There’s an old saying I just made up that goes: “A good idea is only one network executive away from becoming a disaster.” In the early ’70s, the folks in good ol’ Hollywood were highly eager to keep audiences glued to small screens and big ones alike, for fear of losing ’em altogether to the powers of books or the great out of doors. Police procedurals and courtroom dramas had been hitting airwaves since the very inception of television itself, so TV shows like Hawaii Five-O and Columbo were not only commonplace, but also extremely fashionable with couch potatoes near and far.
At one point, CBS network execs decided to couple two very unlikely mystery solvers. One was a short-lived series of feature-length TV movies about Shaft with Richard Roundtree reprising his role from the famous blaxploitation movies. The other show followed the legal accomplishments of a country bumpkin attorney named Hawkins, starring the one and only James Stewart. To ensure viewers would be sufficiently alienated by this improbable pairing, they aired these two shows back-to-back — which, for some odd reason — resulted in both of them being canned after only one season a piece.
If you ever watched an episode of Matlock, you should get a fairly good idea of what to expect here. Stewart plays defense attorney Billy Jim Hawkins in a rather similar fashion: he talks a bit slow, occasionally stammers, and he tends to act a bit naïve – but directly underneath his clean-cut yokel exterior lies a cunning mind and a heart of gold, though he only uses the latter when it’s necessary. Accompanying Billy Jim (as he prefers to be called) in his legal inquiries for the first half of the series is his cousin, R.J., expertly brought to life by character actor extraordinaire Strother Martin.
Notable guest stars in these TV movies include Robert Webber, Bonnie Bedelia, Cameron Mitchell, Kenneth Mars, Sam Elliott, Murray Hamilton, Tyne Daly, William Windom, Lew Ayres, Peter Mark Richman, Jeff Corey, Kurt Kasznar, Pernell Roberts, and Andrew Prine.
Though the aforementioned exploits of that black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks have already made their way to DVD via the Warner Archive Collection, we are now able to enjoy its country cousin in its entirety as well. Hawkins: The Complete TV Movie Collection presents all eight investigatory films for future generations to kick back to on four discs, with no special features whatsoever. The quality here is quite nice considering the image has not been remastered in any way, but the series never looks as clean and as filmic as what we’ve seen in DVD releases of Columbo or Hawaii Five-O.
Oh, well, anything with James Stewart is always fun to watch. In the case of Hawkins: The Complete TV Movie Collection, we not only get to see Jimmy play a cross between his character of Paul Biegler in Anatomy of a Murder and Matlock, but we also get to see a vintage slice of television history that ended too soon on account of network incompetence. Why, who knows what might have happened had Hawkins not been paired with Shaft back in the day: it might have become so popular, that Matlock would never have come to pass.
Well, a guy can dream. Jimmy Stewart did a much better job anyway.