Wednesday, January 31, 2018

James Stewart's TV Series "Hawkins"

If you need the best criminal lawyer in the U.S., then place a long-distance phone call to West Virginia. That's because Billy Jim Hawkins is your man! Billy Jim may play the "I'm a simple guy from the country" card, but don't be fooled. He's a crafty fellow who's not above playing some sneaky tricks in the courtroom.

This is the premise to Hawkins, a 1973-74 TV series starring James Stewart as the title character. It bears more than a passing resemblance to the later Matlock and some sources claim that Andy Griffith was first approached to play Billy Jim. There are only eight 90-minute episodes of Hawkins, which appeared as part of the umbrella series The New CBS Tuesday Night Movies. The other "shows" under this banner were Shaft (starring Richard Roundtree) and original made-for-TV movies.

Julie Harris in "Die, Darling, Die."
As a huge fan of Anatomy of a Murder (1959), I was hoping that Stewart would play a variation of attorney Paul Biegler. But as soon as he said "Call me Billy Jim," I knew that Hawkins would be closer to Matlock than Otto Preminger's classic courtroom drama. It doesn't help that Hawkins features some pretty pedestrian plots and a lack of viable suspects (always a sign of lazy writing in a mystery series). Amazingly, series creator David Karp received an Emmy nomination for writing the pilot film Hawkins on Murder, which was recycled under the title "Death and the Maiden" as the series' first episode.

The show's third episode highlights its strengths and weaknesses nicely. Billy Jim is hired to defend a woman (Julie Harris) accused of killing her terminally-ill husband by withholding his medication. An ambitious assistant district attorney (Sam Elliott without moustache) refuses to accept any kind of plea bargain. To make matters worse, the defendant won't talk to Billy Jim.

Sam Elliott as an assistant D.A.
Stewart and an above-average guest star cast deliver some solid performances (especially Harris and Elliott). The plot almost justifies its 73-minute running time, whereas other episodes seem downright leisurely. However, once again, if one assumes that the defendant is innocent, there are only two realistic suspects--and they indeed turn out to be the culprits.

This episode features Mayf Nutter (who reminded me a little of Mac Davis) as Billy Jim's journalist nephew. He was a regular in three of the eight episodes. James Hampton (F Troop) assisted Hawkins in one episode and the others featured Strother Martin as Billy Jim's brother R.J., also an attorney. Martin, who was cast at Stewart's insistence, is hilarious in the role--though I surely wouldn't have hired R.J. to represent me in any kind of legal matter!

Strother Martin as R.J. Hawkins.
Hawkins didn't last a second season, primarily because James Stewart wasn't interested. He once said that he never worked so hard as he did on Hawkins. He did win a 1973 Golden Globe as Best Actor in a TV Drama for his efforts. Honestly, I suspect it was an award more for the body of his film and TV work than it was for his performance as Billy Jim. Strother Martin also received a Golden Globe nomination as Best Supporting Actor.

Even if Stewart had wanted to continue, I don't think CBS would have committed to a second season. The ratings just weren't there. While NBC's Sunday Mystery Movie was #14 in the 1973-74 ratings, The New CBS Tuesday Night Movies didn't even crack the Top 30. Now, if Billy Jim's nine siblings and dozens of cousins had all watched, it might have been a different story!

Here's a clip from Hawkins featuring Stewart, Martin, and guest star Sheree North. You can view it full-screen on the Classic Film & TV Cafe's YouTube Channel.


  1. It's funny. My clearest memory of this show is Strother Martin. I believe, like you, that I was hoping for something more Paul Biegler-like in the character. Nice TV Guide cover though.

  2. Pairing it with Shaft hurt both shows.

    1. That is true. Speaking if SHAFT, watering down the character for network TV destroyed what made John Shaft interesting.

    2. If I had watched SHAFT the series without ever having seen the movies, I would have loved it, but as it is, it's like watching an alternate universe version of the character.

  3. I can imagine that a series like this would be a lot of hard work. No wonder Jimmy Stewart wanted to throw in the towel after one season.

    Thanks for the introduction to this series. I'd never heard of it before.

  4. "The Jimmy Stewart Show" is a little better, but both fun to see Jimmy in a TV role. Both series available on DVD.

  5. I already wrote about this to Mitchell Hadley at It's About TV, but I really ought to mention it here.

    Everything I ever read or heard about Hawkins On Murder, which was the working title of the first TV movie, was clear that it was a custom vehicle for James Stewart from the get-go.

    "Some sources claim ..."
    You know I love your stuff, Rick, but I think you'll have to identify those "sources".
    Hawkins was from 1973; Matlock came along thirteen years later, in 1986.
    In that intervening decade, Andy Griffith did a scad of pilots, several of which yielded short-lived series, none of which resembled Hawkins in any more than a superficial way.

    That Matlock and Hawkins both concerned Southern lawyers, and were vehicles for homespun stars -
    - the word is coincidence - nothing more or less.
    All of TV history is rife with such coincidences; we here, of all people, should realize this.

    Mitchell Hadley read "some sources claim" as a confirmed fact, which is why I wrote to him.
    I mention this to you as a caution:
    Beware of second-, third-, or twenty-fifth-hand info when you write these things up.

    Thanx (and apologies) for your attention.

    1. Mike, one of the sources was Donald Dewey's 1996 biography JAMES STEWART. He states that Andy Griffith was "the original choice for the role of Billy Jim Hawkins."

    2. With all due respect ...

      A lot of the "biographies" that you find around are "cut-and-paste" jobs, put together hastily in hopes of turning a quick buck on someone else's good name.

      Far too many books such as this are dependent on the works of others, and many of those can be less than reliable themselves.

      It may well have been that when Hawkins On Murder was first being put together (and my recollection is that it was originally supposed to be a one-shot TV movie), that Andy Griffith's name came up as a possible lead, but everything I've ever read about it (including several other biographies of James Stewart) maintains that it was intended as a Stewart vehicle from the start.

      By the way, I looked up Mr. Dewey's book on Amazon ...
      ... and quite a bit of the reviews were negative ...
      ... and for the reasons I mentioned above.
      Just sayin', is all ...

      (Still friends, OK?)