Even after months of research, this was a very difficult listing to compile…
I struggled, for many hours at a time over a period of nearly two years, to find an acceptable balance of ‘ordinary’ guys and ‘superheroes’, bridging the gap between shows about cops and medics (which obviously comprise a majority of TV ‘heroes’) of British or American origin, while including comedy and action categories in both fantasy-weird adventure and realistic drama genres.
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Excuse the namechecks
Among the many television protagonists that I crossed off the shortlist were Tony Curtis from The Persuaders, Kenneth Cope from the original Randall & Hopkirk [Deceased], Trevor Eve from Shoestring, Patrick Stewart from Star Trek: The Next Generation, John Thaw from The Sweeney, Patrick Macnee from The Avengers, Robert Blake from Baretta, unlikely hacker Richard Griffiths from Bird Of Prey, Paul Darrow – the sci-fi antihero from Blake’s 7, David Yip from The Chinese Detective, Edward Asner from Lou Grant, Bruce Willis from Moonlighting, Robert Lindsay – star of Citizen Smith, Jason Connery from Robin Of Sherwood, Dennis Farina of Crime Story, Paul Gross from Due South, Bob Peck from Edge Of Darkness, David Janssen from Harry O, John Mills from the 1980s’ Quatermass, Peter Davison from A Very Peculiar Practice (definitely not his dismal stint on Doctor Who), Roy Thinnes of The Invaders, Dennis Franz from NYPD Blue, Matt Frewer of Max Headroom fame, Stacy Keach from Mike Hammer, Barry Newman of Petrocelli, Kyle MacLachlan from Twin Peaks, Atsuo Nakamura (“Ah, Lin Chung!”) of The Water Margin, Gordon Jackson (yes, the boss, not the younger heroes!) from The Professionals, Howie Mandel from St Elsewhere, Daniel J. Travanti from Hill Street Blues, Kiefer Sutherland as super-agent Jack Bauer of 24, and even The Twilight Zone presenter, Rod Serling.
Although I wanted to include some of the older TV series that I enjoyed as a teenager, it seemed a good idea to focus on shows that are still watchable today (if only as nostalgia re-viewing), and not just those with instantly memorable hero characters. For instance, Dennis Waterman was good during the 1980s as the original hero of Minder (1979-91), but I find that show extremely boring nowadays, and was unable to tolerate the repeats. In the end, it proved impossible to put all these actors, their characters, or the TV series into a ranked order, so here they are listed alphabetically…
Captain ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce in M*A*S*H (1972-83)
“Suicide is painless.”
Agreeably entertaining sitcom about the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in the Korean War, this long-running TV series was a spinoff from Robert Altman’s classic 1970 black comedy, in which Donald Sutherland portrayed the ‘Hawkeye’ character. Here, Alan Alda takes over the role, playing the gin-sipping doctor with pointed jibes even sharper than his fabled sight. With its morbid humour and ironic quips M*A*S*H was consistently amusing, despite a few lapses into mawkish sentimentality in later seasons – that were actually a result of TV star Alda’s creative input behind the scenes.
The saving grace of M*A*S*H as comedy was that its success did not depend entirely on hammy acting or slapstick farce. Many of the plotlines featured genuine drama, though predictably of a tragic variety, leavened by scenes laced with offhand wisecracks and sarcastic gags – especially at the expense of US Army command over the hellish casualty rates of modern warfare. As beleaguered surgeons resorted to humour as a defence mechanism against the daily horrors of wounded and dying soldiers, the basic humanity of ‘heroic’ characters like Hawkeye is revealed in more detail than would be possible in a conventional hospital drama. This unusual formula of archly, witty banter and earnest sentiment plus occasional scenes of blood ‘n’ guts worked brilliantly, and M*A*S*H acquired a strong cult following, partly due to the changing nature of social and political issues addressed in the character-driven plots of many 1980s’ episodes.
Thankfully, the BBC removed ‘canned laughter’ from TV soundtracks, enabling viewers to decide for themselves what was so funny about quick-fire jokes in dialogue between the doctors and nurses struggling to save lives with their ‘meatball surgery’ in a tented operating theatre. The feature-length final episode won the biggest TV audience ever (at that time) and, by means of its sheer longevity, the programme has earned more money than any TV series in history. Seasons of the show are at last now being released on DVD in collectible boxsets.
Commander Edward Straker in UFO (1970-1)
“..lucky for her that an alien came through that door instead of her husband.”
