This is the longest continually running mystery-detective show in the history of television. Dragnet ran longer if one includes the radio and resurrected versions, but that doesn’t really count. Other programs may be better respected, more beloved, and more fondly remembered, but no other show lasted longer.
There has to be a better reason for that besides the obvious and oft-repeated one—that the beauty of the location scenery made people tune in. In fact, while Hawaii is undeniably beautiful, Hawaii Five-O almost always downplayed its splendor. In truth, there were two reasons the series held on for so long.
One was a man who instinctively knew how to create viewer involvement (i.e. tension) with both the concept and the stories. Second, and ultimately more important, was an actor who knew how to clamp down on an obsessive, passionate character, and hold on like a pit bull.
Every gigantic entertainment success has reasons for its popularity beyond popular opinion. Every movie which has made over $100 million delivers more to the audience than superficial thrills or laughs. There is always a spine, a heart, and a brain at work. The spine is the film’s theme, the heart is its message, and the brain is its story structure.
Television series take shape over a longer period of time. Audiences’ memories for films differ from their recollection of television. Scenes and stories are remembered from movies. Concepts and characters are TV memories. Hawaii Five-O had the least obvious, but most powerful foundation of all. It started with Leonard Freeman.
Freeman is virtually unknown to the public. If mentioned at all in show business reference works, it is usually just as creator and executive producer of Hawaii Fíve-O. His other television show, Storefront Lawyers (1970-71), lasted only one season on CBS. My personal opinion of it is as low as almost every other critic’s.
“Three young members of a prestigious law firm set up a free legal-aid service for the needy,” the network publicity release read. “Their first case is a sensational murder.” Well, of course it is! Doesn’t every nonprofit law firm get a headline-grabbing homicide right off the bat? The problem with the program was already apparent. They wanted to have their cake (relevance, realism) and eat it too (action, thrills).
Things were not improved when the format changed a hundred and eighty degrees four months into the TV season. Gone was the cake, and back the noble, intrepid lawyers went to the huge legal firm they had left to open the storefront. No one likes a fink, and certainly not ones with their tails between their legs. Viewers tuned out in droves.
It’s hard to believe that Freeman had anything to do with the production of that show at all after his work on Hawaii Five-O. It may have been a happy accident, but his entire career culminated with the cop show. He had only been recognized by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences once: for writing “The Answer,” performed on the Four Star Playhouse in 1954. It was also nominated for best editing, best art direction, best director (Roy Kellino), and best actor (David Niven). None won. Dragnet walked away with most of the genre Emmys that year.
Freeman continued to toil in the industry, sharpening his writing skills and making a bridge toward production, where the real television power was. He also continued to investigate the tensions that could be created inside a story—how a subject could be composed of two opposing forces.
In 1965, he came up with what would turn out to be his pičce de résistance. He mixed intrinsic opposites, beauty and ugliness, and came up with a winner. The only thing left to do was convince a studio and network of it.
“It has taken me three years to convince CBS to put up the money for this series,” he told The New York Daily News. “I waited because I was determined to get off a studio lot and bring a new look to television.”
Freeman was fascinated with storytelling and with the Pacific. He had discovered Hawaii and the incredible diversity (and tension) of the teeming Asian life there. While the Chinese have historically hated the Japanese, who have hated the Vietnamese, who have hated them back—in Hawaii, these three races, along with Polynesians, Malaysians, Filipinos, and many others, have lived in peace. But the tension between them and the “haoles” (as they called Caucasians) was always there.
Leonard Freeman felt it, and he saw how nature’s beauty could clash with human violence. That was what Hawaii Five-O was all about. It was the ultimate confrontation between good and evil in the world’s most beautiful place. No namby-pamby, minor cop melodrama for Freeman. Lieutenants, nor captains, nor even chiefs were good enough. His leading man would be a police power unto himself.
“He takes orders only from the governor,” a character said of that man in the pilot. “Or God. And sometimes even they have trouble.”
He was Steve McGarrett. No prefix, no set place in the police hierarchy. If he were called anything, it was “detective” or “sir.” He was the penultimate legal power in Hawaii. He ran an elite, understaffed unit, ostensibly attached to the Hawaiian State Police, Of course, he could supplement his team with the entire force if necessary, but his main job was a cerebral one. He was the ultimate good mastermind set in place against ultimate evil masterminds.
The Five-O group was named for the state itself, the fiftieth state in the union, and it was their job to go after the worst the islands had to offer. Although stationed in Oahu, they could, and often did, go anywhere in Hawaii to get their man—or woman. There were no petty sexual distinctions for McGarrett. To him, you were either a law-abiding citizen—or in big trouble.
The network readily agreed the idea was exciting; especially in light of the fact that on 1967 television, the cop genre was all but dead. There were the half-hour Felony Squad (1966-69), N.Y.P.D. (1967-69), Dragnet, the hour Ironside (1967-75), and that was it. The genre needed an infusion of new blood, and since Hawaii Five-O also incorporated many of the pleasures to be found in the still successful James Bond films, it seemed a good idea to finance.
