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Ironside: A Cop And His Chair

Following my rundown of the amazing debut season of Maude, I'm ready to delve back into another iconic television series from my youth. As I write this, the disc I've received from Netflix is fresh out of its shipping envelope. Though my next foray into '70s TV pop culture is only 15 minutes into the first episode, I'm already marveling at how well this program lives up to my high expectations.

Ironside is a crime drama that ran straight through my formative TV years, from 1967-1975. Long before I saw Raymond Burr's performance as the creepy wife killer in Rear Window, I knew him as chief of detectives Robert T. Ironside, a 30-year veteran of the San Francisco police force confined to a wheelchair by a would-be assassin's bullet in the first scene of the pilot episode.

Each week, Ironside solved a new case with his Mod-Squadesque team: Don Galloway as Ken-doll detective Ed Brown, Don Mitchell as Mark Sanger (Ironside's African-American bodyguard with an attitude), and Barbara Anderson as the cool socialite-turned-policewoman Eve Whitfield. ("Yes, I'm one of those Whitfield's," she purrs to a team of reporters in her first scene.) In 1971, she was replaced by another mod-looking blond, Elizabeth Baur as Fran Belding.

I loved Ironside. My family gathered each week around our TV trays in front of the set, our evening meal (complete with iceberg wedge salad) perfectly timed to coincide with the electronic siren sound that kicked off Quincy Jones' thrilling theme song.

Here's my rundown of the "World Premiere" episode of Ironside. The highlights are many.

Ironside.jpgAirdate: 28 March 1967

Plot: Ironside may never walk again after a sniper's bullet shatters his spine, but that doesn't mean he can't continue as the top cop in San Francisco, solving cases (starting with his own) from the chair.

Guest stars: Kim Darby, Geraldine Brooks, character actor Wally Cox and, a year before he hit it big with "Tip Toe Through the Tulips," Tiny Tim!

Ironside sure knows how to take his mind off his work: The Chief's first vacation in 25 years is a relaxing stay on a chicken farm. Shots ring out in the dark, taking out Ironside and a bottle of his favorite whiskey.

You can quote me on that: "Bob Ironside was a cop's cop," Police Commissioner Dennis Randall sternly tells the press after Ironside has been shot. "I know you won't understand that and neither will your readers but you might as well put it in. People expect it."

Meet the press:
* The local TV anchor announces Ironside's shooting on the air in a "this just in" style break. He looks more like a CEO than a newsman, sitting in a high-backed leather swivel chair behind a desk with a huge nameplate and a pen set, complete with a large potted plant and map of the United States covering the wall behind him.

* One of the reporters buzzing around Eve Whitfield, hoping for a quote, shoves a microphone toward her. In the same hand is a burning cigarette, blowing smoke across her face.

Everything old is new again: Quincy Jones wrote the excellent theme song and score for the first 11 episodes. The music under one sequence is a single, tension-building note plucked over and over and over. It sounds a lot like the soundtrack for Lost, or should I say, vice versa.

In another life, Ironside could have served as Tony Soprano's talent scout: As Chief Ironside lays on his deathbed and the TV news crew prepares his obit, his character is introduced to the audience with testimonials from co-workers and others who knew him, including a stripper who tells a reporter, "If it wasn't for Ironside I'd still be a shoplifter. He made me understand I had a talent. He was a policeman, but he had an eye for the finer things in life."

She's okay, for a girl: Apparently Eve got into the police racket when Ironside used her as a witness and complimented her on her "excellent powers of observation, for a broad."

Well, this is San Francisco: Ironside's favorite obscenity is "flaming," as in, "Take off your flaming hat, Ed. You're in the flaming house."

Bedside manner: After studying his X-rays, three different specialists have determined that Ironside will never walk again. Ironside's flip, back-to-business response is, "That all? All right, you told me. I've had guys confess to murder quicker."

Riding in style:
* Ironside's first fancy wheelchair is a gift from the nuns and hospital staff "to the world's greatest detective." The nuns look more star-struck than charitable. Apparently that Ironside can be a real charmer.

* His transport is a tricked-out black van that includes a lift for his wheelchair, recording equipment, a car phone, and a bottle of whiskey. All the comforts of home.

Pass me the Dramamine: Occasionally there are sequences with such rapid-fire cross-cutting between close-ups that I'm left positively dizzy.

Muppet cameo: Ironside's boss Commissioner Randall (Gene Lyons) wears the largest horn-rimmed glasses I've ever seen. He looks like The Newsman on The Muppet Show.

The Bat Cave:
* Ironside's lair - his office-slash-apartment located downtown in police headquarters - has wheelchair ramps and bars hanging from the ceiling to help him get around. It also has a poker table that doubles as a dining table, an antique barber's chair for atmosphere, and the scariest looking horse's head, over his bed, I have ever seen. (That includes the horse in The Godfather.)

