by Deborah Harter Williams
1. Clarence Williams III
1968, The Mod Squad, a trio of undercover “hippie” cops, “One black, one white, one blonde.”
Williams played Linc Hayes with an Afro and dignity. What could have been played for laughs turned out to be groundbreaking for its black co-lead and the socially relevant stories of drugs, race, and the Vietnam War.
From 2003-2007 Williams solved crimes on a much quieter level as Philby Cross, ex-government spy on Hallmark’s Mystery Woman.
2. Richard Roundtree
1973-1974, Shaft – CBS Tuesday Night Movie
Richard Roundtree’s private eye, John Shaft, came to television for one season. Roundtree has held his own playing opposite Laurence Olivier, had a pivotal role in Roots, and returned as a TV PI in 1984 with Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds in City Heat. He appeared as Preston Burke’s father on Grey’s Anatomy and will be on Chicago Fire this year.
3. Isaac Hayes
1978, The Rockford Files
Hayes played Gandy Fitch, a fellow inmate of Jim’s from prison, who repeatedly refers to him as “Rockfish.” He has parlayed an imposing stature, a rumbling bass voice, and deadpan delivery into a successful acting career, including the voice of Chef on South Park. A spin-off pilot with Gandy and Marcus Aurelius “Gabby” Hayes (Lou Gossett, Jr.) as a couple of PIs was made, but ended up as the “Just Another Polish Wedding” episode of Rockford.
4. Lou Gossett, Jr.
Just as well for Gossett that the pilot didn’t work out. He went on to win an Oscar in 1982 for An Officer and a Gentleman. He has an astounding range, whether narrating a theatre performance about chamber music, playing Fiddler in Roots, or a cowboy in Lonesome Dove. More recently he has been on Psych and Extant.
5. Ben Vereen
1980, Tenspeed and Brownshoe (Created by Stephen Cannell).
Con-man/parolee turned PI? Maybe not too believable, but compared to his gawkish, book-reading partner, played by Jeff Goldblum (to whom he refers as Brownshoe), E.L Turner seemed downright normal. Vereen came to the role from Broadway (Pippin) with feigned innocence and a twinkle in his eye. The show was ahead of its time in the odd-character detective category. Cannell brought Vereen back as a cast member on Silk Stalkings (1991-93), and he has played guest roles on Law & Order: Criminal Intent and NCIS (Rocky’s father).
6. Avery Brooks
As Hawk on Spenser for Hire, Brooks displayed a compelling baritone and a commanding presence. For three seasons he played the perfect foil for Robert Urich’s Spenser. The two had some of the most literate buddy scenes on TV. Afterward, he continued in the spinoff series, A Man Called Hawk, and four Spenser television movies.
Brooks went on to play seven seasons as Commander Benjamin Sisko on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Brooks became the first African-American male actor in a lead role in a first-run television drama since Clarence Williams III, and only the second since Bill Cosby in I Spy (1965-68).
7. Howard Rollins
1988-1995, In the Heat of the Night – They called him Mr. Tibbs.
Playing Tibbs after Sydney Poitier would have been a challenge for any actor. Plus television was much different from movies, as was the need to perform the character every week. Rollins was an Academy Award winner for Ragtime in 1981, and appeared in Norman Jewison’s The Soldier’s Story, which led to his casting in In the Heat of the Night. He struggled with cocaine addiction during the series, and was replaced by Carl Weathers, although he returned as a guest star after rehab. He died in 1996.
8. Andre Braugher
In the late 80s Braugher played Kojak’s side-kick in a TV movie, but his stellar cop role is Frank Pembleton on Homicide: Life on the Street.
Since then he has been a defense attorney on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and now plays precinct Captain Ray Holt in the comedy series Brooklyn Nine Nine. With an ability to play comedy or scorching drama, laid back or fierce, when Braugher shows up, prepare to pay attention.
9. James Earl Jones
1990-1991, James Earl Jones played private investigator Gabriel Bird in Gabriel’s Fire. (1990-1991)
The setup: A Chicago cop wrongfully imprisoned for murder is released 20 years later and goes to work for the lawyer who set him free.
Bird’s life is tough, except at the Café owned by Empress Josephine (Madge Sinclair). Too downbeat for network, the character was moved to LA and paired with Richard Crenna in a new series, Pros and Cons. Crenna was the disorganized one in this odd-couple match up.
Jones can always be imposing, but his finesse with small moments on the small screen are priceless and won him a best actor Emmy.
10. Chi MacBride
Chi MacBride played the private detective Emerson Cod on Pushing Daisies, which was not actually a crime drama but had plenty of dead bodies. He spun from incredulous to larcenous to take advantage of his partner’s unusual power. Later on Human Target he maintained an edge of seriousness as an ex-San Francisco police detective dealing with the super hero adventures of his partner, Christopher Chance. He now plays SWAT Unit Captain Lou Grover on Hawaii 5-0.
Thank you gentleman for the many years of great acting.
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