The big problem was Freeman’s insistence that it be filmed on location. Hawaiian Eye had not been, nor had any of the few others which had supposedly taken place in the tropics. All they had were a few establishing shots of palm trees, and the rest was done on the back lot or on California beaches. The network argued that the logistic problems would be nightmarish. They were right, but Freeman put his feet down and let them take root. It was either Hawaii or no Five-O.
The only things which swayed, and finally persuaded, the network to give the show a try were the quality of Freeman’s work, and the fact that press junkets and executive visits to the set would be very popular. Hawaii Five-O could be a CBS showcase. It could gain them very good press indeed.
The show was budgeted, and Leonard Freeman got a go-ahead. Then he faced his second problem. He had an extreme character. He needed an extreme actor. To the audience’s delight and almost everyone else’s chagrin, he got one.
Enter John Joseph Patrick Ryan, an artistic man with a huge passion for the arts-and many said an ego to match. That was all right. McGarrett had to be larger than life. So was the actor who played him.
Freeman had started looking for his McGarrett with Gregory Peck in mind. Although Peck had never done television, that didn’t stop Freeman from asking. “Who knows?” the producer rightfully said. “Maybe today he’ll say yes.”
He did not. Freeman continued down the line until he came to a forty-year-old actor who had been the first replacement for the pivotal part of Brick in the original Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
The reviewers had been kind to the actor, who had burned with intensity even then. Freeman knew him better as a performer in a variety of middling movies and television shows. Of the hardly notable dramas, westerns, and action films he had been in, his best-known achievement was playing Felix Leiter (James Bond’s CIA friend) in the first 007 movie, Dr. No (1962).
That made him somewhat bankable and led to the title role of Stoney Burke (1962-63) on ABC television. He played a modern-day cowboy, a rodeo rider whose work got him involved in scrapes of every nature on the road to the highest award for bronco busters—the Golden Buckle.
The show lasted only one season, but J.J.P. Ryan made out fairly well. His limited fame led to a profitable pastime of touring state fairs and real rodeos to show off just two of his many unexpected talents: horse-riding and singing.
“I’m ironing shirts today,” he said metaphorically. “Tomorrow I’ll buy the laundry.” By then he was already fairly well known by his new stage name—Jack Lord.
Ambition and assurance. Those were but two ingredients within his personality. They had led him to write articles for Variety magazine about the travails of a young actor, when he was being typecast as a villain because of his dark features and craggy good looks. Interestingly, he got his first big television break on Man Against Crime. There followed parts in live television and Broadway. What every actor and director remembered about him was how driven he was. He seemed to be possessed by the parts he played.
He even got into Stoney, modeling the character on Gary Cooper. But once that series was over, he locked his mind on to other things. According to him, he was offered a great many parts which he turned down. Over the years, Lord contended that he refused to play the leading role in Wagon Train, Ben Casey, Shenandoah, The Outsider, and even The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
“I can’t stand an atmosphere of human misery,” he was reputed to have said. Meanwhile, however, he was appearing in movies like The Ride to Hangman’s Tree (1967), The Counterfeit Killer, and The Name of the Game Is Kill! (both 1968).
“My degree is for teaching art at the college level,” he said. “I got sidetracked as an actor, during the [Korean] war, in a unit that turned out training films. That’s how John Joseph Patrick Ryan became Jack Lord. First there was Stoney Burke. Then they wanted to make me a marshal on the Santa Fe trail.” That was a series called Cutter’s Trail, which was all set for production the year CBS was originally planning to cancel Gunsmoke, the seminal western series starring James Arness. Instead, Gunsmoke was renewed for a record-breaking twentieth season, and Cutter’s Trail was closed.
“Then they wanted to make me a race car driver,” Lord recalled. It was another show that stalled. “Then Hawaii Five-O came along and that, for me, was it.”
Halfway through reading the script he reportedly turned to his wife and asked if she’d like to live in Hawaii. Legend has it that the very next day the deal was made, which included a piece of the action for the actor. Leonard Freeman and Jack Lord were off to Hawaii with a two-hour script and $800,000.
The pilot movie was fairly incredible in every sense of the word. McGarrett goes up against a team of enemy secret agents, who stick him in a gaudy yellow scuba suit and a giant, clear sensory deprivation tank. They try to brainwash him, but neither McGarrett nor his mind would have any of it. He dragged himself out of the thing and beat them to a pulp. Hawaii’s top cop had a will of iron.
The pilot was popular, but Freeman felt the entertainment mixture was still a bit off. Lord was exactly right, but his office staff was not perfect. Tim O’Kelly had played McGarrett’s closest associate, Detective Danny Williams, but he was a little too ruddy. Freeman remembered an earnest, normal-looking young man he had worked with in the movie Hang ‘Em High (1968), starring Clint Eastwood. He was James MacArthur, the son of actress Helen Hayes and playwright Charles MacArthur. And he was quite anxious to get out of his parents’ shadows.
