Hawk August

In continued pursuit of bringing to light obscure media, what do these two things (besides the obvious) have in common?

Obviously they both starred Burt Reynolds, after Reynolds had left “Gunsmoke” …

… but before “Deliverance,” “White Lightning” and “Smokey and the Bandit.” Each was an ABC-TV police series that lasted just one season (1966 for “Hawk” and 1970 for “Dan August”), though each was repeated on a different network — 1973 and 1975 on CBS in August’s case, and 1976 in Hawk’s case — to take advantage of Reynolds’ movie popularity.

Each had a cool jazz theme. “Hawk” was created by Kenyon Hopkins, who previously worked on another New York-based series …

… while “Dan August” had Dave Grusin:

GetTV carried both series after Reynolds’ death last year. Of “Hawk,” get (get it?) this:

Who do you think of when you think of Burt Reynolds?

Is it the macho star of groundbreaking 1970s classics like Deliverance? How about the winking bad boy of Smokey and the Bandit? The Oscar-nominated silver fox of Boogie Nights? The director of Sharky’s Machine and other gritty action thrillers? All are good answers, but what about Burt Reynolds the Native American character actor?

If you’re drawing a blank on that portion of the recently deceased icon’s resume, you’re probably not alone. But Reynolds, who has Cherokee ancestry on his father’s side, was cast as “Indian” or “half-breed” characters on TV and film throughout the first decade of his career. Beginning in 1962, the then-26-year-old played a half-Comanche blacksmith on CBS’ long-running Gunsmoke. After three years in Dodge City, Reynolds moved on to NBC’s Branded, where he guest starred as a young brave. Next he was the title character in Navajo Joe, a cartoonishly violent Spaghetti Western that was supposed to propel him to Clint Eastwood-style superstardom. (Spoiler Alert: it didn’t.)

Navajo Joe still enjoys a cult following today, despite the fact that Reynolds’ wig makes him look like the fifth Beatle. But his work in the 1960s should perhaps be best-remembered for Hawk, an innovative 1966 crime drama that brought the actor his first solo starring role on TV.

Filmed on the streets of New York City (and at the East Harlem studio where The Godfather movies were shot), this short-lived ABC series told the story of Detective Lieutenant John Hawk, a full-blooded Iroquois Indian working for the District Attorney’s office. Over 17 hour-long episodes, Hawk spun noir-ish tales of a disappearing city where newsstand owners still doubled as informants and cops still wore fedoras. But it was a New York in transition, infiltrated by drugs and on the verge of economic and social collapse, and the frank storytelling reflected that.

John Hawk was tightly wound, judgmental, and distant to the point of insensitivity –  a necessity, he says in an early episode, of the job. What Hawk was not, however, was stereotypically “Indian” in his physical appearance, dress, or demeanor.

“When they asked me about Hawk and said he was an Indian, I immediately thought of a fellow with a feather in his hair running around New York, and I wouldn’t do it,” Reynolds told The Chicago Tribune in November of 1966. “I wanted to play this Indian my way – after all those years of watching TV Indians getting undignified treatment.”

Hawk pulls no punches in its depiction of discrimination. From off-handed jokes to hateful epithets, Hawk’s outsider status informs both Reynolds’ portrayal and the show’s ongoing narrative. And that’s not surprising considering the series was created by Emmy and Peabody Award-winner Allan Sloane, a writer known for socially conscious scripts stretching back to the days of network radio. New York Times critic Jack Gould wrote in 1963 that Sloane “wielded one of the most sensitive pens in television,” and his commitment to informing while entertaining makes Hawk stand out in an era when cop shows were often simple morality plays. One standout episode revolves around a witness with autism, with a surprisingly nuanced depiction of a condition that’s still misunderstood half a century later.

Ironically, Reynolds’ portrayal of a “minority” lead in the racially charged mid-1960s disguises the fact that Hawkalso features an African-American series regular – Wayne Grice as Hawk’s partner Dan Carter – which was a rarity in 1966 (and, sadly, still is today). Like Law & Order a generation later, Hawk fields an all-star team of New York actors: Broadway veterans; familiar faces from daytime soaps; and young actors on the verge of breaking out. The pilot features an unforgettable performance by Gene Hackman as a serial killer motivated by religious fanaticism. Other memorable guest stars include Martin SheenRobert DuvallBilly Dee WilliamsScott GlennKim Hunter, Diane Baker, and soon-to-be Dark Shadows star John Karlen.

