10 Surprising Facts About S.W.A.T.

S.W.A.T. on getTV

S.W.A.T. is one of the most unusual shows in TV history. The gritty action drama about a “Special Weapons and Tactics” team was a genuine pop culture phenomenon in the mid-1970s and remains well known today despite an extremely brief network run.

Here are some surprising facts about the series:

1. It was a spinoff.

Viewers who tuned in to The Rookies on ABC on February 17, 1975 may have been surprised to see a two-hour episode focusing on a character they’d never met: hard-nosed Lt. Dan “Hondo” Harrelson (Steve Forrest). It all made sense a week later when Harrelson headlined his own spinoff, which conveniently followed The Rookies on Monday nights for the remainder of the season.

2. Steve Forrest was the only cast member in the pilot.

Only Forrest appeared on The Rookies, as Hondo locked horns with Officer Terry Webster (Georg Stanford Brown). The rest of his team – young cop Jim Street (Robert Urich in his breakout role), Sgt. David “Deacon” Kay (Rod Perry), former narc Dominic Luca (Mark Shera), and marksman T.J. McCabe (James Coleman) – were introduced in the first episode.

3. It was more violent than you remember.

In his essential reference book Total Television, Alex McNeil calls S.W.A.T. “one of the most violent shows of the decade” and that’s not hyperbole. Early episodes focused on terrorism, organized crime, and assassinations of police officers, all problems still plaguing law enforcement today. There are also frank depictions of cocaine and heroin use, hardly the norm on network TV at the time. While these factors give the show an unusual relevance for contemporary audiences, they placed S.W.A.T. in the crosshairs of a backlash against television violence during its original run.

4. It was produced by Aaron Spelling. Yes, that Aaron Spelling.

You don’t necessarily think gritty and violent when you think of Charlie’s Angels, Dynasty, or Beverly Hills 90210, but the man behind S.W.A.T. was the same genius who brought us those campy classics. Spelling, the medium’s most prolific producer according to The Guinness Book of World Records, died in 2006 after entertaining TV viewers for more than half a century. Leonard Goldberg, his producing partner on S.W.A.T. (and other hits), is still with us as of this writing at age 82.

5. It inspired a flood of licensed products.

Despite a weekly body count higher than your average slasher film, S.W.A.T. was like catnip to kids and Spelling and ABC responded with a toy box-full of licensed products. There were action figures, lunchboxes, board games, play sets, puzzles, Matchbox-style cars, and a View-Master set, many of which can be found today on eBay and/or in the basements of dudes in their mid-to-late 40s.

6. The theme song was a hit.  

Composer Barry De Vorzon’s theme became an unlikely Top 10 radio hit, in a version performed by Rhythm Heritage on their 1976 album Disco-fied. It was also extremely hummable by 6-year-old boys playing S.W.A.T. in their backyards in New York (some of whom still have a scar they got while “rappelling” off the roof of the garage).

7. It was only on the air for a year.

After a wildly successful first season in which it ranked sixteenth in the Nielsen ratings – against top ten hits Maude and Rhoda on CBS – S.W.A.T. moved to Saturday nights for season two. Sadly, the show fell out of the top 30 and was not renewed for a third season. On April 3, 1976, after just 37 episodes and 13 months on the air, the series concluded with the inventive, Roshomon-style finale Officer Luca, You’re Dead.

8. The Beastie Boys pay homage to it in “Sabotage.”

The Spike Jonze-directed music video for the Beastie Boys’ 1994 single is a loving parody to the opening credit sequences of S.W.A.T. and other ‘70s cop shows. There’s even a character nicknamed Rookie in the faux “Sabotage” action series, in what is very possibly an homage to S.W.A.T.’s parent show.

9. It was rebooted as a movie in 2003.

Feature film reboots of classic TV shows often fail because writers meddle with proven premises, but S.W.A.T. (2003) hews pretty closely to the TV origin story. Five years before he became Nick Fury, Samuel L. Jackson plays Hondo with the same world-weary gravitas that made Steve Forrest so unforgettable. And Colin Farrell is excellent as the cocky but damaged Jim Street, more than a decade before playing a similar character on HBO’s True Detective. Add LL Cool J as Deke, Josh Charles as McCabe ,and Michele Rodriguez as Sanchez (a gender-swapped variation on Luca) and you have a solid cast.

10. There multiple homages to the TV show in the movie.

At the dinner celebrating the completion of their training, the new S.W.A.T team hums the theme song to the S.W.A.T. TV show, which also happens to be the theme of the movie they’re in. And if that’s not meta enough for you, one of them watches the original S.W.A.T. on TV, and we see Steve Forrest playing Hondo, the same role Sam Jackson is playing in the film. Rod Perry also has a cameo as the father of the character he played 38 years earlier, and Forrest pops up at the end as the driver of the mobile unit. The last shot is Steve Forrest driving the new S.W.A.T. team off into the sunset. “Let’s roll,” indeed.

Be sure to tune in (or set your DVRs) to catch S.W.A.T. weekdays at 4 am ET/1 am PT in October. In November, you can catch S.W.A.T November 24 at 12 am ET/9 pm PT as part of a night of Holiday-themed action.

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