The first live action sci-fi series created by Gerry Anderson, UFO was set in the ‘future’ of 1980, and concerned a covert war between Earth and mysterious extraterrestrials. Commander Edward Straker was a former US Air Force colonel placed in command of SHADO – ‘Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation’, a secret base hidden beneath a working movie studio. Canadian actor Ed Bishop had appeared in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and voiced puppet character Captain Blue in Anderson’s earlier series, Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons (1967-8), a children’s sci-fi show that may be viewed as a prototype for the more adult-oriented UFO. Bishop’s curious Anglo-American accent and straightforward manner were perfect for the cool yet indomitable Straker, with his trademark blond hairstyle (reportedly, the actor hated that wig!). He presided over world-spanning military power, including the moon base and an orbiting telescope capable of detecting and intercepting alien spies anywhere on the planet.
Straker was a flawed executive hero; with a broken marriage in his past and too few close friends, even among his most loyal SHADO staff. Bishop essayed Straker’s tragic isolation and the heavy burden of responsibility for his character’s command position in several episodes – like when he grimly orders astronauts into nuclear combat against UFO attacks, and threatens to personally shoot one of his colleagues after uncovering an assassination plot. Straker was an interestingly stylised Cold War warrior (part General, part spymaster) and, symbolically at least, he was the ultimate soldier of his sort – a deeply paranoid obsessive willing to engage hostile forces in a fantastic but nevertheless psychologically brutal conflict played out on an interplanetary scale. Although the origin of the uncanny visitors is never revealed, Straker often had to suppress his curiosity and settle for the hollow victory of simply destroying them. Yet, despite adherence to a strict policy of militaristic response, Straker retained his humanity – and TV viewers’ sympathy – thanks to a finely balanced characterisation by Bishop.
Kawi Chang Caine in Kung Fu (1971-4)
The adventures of a disgraced Shaolin priest wandering America’s wild west. Originally created by Bruce Lee as a vehicle for his martial arts skills and influential Chinese-American sensibility, Kung Fu was re-cast with Caucasian actor David Carradine because TV producers were nervous about US audiences being able to accept an Asian star in the lead role, and yet the show soon became a popular and unique success.
As the hero who would often refuse to fight, even when he was provoked, Kawi Chang Caine’s deadpan espousal of Buddhist philosophy was like a breath of clean air in the morally polluted arena of TV action. Flashbacks to Caine’s childhood lessons and combat training in China were an essential part of the show’s East meets West appeal, and the teachings of kindly Master Po and assorted oriental mentors – sometimes delivered as sage Confucianisms – provided guidance which shaped Caine’s peaceful conduct for a trek through deserts and frontier towns in search of his long lost brother.
Carradine’s shaved head became an acceptable look for a TV hero a couple of years before Telly Savalas established baldness as actually fashionable in Kojak (1973-7). Although the success of Bruce Lee’s movie Enter The Dragon eclipsed the fame of Carradine’s TV hero, Kung Fu has retained a cult following in martial arts fandom. In the mid-1990s the show returned to our TV screens with belated sequel Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, which saw Carradine playing the grandson of Caine, a wise master boasting obviously supernatural powers, living in present day Los Angeles.
Carradine portrayed a very different martial arts’ character in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol.2 movie, and yet he still plays the flute just like Caine!
FBI Agent Fox Mulder in The X-Files (1993-2002)
“I want to believe.”
Partnered with Dr Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), special agent Fox ‘Spooky’ Mulder probed unsolved mysteries and weird crimes for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Working from his dingy basement office, the maverick Mulder offered an affirmative portrait of dogged persistence and constructive obsession – he knows that the truth is out there and he intends to find it. Originally produced on dollar-stretching budgets using Canadian locations, The X-Files was created by Chris Carter and became one of the most successful TV series of the 1990s, spawning many sci-fi imitators.
For the early seasons, at least, what held viewers’ attention throughout even the most derivative monster-of-the-week plots, was the intriguing sexual chemistry between FBI agents Mulder and Scully. Their personal feelings and growing attachment to one another often threatened their professional relationship, but the show’s gifted writers and directors were able to maintain the frequently-sparky tension between the lead characters, without succumbing to the romantic clichés that inevitably wrecked shows with a similar setup, such as Moonlighting (1986-9), and The New Adventures Of Superman (aka: Lois & Clark, 1993-7). Polished snappy dialogues between Mulder – a passionate believer in outré explanations for inexplicable events; and Scully – the sceptical scientist assigned to the X-Files’ cases to debunk Mulder’s theories about UFOs, alien visitors and paranormal activity; delivered the most consistently amusing TV entertainment of the last 20 years, and helped re-establish genre TV as a highly profitable field during the 1990s.
