Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Five Best Classic TV Detectives

In trying to come up with the "five best" classic TV detectives, I used the following criteria: quality; longevity; and iconic status. And, of course, to be considered classic TV, the detective's series must have originated no later than the 1980s. Thus, it was with heavy heart that I omitted later personal favorites like Cadfael and Christopher Foyle of Foyle's War. I also left out TV series where the protagonists may have done some sleuthing, but weren't necessarily detectives by trade (e.g., The Avengers, The Saint). Without further ado, here are my top five choices:

1. Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie's Poirot) (1989 - ). Incredibly, David Suchet has never won an acting award for his pitch-perfect portrayal of Ms. Christie's Belgium detective. He captures all the nuances of the prissy, perceptive sleuth who uses his "little gray cells" to solve the most baffling cases. When Poirot proclaims he is the world's greatest detective, he's not being egotistical--he's being honest. This series, which debuted in 1989, will conclude in 2013 after 13 nonconsecutive seasons. Its enduring popularity can be partially attributed to the fact that its episodes are based on Ms. Christie's short stories or novels--which often feature ingenious plot twists and/or methods of murder. Many fans favor the one-hour episodes, but I have a soft spot for the longer "movies" based on Christie's novels, several of which are set in exotic locations ("Murder in Mesopotamia") or English country estates ("The Mysterious Affair at Styles"). 

2. Columbo (1968-78; 1989-2003). William Link and Richard Levinson created this persistent police detective for a 1960 episode of the TV anthology series The Chevy Mystery Show starring Bert Freed. Thomas Mitchell played Columbo in a 1962 stage play and Bing Crosby even once considered donning the now-famous crumpled raincoat. However, it was Peter Falk who made the part famous, first in a pair of made-for-TV movies and then in a subsequent long-running TV series. At the start of each episode, the viewer watched the murderer commit his or her crime. Then, Columbo--whom the killer always underestimated--would methodically unravel the mystery and catch the culprit (his trademark was leaving the the room after questioning the killer, only to pause with a variation of: "Just one more thing..."). Falk excelled in this cat-and-mouse game construct, often acting opposite quality guest stars like Patrick McGoohan, John Cassavetes, Laurence Harvey, Vera Miles, and Faye Dunaway.

3. Jessica Fletcher (Murder, She Wrote) (1984-96). Link and Levinson were also responsible for creating the most successful female detective on American television. Personally, I think Agatha Christie ought to get a little credit since there are similarities between middle-aged widow Jessica Fletcher and elderly spinster Miss Jane Marple. Ironically, Angela Lansbury played both characters, appearing as Miss Marple in the 1980 motion picture The Mirror Crack'd. Before Lansbury was cast as Jessica Fletcher, Jean Stapleton and Doris Day were considered for the lead in Murder, She Wrote. Frankly, though, I can't imagine anyone but Lansbury, who was Emmy-nominated 12 times for playing Jessica Fletcher--and somehow never won. The series took place in Cabot Cove, a small coastal town in Maine...and apparently a hot spot for murders. Fortunately, the town's most famous resident--bestselling mystery writer Jessica--was as astute as any of her fictional creations and never failed to unmask the culprit.

4. Jim Rockford (The Rockford Files) (1974-80). A wrongly-accused ex-convict who lived in a mobile home, Jim Rockford had little in common with most of the detectives on the airwaves in the 1970s. However, his unique persona--plus the fact he was played by James Garner--kept fans tuning in for six years. Since the series was co-created  by Roy Huggins and starred Garner, it's often compared to their earlier offbeat Western show Maverick. Yet, other than being laid-back and preferring to avoid violence, I think Rockford is a solid departure from the slippery Bret Maverick. Rockford was often assisted by his father Rocky (Noah Beery, Jr.), a retired truck driver and Angel (Stuart Margolin), a con artist Rockford met in prison.