Outside of nostalgia, there are a handful of reasons classic TV dramas resonate for contemporary viewers: writing, directing, acting, and music. Hawk is solid in all regards. The writing team featured playwrights, authors, and short story scribes, including Emmy winner Ellen Violett (Go Ask Alice) and Oscar nominee Don Mankiewicz, the son of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and nephew of All About Eve director Joseph Mankiewicz. Directors included Paul Henreid, who had a long career behind the camera after iconic roles in Casablanca and Now, Voyager. And all the action is driven by a percussive jazz score by Kenyon HopkinsShorty Rogers, and Nelson Riddle. (Riddle’s episode features a rousing fistfight that seemed choreographed with the knowledge he would be scoring it.)

Why Hawk didn’t last longer is hard to say. It was a thematically complex show, progressive in storytelling but conservative in its main character. It’s delightfully dark, and not just because most of the episodes take place at night. And it also had stiff completion Thursdays at 10 pm in Dean Martin’s hugely popular variety show on NBC. But Reynolds blamed a different culprit: the theatrically released films counter-programmed by CBS.

“It’s absolutely impossible for a show that costs $150,000 to go up against a movie that costs $3 million,” he told The Chicago Tribune.

Ironically, Reynolds would soon be starring in big budget feature films, and would go on to direct a few of them. His first directorial assignment: the final episode of Hawk.

Hawk was definitely tightly wound. He also took quite a beating in some episodes.

(Notice how much they liked harpsichords.)

The nighttime setting was interesting. (In the pilot Hawk pulls down the shades in his apartment on his way to bed as the sun rises.) Also interesting to note is that by episode two, Hawk and other characters are lighting up every five minutes or so. (Probably due to their sponsor, Camel cigarettes.)

Both Hawk and August were working in their hometowns. The latter was a more interesting setting (“Santa Luisa,” which was supposed to represent Santa Barbara, though filming was in Oxnard) because August kept running into, and sometimes arresting, people from his youth.

Hawk was based only on the creator’s imagination. Dan August was based on a TV movie, “The House on Greenapple Road,” from the novel of the same name:

GetTV picks up the story from there:

It was 1970 and Burt Reynolds needed a hit.

After a decade on television, Reynolds had sought movie stardom in action-packed Spaghetti Westerns, but what worked for Clint Eastwood in the “Man with No Name” trilogy didn’t bring Burt the same fistful of film roles. So the 34-year-old went back to the primetime grind, guest starring on shows like Love, American Style. And he waited for his next big break.

Meanwhile, prolific producer Quinn Martin (The UntouchablesThe FugitiveThe F.B.I.) was expanding his empire into made-for-TV movies. His first starred Christopher George as Lt. Dan August, a homicide detective in the fictional Southern California city of Santa Luisa. Based on the novel of the same name, House onGreenapple Road was a ratings success, and ABC ordered a spin-off series for the fall of 1970 to be called Dan August.

But there was a problem. Christopher George didn’t want to be Dan August.

“Chris wanted to do (the sci-fi series) The Immortal instead,” his widow Lynda Day George remembered in the 2008 book Quinn Martin, Producer: A Behind-the-Scenes History of QM Productions and Its Founder. “Chris and Burt Reynolds were good friends and Chris kept saying to Quinn, ‘Look! You’ve gotta get Burt.’”

George – who had recently wrapped the military action series The Rat Patrol – went so far as to screen tapes of Reynolds’s 1966 cop show Hawk for Martin. But the producer was unmoved, and briefly attempted to negotiate a compromise with Paramount (producers of The Immortal) wherein George would star in both shows. Eventually he relented, and Burt Reynolds became the new Dan August.

With a younger actor in the title role, Dan August went through some changes on its journey from Greenapple RoadNorman Fell (age 46) was cast as Dan’s partner Sgt. Charlie Wilentz, replacing 54-year-old Keenan Wynn. Richard Anderson took on the role of chief-of-police George Untermeyer, played in the telefilm by Barry Sullivan (14 years Anderson’s senior). Returning from the pilot were Ned Romero as Sgt. Joe Rivera and Ena Hartman as investigative assistant Katie Grant.

By the time Dan August debuted on September 23, it had evolved from a middle-aged police procedural to a kinetic action series with stories ripped from the headlines. As a plainclothes detective barely out of his 20s, August advocates for younger characters and gives voice to their concerns – a sea change for the older-skewing primetime cop show format. While Dan August is no Mod Squad, and Reynolds’ straight-laced hero was hardly counterculture, there was a clear effort to tailor stories to viewers who today might be described as “woke.”

In one episode, Dan detoxes a teen junkie. In another, he visits a gay bar (one of the first depictions of such an establishment in primetime, according to the book Queer TV: Theories, Histories, Politics). He quells a campus uprising, saves a hippie from being set-up for murder (by the man!), advocates for low-paid migrant workers, helps a young priest in love with a woman, and prevents a black activist from taking a phony rap. With its socially conscious narrative and ethnically diverse cast (including an African-American woman as a member of his team), Dan August has an unusual degree of contemporary resonance. But for Quinn Martin, the controversial content was a surprise – and not necessarily a welcome one.

