TV Detective News: A Sex Change for 'McCloud'

— Help! Help! I woke up suddenly with Starsky & Hutch in theaters and a behind-the-scenes Charlie's Angels biopic on TV. Call MacGyver! I've been kidnapped and sent back in time.

To whoever put me in a time machine: I give up. I'll negotiate. I'll watch all your re-jiggered '70s-era crime shows one more time. Just don't make me relive puberty.

I know that sequels and Hollywood rehashes are as much a part of life as the never-ending war on terrorism, and neither are going away any time soon.

The focus on the '70s TV crime genre, however, is unexpected, and can't even be blamed on Robert Blake, who's going on trial for the murder of his wife, not for over-emoting on Baretta.

The crime parade will continue. The USA Network is talking about an all-new Kojak, with Ving Rhames as the lollypop-sucking chrome-dome detective.

McCloud may also ride back into town — and this time, he's saddling up for a sex change. Comic Brett Butler is developing the series, featuring herself as the cowboy detective originally played by Dennis Weaver in a Stetson and sheepskin jacket.

I decided it's high time someone investigated the great TV investigators — not for scandal, but for comic value. If the crime busters of TV yore are making a comeback, it's our right to put them under the microscope.

I'll leave Mr. Blake out of it, since he's been under the microscope just a little too long. As for rest, look what I found:

Kojak: Here's a big fat Greek coincidence: Telly Savalas was not just TV's most popular baldy. He also had ties to the boob tube's most famous hairdo. He was Jennifer Aniston's godfather. Her original family name is Anastassakis.

Savalas was so popular in his mid-'70s heyday as the tough-as-nails Manhattan detective with a heart of gold that he never had to use Kojak's catch-phrase — "Who loves ya, baby?" — off-screen. Everyone did.

A 1975 recording of Savalas singing "If," the popular song by Bread, rivals the William Shatner rendition of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" for worst-ever celebrity musical performance.

Still, the song rocketed to No. 1 in Britain.

A Las Vegas hotel paid the gravel-voiced actor $100,000 a week to work up a cabaret act, which proved moderately successful, although Savalas reportedly received a telegram that read, "I ain't worried. Signed, Ol' Blue Eyes."

Kojak's trademark lollypop sucking may seem like a stroke of genius. It's more of an accident. Savalas was struggling to give up smoking, so he turned to the candy as a distraction.

Savalas, who died of prostate cancer in 1994, nearly missed the boat to stardom. He was the Dirty Dozen's resident rapist, and served time with Burt Lancaster in The Birdman of Alcatraz. He should have been the star of Cool Hand Luke, too, only he was at sea on an extended trip when the studio called. Producers had to settle on Paul Newman, a great second choice who would have made a lousy Kojak, had the situation been reversed.

It could have opened the door, perhaps, to a line of "Newman's Own" brand designer toupees.

Starsky & Hutch:

David Soul, the blond half of Starsky & Hutch, took some knocks for his campy '70s hit, "Don't Give Up on Us, Baby," but his real life turned into a fairly compelling courtroom drama.

Soul actually realized many an artist's dream: He sued a critic for slamming one of his plays — and won.

In 1998, British newspaper journalist and TV personality Matthew Wright called Soul's Dead Monkey one of the worst plays ever staged in London — so bad that ushers had to beg the audience to stay after growing weary of the laugh-out-loud attempts at drama.

Soul successfully proved that Wright never even attended the play. Instead, the journalist sent a junior colleague to see the play for him. Soul was awarded $70,000 in damages and $350,000 in legal fees.

Soul has had his ups and downs. His 1983 attempt to turn Humphrey Bogart's classic Casablanca into a TV show was flop.

But before Soul's attorney calls, let me be the first to admit, I didn't see David Soul's TV version of Casablanca in the early 1980s, and for all I know, it might be one the most underappreciated masterpieces of our time, and he may have made a better Rick than Bogie.

Hawaii Five-O:

Talk about a recycled Hollywood idea: In 1980, when Hawaii Five-O finally ended its 12-year run, CBS thought it would be a shame to break down the expensive sets, they just created another tropical cop show. Thus Magnum, P.I. and Tom Selleck's famous mustache entered our hearts.

Five-O's beach-pounding theme was only matched by star Jack Lord's performance. As Detective Steve McGarrett, he wore dark suits even in the blistering island heat, and typically ended episodes by cuffing a bad guy and saying to his partner — in the ultimate deadpan voice — "Book 'em, Danno."

Ironically, it was Lord himself who couldn't be booked — as a special guest on Magnum, P.I.. Selleck wanted Lord on his show desperately and made several public overtures.

It would have been easy, since Lord remained in Hawaii up until his death in 1998. He became something of a local hero. His cop show was the first TV series shot entirely in the 50th state.

Perhaps Lord found Selleck's depiction of a private investigator in khaki shorts and an obnoxious Hawaiian shirt just a little too informal for law enforcement. Perhaps it was Selleck's mustache.

