Saturday, September 22, 2012

TV in 1972: “The Streets of San Francisco”
and “Kung Fu”

This sixth and final entry in Limbo’s series about 1972 TV premieres offers a Saturday two-fer, recalling both The Streets of San Francisco and Kung Fu. The former became a ratings hit, while the latter earned a place among cultish favorites.

Streets debuted on ABC-TV on September 16, 1972, and continued to air on Saturday nights until mid-January of the following year, when it moved to Thursdays. The show featured veteran film actor Karl Malden as Lieutenant Mike Stone, a seen-it-all-and-done-it-twice cop with two decades of experience on the San Francisco Police Department, who’s paired on the homicide beat with a much younger, college-educated partner, Steve Keller (played by Michael Douglas, Kirk’s son). The pilot movie was based on Carolyn Weston’s 1972 novel, Poor, Poor Ophelia, though some of the characters’ names were changed and the action shifted from Santa Monica, California, to San Francisco. In both the book and movie, the elder, more grizzled cop alternates between being a rival and a mentor to his junior colleague.

This program was shot on location in the Bay Area, which becomes obvious if you watch just a few episodes. And it’s said that Malden and Douglas logged a good number of hours hanging around and talking with SFPD detectives, trying to improve the authenticity of their respective characters. During the ’70s, there were several shows set in Northern California’s most enchanting city--among them McMillan & Wife, Ironside, and of course San Francisco International Airport--but few enjoyed the populace’s favor more than did The Streets of San Francisco.

Unfortunately, the wheels started to come off this police procedural when Michael Douglas--hungry for a big-screen film career--bailed near the start of Season 5. He was replaced by Richard Hatch, a onetime soap-opera actor who had made a somewhat bigger name for himself playing Captain Apollo in the original Battlestar Gallactica series. Its audience didn’t like the change, though, and Streets was cancelled in 1977. There’s been talk since 2008 about CBS remaking this show, but so far without results.

Kung Fu, starring David Carradine, got its start with a pilot broadcast on ABC on February 22, 1972. It was introduced s a series on Saturday, October 14, 1972. However, the show was originally slated to be seen only once a month, in the time period normally occupied by another Western serial, the more lighthearted Alias Smith and Jones. After just three episodes, though, Kung Fu was awarded a weekly Thursday timeslot.

Set in the American West of the 1870s, this program followed Kwai Chang Caine, the orphaned son of a American man and a Chinese woman who’d been reared in a Shaolin Monastery in China and trained there in the martial arts. After killing the Chinese Emperor’s nephew, who had only recently murdered Caine’s beloved blind mentor, Caine escapes to the United States with a price on his head and with the goal of locating his half-brother, Danny Caine. “Although it is his intention to avoid notice,” Wikipedia explains, “Caine’s training and sense of social responsibility repeatedly force him out into the open, to fight for justice or protect the underdog. After each such encounter he must move on, both to avoid capture and prevent harm from coming to those he has helped.”

The original series ran from the fall of 1972 to April 26, 1975. It was followed by a pair of TV film sequels, Kung Fu: The Movie (1986) and Kung Fu: The Next Generation (1987)--the latter an unsuccessful pilot--before inspiring a spin-off series, Kung Fu: The Legend Continues (1972-1975). That spin-off, which aired in syndication, found Carradine playing the grandson of his character from the original show. He was still a Shaolin monk, but now he had a son--also a master of the martial arts--who was a San Francisco police detective, working mostly in the Chinatown district.

Although I watched many of the original episode of Kung Fu (until I became bored with the general concept and convinced that it stretched believability too far), I do not remember seeing any installments from that spin-off. Somehow, despite my disinterest, both shows have remained popular in reruns.

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