Ironside: Season One
Back in 1967 television was a lot different from today. For one thing the casts found in most TV crime dramas were pretty much the same format. There was a white, male protagonist typically fit and able bodied. Even the sidekicks, always necessary for the crime fighter, were usually white and male. The NBC network aired a pilot for what would become television history, ‘Ironside’. Here was a crime show that featured a physically challenged detective with an African American aide and a female detective to help with the leg work. This series was not only accepted by the American public but it went on for another eight years making it one of the longest running series of its genre. In this way the series was way ahead of its time. Just look through the current programming and you still will see mostly able bodied people in the lead roles. Now, Shout Factory brings the first season of this historic television series to DVD for a new generation to enjoy.
The Chief of Detectives for the San Francisco police department was Robert T. Ironside (Raymond Burr), a gruff, no nonsense individual. While on vacation at a remoter farm house Ironside is struck by the bullet of a sniper. Striking his spinal cord the bullet left Ironside permanently disabled and confined to a wheelchair. Ironside is not the sort of man who takes a forced retirement lightly so he comes up with a plan. With many years on the force behind him he has made some powerful friends including the Police Commissioner Dennis Randall (Gene Lyons). Although officially off the police department he talks his friend into hiring him as a special consultant. He also manages to obtain a floor in police headquarters to use as his living quarters and office. Ironside also has two detectives assigned to him; Detective Sgt. Ed Brown (Don Galloway), a rookie detective and socialite turned plain clothes police woman, Eve Whitfield (Barbara Anderson). Ironside also hires a former juvenile delinquent, Mark Sanger (Don Mitchell), as his personal aide and bodyguard. Ironside also scores a tricked out police van with a special lift for his wheelchair. Naturally, the very first case the new team has to tackle is who shot the chief and why. After all you don’t try to kill the chief of detectives and get away with it.
The episodes of the first season where pretty standard faire for the time. Each week the team is presented with a strange case and uses their combined talents to crack it. There is little in the way of a season long story arc here, common for television of the sixties. In the episode ‘Leaf in the Forest’ it appears that a serial killer is targeting elderly women. Eve has to dress up to go undercover as bait. The Chief feels that there is more to the crimes than just murder and the investigation goes off on a different tangent. In ‘Dead Man’s Tale’ a criminal is about to turn State’s witness to a major underworld prosecution when he is killed. Ironside’s team has to maintain the illusion that he is still alive to draw out the killer. This episode features another sixties TV crime fighter, Jack Lord of Hawaii Five-O. Many stars popular up to today helped to kick off their careers with minor guest star appearances on this series. One in particular, Harrison Ford, is in the episode ‘The Past Is Prologue’ where the Chief has to save a old friend who has been living under a fake identify for 19 years from extradition to New York City on murder charges. Susan Saint James, who would go on to fame in television classic, McMillan & Wife, had a rare recurring role in two episodes. Some of the faces here will be familiar to those of us old enough to remember sixties TV first hand. Guest stars like John Saxton, Ed Asner and Norman Fell where common place on shows back then and its great to see them in action again. One notable appearance is by the great composer, Quincy Jones, who penned the memorable theme for this series. This piece of music has had a recent revival with its use in the Kill Bill flicks. The series also had a few special, socially relevant episodes where Ironside helps out inner city kids or tries to save a framed friend of Mark’s. This reflected the times. President Johnson was pushing the civil rights movement and this series was at the vanguard of social awareness; at least to the point acceptable for a series in 1967.
While most television crime shows relied on brute force and action this was one of the first to give a more cerebral approach to solving crime. Sure, there were the required action sequences but the ultimate resolution was due to the imaginative thinking on the part of Chief Ironside. The plots tended to be a little more complex that previously shown on television. This was more than the usual good guy versus bad guy. Often politics and social injustice were at the heart of the dilemmas. This is good, solid sixties entertainment at its best. It also holds up for younger members of the audience watching for the first time. For us oldsters this is a welcomed trip down memory lane.
It is little wonder that Raymond Burr dominates the cast here. At the time this first season started Burr was already famous for his long running role as the unbeatable lawyer, Perry Mason. It is difficult for an actor to hold the attention of the audience while in a wheelchair but Burr does it with ease. He plays Ironside as a man on a mission, one not willing to lose his job over a minor matter like being paralyzed. Long before such terms as alternately enabled hit the scene Burr showed that a handicapped hero was possible. Barbara Anderson brought life to her role as Eve. Just as the feminist movement was getting started she played a woman who had to live down her socialite status to earn her way in a predominately male profession. Don Mitchell played Mark as a man who had to put his past behind and live within the rules.
Shout Factory is to be commended for bringing classic television series like this to DVD. The release of Ironside is on the heels of such eclectic shows like Dick Cavett and Punky Brewster also released by Shout. The video is understandably in full screen and generally the quality is good. There are some signs of age now and then such as a few white spots but overall the color and contrast held up pretty well. The Dolby Mono audio is nothing special but does get the job done. Shout offers this series either as the full first season or a Volume One release. The full season box set has the pilot movie plus all 28 episodes while the volume one release has the movie and the first six episodes. Trust me, you will want them all. This is a piece of television history that the whole family can enjoy. Why watch endless reruns of some crime show when you can take a trip back in time and see how this kind of series should be done.