Lord was so popular, he inspired a porn movie legend. A 16-year-old fan named Nora Louise Kuzma changed her name to Traci Lords, added on a couple of years on a fake I.D., and went on to appear in at least 80 X-rated films before her real 18th birthday, including Tailhouse Rock and Huge Bras No. 3.

When her true age was revealed, the incident sparked a national furor as video stores raced to rid their shelves of kiddie porn. The underage adult film star's fake ID was so good, she even had some public officials fooled. Where is Detective McGarrett when you need him?

McGarrett, by the way, was actually the name of Lords' pet cat.


Erik Estrada had no illusions. He's described CHiPs as "Baywatchon Motorcycles," and like Baywatch star David Hasselhoff, he never expected international stardom.

To capitalize on his sudden fame in Latin America, Estrada had to overcome a mildly embarrassing professional handicap. He couldn't speak Spanish. When he starred in Mexican "telenovelas" (soap operas), the New York native with Puerto Rican roots needed to have his lines fed to him over an earphone.

Estrada has since taken a 30-day Berlitz language class and now claims to be fluent. He recently appeared in a Spanish-language ad for Old Navy clothing, once again capitalizing on his stint as motorcycle patrol officer Frank "Ponch" Poncherello.

Barnaby Jones:

If you really believe that Oz never gave anything to the Tin Man that he didn't already have, you've been listening to America's "Greatest Hits" album too long.

Buddy Ebsen, who died last year at 95, was originally cast as The Wizard of Oz. But instead of singing "If I Only Had a Heart," Ebsen ended up lamenting, "If I only had an allergist."

While rehearsing with Judy Garland and the cast, Ebsen was hospitalized after inhaling aluminum powder used in the Tin Man costume. He was replaced by Jack Haley.

Ebsen's brief portrayal of the Tin Man can be seen in footage released in the 50th anniversary DVD release of The Wizard of Oz.

Ebsen's seven-year run as geriatric detective Barnaby Jones ended in 1980. But he resurrected his gumshoe in one of his final big-screen appearances, the 1993 movie version of The Beverly Hillbillies, starring Jim Varney as Ebsen's other immortal TV character, Jed Clampett.

Quincy, M.E.:

TV's original forensic investigator left one major stone unturned during his seven-year run. He never told anyone his first name.

In the final episode of Sex and the City, TV viewers learned that Mr. Big's first name was John. We even got the scoop on Seinfeld's Kramer. The closest we get to Quincy's first name is in season three, when he hands a woman a business card that reads, "Dr. R. Quincy."

Show star Jack Klugman says he's asked this question all the time and still maintains that Quincy's first name is "Doctor."

Charlie's Angels: One must wonder what would have become of Michelle Pfeiffer, Kim Basinger and Kathie Lee Gifford if they had gotten what they once wanted — a role on Charlie's Angels.

The bra-less detectives who solve crimes while they jiggle and run on the beach in slow-mo are often ridiculed, even though several Angels proved to have enduring careers.

Still, once you're an Angel, you're always an Angel, and that's a career choice.

Cheryl Ladd knew she was replacing a legend when she beat out Pfeiffer and countless others to take Farrah Fawcett-Majors' place in Charlie's detective agency. On her first day on the set, she reportedly wore a T-shirt that read, "Farrah Fawcett Minor." Columbo:

One mystery Lt. Columbo really did solve — the case of the missing raincoat. The disheveled detective's trademark attire is not in the Smithsonian along with Archie Bunker's living room chair, as some people say.

Actor Peter Falk says his character's famously rumpled outerwear, which he purchased in New York City, remains in his Beverly Hills closet. Fans point out that the LAPD detective actually had a few stand-in coats that came and went over the years. But, essentially, Columbo grew old with the same coat, until the show ended its run on NBC in 1978.

By the way, Columbo didn't have a first name, either. The Complete Directory of Prime Time Network TV claimed that he was Lt. Philip Columbo. This error was apparently picked up in an edition of Trivial Pursuit.

The Rockford Files:

Perhaps you heard the famous The Rockford Files theme playing in the Green Grove retirement home featured on The Sopranos. It's actually an homage from Sopranos creator David Chase, who made his bones in TV as a writer/producer on the James Garner detective series.

More than a handful of old fogies remember The Rockford Files. It was No. 1 in a TV Guide reader survey of the best TV detective show.

Columbo was No. 2, followed by Homicide: Life on the Street, Cagney and Lacey, and Kojak. Hawaii Five-O ranked No. 9 and Charlie's Angels was ranked 16th.

What separates Rockford from the pack? Perhaps it's that he always mentioned his rates at the start of the show: "I get $200 a day, plus expenses." That was pretty good money back in the 1970s. If Columbo were to charge as much, he'd have to buy some new duds, but then he wouldn't really be Columbo.

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at The Wolf Files is published Tuesdays. If you want to receive weekly notice when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.