Television P.I.s through the ages – “gritty, glam, mismatched and quirky”

Sep 21, 2013 | 2013 Articles, Deborah Harter Williams, Mysteryrat's Maze, TV

by Deborah Harter Williams

50s television was black and white–perfect for private eyes. Gritty fedora-hatted tough guys with a past represented by Boston Blackie, Mike Hammer and Richard Diamond who made the transition from movies and radio. Diamond morphed from Dick Powell’s singing New York radio version to David Janssen’s LA noir persona. More glamorous were Nick and Nora Charles and a quirkier take on the genre was Have Gun Will Travel’s Paladin. Favorite for the 50s – Peter Gunn, a classic with a jazz club setting and Henry Mancini theme. Dun, dun, dun, dun…Dun, dun, dun, dun, DA DA.

The best PIs have great theme songs and impressive cars. Gunn started out with a two-tone DeSoto and later moved to a Plymouth Fury convertible, with a mobile phone!

By the 60s the detectives’ suits were less rumpled and they gravitated to glamorous locations and jazz clubs. Hawaiian Eye, Bourbon Street Beat, Hong Kong and Surfside 6 jumped at the bandwagon started by 77 Sunset Strip.

Mike Connors’ Mannix arrived in 1968 and was a bit rougher and quirkier. He spoke Armenian and drove a Plymouth Barracuda and an Olds Toronado convertible, staying on the air for a record eight years.

The 70s were the golden decade for TV Private Eyes. They came in all shapes and sizes. Cannon was big and bulky, Longstreet was blind, Richie Brockelman was young and Barnaby Jones was old, while Banacek spouted Polish proverbs. There were black PIs: Shaft and Tenafly, and women: Charlie’s Angels. Best and most enduring–Rockford. More of an anti-hero, he actually got hurt when punched. Not glamorous though, his checked sports jacket was loud and worn, he had friends on both sides of the law, and a father who bugged him and his gun was usually in the cookie jar. He was too poor to have a secretary. You’ve reached Jim Rockford. I’m not here right now but leave me a message. But he had a great theme song and gold Pontiac Firebird.

In the 80s odd couples became popular, for example, Tenspeed and Brownshoe (ex-con and accountant turned PI). Jeff Goldblum (Brownshoe) read aloud from his favorite detective novels, which were written by Stephen Cannell (the series creator). Hardcastle & McCormick paired a judge with an ex-con race driver; Remington Steele’s Laura Holt was a real detective stuck with a fake front man, and Moonlighting matched a wise-cracking PI with an ex-model.

Vietnam Vets brought more casual style to investigating, aided by helicopters and snazzy cars: Riptide had an office on a boat; Stingray was an ex-spy with a Corvette. And of course, Magnum and his crew–ex Navy with a Ferrari and a helicopter for those great flyover shots of Hawaii. It also had a great theme song by Mike Post, who did the Rockford theme.

Robert Urich as Spenser

There was still room for the classics: Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin (Wm. Conrad and Lee Horsley) lived large on the small screen in 1981. Philip Marlowe made a brief comeback and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer with Stacy Keach showed up in his second TV iteration. Spenser debuted in 1985 starring Robert Urich, who wore the mantle of PI like he was born to it. Even in Vega$ he had the laid back, seen-it-all style that suited the genre. He also looked good in Spenser’s restored 1966 Mustang GT.

Mostly the 90s were for lawyers, procedurals and amateur sleuths. By 1992, William Conrad was the last Fatman standing. The well was dry, producers flailed and failed at finding a new spin. The drought continued into the 00s until Monk came along. OCD Monk was quirky, but more “Sherlockian” in approach. No car, but a great theme song).

Teen-age Veronica Mars was a 21st century not-just-your-everyday-Nancy Drew who helped her PI dad on cases and explored her own mysteries. For laughs came Psych, going strong since 2006. Shawn Spencer’s finger to his ear is as iconic as Monk’s use of his hands to frame a crime scene. The show blatantly refers to other fictional PIs and loves parodies; great theme song, silly little blue car.

Ex-spy turned PI Michael Weston of Burn Notice harkens back to an earlier, darker time and wins the prize for most explosions. Even his car is a throwback, a 1976 Dodge Charger.

Currently, Sherlock Holmes has moved to New York in Elementary and King & Maxwell, defrocked Secret Service agents have set up their PI offices in a boat house. Will they stick around and become classics? If they can overcome boring cars and so-so theme songs they might have a chance.

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Deborah Harter Williams works as a mystery scout, seeking novels that could be made into television. She blogs at Clue Sisters and was formerly a mystery bookstore owner.


  1. What I remember best about “Mannix” is that once an episode, someone would try to run him down and he’d have to leap out of the way of the onrushing car.

    There was an earlier-than-the-Eighties Philip Marlowe program that ran for one season and starred Philip Carey.

    You left out the best P.I. series of them all (“Rockford” was second-best): “Harry-O” starring David Janssen.

    • Hey Barry – I might quibble with you about “best” but you are right, I should not have left out Harry O. In fact I’m working on an enhanced e-book about TV detectives. Maybe you’d like to contribute a piece on Harry.


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