Saturday, October 27, 2012


Throughout most of the 70s the majority of television heroes were detectives. They monopolized evening television. Unlike the television shows of today the older actors were actually the star of the show, the younger actors played sidekicks. No, really! It’s true! It was rare to find a television star who didn’t hover between the 40s and a little shy of 70. Experience came with age. Older folks would smack you around like nobody’s business and if you condescended or patronized guys like McCloud or Barnaby Jones, they would probably kick your ass. I know. It’s hard to believe. It was a glorious time.

I'm Barnaby Jones, punk!
Another thing that was pretty awesome about these detective heroes of the 70s was that they actually looked like normal people. Darren McGavin was no pretty boy. Mannix was no teen idol. Nor did you see a whole lot of Telly Savalas pictorials in Tiger Beat. Ironside was a disabled detective but he was one wheelchair bound tough guy that few wanted to cross. These detective heroes looked like your father or grandfather, or a teacher or a mechanic or the owner of the local hardware store. Sometimes they even looked like your parents (McMillan & Wife anyone?) As a kid, I didn’t want to be like the 20 somethings. I wanted to be like the 40 and 50 somethings. They knew things. They’d been in wars, they’d been around and they commanded respect.

James Garner as Jim Rockford

The averageness of these detective heroes also made it easy to identify and sympathize with them. Whenever Jim Rockford punched a guy he would often break his hand. He would blow off work to go fishing with his dad who whole heartedly disapproved of his often dangerous profession. As a nerd who grew up dealing with his fair share of bullies in school, it was somewhat comforting to see a guy like Rockford who had no problem fighting dirty when the odds were against him. When Rockford got scared he had no problem admitting it and that was pretty damn cool. When he was outnumbered by the villains, Rockford would get the hell out of there and come back when the odds were in his favor. Most of the time he stood his ground and took a beating in order to protect an innocent or just because he‘d had enough of being pushed around.

William Conrad as Frank Cannon
Along with Jim Rockford there was another detective hero that, as a chubby nerd, I tended to identify with. His name was Frank Cannon. Cannon was fat. He had the face of a bulldog and the gruff voice to match. Even though he was overweight, he would chase after a bad guy for all he was worth. Unlike the fastidious and static Nero Wolfe(who Conrad would go on to play after his Cannon days were over), Cannon was a man of action. He often incapacitated his foes with a judo throw or karate chop to the neck or just a straightforward and rather devastating right cross to the jaw or gut. He would get beat up from time to time but always got up, dusted himself off and carried on, more determined than ever. He was self depreciating about his weight and approached people with a sense of humor, kindness and quiet strength. When he was bullied by hard headed cops or threatening villains, he faced them head on and threatened them right back. He was methodical, intelligent, cultured and underestimated (although not as often as you might think). Needless to say, I thought Cannon was awesome.

Cannon was played by the talented actor William Conrad. Conrad was a character actor in film, television and radio. He was the voice of the radio show “Marshall Matt Dillon” on Gunsmoke for almost a decade. He starred in many low budget 50s film noir, often cast as the corrupt cop or the villain. One of his more memorable jobs was as the energetic narrator of the Rocky and Bullwinkle show. But it was as the rotund, tough, no nonsense detective Frank Cannon that Conrad found world wide stardom. Cannon ran from 1971 to 1976. During the 1973-74 season, Cannon was extremely popular, particularly in the UK. He even had his own comic strip segment in the British television fan magazine Countdown aka TV Action, a magazine that started out featuring comic strip versions of Gerry Anderson properties but eventually included many British action TV shows such as the Protectors, the Persuaders, Dr. Who and many American TV shows including Six Million Dollar Man, Hawaii 5-0, Mission Impossible and Cannon (drawn by the talented strip artist Martin Asbury).

Conrad with Diana Muldaur
I was reminded of Cannon this week when I happened to see The Return of Frank Cannon on cable TV. I was fairly excited to revisit this old favorite of mine yet hesitant that my fond memories would be tainted by quaint and dated writing. I was happy to find that Cannon still holds up in this surprisingly entertaining TV revival movie. It’s almost five years since he quit the investigating biz. Cannon has retired and opened up a fine dining restaurant where he even does the cooking from time to time. Cannon is visited by the daughter of an old friend to Cannon. A friend who has apparently committed suicide. The daughter refuses to believe that her father, a former CIA agent, has killed himself and implores Cannon to investigate. This opens some old wounds for Cannon who was once in love with the wife (television icon Diana Muldaur) of his old friend.

Almost immediately Cannon realizes that there has been a cover up. Investigating the crime scene, Cannon amusingly chews out the local police over their shoddy, lazy and unprofessional investigation. Naturally this sets up a rather antagonistic relationship with local law enforcement but Cannon doesn’t care. Like an angry bull, Cannon charges through all the resistance that comes his way. Along the way Cannon runs into red herrings, betrayals and a cabal of retired CIA agents, some of who miss the dangerous and duplicitous lifestyle and who go out of their way to prevent Cannon from finding out the truth about his friend. Through it all, Cannon is undeterred. In one scene, he walks in on a bunch of former CIA agents, the leader played by the always creepy William Smithers (aka “Jeremy Wendell”, villainous oil baron who was always trying to take over J.R. Ewings company in Dallas). Cannon faces down the group of agents and lets them know in no uncertain terms that he’s going to get to the bottom of things no matter what!

George Peppard as Banacek
This was an enjoyable little mystery. Like many of these 70s detective shows the plots are not inherently connected to the protagonist. You could easily replace Frank Cannon with Jim Rockford or Banacek or Columbo and not miss a beat. The enjoyment came from watching William Conrad’s performance as Cannon. As a kid, I liked seeing this chunky guy take on the baddies and enjoyed it just as much now as an adult. In school, the fat kids and the nerds were often the targets just as Cannon was often a target. But Cannon proved to the doubters and bullies who underestimated him that you could be overweight and still be intelligent, courageous, strong and sometimes even win the girl. Watching Cannon’s strength of character and belief in his own talents and abilities and accept who he was inside and out encouraged me to be more confident and courageous.

You don’t see a whole lot of guys like Frank Cannon around on television these days and that’s a shame. Cannon was a smart, formidable protagonist who might have been underestimated on occasion but was just as often recognized for his brains and tenacity. Today someone who looks like Cannon would most likely be the butt of a joke, or play an idiotic, beer guzzling sidekick to the good looking star. But in the 70s, guys like Cannon were the star, kicking ass, taking names and commanding the respect of friends and foes whether they be short, tall, thin or fat. In a world of yogurt eating spies and doctors with nicknames like “McSteamy”, watching a guy like Frank Cannon in action again was a nostalgic breath of fresh air.

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