: For Hire, adapted for television from Robert B. Parker’s bestselling novels, as his favorite TV P.I. In the Rap Sheet poll, however, Spenser comes in at No. 6, with 16 votes, just three votes ahead of Thomas Banacek (George Peppard) from the old NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie rotating series Banacek. Thomas Magnum (Tom Selleck) from Magnum, P.I.--who previously triumphed in a Sleuth Channel survey to pick the “top sleuth” from television and film--finds his place here at No. 7, just ahead of Harry Tenafly (James McEachin), from the Richard Levinson-William Link production Tenafly, another alumnus of the Wednesday Mystery Movie. Obviously, Rap Sheet readers have a pretty deep familiarity with TV detectives. Otherwise, they’d never have cast their votes for African-American family man and L.A. corporate investigator Tenafly, who appeared in only a handful of 90-minute movies. Rounding out the top 10 we find Peter Gunn (Craig Stevens) and Mike Longstreet (James Franciscus).

Again--though this time because the Pollhost service I was using limited me to 20 nominees--I left a few names off the P.I. ballot that might’ve been interesting to include. Had there been room, I’d have added Miles C. Banyon (Robert Forster) from the too-short-lived period drama Banyon, Claire McCarron (Margaret Colin) from Leg Work, Maddie Hayes and David Addison (Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis) from Moonlighting, and Lionel Whitney and E.L. Turner (Jeff Goldblum and Ben Vereen) from Tenspeed and Brown Shoe, but they will just have to wait for a later survey. The same goes for Mike Hammer, who lost a spot among the nominees because he--like Holmes, Spenser, Lew Archer, Nero Wolfe, and Philip Marlowe--came to television with the distinct advantage of having amassed a following through books. I decided that this study should concentrate primarily on characters born on the small screen.

While these surveys were in progress, I heard from Steve Lewis of the Mystery*File blog. He wrote to say that “Back in the early ’70s, when I first started [the magazine] Mystery*File, I did a similar poll for TV detectives. The winner was David Ross, played by Darren McGavin during two seasons of a series called The Outsider” (1968-1969). I’d guess that most TV watchers--even those knowledgeable ones who read The Rap Sheet--don’t remember The Outsider, or at least don’t recall it clearly. (Count me among that latter camp.) Yet the show was the brainchild of Rockford Files creator Roy Huggins, and as Kevin Burton Smith explains at The Thrilling Detective Web Site, Ross was distinctive for being “one of the first of the sensitive, compassionate eyes to be featured on television (he didn’t even carry a gun!), echoing literary eyes such as Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, and anticipating television’s Harry O.”

It makes you wonder whether some of the biggest vote-getters in this, The Rap Sheet’s second readership poll, will find themselves completely out of the running 10, 20, or 30 years down the road, when another editor gets it into his or her head to ask about favorite police detectives and P.I.s. on television. If so, what characters will have taken their places?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your lists of best cops and P.I.'s has been brought to my attetion. Any cop list that includes Sledgehammer is suspect to me, but your P.I. list looks like it's on the money, except that I DO remember David Ross from The Outsider and he'd be on my top five list, which is as follows: Harry Orwell, Rockford, David Ross, McGill (from Man in a Suitcase)and Joe Mannix.
As for Bob Sassone's lists, they're just ridiculous. My 2 cents.