From Sunday's Times and News-Star
Before the current Golden Age of television’s CSI franchise, there was the Golden Age of TV’s Detective. It was heady fare for children of the 1960s and 1970s. What we didn’t have in ESPN we made up for in Cannons and Columbos.
James Garner, who passed away this week at 86, was one of the last of the breed. After being a cowboy in “Maverick” – he always wore great vests – he became James Rockford in “The Rockford Files,” a just-getting-by private investigator who would rather make jokes than have to shoot or wrestle a law breaker. Rockford was more wisecracks than brass knuckles.
I seldom watch TV so I don’t know if I miss old-school TV detectives or if I’m just sad that most of the actors are passing away. And that I’ll never watch the old Book’em-Dano “Hawaii Five-0” with my original family again.
In honor of Garner (who was wonderful in “The Great Escape” and “Support Your Local Sheriff”), here are the Top 10 TV Detective Shows, Golden Age Division, According To Me. Again, this was pre-CSI, back when evidence was the way a bad guy said something or didn’t say something. Evidence was seldom a thing; evidence was mostly a good guy (think Andy Griffith as a criminal defense attorney in “Matlock”) figuring something out about the bad guy, (sort of like Andy Griffith would do as Sheriff Andy Taylor.) Nobody had a computer.
Also, all these guys had a shtick. James Rockford was an ex-con who was mostly broke, for instance, and wore bad plaid jackets. The shticks below will be (in parentheses); you’ll remember.
10. “Murder She Wrote,” starring Angela Lansbury (as a writer and woman who would show up with her ink pen and somebody would die), “Ironside,” starring Raymond Burr as the paraplegic San Francisco PD Chief of Detectives), and “Kojak,” with Telly Savalas as New York City detective Theo Kojak, (who was bald and loved lollipops.) I’ve lollipopped these three together; is that a crime?
9. “Spenser: For Hire” starred Robert Urich as a (sophisticated P.I. in Boston, who quoted poetry and mainly knew how to cook different cuisine), just as Spenser does in the Robert B. Parker novels. Sidekick was super cool Hawk.
8. “Shaft” starred Richard Rountree as a (black P.I. who was off the cool charts). The movies fared better than the TV movies/shows. Only “Hawaii Five-0” can give it a game for best theme song.
7. “Barnaby Jones,” starring Buddy Ebsen (as a PI who came out of retirement) when his son was killed. Lee Meriwether (hello!) starred as his daughter-in-law (and she helped him solve crimes.) Barnaby was a milk-drinking, retirement-home headache for bad guys.
6. “Cannon” starred a (rotund) William Conrad as an Los Angeles detective (who drove a big Lincoln Continental Mark IV and could make the tires screech on a dirt road.) Sometimes, I swear, the tires would squeal if he just sat in the car.
5. “Mannix” was a vet (of Armenian descent) and an LA detective played by Mike Connors. Peggy Fair (Gail Fisher, one of TV’s first regularly appearing black actresses), was his loyal secretary. Peggy was the bomb dot com and Mannix loved his open-collar sport coat look and common sense.
4. “Columbo” was the ever-loveable Peter Faulk, yet another LA detective who (wore a raincoat, always had one more question, played dumb and didn’t invent disheveled but did perfect it.)
3. “Magnum, P.I.” made Tom Selleck a huge star, especially with my own personal mother. Of course Magnum (lived in Hawaii on, through reasonable and fortunate circumstances, a posh estate. He wore a Detroit Tigers ballcap.) His investigations were often just a backdrop for the true heart of the series, his arguments with Higgins, which I’m sure reminded my mom of Doc and Festus going at it on “Gumsmoke.”2. “Moonlighting” was the tail-end of the era and was more about (Neil Simon-like witty conversation) than crime solving. Cybil Shepherd and a then-unknown Bruce Willis starred. There was blatant (sexual tension), a new thing for detective shows, unless you had a thing for Angela Lansbury, and not counting Lee Meriwether (hello!).
1. “The Rockford Files” was basically a comedy and its hero was Sheriff Taylor in a bad sports coat. One writer said Rockford’s character provided “a refreshingly new take on the American hero,” one who avoided violence by using wit. Clint Eastwood with jokes instead of the .44 Magnum. There’s something to be said for out-dumbing people.