“CBS thought I was crazy for casting Jim as a detective,” Freeman said. Up until then, MacArthur was best known for roles in Swiss Family Robinson (1960), Spencer’s Mountain (1963), and The Bedford Incident (1965). “‘You’re out of your mind,’ they said. ‘He’s too ethereal.’ But I think he has helped give the show an air of authenticity.”
Freeman thought that MacArthur was the normal Joe’s idea of what an honest cop looked like. He also had an air of naturalness—an edge of amateurism—which gave the impression that he was a real cop who had been drafted as an actor by the production.
Lew Ayres, the star of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Holiday (1938), Johnny Belinda (1948), Advise and Consent (1962), and The Carpetbaggers (1964), played the governor of Hawaii in the pilot. When he was unwilling to move to the islands for the series, he was replaced by Richard Denning—another inspired choice.
The blond, handsome, stern, erect Denning not only looked like someone McGarrett would take orders from, he complemented Jack Lord in appearance. He was also a very popular actor with the cult film and television crowd, having starred in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Target Earth (1954), Creature with the Atom Brain (1955), The Black Scorpion (1957), the Mr. and Mrs. North (1952-54) TV series, and the Michael Shayne (1960-61) show.
The rest of the Five-O team remained the same. Freeman also showed his mettle by casting Chinese actor Kam Fong as Detective Chin Ho Kelly and Hawaiian entertainer Zulu as Detective Kono. The traditional television approach would be to hire handsome Hollywood performers. Zulu was burly while Fong was short and chunky. They were also not wildly convincing actors. But they seemed real, and they reflected Hawaii’s racial mix.
Five-O’s office was in the Iolani Palace, which had once been the seat of the Hawaiian Legislature but was now a museum. The series made the building famous once again, since the exterior establishing shot of McGarrett’s corner office was one of the show’s most repeated visuals. The most famous sequence was the entire Hawaii Five-O opening.
Morton Stevens wrote a suitably pounding, pulsating theme song (as well as orchestrating the show’s soundtracks for years) around which veteran director Reza Badiyi created a mosaic of Hawaiian sights. It was then cunningly edited to the beat, utilizing a variety of lab and lens tricks. The central image was that of a gigantic ocean wave, from which the title appears. Then there’s the wonderful shot in which the camera seems to fly right at McGarrett as he stands on the balcony of a skyscraper.
Freeman also decided that the show couldn’t sustain a season of espionage plots and futuristic hardware. Instead, he demanded that the stories focus on the nastiest criminals possible, so the powerful McGarrett would have suitable antagonists. While other series have featured really heinous villains (most notably The Untouchables and M Squad) Freeman and company introduced the tube’s first true “crime slime.”
The audience was ready for Hawaii Fíve-O, and it was ready for them. The initial episode had the sizzling, gritty flavor the series would become known for. Kevin McCarthy played a “love ‘em, leave ‘em, rob ‘em, deep-six ‘em” lothario. After he had killed ten lovesick old ladies, Five-O was set on him.
The New York Post was enthusiastic. “Fast paced, sharply produced. If the rest of the shows are as good as the first one, the series should be a shoo-in.”
Variety was less impressed. “Although a strong contender, it’s doubtful Hawaii Five-O will break NBC’s streak. It is a handsomely produced cop meller, enhanced by first-rate thesping and visuals, but it is still too much in the mainstream to pull loyalists away from NBC’s Daniel Boone and Ironsíde.”
CBS seemed to agree. Four of the series’ first nine shows were preempted for specials or other network events. Their first twelve shows ran $810,000 over budget—the cost of the pilot film. Everything had to be shipped twenty-five hundred miles from Los Angeles to Hawaii.
“A production line that long is a constant battle,” said Freeman. “If you don’t whip it, it’ll whip you.”
They seemed to be losing. They had little support from the network and no studio to work in. They were forced to use a navy warehouse out past Pearl Harbor and through some sugar cane fields. It was the only thing they could find. A mix of experienced Hollywood technicians and naive local help begrudgingly turned it into a makeshift sound stage.
“At night the rats would come in and chew up the furniture,” James MacArthur told TV Guide. “In the daytime, directors would have to fire a gun before we did a scene. That was to stop the lizards from squeaking and to scare off the mongooses. They’d stampede across the tin roof or run right in front of the camera. So we called the place Mongoose Manor.”
Hawaii Five-O did not look long for this world. But at Christmas time, CBS switched the show’s time slot, and got behind it with all their considerable enthusiasm. Suddenly the show was a top-twenty hit, eating up its competition.
Freeman had done his work: juxtaposing the stunning beauty of Hawaii with the ugliest crime imaginable. Although the Five-O unit was outside traditional authority, they were always inside the law. Their extreme position meant they always worked in extreme circumstances—the stuff of great action television.
Lord had done his duty: creating his part with equal amounts of intensity, conviction, and dedication. The problem with many actors is that they are forced to fake world-weary experience. Lord didn’t have to play larger-than-life. He was larger than life. He had traveled all over the world as a teenage merchant seaman. He had played college football, he got a solo pilot’s license, and he had organized his own art school. He had prints made of his artwork, then sent them to his favorite museums.
