A Quinn Martin Production. Starring Karl Malden. Also starring Michael Douglas.
With Guest Stars: Mark Hamill, Pamelyn Ferdin. Special Guest Star Patrick O'Neal.
Tonight's Episode: "The Long Goodbye"
The 1975-76 season of The Streets of San Francisco, the fourth year, would be the last for co-star Michael Douglas, who'd outgrown series television after producing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which premiered that November to great acclaim. (In the history of movies, was their ever another Best Picture Oscar-winning producer simultaneously starring on a successful cop show?). Douglas would follow that success with another critical and commercial hit, The China Syndrome (1979), in which he also co-starred, and in-between worked as an actor-for-hire in another successful picture, Coma (1978).
He was, however, by all accounts grateful for the opportunities Streets of San Francisco brought him, agreeing to appear in the two-part, fifth season opener, which bid farewell to the character while introducing his replacement, played by Richard Hatch.
Beyond this, it's pretty much business as usual for this above-average police procedural, its two charismatic leads and San Francisco setting being the main draw. The only (very slight) difference I noticed between this and season three was a greater emphasis on the characters' relationship with other cops, and there's a bit more revealed about their private lives than in past seasons.
Otherwise, as I've stated in earlier reviews of the series, like most other genre shows from its era, once established it stuck to the straight and narrow. Its characters are largely frozen in time, rarely evolving or changing very much, while most of its plots and situations were pretty generic, if serviceable. Change the character names and any randomly selected teleplay might just as easily function as an episode of Hawaii Five-O or a dozen other shows.
CBS/Paramount really seems to be ramping up their DVD releases of classic library titles. Season three of The Streets of San Francisco, both volumes, hit stores in July, while season five has already been announced for next month. And, as happened when I recently reviewed another CBS/Paramount title, Bonanza, both volumes 1 and 2 arrived bundled together as a single unit. Retailers like Amazon are selling The Streets of San Francisco - Season Four as a complete season set and broken up into two volumes.
As before, the show follows plainclothes detectives Lt. Mike Stone (Karl Malden), an unpretentious, old school cop, and sophisticated, Berkeley-educated Inspector Steve Keller (Michael Douglas), whom Mike clearly loves like a son. The enormous affection Mike and Steve have for each other onscreen was synonymous with Malden's and Douglas's camaraderie off-camera. It's hard to fake that, and their doting father/prodigal son relationship is the heart of the show.
This season the show delves a bit more into Mike Stone's private life. Darleen Carr had appeared in a couple of episodes as widower Mike's adult daughter, Jeannie, but in season four she's in no less than four shows, and during the season Mike talks more about the impact his wife's death had on their family.
Filming the series entirely on location in San Francisco also helps give it a look distinctive from the myriad Hollywood-based cop and detective shows, few of which (The Rockford Files being one exception) made Los Angeles a third character in the way San Francisco does here. (So much so that I found myself "Street Viewing" many of the locations to see what they look like today, almost 40 years later.)
Most of Streets's scripts are routine and helmed by traffic-cop directors like William Hale, Virgil Vogel, and Barry Crane. But, occasionally, the show rises above the norm. Perhaps inspired by the unusually good third season opener, with Leslie Nielsen cast as an out of control alcoholic cop, season four opens with "Poison Snow," taking the concept one step further. Here, Clu Gulager plays a narcotics beat cop who goes nuts after his colleague cop-lover is murdered in a bust that goes terribly wrong. That episode is also something of a revelation for Mark Hamill's pre-Star Wars performance as Gulager's son. Here Hamill comes off eminently natural and believable, which he often wasn't at this point in his career.
"The Glass Dart Board" is another surprising show, not just for the fact that it gives workhorse character player Lou Frizzell a plum role as a mad sniper, but also because it gives icy, aloof actor Patrick O'Neal a rare chance to believably play against type, as a less-experienced beat cop promoted over Mike into a supervisory position that's way over his head. Sean Baine's teleplay avoids obvious clichés and the subtlety of the episode surprises.
Indeed, The Streets of San Francisco often awkwardly straddled an earlier, more sanitized world of TV cops with a grittier, proto Hill Street Blues feel. Never is this conflict more apparent that in the season finale, "Runaway," which casts iconic child actress Pamelyn Ferdin (Lassie, Space Academy) as a resourceful teenager searching for her long-lost father. When she finally catches up to the creep (as she eventually calls him), "Daddy" (Billy Green Bush) ends up shaking her down, literally, for her birthday money before using her as a human shield when the shooting starts. What might have been (and at times even is) a cloying, sentimental hour ends up a fascinating transitional TV moment with poor Pamelyn getting emotionally bushwhacked by her thug of a father.
Guest stars this season include Alan Fudge, Stefanie Powers, Charles Napier, Vera Miles, Michael Parks, Anitra Ford, Maurice Evans, Geoffrey Lewis, Robert Hegyes, Ann Doran, Bob Hastings, Bernie Kopell, Ruth McDevitt, Meredith Baxter, Gerald McRaney, Bradford Dillman, Sorrell Brooke, Marj Dusay, Eduard Franz, John Ritter, George Wallace, Gordon Jump, Meg Foster, Greg Mullavey, Ford Rainey, Kenneth Tobey, James Woods, Pat Hingle, Nancy Olson, Robert Walden, Ina Balin, Arlene Golonka, Larry Hagman, Greg Morris, Lonny Chapman, Barry Miller, Diane Baker, Barbara Babcock, Fritz Weaver, Andrew Robinson, Allan Miller, Charles Cioffi, Tom Selleck, Charles Aidman, Leigh McCloskey, Christopher Stone, Bert Freed, James Karen, Robert Reed, John Zaremba, Richard Basehart, Fionnula Flanagan, William Windom, Walter Brooke, Jason Evers, David White, William Campbell, Robert F. Simon, Francine York, Lynette Mettey, Jean Hagen (her penultimate role), David Birney, Michael Strong, Dick Van Patten, Madlyn Rhue, Don Keefer, Paul Sorvino, Don Gordon, Alfred Ryder, A. Martinez, Bruce Glover, Walter Burke, Milton Selzer, and Eddie Quillan.
The full frame format Streets of San Francisco looks great, bright with strong color and impressive clarity. Disclaimers note that "some episodes may be edited from their original network versions," but the shows I looked at seemed complete, unaltered, and not time-compressed. The set we received is composed of two volumes containing all 23 episodes spread over six discs. The Dolby Digital mono is fine. There are no Extra Features.
It took time but this series has grown on me quite a bit, and I'm delighted to see CBS/Paramount speedily getting these and other shows in their deep-catalog library out on DVD. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.