Saturday, 13 July 2013

Ironside

If you keep up with such things, you may have heard that NBC has picked up a reboot of the Sixties and Seventies show Ironside starring Blair Underwood. Perhaps not so coincidentally, ME-TV began rerunning the original Ironside starring Raymond Burr (perhaps best known for Perry Mason).

 Ironside was created by Collier Young, who had previously produced the anthology series Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond. The show centred around Robert Ironside (played by Mr. Burr), a San Francisco Police Chief of Detectives who was paralysed from the waist down by a sniper's bullet and hence confined to a wheelchair. Ironside did not exactly retire, however, convincing the Police Commissioner to make him a special police consultant, complete with his own team, including Detective Sergeant Ed Brown (Don Galloway) and detective Eve Whitfield (Barbara Anderson). Completing the team was Ironside's assistant/bodyguard/driver, Mark Sanger (Don Mitchell), who functioned as Dr. Watson to Ironside's Sherlock Holmes or Lewis to Ironside's Inspector Morse.

If it has not become obvious by now, Ironside was not only different from other shows on at the time, but any shows before or since. Sadly, disabled characters on television shows have been rare even as regular characters on American television shows, let alone lead characters. Gunsmoke featured Chester (Dennis Weaver), who walked with a pronounced limp. On the short lived Seventies show Longstreet, insurance investigator Mike Longstreet (played by James Franciscus) was blind. On Little House on the Prairie  Mary Ingalls (played by Melissa Sue Anderson) went blind during the course of the show, must as the historical Mary Ingalls did in real life. More recently there was Dr. Gregory House (played by Hugh Laurie) on House, who not only had only partial use of his right leg (forcing him to walk with a cane), but was also addicted to Vicodin). Robert Ironside was then one of the very few characters in the history of television who was disabled and probably the only wheelchair bound lead character in the history of the medium.

Of course, it is important to note that while Robert Ironside was confined to a wheelchair, he did not let that keep him from investigating crimes. He was a dogged investigator with a skill for piecing together clues. And he could be a shrewd opponent when it came to criminals, not below using a bit of trickery to see that justice was meted out. Unlike the lead characters of many police dramas, Ironside's weapons were not guns or his fists, but his mind, which was ultimately much more dangerous to criminals. In the end, if Ironside had any sort of message, it may have been that one does not have let his or her disability define him or her.

Ironside was not only progressive in having a disabled character as a lead, but also in the fact that it included an African American character in a primary role. Indeed, arguably Mark Sanger was the most important character on the show aside from Robert Ironside himself. Prior to serving as Ironside's assistant, Mark had been a juvenile delinquent who had grown up in the bad part of San Francisco. He attended law school. In the course of the show he became a police officer, graduated from law school, and became a lawyer.  In the capable hands of Don Mitchell, Mark was no mere sidekick to Ironside. He often provided valuable advice to Ironside and was a very capable detective himself, in many ways better than police officers Ed and Eve. In many ways Mark Sanger was a very remarkable character for a Sixties television show. Ironside debuted in 1967, only two years after Bill Cosby made history as the first African American lead on a drama as Alexander Scott on I Spy. It was still very rare for any television show to have a black character, particularly one in a role as important as that of Mark Sanger. Indeed, in 1967 perhaps the only other drama with a black character in a prominent role besides I Spy was Mission: Impossible, with Greg Morris as electronics expert Barney Collier.

While obviously a product of its time, Ironside holds up very well. For the most part the episodes are both well written and well acted. And the show had a good deal of variety. Episodes ranged from classic mysteries to police procedurals to character studies. The show boasted some big name guest stars, including Edward Asner, Joseph Cotten, Bruce Lee, Ricardo Montalban,  and many others. Of course, like many shows of the late Sixties and early Seventies, Ironside sometimes tried to be relevant, and this is often the show's weakest point. The "hippies" who appeared on the show were more often than not caricatures than any realistic representations of the subculture. In defence of Ironside, however, it must be pointed out that nearly all hippies on television in the late Sixties were caricatures, and at least Ironside acknowledged the Vietnam War, drug use, and other issues of concern to youth at the time. Most shows in  the late Sixties did not acknowledge youth culture or issues of concern to youth at all.

I have my serious doubts as to how good the new version of Ironside will be. Too often many reboots of shows fall far short of the original. Even if it does, however, I hope that it brings attention to the original Ironside starring Raymond Burr. It was one of the better police dramas of the time and certainly a little ahead of its time. It certainly deserves to be better remembered than it has been.

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