Widespread fan activity regarding The X-Files (especially on the Internet) was generally focused on elevating Mulder and Scully to the status of pop icons, and tended to neglect the truth – that Duchovny and Anderson were just ‘celebrity actors’. Chris Carter’s show was genuinely atmospheric and often extremely scary, too. And, along with its proficient blending of obscure scientific facts and ambiguous speculation, this is what ensured The X-Files’ cultworthy status for a generation of science fiction enthusiasts who grew up watching great movies like Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).
Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files (1974-80)
“I’ll get back to you.”
This was the private eye TV series that redefined its genre. Operating from a cramped trailer on the beachfront, using a telephone answering machine to screen potential clients, and printing out fake ID cards to trick his way into interrogative meetings, Jim Rockford was a highly devious investigator in the tradition of classic gumshoe heroes, but he was also something of a loser. Despite shrewd instincts for solving cases, he was a pushover for the mischievous schemes of a dishonest circle of close friends – who often got Rockford into serious trouble, with the law – or worse. Often beaten up by gangster heavies, but always preferring to think and talk his way out of trouble rather than use a gun, Rockford was perhaps too nice a guy for his typically sleazy profession. Character actor Noah Beery was on hand as Rockford’s dad, retired truck driver Rocky, forever trying to convince his son to find a saner and safer line of work.
James Garner was a big movie star in comedy westerns like Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) and, of special relevance here, notable Raymond Chandler crime drama Marlowe (1969), and was already a veteran TV actor, having played the gambler hero in Maverick during late 1950s, when he was cast as Rockford. His easygoing manner as the loner sleuth was a hit with viewers and critics, and Garner deservedly won the Emmy award for best actor in 1977.
Steel in Sapphire And Steel (1979-82)
“All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension.
Transuranic heavy elements may not be used where there is life.
Medium atomic weights are available: Gold, Lead, Copper, Jet, Diamond, Radium, Sapphire, Silver, and Steel.
Sapphire and Steel have been assigned.”
I was not a fan of campy spy series, The Man From UNCLE (1964-7), which co-starred Scottish actor David McCallum as a Russian agent and sidekick to the slick all-American hero (played by Robert Vaughan), so it was great to see McCallum bringing his ice-cool hard-man act to another genre series, following his stint in the title role of US produced genre series The Invisible Man (1975-6).
Created by P.J. Hammond, Sapphire And Steel was essentially a fantasy and mystery show with an intriguing, yet never adequately explained, occult or sci-fi backstory about a team of paranormal investigators with telepathic and blatantly superhuman powers. Sapphire (Joanna Lumley, fresh from her success playing action girl Purdey in The New Avengers, 1976-7) was a psychic with empathic and psychometric talents, and the ability to stop or reverse time, while Steel provided analytical prowess, and the psychological toughness and physical strength required to overcome any dangerous creature or deadly force that threatened him or his partner. Sapphire and Steel were not really human at all, they were ‘elemental’ beings assigned to various periods and places, and tasked with repairing damage or disruption to ‘spacetime’ itself. A timewarp in a country house, the intrusion of a malevolent power into a haunted railway station, people from the future bringing a changeling into the 20th century, and children freed from old photographs, are among the weird events that our time-travelling heroes investigate.
Unlike the BBC’s Doctor Who, ITV’s Sapphire And Steel did not visit other planets or meet obviously ‘alien’ races. It wasn’t so concerned with saving the universe (however, that’s not to say the whole planet wasn’t in peril at times), but the show’s strange adventures generated considerable suspense nonetheless, in typically claustrophobic, everyday settings. There were economical, minimalist special effects – utilising creative lighting and subtle sound design to depict an otherworldly or unearthly presence, though it was always the strong central performances by Lumley and McCallum that ‘sold’ these concepts, and made the series work as genre drama. With its one-set theatricality and a great deal of expository dialogue, Sapphire And Steel explored its fascinating characters and absorbing plots with a rare attention to detail. McCallum was in his element (forgive the pun) here, alternately brooding and gruff, or on the cusp of unstoppable violence, his stern portrayal of Steel is a dynamic and edgy character, and perhaps one of the darkest telefantasy heroes ever.