CBS had done their part as well: after spending almost $6 million on the series, they weren’t going to let it collapse without a fight. If the audience wouldn’t come to it, they would bring it to the audience anywhere it worked.
The series was finally on solid ground and everyone wanted to make sure it took root. Freeman and company continued to wrestle with production problems. Their weekly budget was the then lordly sum of almost $300,000—a full ten percent of which was for transport, housing, and sending the film back and forth from L.A. to Hawaii.
“The logistics are staggering,” Lord said. “We use as many as twenty locations for a one-hour episode. In one day, we can move as many as three different times, which usually means a loss of at least twö hours.”
To maintain the series’ tension, Freeman also invoked a realism rule. No one was to gussy up the islands. There was to be no concentration on the glamorous aspects of Hawaii. Five-O was dealing with the scum of the earth, and their environs were sometimes just as scummy. The local press began to complain about the mingling of natural beauty and unnatural death, as well as the fact that none of the standard cops and robbers plots came from island life.
Just about the only person who saw value in the series was then Governor John A. Burns. He was proven right, when more and more tourists came, even though the show gave the impression that Hawaii was awash in psycho killers. But there was always McGarrett to set things right. Psycho killers didn’t have a chance when McGarrett got on their trail.
No one else had much of a chance when the actor playing McGarrett got going, either. Once the new year, 1969, and success started, Lord’s demands became grist for the press mill. The most famous involved the contention that there was only one star of Hawaii Five-O. There were no co-stars. There was only him, Jack Lord. The rest were to be called featured players.
“I had a deal with the network going in,” said Lord to the Associated Press, “that called for star billing. I don’t know where the criticism began. It’s mostly about Jimmy MacArthur. But he wasn’t even in our pilot. I congratulated him when he was hired. He’s a marvelous actor but I don’t see why any actor who has nothing to do with the pilot or selling it on Madison Avenue should be handed star billing. Stardom is something you earn.”
Of course it was one thing to be the star. It was another to demand that everyone call you and only you the star. Respect was also something a person was supposed to earn. It appeared as if the press subsequently set out to teach Lord humility. From then on, it was open season. Newspapers and magazine writers seemed to delight in taking the actor on.
They called him “the Lord.” TV Guide ran several scathing pieces, the worst being the account of a publicist who was fired by Lord before he had even met him. They called him a “Sandy Koufax who thinks he can pitch without an outfield.” They made fun of the way he grit his teeth and clapped his hands with increasing frenzy in order to build energy for a scene. They said he personally inflated his own biography.
“If you are ninety-eight percent for him,” said Dave Donnelly of The Honolulu Star, “he somehow feels you are against him.”
They concluded that “those who know him, hate him.”
For his part, Lord made such statements as “Anyone who’s spoken about is spoken against” and “Knowledge is knowing that fire burns and wisdom is remembering the blisters.” He kept working. Hard. In those first seasons, he seemed happy to put in eighty-hour weeks.
“Something happens to an actor on location,” he said. “The smell of reality does something to a guy. I think it transmits itself to the screen-the smell of reality....“
It was also the look of reality. One of the most memorable things about the show was its bright, bleached-out images of a too hot world. It enhanced the mood of the confrontation between equally obsessive good and bad. As the series continued, the supporting cast became less and less central to the theme of jousting knights—one in shining armor (a severe blue suit) and one in black (gauche Hawaiian shirts).
“The light on the islands is ten thousand kelvin,” Lord told Kay Gardella of The New York Daily News, “compared with Los Angeles, which is thirty-five hundred kelvin. The hot light burns into the film and gives it a different look.”
By the beginning of the second season, things were humming along. McGarrett continued to bash down heinous evildoers in no uncertain terms. Freeman and the staff continued to create frightening plots, while the viewers were soothed by Five-O’s unrelenting desire to set things right. The first episode of the new season had a corrupt army sergeant using dead Vietnam vets in an insurance scam.
Then there was “Up Tight,” about a seventeen-year-old hooked on drugs, which was cited by a teen viewer for having saved her from a similar fate. The most powerful episode was “I Want Some Candy and a Gun That Shoots,” about a young man who goes to the top of Diamond Head to snipe at passing cops for no apparent reason. Hawaii Five-O was just as goofy as Dragnet 1970 when it came to picturing the younger generation, but the former show far surpassed the latter in the skill of its presentation.
Finally, there was “Three Dead Cows,” the finale of the second season, wherein a conscience-stricken scientist tries to alert the public to the dangers of chemical warfare by destroying a Chinese farmer’s cattle. The network used that as an example of the series’ conscience, but critics used it as an example of the program’s bloodlust. It was the first of many attacks against the show’s violence.
One watchdog group counted forty-three weapons during one hour, with an average of 20.3 an episode. Their episode high for mayhem was seven deaths and three injuries. But while Senator John Pastore condemned them for spilling too much blood, John J. Gunther of the U.S. Conference of Mayors attacked them for too little. .
