|The Streets of San Francisco: Season One, Volume One
Starring: Karl Malden, Michael Douglas
Once upon a time, the name Quinn Martin held just about as much weight in Hollywood circles as, say, Aaron Spelling. Big words, I know, but check the facts: Martin was one of the most prolific and successful producers in television during the ‘50s, ’60 and ‘70s, responsible for “The Untouchables,” “The Fugitive,” “Twelve O’clock High,” “The F.B.I.,” “The Invaders,” “Cannon” and “Barnaby Jones.” As you may be aware just from the titles, Martin had a gift for pulling in top-notch talent to play the lead roles in his series, including Robert Stack, William Conrad and Buddy Ebsen. But in retrospect, it’s clear that the best pairing came in the form of Karl Malden and Michael Douglas in “The Streets of San Francisco.”
In 1972, Michael Douglas was practically an unknown entity to middle America, a far cry from the major name that he is today. He had only made a few TV appearances and a couple of feature films at this point, which is to say that he was known for being Kirk Douglas’s son and not much else. On the other hand, it was a really big deal for Karl Malden to be doing a television series. As an Oscar-winning actor (for “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1951), the general perception might’ve been that he was slumming. In reality, Malden was infuriated with Hollywood’s motion picture industry, and as it happens, film’s loss was television’s gain.
On “The Streets of San Francisco,” Malden plays Mike Stone, the grizzled veteran cop who teamed up with the brash rookie Steve Keller (Douglas). It was a commonplace premise even back then, but for a more recent comparison, think of Lennie Brisco and Mike Logan on the early years of “Law & Order” and you’ll get an idea how Mike and Steve interact. Steve is brash and always ready to leap into the fray without thinking, while Mike’s been-there, done-that, and knows when to play it cool. What makes the show work better the average, though, is that (as early as the second episode), it’s clear that Mike’s not above flying by the seat of his pants when he’s emotionally invested in a case. This gives Steve the opportunity to ask, “What the hell are you doing? I thought you said that’s not how we do it!” Malden and Douglas have a nice, easy chemistry as partners, and both are eminently watchable whenever they’re on screen.
Of course, as with most cop shows from the early ‘70s, a fair amount of the material hasn’t aged very well. It’s high on melodrama, make no mistake – but when observed from the right perspective, it’s clear that “The Streets of San Francisco” was at least trying to be gritty. One episode involves a hooker who’s trying to avoid a serial killer, another involves a hitchhiker who’s beaten to death by her boyfriend and finds one of the characters unabashedly lighting up a joint. Other plots within this set involve a Vietnam veteran forcing his ex-wife into a kidnapping scheme, a paroled prisoner being accused of murder, and a pair of episodes revolving around racism, with one guest-starring Bernie Casey, the other Roscoe Lee Brown.
By the way, one thing that’s particularly amusing now (even though it wasn’t intended to be at the time) is the opening sequence. Over the opening credits of the show, a voice intones the name of the series, its producer, stars and guest-stars, and the title of that particular episode; additionally, each of the episode’s acts, as well as its epilogue, are announced via an onscreen title card. Why is this amusing? Go watch “Police Squad.” It mercilessly mocked these credits in each of its six episodes.
“The Streets of San Francisco” has gotten surprisingly little airtime in reruns, given how successful Michael Douglas’s career has remained. If you’d like to see just how little the man has aged in 35 years, as well as how solid an actor he already was at the time, you’ll want to check out the series.
Special Features: Sadly, there’s no commentary from Malden or Douglas – let alone any other new contributionsfrom them – but there are, at least, a pair of archival bonuses that are extremely interesting. First, there’s an interview with Malden and Douglas, conducted by famed Hollywood columnist Army Archerd, done on the set of the series immediately before its premiere. Additionally, we get the series’ original pilot. If this set sells well enough to warrant the release of Volume 2 of the first season, it’d be nice if someone could find it in their heart to tack on “Back to the Streets of San Francisco,” a 1992 TV movie where Malden reprised his role as Mike Stone.