Tuesday, June 16, 2015

DVD Spotlight Review: Hal Holbrook as "The Senator"

Hal Holbrook's critically-acclaimed TV series finally gets its long-awaited DVD release when Timeless Media Group releases The Bold Ones: The Senator (The Complete Series) today. Originally broadcast on NBC in 1970-71, The Senator was nominated for 11 Emmys and won five, including Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series. (If you're unfamiliar with this classic series, check our our tribute to it on the Cafe's YouTube Channel.)

The pilot film A Clear and Present Danger aired in March 1970. The TV series The Senator debuted the following September as part of the already established umbrella TV series The Bold Ones. During the 1970-71 season, The Bold Ones consisted of three separate TV series which rotated from week to week: The New Doctors, The Lawyers, and The Senator. As a result, only eight episodes of The Senator were produced.

Hal Holbrook as Hays Stowe.
In A Clear and Present Danger, Holbrook plays Hays Stowe, a lawyer in the Attorney General's office who starts a crusade against air pollution when he learns it contributed to the death of a former Yale Law School professor. It's clear from the beginning that Stowe comes from an affluent family; his father is an incumbent U.S. Senator who has announced plans to retire. The media stalk Stowe in the hope of learning about his political aspirations, but the lawyer just wants to discuss air pollution. His interest in his cause reaches new heights when a college professor warns the public that environmental conditions are perfect for a repeat of the Donora "killing smog." This real-life 1948 incident resulted in the deaths of at least 20 people in a Pennsylvania mill town.

Sharon Acker as Erin/Ellen.
Hal Holbrook's portrayal of Hays Stowe is fully developed from the beginning. Although his party affiliation is never stated, Stowe comes across as an intelligent, energetic liberal who, despite his upper-class background, connects with the "common people." (While some critics have speculated that Stowe was based on Robert Kennedy, Holbrook has never publicly revealed his inspiration.) The pilot film efficiently establishes the relationships among Stowe and his father, his wife Erin (Sharon Acker), and his staff (especially assistant Jordan Boyle, played by Joseph Campanella). Still, it's a leisurely film with too many scenes of Stowe walking around and thinking. We don't need to see Stowe think; Holbrook conveys that through his actions.

When the regular series debuted several months after the pilot, several key changes occurred. Hays Stowe was now a junior senator, his wife's name had changed from Erin to Ellen (still played by Sharon Acker), and Michael Tolan took over the role of Jordan Boyle (since Campanella was a regular on the The Lawyers segment of The Bold Ones). The one-hour running time tightened the focus on the issues, several which seem as relevant today as they were in 1970. In an interview included in the new boxed set, Holbrook reflected: "(The Senator) was saying something important. I wasn't interested in politics. I was interested in America."

The highlight of the show's only season was a two-part episode called "A Continual Roar of Musketry." It's a fictional reworking of the May 1970 Kent State shootings, in which four college students were killed by the Ohio National Guard during a campus protest. In the Senator episode, Stowe is appointed to head a commission tasked with looking into a campus shooting by National Guardsmen. This well-written episode captures all viewpoints (in Rashomon-like style) leading up to and including the shootings. The committee's deliberations and Stowe's report of its findings make for exceptional television drama. Not surprisingly, Universal Studios, which produced The Senator, and NBC considered pulling this hot-button episode. But after the real President's Commission on Campus Unrest issued its findings in September 1970, NBC broadcast "A Continual Roar of Musketry" the following November.

Michael Tolan as Jordan Boyle.
Other episodes of The Senator revolve around the influence of the Mob, the rights of Native Americans, personal privacy, and political infighting at the state level. Senator Stowe deals with these issues with honesty and resolve, but his flaws come through as well. His aide, Jordan Boyle (the excellent Tolan), often serves as his confidante and conscience ("Every senator has days when he wants to be President").  And yet, as much as Stowe trusts and relies on Boyle, he is willing to sever ties with him when he learns that Boyle has been used unwittingly to promote Mob-financed construction.

Guest star Burgess Meredith.
The reason behind the cancellation of The Senator remains a mystery. Certainly, The Bold Ones was not a big ratings hit; it didn't crack the Top 30 for the 1970-71 season despite following No. 9 Bonanza on NBC on Sunday nights (The ABC Sunday Night Movie won the 10:00-11:00 P.M. time slot). Still, NBC renewed The Bold Ones--just not The Senator. In the Hal Holbrook interview, the actor hints that the cancellation may have been "politically inspired." Timing may have been a factor, too. The Senator was cancelled before it won all those Emmys.

Timeless Media Group's 3-disk DVD set includes: the pilot film A Clear and Present Danger; all eight regular season episodes; a new 34-minute interview with Hal Holbrook on the series; a 3-minute interview with Holbrook from a 1971 episode of The Dick Cavett Show; and an anti-drug PSA with Holbrook. Picture quality is acceptable for a 1970-71 TV series; the series has not been digitally remastered. For those of us who fondly remember this quality TV series, The Bold Ones: The Senator (The Complete Series) is a must-have. It is also strongly recommended for anyone who appreciates classic television that remains as timely today as it was 45 years ago.

Timeless Media provided a review copy of this DVD set.


  1. Thanks for your thoughts on an excellent series. I'll have to add the DVD to my collection, now if CBS would only release the great Slattery's People with Richard Crenna, I would really be happy!

    1. I would love to see that, too! And when is THE DEFENDERS getting the boxed set treatment?

  2. I've always liked Hal Holbrook, and often wonder why he never became a bigger star?