Number 6 in The Prisoner (1967-8)
“I am not a number, I am free man!”
Cynical but gallant, Number Six (McGoohan’s finest role) is a former spy who chooses to resign, but apparently ‘knows too much’ to be allowed privacy in ‘retirement’, or personal freedom. While struggling to preserve his wilful independence, our unnamed hero rebels against the deeply mysterious power that holds him in captivity, and tries repeatedly to escape from the Village, where liberty is an illusion and the thinly-veiled malevolence of authority figurehead Number Two (played by various actors), combines English teashop etiquette and middle-class manners with the brutality of outright fascism. Partly a social and political allegory, partly an experimental psychodrama of wholly impressive candour, and partly a slick and timelessly stylised mystery-thriller, The Prisoner remains one of the few truly unique British series that’s quite unlike anything else produced for the small screen.
To understand this TV programme’s mould-shattering, genre-breaking originality, it’s necessary to appreciate McGoohan’s previous role as John Drake in espionage thriller series, Danger Man (aka: Secret Agent, 1960), created by Ralph Smart. Drake was one of the era’s most memorable characters, not because of his similarities to famous MI6 counterpart James Bond (Sean Connery) in the 007 movie series, or to Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) in campy show The Man From UNCLE, but because of his differences. Unlike the other 1960s’ super-spy heroes, Drake refrained from using guns against his foes and, despite shapely temptations, was no womaniser. Drake’s celibacy and chivalry was carried over into McGoohan’s enigmatic characterisation of Number Six and, even today, arguments still rage as to whether Number Six actually was John Drake. And yet, however polished and worthy a predecessor it might be, Danger Man was a mere springboard for the startling creativity of The Prisoner. For, whereas Drake tackled numerous scheming villains and brutish henchmen, Number Six was confronted with greater challenges than just threats to life and limb, and faced dreadfully insidious menaces to his very sanity and sense of identity.
The fact that Number Six keeps his sense of humour to the last is admirable. He resists, fights, holds fast, maintains, destroys obstacles, overcomes coercion and, despite the Villagers’ materialistic efforts, survives intact and secure (to paraphrase the President’s speech in final episode Fall Out). This means that we must indeed “applaud his private war” but, in our recognition of him as the anarchic ‘man of steel’, Number Six deserves more than the still-anonymous title of ‘Sir’ (though if any actor deserves a knighthood for notable services to the TV entertainment industry, it’s McGoohan). The character of Number Six is an inspiration, a wholly compassionate role model (albeit of a fictional variety), and a true gentleman-hero to generations of TV fans.
Mr Spock in Star Trek (1966-9)
“Random chance seems to have operated in our favour.”
Probably the most famous alien character of all time, Mr Spock was the Vulcan science officer aboard starship Enterprise – captained by James T. Kirk (William Shatner). His pointy ears, zealously logical approach to problem solving, and generally standoffish attitude to human ‘friends’ helped endear this hugely popular character to audiences worldwide as the ultimate ‘outsider’ in TV science fiction. I have long held the opinion that Spock was partly inspired by ‘nexiallist’ Elliott Grovenor in A.E. van Vogt’s fix-up novel Voyage Of The Space Beagle (1950) – of which one story, originally titled, Black Destroyer, was the unacknowledged inspiration for Ridley Scott’s famous shocker Alien (1979). Like the keenly rational Grovenor, Spock frequently tackled the bewildering puzzles or dangers that lesser mortals could not understand or survive. His lack of overwhelming human emotions like fear or love, distrust of confusing sentiment, and stoic avoidance of ‘sins’ like pride, envy, or anger made him the almost faultless counterpart to Captain Kirk’s brash idealism. Spock’s calm and sincere humility became a superego conscience, if not always a traditionally moral one, for Starfleet’s voyages into the unknown.
On the Enterprise, Spock endured the scorn and insults of colleagues like Dr Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy (DeForest Kelley) – a situation that mirrored Grovenor’s social isolation aboard the ‘Space Beagle’ – his developing friendship with Kirk notwithstanding, Spock was never fully integrated into the starship’s bridge crew during Star Trek’s original TV series. Nimoy returned to the role in 1979 with the long awaited Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and he went on to appear in five more big screen outings, ending in 1991’s Star Trek IV: The Undiscovered Country. After Spock’s death in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Kahn (1982), in which our hero sacrifices his life to save the Enterprise and her crew; and subsequent ‘resurrection’ in a quasi-occult Vulcan ceremony of mind-transference (the unsuspecting Dr McCoy was briefly human ‘host’ to Spock’s conscious mind!) for the climax of Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984) – directed with assurance and skill by Nimoy; Spock enjoyed closer friendships and greater camaraderie with Starfleet crewmates on the Enterprise and elsewhere. At last, Spock was part of a human ‘family’.
