by Deborah Harter Williams
Licensed private detective, Laura Holt (Stephanie Zimbalist) opens her own detective agency only to find that clients don’t want to hire a woman. So she invents a fictitious male boss named Remington Steele. It works like a charm. That is until a former thief/con man (Pierce Brosnan) shows up and publicly assumes the identity of Remington Steele. Drama, comedy and romance ensue.
The initial concept came from television director Robert Butler in 1969 when he pitched the idea of a female PI to Grant Tinker. Tinker felt the idea was ahead of its time. But in 1980 Butler called him back. Tinker now headed MTM Enterprises, with successes like The Mary Moore Show, Lou Grant, The White Shadow, and Hill Street Blues. They decided to give Laura another chance.
It didn’t come together until writer Michael Gleason expanded the premise of the fictitious boss by asking “Wouldn’t it be great if he showed up and made her crazy?” They pitched it to NBC in 1981 and got turned down. But a year later Tinker himself became the chairman of NBC and a pilot was ordered.
Butler directed the pilot and it sold, not a big surprise for someone with an outstanding track record of delivering successful pilot episodes. Hogan’s Heroes, Batman, Hill Street Blues, Moonlighting, Sisters and Lois & Clark are all benefited from his piloting skills.
Besides Gleason, the shows writers included Glenn Gordon Caron, who went on to create Moonlighting with the same kind of romantic comedy dynamic as Steele. Other writers who went on to write/create great series were Lee David Zlotoff (MacGyver), Jeff Melvoin (Northern Exposure, Alias), Brad Kern (Charmed, Louis & Clark) and John Wirth (Picket Fences, Nash Bridges).
Legacies and Links–
The show reached both backward and forward in its influences. It could easily be said that Pierce Brosnan as Remington Steele was the spiritual Godfather to NCIS’ Anthony DiNozzo and his movie references, White Collar’s Neal Caffrey (gentleman thief and well dressed con-man with multiple passports) and, of course Brosnan’s own portrayal of James Bond. The sparring partners, sexual tension with a dose of humor, and the will-they-won’t-they-while-still-solving-the-crime continues to appeal today in both Bones and Castle.
Casting Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., father of Stephanie Zimbalist (IRL–in real life), as the father of Remington Steele (OTV–on TV) was a fine nod to the private detective genre. Zimbalist did quite a bit to advance the field as Stuart Bailey of 77 Sunset Strip (1958–1964) and put in more years in law enforcement as Inspector Lewis Erskine (The FBI 1965–1974). He got to play on the other side as Daniel Chalmers on Remington Steele. In those episodes, when I looked back and forth between the two leads I had trouble remembering whose father he really was.
While Laura Holt was not the first female private eye on a television series (that would probably have been Honey West in 1965), she was credited with being a strong role model. Even though there was a lot of humor in the show, it was more often Steele who did the pratfall or was the butt of the joke. Laura was clearly running the show.
Zimbalist was both energetic and athletic in running, jumping and scaling fences in pursuit of the bad guys. (Unlike some of today’s female leads, she actually wore shoes that she could run it.) And it turns out that 1982 was a good year for female detectives with both Kinsey Milhone (A is for Alibi) and V.I. Warshawski (Indemnity Only) making their debuts.
Episode to Remember–“Vintage Steele”
A body found in a vat of wine keeps disappearing. Monks sworn to a vow of silence are questioned via a game of charades. There is also an old boyfriend and a striptease. This episode, written by Susan Baskin, was great screwball comedy, in the tradition of Bringing Up Baby and alive today in some of the better episodes of Psych.
(To see how the series got started try “License to Steele”. DVDs and downloads available through Amazon.)
Test of time–
The show inevitably looks dated with the 1980s clothing (pussycat bows?!) and classic Henry Mancini score. And yet, maybe Laura is still right. It’s hard for a woman P.I. to survive. There have not been many female private detectives on the big or small screen in recent years, until the tough and illusive Kalinda Sharma showed up on The Good Wife.
If you remember any TV women P.I.s or want to recommend a show for a “TV Flashback”, let us know.
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