Sure, sure, you got me to rights—I watched too many detective shows. That ain’t no crime, is it? I was just a kid. I got it from my mutha, see? Her and that Perry Mason, every Saturday night for years. It was the suspense, she said. The action. The mind play. I just couldn’t help it. Hey, I got my rights. I want a lawyer!
Private eyes and detectives were my favorite TV characters. They still are.
There is nothing like an unforced confession, and here’s another one: There were way too many schlocky detective series that aired on American television. That said, when the stories were good, they could be very good. And way ahead of their time the best of them were interactive. We actually felt we were there solving the crime with the leads. I knew it was him all along! The puzzles and plot twists reeled us in until the very end. Who would have thought to switch the channel before the perp was exposed?
The fifties birthed this TV genre, and from there it was off to the races. Our family was hooked—OK, I was hooked. Detective dramas were exciting and innovative. Beginning in the sixties they were the first to film on location. Their brassy, sophisticated instrumental themes got our blood pumping. And the stories were, well, so very American. Speaking as a fan of the cultured and enigmatic Inspector Morse (John Thaw), I found the British telly detectives and criminals peculiarly.civilized—so unlike our rough-and-tumble gumshoes.
In any case, I lay before you the evidence. In no particular order I identify my eleven “memorables,” both the good and the bad as I remember them. Perhaps one or more were your favorites (or horribles) too.
Perry Mason gave us the unforgettably feckless Lt. Tragg (Ray Collins) and private eye Paul Drake (William Hopper). Tragg kept arresting the wrong people. Drake looked always to be on his way to a country club lunch. Loved Perry and Della.
Dragnet’s Detective Joe Friday (Jack Webb) was excruciating to watch, but a classic nonetheless.
The Rockford Files’ Jim Rockford(James Garner) and Harry O’s Harry Orwell (David Janssen) were lovable down-and-outers: Rockford lived in a trailer; car-less Harry had to take the bus.
The Fugitive’s Lt. Gerard (Barry Morse) led the longest manhunt in television history. His character allegedly was inspired by InspectorJavert in Les Miserables.
Kojak (Telly Savalas) Who doesn’t remember his signature bald head and lollipop?
Columbo (Peter Falk) famously flipped the format. We knew right away the guest star was guilty, and we had fun watching Columbo tighten the noose. Schadenfreude!
Hawaii Five – O (Jack Ryan—“Book ’em, Danno!”) and later Magnum, P.I. (Tom Selleck) transported us to gloriously exotic Waikiki Beach. Some say Hawaii was the real star of the show.
Banacek (George Peppard) and Spenser for Hire (Robert Urich) both featured Boston, and for that alone they have a place in my heart. One night I found my missing dog schmoozing with the Spenser crew at a stealth shoot nearby. I got to watch a scene with Urich, which must have thrilled me at the time because I’m telling you about it all these years later.
Law and Order Criminal Intent’s brilliant, tortured Detective Bobby Goren (Vincent d’Onofrio) is guaranteed to keep me in custody forever via an eternal loop of reruns. I could want for nothing more.
And there they are, Ladies and Gentlemen, my most memorable TV detectives.
Just one more thing…
Earlier I saluted the gifted composers of detective series instrumentals. Because I am confident the theme from Hawaii Five-O (Emmy award-winner Morton Stephens) still throbs in your head, I am choosing my sentimental favorite, the lesser known intro to Spenser (Steve Dorff; sax played by jazz great Grover Washington, Jr.). Enjoy.
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