He felt the use of weapons on the show was “uncomfortably anti septic. The severity of the results is ignored. This represents a distortion of a most serious nature. Viewers must be made aware that pain, suffering, and trauma result from a bullet or stab wound. Weapons seem to be used simply as props to advance the drama rather than as the instruments of deadly force that they truly are.”
Lord’s reaction was apt. “There are levels to a violent television act. What you see on the surface, and the statement it’s making.” Hawaii Five-O’s statement was always very clear. McGarrett had his line of death. You don’t cross it and stay healthy. The entire brunt of his mental acuity and the collected armament of the Hawaiian police will fall on you like a ton of guano.
Freeman and Lord had collaborated for the show’s greatest tension of all: first McGarrett thought; then he moved. Each action pushed against the other. McGarrett may have been a fanatic, but he was a brilliant one. The episodes were much more than a battle of weapons; they were a battle of wits. With McGarrett in the lead, the best ones were also battles of will.
The scenes inside the Iolani office, with the collected staff and chalk-covered blackboard, were often as exciting in their own way as the fights and chases. McGarrett and Five-O would figure it out. Steve, like Sherlock, would stalk back and forth behind his desk like a caged animal, piecing the mystery together.
His Watsons would comment and then the light would go on over his head like an erupting volcano. The game was afoot and they would race from the building and into their cars. Tires always squealing, they would race to the scene and do whatever had to be done. It would range from taking the villains down personally to surrounding the place with more firepower than in the last Israeli War.
By 1970, almost everybody was hooked on Freeman’s pulp vision. Variety called him “the master of the slick actioner. He whips it together with style and so tautly as to muffle the creakiness of the plotline. It’s, of course, nothing more than action for the passive viewer, but the most refreshing thing about it in a year that finds the networks straining for relevance is that it is so unabashedly irrelevant.”
They also reserved some nice words for Jack Lord, saying his “good looks, brashness, and fierce dedication to duty are the dominant characteristics of the character he plays.”
The new season also saw an appearance of Wo Fat, McGarrett’s Moriarty, played by Khigh Dhiegh. Fat was an Asian criminal mastermind who occasionally worked for the Red Chinese, and occasionally pursued his own evil goals. His assignment was to prevent the recovery of a wounded secret agent. He tried to accomplish this by kidnapping the daughter of the only brain surgeon who could save the operative. Her ransom was the death of the injured spy. As always, however, McGarrett saved the day. This espionage-laden episode was a throwback to the pilot film, but the rest of the year featured the more standard tension-filled scripts which made Five-O famous.
The inner tensions on the set were another matter. Zulu had created the most friction, so he was the first out. He had long complained that his natural humor and full abilities had never been utilized. His nightclub act was well known on the island, where he was considered a Hawaiian Zero Mostel.
The culmination of his dissatisfaction came when Lord supposedly forbade him to accept an honorary membership to the U.S. coast guard. The press suggested that Lord was jealous and wanted the honor for himself, but nothing written about Lord from that point on could be taken at face value or completely believed. Whatever the reason, Detective Kono was out and Detective Ben Kokua (Al Harrington) was in.
The audience didn’t seem to care one way or the other. For them, the show began and ended, often quite literally, with McGarrett. Each program finished with a preview of the next episode, narrated by McGarrett himself. It, in turn, always ended with the line, “Be there ... aloha.” Although not exactly a “Just the facts ma’am,” McGarrett also had his own “names have been changed to protect the innocent.”
It came at the end of many episodes, when the cop had taken on another wily miscreant, then beat him at his own game—all while staying inside the law. As a very perceptive article in (of all places) Playgirl magazine noted: “McGarrett represents menace and ominous danger. He is a paragon of cunning paranoia even more devious than they [the villains].”
This reality made McGarrett’s triumph in defeating his enemy all the greater, since he did it on his own strict terms. Then, with the cringing criminal finally cornered, McGarrett would smile that death head grin of his and say, “Book him, Danno. Murder one.”
Instant catharsis. The line between Lord and his character was gone. The audience loved it. They loved him. Steve McGarrett was not just interesting anymore. He was magnificent. He was a deity of law enforcement. He made all his viewers feel safe and protected. Heaven help the criminal with McGarrett on our side.
As the years went on, more and more program characters, on both sides of the law, offered McGarrett shortcuts to justice—which he would never take. Sometimes he would thank them, sometimes he would threaten/promise them a comeuppance, but he always walked the Constitutional razor’s edge. Again, it was the art of Hawaii Five-O’s inner tension which glued eyes to it. It was also the art of Freeman’s vision and the skill of his writing staff.
Magazine critics, who weren’t jaded by a constant barrage of television, were so perplexed by their enjoyment of the show that they occasionally waxed philosophic. Their unanimous conclusion was that while the series’ scripts consisted of purple prose, it was the absolute best purple prose possible. Late in the show’s run, Cue magazine stated that the scripts “flout credibility so cunningly that they are hard to resist.”
One script from the sixth season, said Newsweek, showed “how and why stocks and bonds are negotiable and untraceable. We learned how the Hawaiian stock market operates. The criminal mastermind was undone by a surprising, yet completely plausible detail that he had neglected, but was significant in light of what the audience had learned about the market, stocks, and bonds.”
