What's more intimidating than Raymond Burr in a courtroom? To Judge John Floyd, it's Raymond Burr in a wheelchair.
"I'm down in the gutter because that's where you live!"
Perry Mason star Raymond Burr returns to series television as a gruff, no-nonsense San Francisco detective who happens to be in a wheelchair. Ironside: Season 1 introduces Burr's second classic character.
Facts of the Case
While taking his first vacation in twenty-five years, Chief of Detectives Robert T. Ironside is gunned down by a sniper with a high-powered rifle. He survives the attack but is paralyzed from the waist down, leaving him wheelchair-bound and unable to resume his regular duties. Undaunted, Ironside is hired by Commissioner Dennis Randall (Gene Lyons) as a special consultant to the department. Working out of a remodeled apartment inside police headquarters, he investigates crimes with the help of two bright young officers (Don Galloway and Barbara Anderson) and an ex-con (Don Mitchell).
Simply put, Ironside is one of the most intelligent, well-acted police dramas of all time. Unlike today's top-rated procedurals, the program never relied on gross-out gore or sexual perversion to hold the viewer's attention. The drama stemmed not from improbable office romances or contrived Internal Affairs probes, but from the criminal investigations themselves. When weighty issues like racism and prejudice were addressed (and they frequently were), the subjects were handled with realism, maturity, and pragmatism, rather than the cynicism, irony, and platitudes employed by television writers of this millennium. Most importantly, the crimes tackled each week were solved with real detective work, in a realistic timeframe, and in believable settings. Chief Ironside and his team did not sit around waiting for the writers to deliberately dole out obvious forensic clues at just the right pace to drag ten minutes worth of plot out for an hour, but rather did the deducing and discovering all on their own. As tense as Mission: Impossible, as smart as Columbo, and as tough as Mannix, Ironside is a genuine television classic, and a worthy follow-up to Burr's first iconic series.
Even with the tight scripts and solid direction, it is Burr's surly, bombastic performance that holds the program together. In the pilot, he berates a hesitant doctor into coming right out and saying that he'll never walk again. Ironside's response to the news is a simple, "Is that all?" Later in the same episode, Mitchell's character is recounting the struggles he faces as a young African-American with a criminal record, prompting Ironside to ask if he is supposed to "feel sorry for a black man who can walk out of here on his own two legs?" Though he mellows slightly as the series progresses, the character remains an irascible, iron-fisted hard case through all 28 episodes of the inaugural season. Underneath his trademark bluster, however, is a compassionate, conscientious hero who is so tenacious and outwardly miserable because he genuinely wants to protect the innocent citizens and reform the lost souls of his city. Burr's thunderous voice, intense gaze, and expressive features convey this fascinating dichotomy perfectly.
Appearing alongside the great supporting cast of Ironside: Season 1 is a veritable parade of television icons, familiar character actors, and future movie stars. Jack Lord (Hawaii Five-0) guest stars in "Dead Man's Tale" as a ruthless mob boss. Norman Fell (Three's Company) shows up in "An Inside Job" as a police captain trying to recapture escaped convict John Saxon. Hogan's Heroes regular Ivan Dixon is featured as a professional football player recruited by Ironside to help reform gun-dealing youth in "Let My Brother Go." Other television celebrities guesting include Susan St. James, Robert Reed, Pernell Roberts, Ed Asner, Dwayne Hickman, David Carradine, and Gary Collins. Before single-handedly sparking the global martial arts film craze of the 1970s, Bruce Lee had a cameo in "Tagged For Murder" as a kung-fu instructor. Long before piloting the Millennium Falcon or battling Nazis for the Ark of the Covenant, Harrison Ford appeared in "The Past Is Prologue" as the son of a carpenter running from his criminal past. Even music legend Quincy Jones (who wrote the show's memorable theme music) shows up, playing the owner of a jazz club in "Eat, Drink And Be Buried." In keeping with the program's overall standard of quality, all of these guest stars are excellent in their respective turns.
Ironside: Season 1 contains the groundbreaking pilot (the first such feature-length introduction to a television series, and the first program ever to feature a disabled protagonist) and all 28 episodes of the program's initial year on the air. Though every episode is entertaining and engaging, among the standouts are the aforementioned pilot, "The Taker" (about a murdered cop believed to be crooked), "Let My Brother Go," "All In A Day's Work" (in which Anderson's character shoots a teenager in the line of duty), and "Return Of The Hero" (the season-ender, in which Ironside must surrender evidence which leads to an old friend receiving a death sentence). Here is the complete list of the episodes included, in order, along with their original airdates:
There are no extras in the set, but with 23 hours of gripping crime drama on eight discs, who needs them?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As good as Ironside is, the look and narrative style are a bit dated. Audiences weaned on the stylized, graphically violent, music video-style cop shows of today may find the presentation just a bit pedestrian, despite the great performances and excellent writing.
Ironside: Season 1 represents the very best of classic police drama on the small screen. Even forty years after these stories first graced the airwaves, they remain hard-hitting, gritty, thought-provoking adventures that will keep the viewer in suspense even with repeated viewings. Raymond Burr brings to life a unique and unforgettable protagonist, the crusty and cantankerous forerunner to contemporary television heroes like Hugh Laurie's Doctor Gregory House (House) and Mark Harmon's Leroy Jethro Gibbs (NCIS). When he sets his steely gaze on a case and resolves to catch a criminal or clear a friend's name, there is no doubt in the viewer's mind that he will do just that, and that anyone foolish enough to try and stop him will be profoundly sorry. He's a joy to watch, and the top-notch scripts and solid supporting performances in this first season are worthy of both the versatile actor and the indomitable character he portrays.
Even Perry Mason himself couldn't convict Robert Ironside. This set and its colorful hero are not only innocent, but ought to receive special commendations for entertaining audiences above and beyond the call of duty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
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