* The only food in his kitchen is 30 cans of chili. "Chili happens to contain every food element needed to support life."

Tough love, part one: Colleagues call Ironside a cripple no less than five times during the course of this episode.

The legman: It's angry black man vs. crotchety "cripple" when Ironside succeeds in persuading Mark to come work for him. "Well, now, you lookin' for a boy!" snaps Mark in his best yessa massa voice. "No, just legs," Ironside snaps back. "You got 'em and I need 'em."

Back when a dollar bought a whole lotta Tang:
* Mark agrees to be Ironside's driver/personal assistant for $20 a week, plus "walking around money."
* A quick pan across a gas pump shows that gas is 39 cents a gallon.

Don't mess with Baby Peggy:
* Ironside has narrowed the list of suspects who might want to do him harm (Mark having graduated from the list to personal assistant), and the investigation into who shot Chief Ironside is in full swing. First stop is "Margaret Marvel's Motor Supplies" to pay a "social call" on Baby Peggy. Predictably, she's a huge woman, decked out in coveralls, and her reaction to seeing Ironside is to heave a crowbar at the "copper."

* When Baby Peggy goes for Ironside's throat, that tells him everything he needs to know, and he crosses her off the suspect list. As Mark pays for the gas, Ironside notes a sign that says "No charge if we don't smile." When he calls her on it, the camera quickly pulls into Peggy's face as she gives a demented smile that will haunt my dreams for weeks.

CSI 'Frisco '67: Apparently the police department has the latest in high-tech equipment: a "big vacuum cleaner" they can use to "pick up anything movable." A clean sweep of the location where the shooter stood turns up an envelope of physical evidence. "Apparently that sycamore grove is a popular spot with the younger set," says Ironside as he unpacks the evidence. "Candy wrappers, cigarette packs, cigarettes, used matches, a dime, a nail file." What, no condoms? Apparently it wasn't that popular a spot.

Snatch the pebble from my hand: The discovery of six acorns, which Ed had written off as "some miscellaneous nuts," is the key to Ironside cracking the case wide open. Acorns found one hundred yards from the nearest oak tree leave Ed, Mark and Eve scratching their heads. These grasshoppers have much to learn from the master.

Call in the flaming Boy Scouts: Ironside recruits a Boy Scout troop to scour the area searching for a rat's nest he's convinced will contain the shell casings left behind by the shooter.

Teamwork: Eve screams like a girl and trips over the rat's nest (not the one in her hair). Ed rushes to her rescue. They cling to each other for an unprofessionally long amount of time, prompting Ironside to say, "Not in front of the Scouts, please."

* The black guy (Mark) goes undercover hanging around the juvie playground, smoking and acting tough to get a lead on their No. 1 suspect. He also does some undercover work at a military school, where he tells the kid who plays Reveille, "Man, you play a mean horn."

* The white girl (Eve) goes undercover to an art gallery looking for info on an artist linked to the suspect. "Just give me the flaming address," she says in her best Ironside tone of voice.

Get on the Magic Bus:
* The investigation takes Ironside and company on a mini-tour of San Francisco counterculture circa 1967. The first stop is a basement club where Master of Ceremonies Tiny Tim descends the stairs blowing kisses to everyone

* Before Tiny Tim sings a painful version of "Whistling in the Dark," he introduces octogenarian "Miss Margaret Morris and her Concerto for Cymbal." Here's her act: "1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11" and crash go her cymbals. "1-2-3-4-5-6-7," another crash and she's done. Outta sight! The crowd goes wild.

* Next, they take a walk through the park complete with strolling hippies singing folks songs. Grab your dulcimer and sing along.

* Their final stop is an underground film entitled Dirt - a single shot of the Statue of Liberty with nothing moving until "a bird flies by" as a person walks in front of the projector making hand shadows.

Most exciting chase scene not involving an actual chase: In another instance of the heart-pumping soundtrack accompanying Ironside as he rolls around in his wheelchair, the Chief hoists himself out of the chair and onto a descending escalator. After a series of quick edits (set to some "mean" trumpet playing) between Ironside gripping the handrails, the suspect fleeing, and Ironside's immovable legs, the Chief finally collapses in a heap.

Tough love, part two: On his way to the exciting climax, Ironside careens down a steep hill, surely burning the skin off his hands as he tries to slow down his wheelchair, until he slams into a parked car. He continues down the hill while his team watches from the sidelines wondering if they should help him.

Exciting flaming conclusion: The episode literally goes up in flames when Ironside tussles with his would-be assassin, who unwisely wields a blowtorch against the iron man.

The moral of the story: "No, he's not a man in a wheelchair, he's Ironside in a wheelchair. If we go in to rescue him, then he is a man in a wheelchair."


First in a glorious series.


Posted on August 1, 2008

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SPORTS - More McCaskey Malpractice.

BOOKS - All About Poop.


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