Both articles concluded that Hawaii Five-O’s writing was the best their genre had to offer. It was the best violent mystery trash on television.
“Ours is a classic dramatic form,” Lord told United Press International. “In the first act, a major crime is committed. After that we concentrate on action. There is a head-on conflict between a very strong antagonist, a powerful villain, and the protagonist McGarrett. The triumph of good over evil is never boring.” Certainly not the way Hawaii Five-O did it at its height.
The audience was on their side, the network was behind them, and even the critics gave them grudging respect. The only thing which slowed the program down was the sudden death of its creator and guiding light, Leonard Freeman, in 1973. Until then, the show had been going through producers like Kleenex. They changed every year, like clockwork. Joseph Gantman was the producer of the first season, Leonard Katzman was in the second, Robert Stambler and Stanley Kallis shared the third.
Finally Robert Sweeney and William Finnegan mastered the process in the fourth. They made it through the fifth and sixth season, when Freeman died. By then they had the system down to a science. “This whole company is based on good planning,” said Finnegan, who was on set in Hawaii, while Sweeney was manning the fort in California.
“Bob prepares the script and does the casting—we usually have two or three actors from the mainland,” Finnegan told a trade journal. “I follow through on the production here. Our biggest problem is the twenty-five-hundred-mile communication gap. We try to solve it by phone, running up bills like a couple of gossiping old women. But we need to talk for many reasons, including the dailies which he sees five days after they’re shot. If anything goes seriously wrong, we need to act fast.”
That acting fast usually took place on the spot, immediately, so the team could stay on schedule. Most regular problems were not with the crew, but the scripts and the actors.
“Most of the mainland scripters are writing in terms of New York basements and Los Angeles swimming pools,” explained veteran Five-O director Paul Stanley in the same trade journal. “We have to take the material and adapt it to Hawaii. For instance, one script called for a scene at a daytime baseball game. The writer didn’t know that they play only night games in Hawaii.” (It’s too hot otherwise.)
What a lot of the viewers didn’t know was that ninety-five percent of the series’ actors were non-professionals. The production made it a habit of using local help for all the small roles, like waiters, waitresses, hostages, doctors, nurses, murder victims, store owners, hotel clerks, maids, innocent bystanders, etc. It maintained a freshness Freeman always wanted, but it grated on the professionals.
“Try working with an amateur,” Lord once suggested. “I’m best on second or third take. When an untrained performer is in a scene, it can take eight or ten takes.” The crew regularly filmed more footage than necessary, so the Los Angeles editors could cut around a bad performance and still bring the episode in at the proper length.
“The average shooting time is seven days, but the shows can run anywhere from five to ten,” said Finnegan, “with budgets averaging $265,000, although there have been some which went as high as $300,000 and others which went as low as $210,000. There’s a great advantage to elasticity.”
Because of the problems, the show developed a close-knit staff. The regular writers included Jerome Coopersmith and Ken Pettus, while the most used directors were Paul Stanley, Charles Dubin, and Michael O’Herlihy (who, together, worked on more than 70 episodes). They all deserved purple hearts.
“The climate’s no help,” said O’Herlihy to his union publication. “You don’t notice the heat because of the constant trade winds. But by the middle of the afternoon, it begins to weigh on your shoulders and you find the edge beginning to go off your acuteness.”
“We’d like to try new directors,” said Finnegan, “but we can’t take the chance. If one segment starts to fall apart, it can be a total disaster. Directors often stay an extra day just to recover.”
During Sweeney and Finnegan’s reign, the series surged forward in the image of Leonard Freeman. McGarrett traced down the legendary Peking Man, the oldest skeleton in history. Then he tracked the murderer of two people, whose corpses were discovered a decade after the crime. Then he went after high-tech drug dealers who used sky divers and minisubs. And on and on and on, week after week, one sharply designed episode after another—each featuring the burned-out photography and driving intensity the series had become known for.
“The staff has made fast-paced action a standard ingredient,” Variety wrote in 1973. The mixing of beautiful scenery, stark settings, abominable wickedness, amateur feature players, and McGarrett’s barely contained power kept the series at the top.
In 1974, the foundation finally cracked. The network had been dreading a production confrontation with Lord since Freeman’s death. It came during the fourteenth episode of the seventh season.
“Jack has the worst press of anybody I know of,” Finnegan said shortly before the blowup. “He is reputed to be difficult, but I can tell you that he has never had any problems with directors. He is as close to the perfect leading man in a series as you could find-a total professional. You can plan for a six a.m. call and be damn sure that he will be there and prepared.”
A perfect leading man, certainly, but perhaps not the perfect gentleman. It was reported that Lord became incensed over the presence of a visiting navy man on the set during shooting. He demanded that the visitor leave. Finnegan, the on-line producer, said no. Lord fired Finnegan. The network vetoed the firing. Lord walked out. The network threatened to fire the actor. Lord returned.
