In trying to come up with the “five best” classic TV detectives, I used the following criteria: quality; longevity; and iconic status. And, of course, to be considered classic TV, the detective’s series must have originated no later than the 1980s. Thus, it was with heavy heart that I omitted later personal favorites like Cadfael and Christopher Foyle of Foyle’s War. I also left out TV series where the protagonists may have done some sleuthing, but weren’t necessarily detectives by trade (e.g., The Avengers, The Saint). Without further ado, here are my top five choices:
1. Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s Poirot (1989 – ). Incredibly, David Suchet has never won an acting award for his pitch-perfect portrayal of Ms. Christie’s Belgium detective. He captures all the nuances of the prissy, perceptive sleuth who uses his “little gray cells” to solve the most baffling cases. When Poirot proclaims he is the world’s greatest detective, he’s not being egotistical–he’s being honest. This series, which debuted in 1989, will conclude in 2013 after 13 nonconsecutive seasons. Its enduring popularity can be partially attributed to the fact that its episodes are based on Christie’s short stories or novels–which often feature ingenious plot twists and/or methods of murder. Many fans favor the one-hour episodes, but I have a soft spot for the longer “movies” based on Christie’s novels, several of which are set in exotic locations (Murder in Mesopotamia) or English country estates (The Mysterious Affair at Styles).
2. Lt. Columbo, Columbo (1968-78; 1989-2003). William Link and Richard Levinson created this persistent police detective for a 1960 episode of the TV anthology series The Chevy Mystery Show starring Bert Freed. Thomas Mitchell played Columbo in a 1962 stage play, and Bing Crosby even once considered donning the now-famous crumpled raincoat. However, it was Peter Falk who made the part famous, first in a pair of made-for-TV movies and then in a subsequent long-running series. At the start of each episode, the viewer watched the murderer commit his or her crime. Then, Columbo–whom the killer always underestimated–would methodically unravel the mystery and catch the culprit (his trademark was leaving the the room after questioning the killer, only to pause with a variation of: “Just one more thing…”). Falk excelled in this cat-and-mouse game construct, often acting opposite quality guest stars like Patrick McGoohan, John Cassavetes, Laurence Harvey, Vera Miles, and Faye Dunaway.
3. Jessica Fletcher, Murder, She Wrote (1984-96). Link and Levinson were also responsible for creating the most successful female detective on American television. Personally, I think Agatha Christie ought to get a little credit, since there are similarities between middle-aged widow Jessica Fletcher and elderly spinster Miss Jane Marple. Ironically, Angela Lansbury played both characters, appearing as Miss Marple in the 1980 motion picture The Mirror Crack’d. Before Lansbury was cast as Jessica Fletcher, Jean Stapleton and Doris Day were considered for the role. Frankly, though, I can’t imagine anyone but Lansbury, who was Emmy-nominated 12 times, yet somehow never won. The series took place in Cabot Cove, a small coastal town in Maine…and apparently a hot spot for murders. Fortunately, the town’s most famous resident–bestselling mystery writer Jessica–was as astute as any of her fictional creations and never failed to unmask the culprit.
4. Jim Rockford, The Rockford Files (1974-80). A wrongly-accused ex-convict who lived in a mobile home, Jim Rockford had little in common with most of the detectives on the airwaves in the 1970s. However, his unique persona–plus the fact he was played by James Garner–kept fans tuning in for six years. Since the series was co-created by Roy Huggins and starred Garner, it’s often compared to their earlier offbeat Western show Maverick. Yet, other than being laid-back and preferring to avoid violence, I think Rockford is a solid departure from the slippery Bret Maverick. Rockford was often assisted by his father Rocky (Noah Beery, Jr.), a retired truck driver, and Angel (Stuart Margolin), a con artist Rockford met in prison.
5. Sherlock Holmes, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1984-94). For many Holmes enthusiasts, Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of Conan Doyle’s Baker Street sleuth is considered the definitive one (personally, I’m frightfully fond of Peter Cushing in Hammer’s The Hound of the Baskervilles). The series debuted on Britain’s ITV network in 1984, with David Burke as Dr. Watson (he was subsequently replaced by Edward Hardwicke). It was developed by John Hawkesworth, who produced other noteworthy classic series such as Upstairs, Downstairs and The Duchess of Duke Street. During its 10-year run, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes featured 35 one-hour episodes, a two-parter, and five movies (which included adaptations of Conan Doyle’s novels The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Sign of Four). In the U.S., the series became one of the most popular ones that appeared under the Mystery! banner on PBS. Brett, who died of heart failure in 1995 at 59, also appeared on stage as Dr. Watson–opposite Charlton Heston as Holmes in The Crucifer of Blood in 1981.
Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café , on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!