If Only Modern TV Detectives Were This Cool


From DETOUR — Secret investigators and counter-terrorist agents are all the rage in Hollywood and TV these days, but they have nothing on their 1970s counterparts. Check out this list and clips of some of the sassiest, eloquently spoke, fiercest…you get the picture. See it all, after the jump!

The Detour Guide to 1970s TV Detectives

The Detour Guide to 1970s TV Detectives

By Johnny Loftus

Whether you grew up with them on your console TV, fighting with the rabbit ears to bring in the signal, or they exist as time-immortal YouTube files, jumbled into a haphazard bitstream of theme songs, topcoats, and memorable one-liners (”Krocker! Get my coat!”), it’s a fact that TV detectives of the 1970s were just plain cooler than their contemporary counterparts. “Columbo,” “Kojak,” “The Rockford Files,” “Police Woman,” the celebration of breaking formula that was “Barney Miller” — these were shows that defined the gumshoe genre even as their main characters carved distinct niches in our boob tube perception. “This is Shirley from the bank,” went the message on Jim Rockford’s answering machine. “No, we won’t loan you money; no, we won’t accept any cosigners; and yes, your account is overdrawn. I get off at 4:30.” Rockford and the rest always made an impression, even if their only backup was a cup of cold coffee. Sometimes, they even got the girl.

Nowadays, when the writers aren’t on strike, the network television landscape bursts with detective procedurals. Problem is, each one is more procedural than the next. Cue the murder scene, cue the theories, cue the patsies, cue the incompetent higher-ups, cue the resolution. If it’s “CSI” or one of its spinoffs, cue the burbling electronic music and a morgue that looks like an Eastern European fetish club. Even the venerable “Law & Order” has largely substituted homogeny for viewability, so that the tetchy grumbles of Sam Waterston’s Jack McCoy or Vincent D’Onofrio’s unnerving facial tics as Vincent Goren are required to carry the soul of an entire series. Caruso? His Horatio Caine is clownish, but he’s trying more than, say, Mark Harmon, whose scenes in CBS’s “NCIS” will likely make a YouTube search of the future time out in utter boredom. The more memorable TV detectives of today carry the show because they have to. Their progenitors did so by the sheer force of their singular cool.

In the first installment of our two-part guide to the coolest TV detectives of the 1970s, Detour looks at how a catchphrase could often mean more than an entire story arc, what sartorial chic could do for a dick’s crime-fighting capacity as well as how not having one transformed the television cop landscape, and how a two-camera show about bickering cops might have been the first of its ilk to go totally, geniusly meta.

“Just one more thing…”
As Lieutenant Columbo, the perpetually-rumpled Los Angeles detective who nabbed his perps in a roundabout and sleepy-eyed way, Peter Falk established the just-about-to-leave, then-catch ‘em-in-a-lie technique that’s become SOP for all detectives on TV. He was always hanging around, hanging around — he knew his hunch would pay off, and that we knew it too made the show that much more entertaining. It was only a question of how, and when it finally did, it was cool. “Columbo” undoubtedly boosted the sale of men’s raincoats, too.

“Who loves ya, baby?”
Detective Kojak was always out there in the muddy runlets and garbage-strewn streets of 1970s New York City, rocking his untouchably cool haberdashery (the hats! The coats! The tinted glasses!) and stretching the rulebook like a pro. Though Telly Savalas had help, he was the singular force of the show — another tenet of our guide — and he was so cool in the role that “Kojak” transformed him into a kind of Greek Billy Dee Williams, a guy who could tell you all about what was underneath the bunny costumes at the Playboy club, but only if you were flashing Player’s Club Gold. How fantastic is a detective show that gave its star unlimited currency in cool?

$200 a day… plus expenses
Jim Rockford was the private detective’s private detective. On “The Rockford Files,” he was as smooth as Elliot Gould was when he played Phillip Marlow for Robert Altman, but not so much laconic as he was mischevious, skeptical, and forever willing to talk his way into or out of anything — he famously didn’t carry a gun — Rockford was a cooler cold case solver than any watery-eyed Meg Ryan CBS facsimile could ever hope to be. He also looked like the Arrow shirt man way before Jack Donaghy ever did.

It wasn’t entirely a boy’s club. As Sergeant Pepper Anderson in “Police Woman,” Angie Dickinson embodied the female version of Rockford, Columbo, etc. and kicked just as much ass. This was huge for the era (the mid-1970s), when starring TV roles for women were slim and nonexistent in the detective realm. But it wouldn’t have even worked were it not for Dickinson, perhaps the only actress of the day who could be a feminine icon while being one of the boys and wearing a negligee in every other episode. Hoity-toity bordellos were an epidemic in the 1970s Los Angeles underground.

Bowww, bow-bow-BOW, bow-boW-BOW-Bow-bow-bow bow bow…
Can a TV theme song be cooler even that the stars of its show? (”CSI”’s franchising of The Who perennial arena anthems doesn’t count.) “Barney Miller” was a fantastic anachronism of a show packed with perfectly-etched characters who chafed brilliantly with its soul and center of cool, Hal Linden. You could smell the burnt coffee on the set, smell it on Barney’s breath as he yelled at Fish or Chano Amenguale. (The latter detective was played by Gregory Sierra, who went on to play Sonny Crockett’s original lieutenant on “Miami Vice.”)

“Miller” was only nominally a detective show, despite its nabbing and questioning of numerous hoods. Everything about it, even the holding cells, became part of how it perceived its own time period. That theme song didn’t just happen to sound like a Herbie Hancock outtake — bluesy electro-funk was the timbre of the times, and Hal Linden’s mustache was the barometer.

There were others, too. “Baretta” was out there on those mean streets of New York City, embittered but blessed with a cynicism that inspired a generation. “Get Christie Love!” cast Teresa Graves as a black police woman (She also busted plenty of prostitution rings and bordellos), and “Charlie’s Angels,” well, the stylized sexual cheeze of that iconic show is best saved for when we have more space. It changed things, and not just inside the fantasy realm of the male American mind.

In part two of Detour’s guide to 70s detectives, we’ll tackle Christie, the Angels, and such niche gumshoes as “McCloud,” “Barnaby Jones,” “Cannon,” and the intrepid state police of “Hawaii Five-O.” We’ll also get inside the rides of “Mannix,” and chuckle at the battle-of-the-sexes shenanigans of “MacMillan and Wife.” But as a final note on our 1970s detectives (for now), let’s look at what it took to be both doctor and detective in the 70s. Jack Klugman spent the most of the middle and end of the decade as “Quincy M.E.,” the LA medical examiner who favored tweeds, Penguin separates, and Sansabelts over the designer threads of “CSI: Miami” ME Dr. Alexx Woods. Now, Quincy’s singularity doesn’t come completely down to his clothes. But his hard eye for the truth was also adept at matching mustard-colored knits to men’s dress shoes and if you’ve ever tried to sync up a short-sleeve mustard sweater with a zippered collar to anything, you know it takes more cool than would fit in the cavernous trunk of a 1973 Chrysler Newport. Oscar Madison knew his way around pea soup green, too.