70s Lady Private Eyes: Drew, Columbo & the Angels
Advanced TV Herstory loves its crime drama. True and tested, is there a better way to spend an hour than watching a rerun of Law & Order SVU? The Closer or CSI: Crime Scene Investigation with Marg Helgenberger and Jorga Fox? No.
These shows were hits. Dozens more weren’t.
Thinking about the genre of crime drama, differentiate the government-employed detective – today’s Olivia Benson or the original Police Woman Pepper Anderson - from the private investigator. Over the past 50 years, the Jessica Fletchers and Veronica Mars’ characters and shows have had a harder time achieving success.
This installment of Advanced TV Herstory looks at the pioneer lady private investigators – the ones from the 1970s. In Herstorical order, we have Charlie’s Angels which premiered in 1976, The Nancy Drew Mysteries from 1977-79 and finally, the 13 episode mish mash of Mrs. Columbo which aired under four different titles in 1979.
Were there others? Yes. Short-lived series quite likely as brief as the Mrs. Columbo run. These three had perhaps the most potential for success. Mrs. Columbo and Nancy Drew were known brands. And remember that Baby Boom girls and women ranged in age from 13 to 30. The economy was changing. Social norms were all over the place. It was a time ripe for experimentation and disruption.
We’ll review dialogue and set up, starting first with Nancy Drew. And if you want to know a lot more, you’ll find an entire installment dedicated to the Nancy Drew Mysteries in our podcast inventory. First thing to know and remember, though is that The Nancy Drew Mysteries followed Charlie’s Angels.
Then we’ll revisit the 1979 attempt at Mrs. Columbo, a spin-off from the established Columbo police detective series starring Peter Falk. Kate Mulgrew starred as the title character and was fresh off her departure from ABC soap opera Ryan’s Hope, where she played fan favorite Mary Ryan.
Finally, we’ll take a shot at putting Charlie’s Angels into this context. Volumes have been written and specials produced. Facts, fandom and feminism contribute to the controversial legacy of Charlie’s Angels.
So let’s start with The Nancy Drew Mysteries. Did you hear that CBS is attempting a reboot of this beloved, American literary figure? We wish them well.
Back in the mid-70s, again, with the baby boom having hit their teenage years or older, Nancy Drew was a beloved character to women of all ages. She was the girl-sleuth heroine of more than 40 books written starting in the 1930s and largely finishing as works of the original writers in the 1950s.
During the late 1960s, the publishing house reviewed all the volumes and updated them to reflect the changing norms and language of the baby boom reader.
It was a recipe for success that ABC pair, for Sunday night must-see TV, The Nancy Drew Mysteries with its partner series, The Hardy Boys. Because these books were generational favorites, this pairing had the potential to advance the books with the TV shows and build a whole new brand.
Heartthrobs Parker Stevenson and Shaun Cassidy were cast as The Hardy Boys. Pamela Sue Martin, an actress with limited TV exposure– was cast as Nancy Drew.
The blended series, was it supposed to be 50% Nancy, 50% Hardy Boys? There’s no information readily found to answer that question, though it’s understood that the ratings for the heartthrobs exceeded Nancy Drew’s. By a lot.
Why? Maybe it was the old adage that boys don’t want to watch, read or buy anything with a girl or girls on them. Boys and dads wouldn’t watch Nancy Drew, but girls and moms would watch the Hardy Boys. Remember in late 2015 the hashtag “where’s Rey?” There were no Star Wars movie tie-ins – games, action figures, apparel, that contained the franchise’s newest heroine. It should have come as surprise to NO ONE when it was reported that the male executives had made it a clear directive, based on their knowledge that boys won’t buy things that contain girls in them.
Maybe the Nancy Drew numbers were sluggish because the show was sluggish. They gave Pamela Sue Martin more dialogue than the boys. Nancy uncovers more clues, interviews lots of witnesses and suspects and puts together the pieces – but it’s in a tedious narrated way. Not much action and when there is, it’s awkward.
Maybe the Nancy Drew numbers were sluggish because the character was trapped in a bizarre contract that had been signed decades earlier. When rights were originally signed away for the Nancy Drew movies, stipulations were agreed to about the character’s behavior, standards and even relationships. Little did they know that by putting Baby in the corner, along with sub-par script writing and tight-pantsed competition showing every other week, the show would fall on its face.
However, in viewing the shows I’ll talk about next – the Mrs. Columbo series and Charlie’s Angels – there are a few common features and aspects to know. Actress Pamela Sue Martin wasn’t alone in holding an opinion quite different than her producers’ – about how the image of a smart young woman should be projected in the late 70s. Just after the start of the second season, she walked out on the show, citing the scripts and producers’ dated approach to gender roles.