5. Sherlock Holmes (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) (1984-94). For many Holmes enthusiasts, Jeremy Brett's portrayal of Conan Doyle's Baker Street sleuth is considered the definitive one (personally, I'm frightfully fond of Peter Cushing in Hammer's The Hound of the Baskervilles). The series debuted on Britain's ITV network in 1984, with David Burke as Dr. Watson (he was subsequently replaced by Edward Hardwicke). It was developed by John Hawkesworth, who produced other noteworthy classic series such as Upstairs, Downstairs and The Duchess of Duke Street. During its ten-year run, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes featured 35 one-hour episodes, a two-parter, and five movies (which included adaptations of Conan Doyle's novels The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Sign of Four). In the U.S., the series became one of the most popular ones that appeared under the Mystery! banner on PBS. Brett, who died of heart failure at 59, also appeared on stage as Dr. Watson--opposite Charlton Heston as Holmes in The Crucifer of Blood in 1981.


  1. Love these, Rick - even though my favorites, Barnaby Jones, Ironside, and Cannon, aren't here! :o) I never watched The Rockford Files, but he always seemed like a cool guy.

    1. It was tough to whittle the list down to five! The detective genre may be the most enduring one for one-hour TV series. Reference Raymond Burr, I almost included Paul Drake from PERRY MASON--really, Perry depended on him a lot. BTW, any thoughts yet on the IRONSIDE remake with Blair Underwood?

  2. Columbo, Poirot and Holmes are names that truly deserve to be called "the best".

    Love "Rockfish", as Isaac Hayes guest character referred to him and when I grow up I want to be Jessica Fletcher.

    Like Karen who posted above, I would not be able to make a short list without including "Ironside". "The Chief" is my guy. I'm not sure how I feel about the remake, but it sure is freaky to see previews for fall shows and they exhort me to tune in to "Hawaii Five O" and "Ironside"!

    Another top-rater for me is the all too brief run of "Ellery Queen" in 1975. Another dandy from Levinson and Link. Jim Hutton and David Wayne were perfection.

  3. I adore Poirot - my favorite of favorites - and David Suchet is, exactly as you say, pitch perfect in the role. I'm very sorry to learn that the series will end this year. I can't argue with your other choices, all are favorites, though I have to admit that, after a while, Columbo and his "Just one more thing..." got completely on my nerves.

    I'm also a big fan of A&E's short-lived (2 seasons in the early '00s) Nero Wolfe series with Maury Chaykin, Timothy Hutton and a fine supporting cast (many in the ensemble play different parts from one episode to the next). It's very stylish with gorgeous production values and broad and colorful performances. It's setting, New York City in the late '40s/early '50s, is irresistible to me.

  4. A few points:

    - Perry Mason is the detective on his show, even if his job is as a lawyer.
    Paul Drake and Della Street help out - a lot - but Mason does all the deductive work, and unmasks the culprit in front of everybody.
    I honestly can't think of a reason why Perry Mason would not qualify as a Great TV Detective, especially since his status as a Great Book Detective had been established decades before (much as Sherlock Holmes's had).

    - Although Levinson & Link godfathered the project, they were always first to admit that much of the credit for Murder, She Wrote belonged to Peter S. Fischer, who was the MSW showrunner for about half the series's run, and who still contributed scripts right up to the end.
    Fischer had prove so invaluable to L&L on Columbo that he wound up running that show after a while. I remember Peter Falk on Johnny Carson telling him and the audience to "please remember in your prayers Peter Fischer, because he's the rock (referring to his scripting skills)".
    On Murder, She Wrote, Fischer established the rule that there would be no more than five Cabot Cove episodes in any given season; the rest of the time Jessica Fletcher was on the road. This in itself helped extend MSW's shelf life.
    By the way, Peter S. Fischer has retired from TV and now writes whodunit novels set in post-WWII Hollywood; you can find them on Amazon, among other places (although curiously not in retail stores).

