The Streets of San Francisco aired from 1972-1977 on the ABC network. Cop shows were big during the ’70s, and since I was pretty young back then, I did not really differentiate between them very much. About all I really remembered about The Streets was that it launched Michael Douglas’ career. Although I did not realize it at the time, this was one of era’s very best police dramas.
Season four has just been released as a two-volume set, each containing three DVDs. It initially aired from September 1975 to June 1976, with a total of 23 one-hour episodes. I have no idea what aficionados of the series consider to be the “best,” but the ’75-’76 season has to be right up there. The series was filmed entirely on location in San Francisco, which lends an impressive element of authenticity to it. I imagine this was not an easy task, but it was worthwhile. The picturesque city is one of the “stars” of the show itself.
The basic plot follows homicide detectives Lt. Mike Stone (Karl Malden) and his younger partner Inspector Steve Keller (Michael Douglas) as they attempt to solve cases. Season four featured an impressive number of guest stars, both established, and up and comers. Some of these include Mark Hamill, Stephanie Powers, Vera Miles, Bernie Kopell, Maurice Evens, Meredith Baxter, Barbara Babcock, Greg Morris, Larry Hagman, James Woods, Tom Selleck, Bill Bixby, Robert Reed, Richard Basehart, Dick Van Patton, Paul Sorvino, and many others.
The Paul Sorvino episode “Superstar” is a great one. Sorvino plays Bert D’Angelo, a New York City cop who is considered a “superstar” because of his high arrest and conviction rate in New York. When D’Angelo’s partner is killed, he follows the perp to SF, where he intends to mete out his own brand of justice. He clashes with Stone and Keller over his methods, but in the end, all three develop a healthy respect for each other. This was the pilot for short-lived spinoff series titled Bert D’Angelo, Superstar. It is a show I would like to see, as Sorvino’s character is a memorable one.
“Dead Air” stars Larry Hagman, and it plays out almost as a trial run for his later role as JR Ewing in Dallas. Hagman plays a radio talk-show host, who gives advice to the lovelorn ladies of the Bay Area. The guy is a total sleaze off the air, and is thought to have killed the woman who was carrying his illegitimate child. I’m not kidding when I say that this role could have easily led to Hagman’s career-defining role as JR, as the way he portrays a completely despicable character with such charm is perfect.
Besides the high-caliber list of guest stars, I have to mention the scripts themselves as a big reason this season was such a good one. The writers were tackling subjects that were really cutting-edge at the time. While many of the topics were “in the air” in the mid-’70s, it would be years before they became headline-dominating issues. “Police Buff,” stars Bill Bixby as a one-man, civilian “vigilante squad,” years before Bernhard Goetz. “No Place to Hide deals with race-based prison gangs, who take out their grievances on the street against family members of their jailhouse foes. “Spooks for Hire” focuses on ex-CIA agents, who are free-lancing on the streets. One cannot help to think of Cheney and Halliburton while watching this episode.
1975-1976 were the height of Gerald Ford’s brief presidency, and the post-Watergate “hangover” the nation was dealing with is reflected in some of the Streets programs. Even though we are watching a cop show, with a distinct “good guys vs. the bad guys” setup, there is a healthy distrust of authority that runs through many of the episodes. Corporate criminals are dealt with in “Murder by Proxy,” and “The Glass Dart Board.” Rogue cops are also dealt with, not only in the Sorvino program previously mentioned, but especially in “Poisoned Snow,” (featuring Mark Hamill), and “Underground.”