As a nice young woman, Nancy was always supposed to be humble.
Promotion reward $
Now I fully support Pamela Sue Martin in her disgust. Walking out was her statement. It may have shortened her career… doing so may have given her the reputation of “being difficult” but she did it.
Thirty seven years later we recognize progress and social change occurs from actions that seem small in the great scheme but are life-changers for the woman doing them.
A really disturbing trend I first saw when researching for Advanced TV Herstory’s Nancy Drew installment was the plot construction and antagonists. Invariably, Nancy had to prove herself each week. Prove her trustworthiness, her veracity, her methods, her eyesight – there was always a middle aged man in the scene attempting to undermine her.
This scene with a young John Karlen, who in 7 years would become Harvey Lacey on Cagney & Lacey, provides insight into just how many lines Martin had to utter each week to secure her credibility. It’s hard to make gains when you’re constantly playing defense.
ND proving herself
This same approach and catalog of middle-aged men, with sansa belt polyester pants – often plaid, cheap ties, short sleeve shirts, pork chop side burns and often loud plaid sport coats appear again in the Mrs. Columbo series. They’re balding or have comb overs. They’re bullies. If the point is that a villain is easier to loathe if he is uncouth, ugly, gaudily dressed… is it that they think the audience can’t appreciate a well-dressed villain? It’s just creepy.
So yes, Kate Mulgrew as Mrs. Columbo, was 24 years old when they shot the 13 episodes of the ill-fated series. You’ll recognize this cowering voice as the actress who gives us a much stronger Captain Janeway from Star Trek Voyager and Orange is the New Black’s Red Reznikov.
Credits reveal men at pretty much every production and creation role. Mrs. Columbo was at first a spin off as the never before seen wife of Columbo, TV’s popular frumpy police detective. With a few missteps in the writers not knowing what viewers expect of Mrs. Columbo, we end up with one who is 28 or 30 at the youngest, who is saddled with an 8 year old daughter and forever-traveling detective husband.
Viewers found fault with the writing, the premise and on the very surface, the role they waited so long to see - portrayed by a 24 year old actress when Peter Falk, as Columbo, was 52 in 1979 – Kate’s wardrobe was inordinately mature, almost dowdy. Viewers were repulsed.
Kate Mulgrew is a star today. She’s led a fascinating life and her 2015 memoir Born With Teeth is a delightful read. She describes the Mrs. Columbo series this way:
In the beginning, I worked seven days a week. This was an unexpected development, but under the circumstances I felt I needed to comply. As a result, I was never late, I was never unprepared, and I never complained. I was going to show these Hollywood veterans what I was made of, we were all going to have a rollicking good time, and with any luck, we were going to hand Fred Silverman a hit on a silver platter.
Sadly, there aren’t many ways to view the series – to get a feel for whether any aspects improved. Only the pilot, entitled Word Games can be found on YouTube. The plot was somewhat sophisticated but evolved in predictable fashion. Like the Nancy Drew character, Kate’s garnered her clues like a trail of cookie crumbs, obvious only to her.
At one point, the bad guys are concerned Kate will foil their plan. They’ve tried intimidating her… maybe it worked or maybe it didn’t.
The pilot sets the somewhat lackluster premise that Mrs. Columbo gets a job writing for a weekly shopper newspaper. She lives in a nice house in a suburb of Los Angeles, raising daughter Jennifer. She never set out to be a private investigator. In fact, she stumbles into this murder mystery as a result of technology. In 1979, tape recorders and speaker phones were finally common in American households. This was sophisticated technology of Watergate and the business world now affordable and able to be used to commit crimes or solve them.
So it’s because Kate Columbo installs a 2 way speaker between her kitchen office and her daughter’s room (this doesn’t seem to be a large house) and the transmission frequency is similar enough to a neighbor’s that she picks up conversations from strangers. Sure enough, the wife of the household mysteriously dies. Kate pieces together the clues. The husband hired an ugly murderer who is also a bully…
Thriller Mrs. C
Along the way, we see how a hand held tape recorder is a plot twist and how a huge computer is used to run a simple client list at a fancy lawyer’s office. Our highly relatable heroine is smart, wears great pumps and deserved better scripts.
Mulgrew recalled in her memoir:
In the fourth month of seven-day workweeks, my nerves began to show. I lived on a diet of coffee and cigarettes and the occasional cheeseburger, which was covertly frowned upon by the producers, who felt that Mrs. Columbo should be as trim and attractive as possible.