    - If NBC wants to do a show with Blair Underwood in a wheelchair, fine and dandy.
    But don't call it Ironside.
    This is not a remake of the original - for that you'd need a new Raymond Burr, and there ain't one of those around. Ironside was tailor-made for Burr, in all its aspects: his personality, his bearing his nature.
    This "re-imagining" is just the bare bones - cop in a wheelchair - with everything else changed ("updated") and nothing more than a name as connection.
    The few of these "re-imaginings" that I've sat through more than once are in the new "style", where everything moves too fast to follow, and the people are little more than ciphers with the old names.
    The basic problem with "remakes" like this is that they try to have it both ways - get older viewers with the title and newer ones with the "style".
    The usual result is that both groups reject it (I'm still trying to figure out how neoHawaii Five-O made the cut, particularly with the original so readily available on MeTV).

    So that's my opinion (yours may vary).

    1. I agree, the shows today are pathetic. The new 5-0 is successful because people like to see exotic Hawaii, whether its Eye, 5-0, or Magnum. The new one, with a 2by4 in the lead, gets by on images.

  5. My picks,
    Harry O
    Joe Mannix
    Jim Rockford
    Peter Gunn
    Honey West

    1. I'm a fan of HONEY WEST and HARRY O, too, but a part of my criteria was longevity and those shows only lasted a season (HONEY) or slightly longer (HARRY).

    2. If you got the dvds, tomorrow never dies.

  6. Fun topic! Have to add:
    Adrian Monk
    Remington Steele
    Christopher Chance (from Human Target)
    Christopher Foyle (from Foyle's War)
    Shawn Spencer and Gus Guster (from Psych)

    1. I'm a huge fan of FOYLE'S WAR, HUMAN TARGET, and PSYCH, but omitted those detectives because their TV shows don't fit the "classic" definition. To be a classic, a TV show should have originated no later than the 1980s and have stood the proverbial "test of time." Will these be classic? I think so!

  7. Rick, a really fun topic exploring one of my television passions. David Suchet as Poirot will always top my list of favorite detectives, with a nod to Captain Hastings for his invaluable flashes of brilliance. I spent the summer catching up with the series on YouTube (through the kindness of strangers).

    Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes is the perfect balance of anti-social brilliance, and the Victorian settings certainly appeal to my vintage heart. I suspect I shouldn't admit this, but I do enjoy Benedict Cumberbatch's spin on the character. A few more of my favorite television detectives include Rockford, Ellery Queen and Nero Wolfe.

  8. Ah, Jeremy Brett as Sherlock - good call. However, I have a bone to pick with Jessica Fletcher. Come on - there was a murder wherever this woman went! I want a full investigation, as I believe this woman to be the most clever serial killer ever. Dexter pales in comparison!

  9. Great list, Rick. I'd second Blakeney's suggestion of Christopher Foyle, and include those other British cops, Inspectors Morse and Lewis. But the Poirot and Columbo picks in particular are spot on!

  10. Agree with your list pretty much across the board except Jessica Fletcher, Rick! Never liked that show and think it's highly overrated...I substitute Joan Hickson's MISS MARPLE in Lansbury's place, myself. Also would probably drop Rockford off (as much as I love the character, the show and Jim Garner) and replace him with someone like John Thaw as Inspector Morse, but that's a close call. Fun post!

  11. My favorite detective here would have to be the brilliant David Suchet's Hercule Poirot. His work is masterful.

  12. Hercule Poirot
    Sherlock Holmes
    Inspector Morse - does he qualify?
    Miss Marple - Joan Hickson
    Perry Mason

    My list. :)

  13. I had planned to argue with you for not including Laura Holt from "Remington Steele," because she's nothing if not persistent to a fault, but I won't. :)

    Your list is great, the reasons you give are plausible, and if one is going to pick only five, those would be the five. [Though I could probably argue you down about Rockford.]

    Fun article.

  14. Agreeing with your list and I would add Quincy! I also love Monk and am glad it's on Netflix. While it doesn't meet your criteria for Classic yet, it does in my book. Enjoyed your article looking back at these shows.