Four months later, Sweeney and Finnegan started their own production company. Philip Leacock was brought in as Hawaii Five-O’s new producer. The series had been operating without an executive producer since Freeman’s death.
“Yes, I’m tough,” Lord later told the Associated Press. “That’s the only way to survive in a series. I would prefer to say I was firm. You can’t be wishy-washy in this business. They go for the jugular. Show one small weakness and they’ll destroy you. I know. I’ve got the scars to prove it. Since Lenny died, I’ve run the show and I’ve done the chores that he would have done. When we have problems, I sit down with CBS and we resolve them like gentlemen.”
Translated, all this meant that as McGarrett was the undisputed head of the Five-O unit, Jack Lord was now the undisputed leader of the production unit. “I try to create an atmosphere of harmony under which we all can work,” he said. Work was the operative word there. Lord was a workaholic and expected everyone to live up to his example. Another ironic inner tension came with the juxtaposition of the island’s lulling atmosphere and the production’s frantic schedule.
“There’s no buddy system here,” Lord stressed. “Everyone must pull his own load. Unlike other operations in Hollywood, you won’t find any relatives on this show—no nepotism.” This edict certainly must have put Lord in further disfavor with some.
The difference between Jack Lord and his closest television contemporary, Jack Webb, was that Lord knew what he wanted when he saw it and didn’t feel the need to prove himself outside that one successful character. Lord was already respected as an artist, and took great consolation in his previous achievements. Jack Webb seemed to want to show the world that he was more than Joe Friday. What Jack Lord wanted to do was retire.
“They’ll have to take me off this island in a box,” he said repeatedly. “I’ve bought my last house. My ambition is to live on the beach for the rest of my life. When a man finds paradise, that’s where he should stay.” But first he was going to take McGarrett to the edge of the envelope. He was going to push Five-O to the max.
He gloated when the series forced its competition into cancellation. He complained bitterly when the network rescheduled him in unsuccessful time slots. Finally, in 1976, Philip Leacock was made the new executive producer, Douglas Greene was named producer, and CBS itself took over the production—giving a piece of the action to Freeman’s widow. That freed up Lord to do what he did best. “In an age of compromise, McGarrett is a totally truthful, honest, open man,” said Lord. “He says what’s on his mind. He’s never neutral. We share that trait in common. He steadfastly refuses to back away from his ideals. He never backslides into evil.”
That was Hawaii Five-O’s final contribution to the art of good script writing. It brought into focus the point that you cannot pursue good to an evil extreme. To McGarrett, “backsliding into evil” meant that the ends justified the means. It meant going outside the law to uphold the law. McGarrett simply would not do that, which created the tightest internal energy and tension of all.
Which also meant that the release of that tension was all the greater when the McGarrett Decree was spoken. “Book him, Danno.”
Hawaii Five-O made waves even in its ninth season. Wo Fat reappeared, planning nothing less than the conquest of the world. Variety showed preposterous callousness in its review of this episode by saying the show “works better when it follows its standard formula—in search of a psychopath who rapes and kills stewardesses, for example.” The review was wisely unsigned.
The new staff had more on its mind than the Variety reviewer. Their most famous and controversial episode of the season involved criminals building a nuclear bomb for sale to terrorists. The Atomic Industrial Forum cried foul, practically begging CBS to run the episode after the impending national elections. “It is antifactual and highly emotional,” a spokesman said, although they had not seen the segment or read the script. “It plays into the hands of the opponents of nuclear power.” They also complained that it made the stealing of plutonium and the construction of a working device seem absurdly easy. The network reaped the publicity rewards and ran it on schedule, before the •elections.
By that time, Hawaii Five-O was an island institution and industry. The weekly budget was up to a half million dollars and they needed about a hundred and fifty people a day to fill the crew requirements. Over their many years on the air, they had used more than twenty thousand residents as extras. It added up to prosperity for all concerned.
“Another reason for our longevity,” Lord said in a U.P.I. interview, “is that I’m wary of using stories seen on other cop shows that have been changed to a Hawaiian setting. Then there’s our use of the rainbow of multiracial faces and folklore. We use Hawaiians whenever possible and we base many of our episodes on their legends. We provide new things for people to look at.”
But there’s just so much a show can say in a decade. The series continued to deliver, but the law of diminishing returns was going into effect. The audience and critics were beginning to take the show for granted. There were just so many times Danno could book them before it got redundant.
CBS switched the top staff, promoting Douglas Greene to executive producer and installing Bill Sandefur, Jim Heinz, and Fred Baum as supervising producer, Hollywood-based producer, and Hawaiian-based producer, respectively. But there was little spin they could put on the well-worn program. They had licked most of the logistics problems, but the production was tired.
The Variety review of the tenth-season premiere episode was only two pararaphs long, concluding that the “talky episode was hardly worth all the verbosity.” By the end of the season, things were strained at best, desperate at worst. The ratings were slumping, and the segments were increasingly lifeless. To try renewing audience interest, Chin Ho Kelly was killed by a mad-dog murderer played by Rene Santoni. Steve McGarrett ran him to ground at the base of a palm tree on the beach and stuck a gun in his face. Even so, he managed to resist the impulse to become a cold-blooded executioner. As always, he had Danno book Chin Ho’s executioner . . . murder one.