It was 1979, still five years away from Murder, She Wrote. Mrs. Columbo had to be different from Charlie’s Angels (even though Mulgrew was younger than the original Angels and Pamela Sue Martin). In the rough and tumble market place where boys and men don’t watch shows about women, Mrs. Columbo just couldn’t catch hold.
As Mulgrew put it:
Well intentioned but misguided, Mrs. Columbo could not survive its many incarnations. Its evolution was evident in its ever-changing titles: from Mrs. Columbo to Kate Columbo to Kate the Detective to, finally and most baffling, Kate Loves a Mystery. I supposed the producers were hoping that if they planted the wilting flower in an altogether new garden, they audience might suddenly regard it as exotic.
It was 13 and done for Kate. Charlie’s Angels, which premiered in 1976 had already changed TV forever though by 1979, however, even the runaway hit, written over the years by 54 men and 5 women, was running out of ideas.
Charlie’s Angels. Let’s look at facts, fandom and feminism to get a sense of the role this show plays in TV Herstory.
Fact: Producer Aaron Spelling intended it as a vehicle for Kate Jackson, who had impressed him in her role on “The Rookies.”
Fact: Jackson claims a role in making solid improvements to the show’s premise before it was ever pitched to ABC executives.
Jackson’s assertions are supported by the audio book of Barney Rosenzweig’s career, which is contained in the Cagney & Lacey full series DVD kit. Rosenzweig navigated that show’s development through rough uncertainties, partly with instincts honed on shows like Charlie’s Angels.
In a field largely dominated by men, Rosenzweig saw that changes to plot development could yield a smarter show. A stronger Charlie’s Angels, featuring smart women private investigators, should pave the way for his eventual show, Cagney & Lacey. The stars hadn’t lined up yet for his show, but you have to give him credit for improving the baseline.
A TV series entitled TV Guide’s: the Truth Behind the Rumors from the early 2000s included an interesting backstory of the show. Here’s how Fred Silverman remembered it:
All of this is going on in 1975. The country is fresh out of Watergate and First Lady Betty Ford is walking new ground with candid statements about women’s rights and the ERA. Women’s tennis and Title IX were changing women’s lifestyles. There was momentum. The lead actresses who had been cast as the original angels, Kate Jackson, Jaclyn Smith and Farrah Fawcett had been models as well as actresses. They’d attended some college.
In the Truth Behind the Rumors show, Smith talks about the role Robert Wagner, who was an established Hollywood veteran and married to Natalie Wood at the time, played in expecting a higher quality product. Wagner would go on to play Jonathan Hart in TV’s Hart to Hart.
In today’s light, this might seem like a no-brainer, but remember, Kate Jackson had improved on a bad idea, which was described by Leonard Goldberg as
Back to fact and then to fandom.
Fact: Farrah Fawcett’s career went through the roof. Historic! Herstoric! By the end of the season, she wanted out of the show to capitalize on acting opportunities.
Fandom plays a role in how these three series from the 70s fared. To hear the backstory of Charlie’s Angels, it sounds like it was one or two bad scripts away from being another short-lived dud. The fact that it featured three knock-outs was no accident. Sometimes you need dynamite to blast through a wall.
While the Farrah Fawcett poster was the top seller with young men, there also were trading cards, dolls, lunch boxes – promotional tie ins that made Charlie’s Angels approachable for girls and maybe a dozen pre-pubescent boys. Girls who watched the show when it first aired (it really hasn’t had the run in syndication you might have expected) are in their mid-to late 40s today. Many listen to this podcast.
Charlie’s Angels delivered mixed messages in every episode, but it was unlike any other. The antagonists were the same ugly balding thugs from the shows that would later be developed, and die. But our PROtagonists lived a glamorous life using their brains and wits. If one of them was in a scrape, another woman had her back.
That was huge.
Charlie’s Angels’ most successful predecessor, Police Woman, featured a plain clothes detective who invariably was rescued from danger in every episode by a man. Pepper Anderson, the Angels, the Bionic Woman and even Cagney & Lacey all were sent through the usual trope plots – hookers, models, wealthy widows being gaslighted by young men out for their fortunes… By having them solve crimes undercover, it allowed the male writers to continue their fantasies about what professional women in these jobs did.
My guess is that a man coined the term jiggle show. That term went on to define Charlie’s Angels, Baywatch and others shows where skin became as important as plot. It restricts our definition of an immensely popular series, with a demonstrated impact on women, to only that which is valued by men.
So once it became soiled with the term Jiggle Show, Charlie’s Angels became fodder for feminists. That’s why I think context is so important. Charlie’s Angels blazed a trail due to a few smart men realizing that the market was strong for this kind of show. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a start.