Another important Vulcan character, Tuvok (Tim Russ), first appeared in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-9) and became a regular on Star Trek Voyager (1996-2002) but, despite first class work from black actor Russ, his role never matched the impact on Star Trek lore, or SF TV as a genre, that Spock achieved.
The Doctor in Doctor Who (1970-74)
“To the rational mind, nothing is inexplicable; only unexplained.”
Because he spent so much time stuck on our planet, instead of gallivanting off around the cosmos to save the universe, Jon Pertwee’s incarnation of ‘Doctor Who’ was in fact a far more down to earth (please excuse the pun) version of the mysterious Time Lord. This revised the original and earlier seasons’ irritable ‘grandfather-figure’ or eccentric ‘alien interloper’ towards a genre icon that was much closer to the scientist hero affect of literary SF, as Pertwee’s characterisation of the Doctor resembled Sherlock Holmes crossed with James Bond. Yet, unlike the dour rationalism of Holmes or the uninhibited playboy antics of 007, here was a TV hero with not one, but two, hearts (of gold, assuredly) who was always chivalrous toward female assistants, while remaining doubtful of humanity’s ability to avoid making and repeating ‘obvious’ mistakes. Pertwee showed us a new kind of Doctor Who, fully aware of mankind’s darker aspects, even though the character’s highly developed sense of morality compelled him to offer support and guidance to those most in need (often the military, in the form of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart of UNIT).
As if in counterpoint to the coldly logical Mr Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Pertwee’s Doctor was an honestly sympathetic alien, a peacemaker and wise problem solver, more aligned with the compassionate ‘visitor’ Klaatu (played with quiet dignity by Michael Rennie) of classic movie The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951). Of course, whereas the kindly Klaatu was seemingly dominated by intimidating robot policeman Gort, the Doctor himself was answerable only to his own, authentically superhuman, conscience.
Robert McCall in The Equalizer (1986-90)
“Got a problem? Odds against you?”
As an urban vigilante drama, this was always far less preposterous than the comically inclined antics of The A-Team. British actor Edward Woodward, noted for his role as a Cold War security agent in the markedly downbeat, cult series, Callan (1967-72), here plays a retired gentleman spy, with a nagging code of honour and social responsibility, embarking on the dark, existential road to ethical redemption. His heroically principled stance against assorted stalkers, assassins, thieves, kidnappers, terrorists, drug dealers, and other lowlife criminals in New York City, ensured the Equalizer was never short of work. Anyone desperate enough to answer his somewhat cryptic advert in a newspaper personal column really must have the sort of troubles that cops, private detectives and lawyers couldn’t possibly help them with, but no challenge was too big for McCall. His contacts in the espionage business, including CIA officer ‘Control’ (portrayed by Robert Lansing) and roughneck mercenary Mickey Kostmayer (Keith Szarabajka, who went on to star in Stephen King’s The Golden Years, 1991), provided sometimes-dubious advice, confidential or classified information, and technical or tactical support.
What made the character of McCall so intriguing was that he was always reluctant to stoop to violence, yet would unflinchingly exact a particularly nasty price on his clients’ stubbornly greedy or inherently vicious enemies, if negotiations or the power of suggestion failed. Pacifism and courage have rarely been presented so skilfully and, despite actor Woodward’s later public regrets over the rough justice meted out by his iconic Equalizer hero, there seems little doubt his genial but tough performance on this show made him a late-blooming TV star on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Equalizer was an obvious influence upon mysterious do-gooder and favour-swapper ‘Mr Chapel’ in short-lived but engaging TV action series Vengeance Unlimited (1998), starring Michael Madsen.
Finally, I just have to mention the one that got away… My original shortlist included a high placing for Lance Henriksen, as melancholy hero Frank Black in Chris Carter’s sadly underrated Millennium (1996-9), but I was unable to track down the show’s later seasons, unforgivably ignored some by ITV stations in the UK. Hopefully, the autumn 2004 appearance on DVD of this drama series about the ultimate catcher of serial killers will prompt a full retrospective elsewhere.