After that, McGarrett seemed to reassess life. The following season, the eleventh, found him slightly less rigid. He would occasionally get out of his severe blue suit and wear Hawaiian shirts and Panama hats. It was a surprising and not altogether pleasant sight.
“We get letters from people wanting to see something of McGarrett’s personal life,” Lord explained. “I think the mystery piques people. I think it also annoys them.” The revelation that McGarrett was human was not satisfying. Solace from the villainy the program presented would not be achieved with a human protagonist. The character only worked as a demon of good.
At least one actor saw the writing on the wall. “After eleven years I decided it was enough,” said James MacArthur to TV Guide. “I wanted to do other things. I didn’t quit for any one thing in particular. I haven’t spoken to Jack. I was out of the country and I told my agent to call the producers with my decision. I didn’t think it was necessary to tell Jack. I suppose it will be hard to imagine Hawaii Five-O without Danny ... but that’s the way it goes.”
MacArthur’s apathy must’ve stung. Little wonder that Williams’ replacement was so totally different from Danno. There was still Duke Lukela, played by Herman Wedemeyer, who had been on the show since 1972 (taking up the slack for a departing Ben Kokua in 1974), but he wasn’t enough. Filling the offices were now Truck Kealoha, played by Moe Keale, policewoman Lori Wilson, played by Sharon Farrell, and most astonishingly, James “Kimo” Carew, played by hulking, battered William Smith.
Smith was ostensibly MacArthur’s replacement, and a weirder choice could hardly have been made. Smith was a stuntman and B-movie veteran, well known to the cult crowd for a series of classic psycho roles in such infamous films as Darker Than Amber (1970), Grave of the Vampire (1973), and Rich Man, Poor Man (1976). To see him brutalizing Rod Taylor (as Travis McGee), wiping the walls with Michael Pataki as his vampire father, or threatening Susan Blakely as the wife of the Rich Man, was what good bad-guy acting is all about. But seeing him in Hawaii Five-O—not as the worst creep McGarrett had ever caught, but as Danno . . . I mean, Kimo—made audiences think they had fallen into the Twilight Zone.
In retrospect, the best theory I can come up with is that CBS and/or Lord visualized the craggy, memorably tough actor as a younger, latter-day McGarrett, ready to take up the gauntlet when Lord finally called it quits. But nothing worked in this twelfth season—the acting, writing, or direction. The production had lost touch with its audience. The stories ranged from mediocre to laughable.
“Working on the show has become like serving a stretch on Devil’s Island,” said one unnamed production assistant. Smelling blood, some critics became particularly condescending and sarcastic in their coverage. Lord and the company finally accepted the all too obvious. The Five-O team was no more. Location scenery would not save them now. McGarrett would have to clean out his desk.
But not before he did one thing. He had sworn he would bring Wo Fat to justice if it was the last thing he did. It was.
“Woe to Wo Fat” was the final episode, and clearly representative of everything that was wrong with the last season. “A rather simplistic stanza,” said Variety, “in which McGarrett masqueraded as an aging scientist, with makeup that hardly disguised him at all, to infiltrate a doomsday weapon project, headed by Wo Fat, who has slowly become Fu Manchu over the years. If anything, the final stanza rather accurately illustrated that Five-O had indeed reached the point where it should sensibly fold up its tent.”
The last episode probably would have embarrassed Leonard Freeman. There was no tension. There was hardly any logic, Wo Fat was put behind bars, but they couldn’t resist a “humorous” final moment when the mastermind pulls a hidden file from his prison slipper. The episode owed more to Get Smart (1965-70) than it did to the glory days of Hawaii Five-O.
After 284 hours, it was over. The grandest epic in the history of television detection was finished. It went out with a whimper, but it had more than its share of bang in its first landmark decade. Other shows would follow it—Lord’s own M Station Hawaii (1980) and the abysmal Hawaiian Heat (1984-85)—but only the series made in its image, Magnum, P.I., would succeed because it broke many of the clichés McGarrett had established. Tom Selleck and company were wise. There was only one—there could only be one-Steve McGarrett.
One of Jack Lord’s favorite quotes comes from James Russell Lowell. “Not failure, but low aim, is crime.” Hawaii Five-O aimed high and pretty much hit the mark. Thomas Magnum would often invoke McGarrett’s name. McGarrett would often be the source of respectful wit everywhere from the top-rated NBC comedy Night Court to the cable music channel MTV.
But even with all the lasting devotion of his fans, Jack Lord stayed in his island paradise, refusing all offers to return;emdashseveral of them from Selleck (who repeatedly requested McGarrett as a guest star). But Lord had nothing to prove to anybody.
“Most TV has about a one and a half octave range,” he once said. “Sometimes we hit a two and a half octave.”
No matter what anyone thought or said about him, Jack Lord was Steve McGarrett. And Steve McGarrett was the greatest television cop of all time.