Merely watching the pilot – the series is available on DVD – you get a sense of a sophisticated plot. Sabrina, Jill and Kelly demonstrate agency, they don’t merely observe. In short, its construction was a much higher quality, as least initially, than you’d have with Nancy Drew the following year and the Mrs. Columbo series a few years later.
In the pilot, the clothes are about as conservative as you’d have found in any office in America. By the end of the first season, wardrobe is more casual, skin more prevalent. But on first impression – the pilot – these were women who were in control of details and execution. Any student of Charlie’s Angels knows that the show’s quality was probably never fully realized.
Ratings fueled the edginess, surely success would require retaining the male audience… swim suits and nipples. Substantive scripts? So not necessary. Fame drove Farrah Fawcett from the series. Lack of quality and progress was enough to send Kate Jackson packing after three seasons.
Cheryl Ladd replaced Farrah. Shelley Hack… Tanya Roberts… after only a few seasons the continuity was lost. Women appreciate chemistry and the revolving cast only made the stale scripts and fantasy wardrobe all the more dated. In the days before Viagra, there was Charlie’s Angels.
But as a show, it wasn’t ours to own. It was a vehicle created by men to make money. It just so happened to open the eyes of women of all ages… to see things differently.
The Truth Behind the Rumors show goes into more detail about the show’s seasons, the comings and goings. That’s detail for the real fan. At the ten thousand foot level of herstory, I found this comment by Jaclyn Smith to be honest.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. And producer Barney Rosenzweig would have to wait years, following the meteoric rise and plateauing of Charlie’s Angels to get Cagney & Lacey on the air – as a pilot. Those efforts are chronicled in two other Advanced TV Herstory installments – Concept to Pilot and the 6 Lost Episodes of Cagney & Lacey.
The lesson we learn from Rosenzweig he clearly states: the role of women as writers, directors – even the feedback from his leading actresses – he embraced.
Listen to the Nancy Drew installment and learn that Pamela Sue Martin, like Kate Jackson, came to realize her show lacked quality. Sometimes you just need to cut your losses and go pose for Playboy. Fan favorite Kate Mulgrew gave it her all, yet the people making the decisions, like “yeah, let’s change the title, that’s what’s standing in the way of our being a runaway hit,” were blind to the changes taking place in America.
Feminists may still get charged up about Charlie’s Angels, but being able to recite context goes a long way to getting everyone to see just how very male the industry and screens were and still are today. But there’s no question the series empowered women from at least one generation.
See for yourself in a YouTube clip from the 2006 Emmys. The faces of some very important women tell us that there is a magic to the three original actresses, who reunited on stage to deliver Aaron Spelling’s memorial tribute. Kate, Jaclyn and Farrah stood before thousands in the audience for like eight minutes to salute the instincts and career of the late producer.
The camera grabs face shots of Geena Davis, Kyra Sedgwick and Lisa Kudrow, women who make big decisions today and were certainly in the thick of it in 2006. They were awestruck. Kate, Jaclyn and Farrah were part of their teen years, just like yours, just like mine. It was a powerful moment.
It would kind of suck that for all the work I’m doing now – or you’re doing in your job – that another woman will one day criticize it for not being enough. You’ve heard me say with some frequency that knowledge is power. It’s important to know how success and failure came about as people struggled to put shows featuring women on TV in the mid to late 70s.
We can’t relive herstory or we shouldn’t allow men to write it, but we must know it.
So the next time you hear the Charlie’s Angels pixie dust, think of it as glass breaking. It takes a trained ear, but I know you’re good for it.
Thanks for listening to this installment of Advanced TV Herstory. This installment tackled our pioneer lady private investigators of the 70s, and know that in the coming months, we’ll feature the 80s, 90s, 2000s and 2010s. There are really only a handful of successes each decade.
Audio contained in this installment comes largely from video found on YouTube, the TV Guide Truth Behind the Rumors segment, a few Nancy Drew episodes, and the Kate Columbo pilot. Barney Rosenzweig’s audio book Cagney and Lacey and Me was produced in 2007 and can be found on the Cagney & Lacey 30th Anniversary DVD set. Finally, let me steer you to a great and uplifting read: Kate Mulgrew’s 2015 memoir Born with Teeth. Her tenacity, character and honesty comes through just as you’d hope it would.
Follow us on Twitter, our handle is AT TVherstory. Leave feedback or suggestions at iTunes or Libsyn, or send it directly in an email to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. This script and past installment scripts can be found at my website cynthiabemisabrams.com where you’ll get to see a photo of my Charlie’s Angels trading cards. I do have some Cheryl Ladd doubles I’m looking to unload…
Thanks for listening. I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.