“Quinn said to me, “Are we doing propaganda here?’” producer Anthony Spinner said in Quinn Martin: Producer. “I said, ‘Yeah, because I’m tired of diamond heists and kidnapped girls and all that stuff. How many times can you do that?”

While Martin may have been skittish about the “relevant dramas,” he was surprisingly comfortable with his name-above-the-title star risking serious injury by doing his own stunts. Reynolds’ go-for-broke stunt work can be almost disconcerting. It’s him in literally every shot – fighting, falling, jumping off moving cars, flying in helicopters, and running through burning houses – and that realism adds a different dimension to the standard QM Productions formula.

“It was very important to Burt that Dan August succeed,” series director Ralph Senensky remembered. “This was his fourth series. If Burt didn’t make it this time, where did he go next?”

While Reynolds’ groundbreaking Hawk should have lasted longer, Dan August improves upon the earlier show’s greatest flaw: relentless intensity. Unlike the winking antihero of Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run, the Burt Reynolds of this era was serious as a heart attack. And while he smiles more in one episode of Dan August than in the entirety of Hawk, the latter series benefits from what Hawk lacked: an ensemble that humanizes Reynolds.

Norman Fell, best known today for Three’s Company, is hilariously deadpan as Dan’s neurotic, hypochondriac partner. (There’s even an episode with John Ritter, six years before Jack Tripper would meet Mr. Roper.) And Richard Anderson, unforgettable as mentor Oscar Goldman in The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, is surprisingly effective here as Dan’s boss and primary antagonist. Like all Quinn Martin shows, Dan August benefits from an incredible group of guests, including some before they were stars such as Harrison Ford and Billy Dee Williams (nine years before they would face off as Han Solo and Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back) as well as Martin Sheen and Gary Busey. There were still other guests who were established actors from classic Hollywood like Mickey RooneyRicardo Montalban, and Vera Miles. The series also boasts a memorable theme song – one of the oddest in the Quinn Martin oeuvre – from composer Dave Grusin.

Though Reynolds was nominated for a Golden Globe for his work on Dan August, the series was not renewed for a second season. But the story doesn’t end there. According to production manager Howard Alston, the show’s editors assembled an outtakes reel demonstrating how charming and funny Reynolds could be when he didn’t think the cameras were rolling.

“Burt took that gag reel, he went on these talk shows, and he changed his whole career around,” Alston remembered. “He had this whole personality change in front of the camera as a result. He became a motion-picture actor on the basis of that gag reel!”

It may have happened after the show was cancelled, but Dan August was Burt Reynolds’ big break after all.

Reynolds had other police roles, some serious …

… others not so much:

Of the two we focus on here, August probably gets the nod because of the more interesting setting. August was a football star in high school (Reynolds was a running back at Florida State, where one of his teammates was quarterback Lee Corso), but needed a scholarship funded by a local rich guy (who — spoiler alert! — meets his end during one episode) to go to college. Then he comes back home where he gets to arrest, among others, a high school teammate in the den of murder (August is a homicide detective and has plenty to keep him busy), adultery (from the episodes I’ve seen it seems at least one couple per episode is playing around on each other) and various other sins that is August’s hometown.

The common flaw in each is what should be a TV trope by now — police lieutenants as investigators (not just Hawk and August, but Frank Ballinger of “M Squad,” San Francisco’s Frank Bullitt and Mike Stone, Columbo, Kojak, Jim Brannigan, Lon McQ, John McClane, etc.) instead of administrators patrolling from their desk. Santa Luisa (which is named for a real mountain range that runs between Monterey and San Luis Obispo, so points for verisimilitude) is apparently large enough for a homicide unit within its police department (with at least two sergeants in addition to August), but not big enough for a chief of detectives, because August reports directly to the police chief.

The series could have been broader if, like “Hawk,” August was not specifically a homicide detective. It strains credulity to have a three-person homicide bureau in a town with at least one homicide each week. But no one ever accused Quinn Martin of realism. (In one episode August ducks a court order to release a defendant by going for a drive with said defendant, turning off his police radio, and somehow he avoids being fired. That scene does have a nice aside between August’s two sergeants speculating on what their next jobs will be.) Broadening August’s work could have broadened story ideas beyond the ways to kill the victim(s) this week.

But that’s second-guessing and nitpicking. Both series were and are entertaining to watch, if nothing else as period pieces. Fell, who had played cops before (including Detective Meyer Meyer — yes, that was his name — in “87th Precinct” and brownnosing Captain Baker in “Bullitt”) may have been the inspiration for one of the great TV detectives, Lennie Briscoe in “Law & Order” for deadpan wit. Anderson was also great as a police chief that was simultaneously political, mostly supportive of his homicide lieutenant, yet questioning of his homicide lieutenant’s work.


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