He was Smokey before he was the Bandit

It is I suppose ironic, given how much TV I used to watch, how little TV I watch now.

My TV- and movie-watching days coincided with the superstardom of actor Burt Reynolds, whose megahit (given its low budget) “Smokey and the Bandit” premiered when I was a sixth-grader.

A decade before that, Reynolds was a TV actor. He appeared in several shows, got his first non-guest-star role in the one-season “Riverboat,”  was on “Gunsmoke” for three seasons, and was cast in two movies, the second as the lead in “Operation CIA.”

Reynolds then got his first starring TV role in an ABC-TV series about an American Indian detective who was a New York police detective, “Hawk.”

This was when ABC was the third-place network in a three-network race. The same night that “Star Trek” premiered at 7:30 p.m. Central time on NBC, “Hawk” premiered at 10 p.m. on ABC. (Yes, that was Gene Hackman in the first episode.)

“Hawk” didn’t even last to the 1967 half of the season; its final episode ran Dec. 29. But the idea of Reynolds, the son of a police chief, as a cop would persist. (More on that later.)

A decade after “Hawk” left the airwaves, it returned out of nowhere. NBC, which by then was the third-place network in the three-network face, decided to show “Hawk” in the summer of 1976 to take advantage of Reynolds’ stardom. That’s when I watched it.

The treasure trove that is YouTube, which previously produced two episodes of the obscure Jack Webb-created TV series “Chase,” unearthed two episodes of “Hawk.”

The amusing part of this episode for ’60s TV viewers could be guest star Frank Converse, who one year later played a New York detective in “N.Y.P.D.”

An Internet Movie Database review shows the promise and downfall of the series beyond bad scheduling:

“Hawk” (1966) had a brilliant core idea of filming a detective series on location in New York City at night. Making the central character an American Indian and casting 30-year old Burt Reynolds as Lt. John Hawk were also extremely smart moves.

“Hawk” was created by Emmy winner Allan Sloane (“Teacher, Teacher”, “East Side, West Side”, “The Breaking Point”). Sloane also wrote several strong episodes. The executive producer was Hubbell Robinson (“Boris Karloff’s Thriller”, “87th Precint”), who always strove for quality.

The stories were literate and intriguing (coming from the same people who were doing “The Defenders” and the other top dramatic shows of the day.) The casting of guests was impeccable, often drawing from the fine pool of actors working out of New York City. Some of the guest stars were Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Frank Converse, Philip Bosco, Scott Glenn, Diana Muldaur, Diane Baker, Louise Sorel, Bradford Dillman, Carol Rossen, James Best, Emily Prager and Beverlee McKinsey.

The main problem with the series was that the character of John Hawk was an arrogant jerk, apparently modeled after Ben Casey with a little Marlon Brando thrown in. Hawk had a big chip on his shoulder. It was impossible to like him. Burt Reynolds was never more appealing than as “half-breed” blacksmith Quint Asper on “Gunsmoke” for two years in the early 60’s. The writers and producers should have let Reynolds play Hawk more like Quint Asper.

Another weakness was that Hawk always had to be right and always had to perform the heroics solo. This made Hawk even more insufferable. The producers should have given Hawk a partner who was an equal rather than an eager beaver trainee. Gerald S. O’Loughlin, Ossie Davis or Frank Converse could have been good choices for Hawk’s partner. Reynolds could have easily developed a humorous, easy rapport with any of those actors. The partner could have shared some of the heroics and might even have made fun of John Hawk’s preening self-importance.

Even with its weaknesses, “Hawk” was an excellent effort, and I wish it had lasted longer. With just a little tweaking of the main character, this could have been one of the finest TV cop shows in history. Indeed, th premise of “Hawk” was so good, it could be remade as a series today.

My only connection with New York City is a former boss of mine who grew up in Queens. I’ve never been to New York City, though I was briefly in western New York. But as a crime TV viewer I’ve always been a bit fascinated with the televised image of New York City for crime shows, including “The Naked City” movie and TV series (the latter a half-hour drama that took one season off and then grew to a full hour with an almost completely different cast) …

… the one-season “Johnny Staccato” …

… the one-season “87th Precinct” …

… the aforementioned “N.Y.P.D.” …

… “Kojak” …

… the great “NYPD Blue” …

… and (though I’m an infrequent watcher) “Blue Bloods.”

New York seems like a perfect film noir setting. Even on TV the city seems dark and foreboding with washed-out colors. Where else could you have eight million stories?

Back to Reynolds. Four years later he was back on ABC in a police series, but on the other end of the U.S. in “Dan August, a Quinn Martin Production.”

Dan August was the title character of an excellent TV movie “The House on Greenapple Road,” but August wasn’t played by Burt Reynolds.

Christopher George played August, a police lieutenant working in his California home town, but after ABC green-lighted (that’s a Hollywood term) the series George apparently wasn’t available, so Reynolds replaced him.

(Trivia: The stunt coordinator on “Dan August” was Hal Needham, who would go on to produce “Smokey and the Bandit.” More trivia: Richard Anderson went on to be Steve Austin’s boss in “The Six Million Dollar Man.”)

Anyone whose knowledge of Reynolds began with “Smokey and the Bandit” (or “Boogie Nights”) probably is not used to serious Reynolds.

Less serious Reynolds may have begun to emerge when he went back to Boston with Norman Fell, who was in the series “87th Precinct” (which was set in New York), based on the Ed McBain novels (which were set in the fictional big city of “Isola,” which looked an awful lot like Manhattan), for “Fuzz” …

… then returned to the Big Apple to play private detective Shamus …

… though he got serious again when he went back to L.A. for “Hustle”:

Perhaps the presence or absence of facial hair is a sign of whether Reynolds’ role is serious or not.

 

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