Hawaii Five-O: Protecting Paradise

by Erik Arneson

Sept. 26, 1968 – April 5, 1980 (The pilot “Hawaii Five-O” movie aired Sept. 20, 1968)

  • Jack Lord as Det. Steve McGarrett (1968-80)
  • James MacArthur as Det. Dan “Danno” Williams (1968-79)
  • Kam Fong as Det. Chin Ho Kelly (1968-78)
  • Zulu as Det. Kono Kalakaua (1968-72)

More than any other show, “Hawaii Five-O” was defined by its setting. The economy of the lush islands benefited from the exposure, attracting 4 million visitors annually by the end of the series, up from about 800,000 before it started.

Initially, some island residents expressed what turned out to be unwarranted concerns that the show would give viewers the impression Hawaii was a dangerous place to visit. To the contrary, “It (‘Five-O’) was a marketing bonanza for us,” said Stanley Hong, former president of the Hawaii Visitors Bureau and current president of the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, after lead actor Jack Lord’s death in 1998.

In fact, “Hawaii Five-O,” the longest continuously-running police show in television history, pumped millions of dollars into the Hawaiian economy by increasing tourism and creating thousands of jobs each season.

Others had perhaps a more reasonable concern, that the series and its use of pidgin dialogue would present Hawaiians as unintelligent. “To me, it conveyed the worst caricature of … Hawaiians,” said Haunani-Kay Trask, professor of Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaii, in a 1998 interview with the Honolulu Advertiser. “There was an underworld atmosphere that the haoles [whites] were trying to save us from. … I still dislike it.”

Whatever opinion you hold, there is no denying the fact that the show turned Lord into a cultural icon. As the non-nonsense detective Steve McGarrett — described by one reviewer as “Dirty Harry goes surfing” — Lord led the Five-O team through thick and thin.

Over the course of 12 seasons and 275-plus episodes, McGarrett suffered his share of bumps and bruises. He was shot at least three times, stabbed or slashed twice, and had his ribs cracked in a fight. On no fewer than three occasions, McGarrett was hurt by a bomb blast. Fortunately, his injuries usually affected his left arm, leaving his right ready for the next fight scene.

A graduate of the Naval Academy in Annapolis, McGarrett was hired by Governor Paul Jameson to command the Five-O, a fictional Hawaiian state police unit. “Five-O,” like today’s “Law & Order,” generally avoided giving characters a life outside of the police force. This strategy of concentrating on crime-solving allowed McGarrett, an avowed bachelor, few opportunities for on-screen romance.

McGarrett, who didn’t drink alcohol, also was a creature of habit. He jogged nearly every morning and stopped by the same barbershop for work on his trademark hair style every Tuesday.

Almost as memorable as McGarrett’s hair and the island setting is the show’s theme song. It was composed by the late Morton Stevens, who also wrote music for “Police Woman” and “Gunsmoke,” as well as arranging for the Boston Pops and collaborating on concert tours for Frank Sinatra and others.

It is believed the show was born of a proposal by a former Hawaii governor to create a police task force focusing on unusual island crimes. The task force never materialized, but creator Leonard Freeman borrowed the idea for “Five-O,” reportedly with the ulterior motive of visiting family members who lived in Honolulu more often.

A paid visit to the islands may also have been the reason dozens of stars and future stars appeared on “Five-O.” Among those who made the trip are Hume Cronyn (“Cocoon”), Andy Griffith (“Matlock”), Yaphet Kotto (“Homicide”), George Lazenby (James Bond in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”), Leslie Nielsen (“The Naked Gun”), John Ritter (“Three’s Company”), Kurt Russell (“Escape from L.A.”), and William Shatner (“Star Trek”).

One guest appearance, by James “Danno” MacArthur’s mother, Helen Hayes, resulted in an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress for a Single Appearance in a Drama or Comedy Series. It was one of the show’s three Emmy nominations; the other two were wins in musical categories.

“Hawaii Five-O” found itself under the reins of dozens of directors over the years, including Lord himself, who directed six episodes. Nicholas Colasanto, who played Coach on the television series “Cheers,” directed four episodes.

“Even those who love the show admit that not every director and guest star did a good job. “Schmaltz hangs heavily over the hour” is how author Karen Rhodes describes one episode in “Booking Hawaii Five-O.” Many believe the final season, which followed MacArthur’s departure from the series, lacked the quality found in previous years.

About two years ago, producer Stephen J. Cannell (“The A-Team”) filmed a pilot for what was to become a revival series, but a number of events conspired to keep it off the air. First, the character of Chin Ho, who had been killed in the 10th season’s final episode, was included in the script. Apparently, Cannell was unaware of the character’s demise and actor Kam Fong didn’t see a reason to inform him. Also, reports indicate that the two-hour movie, lacking Lord’s influence, was not true to the spirit of the original series, nor was it very good.

Lord died in Hawaii on Jan. 21, 1998, of congestive heart failure. He was preceded in death by Khigh Dhiegh, who played McGarrett’s nemesis Wo Fat, a recurring character. Several “Five-O” actors, including Fong and Zulu, who played Det. Kono Kalakaua, maintain residences in Hawaii, while MacArthur lives in California. Many of the surviving cast members take part in occasional “Hawaii Five-O” conventions.

Although he moved to Hawaii for the series and fell in love with the islands, Lord (real name John Joseph Patrick Ryan) was a native of New York City. He majored in art at New York University and performed on Broadway before trying his luck in Hollywood. Prior to “Five-O,” he appeared in films like “Dr. No” and “The Hangman,” as well as landing guest appearances on several television series, including “The Fugitive,” “The Untouchables” and “Gunsmoke.”

Lord once said playing the title rodeo cowboy in the short-lived (1962-63) ABC series “Stoney Burke” was his favorite role. Maybe so, but he’ll always be remembered best for playing Steve McGarrett in the classic crime drama “Hawaii Five-O.”


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