1966 Burt Reynolds Cop Show HAWK Flies Again on getTV

Burt Reynolds in HAWK on getTV

Who do you think of when you think of Burt Reynolds?

Is it the macho star of groundbreaking 1970s classics like Deliverance? How about the winking bad boy of Smokey and the Bandit? The Oscar-nominated silver fox of Boogie Nights? The director of Sharky’s Machine and other gritty action thrillers? All are good answers, but what about Burt Reynolds the Native American character actor?

If you’re drawing a blank on that portion of the recently deceased icon’s resume, you’re probably not alone. But Reynolds, who has Cherokee ancestry on his father’s side, was cast as “Indian” or “half-breed” characters on TV and film throughout the first decade of his career. Beginning in 1962, the then-26-year-old played a half-Comanche blacksmith on CBS’ long-running Gunsmoke. After three years in Dodge City, Reynolds moved on to NBC’s Branded, where he guest starred as a young brave. Next he was the title character in Navajo Joe, a cartoonishly violent Spaghetti Western that was supposed to propel him to Clint Eastwood-style superstardom. (Spoiler Alert: it didn’t.)

Navajo Joe still enjoys a cult following today, despite the fact that Reynolds’ wig makes him look like the fifth Beatle. But his work in the 1960s should perhaps be best-remembered for Hawk, an innovative 1966 crime drama that brought the actor his first solo starring role on TV.

Filmed on the streets of New York City (and at the East Harlem studio where The Godfather movies were shot), this short-lived ABC series told the story of Detective Lieutenant John Hawk, a full-blooded Iroquois Indian working for the District Attorney’s office. Over 17 hour-long episodes, Hawk spun noir-ish tales of a disappearing city where newsstand owners still doubled as informants and cops still wore fedoras. But it was a New York in transition, infiltrated by drugs and on the verge of economic and social collapse, and the frank storytelling reflected that.

John Hawk was tightly wound, judgmental, and distant to the point of insensitivity –  a necessity, he says in an early episode, of the job. What Hawk was not, however, was stereotypically “Indian” in his physical appearance, dress, or demeanor.

“When they asked me about Hawk and said he was an Indian, I immediately thought of a fellow with a feather in his hair running around New York, and I wouldn’t do it,” Reynolds told The Chicago Tribune in November of 1966. “I wanted to play this Indian my way – after all those years of watching TV Indians getting undignified treatment.”

Hawk pulls no punches in its depiction of discrimination. From off-handed jokes to hateful epithets, Hawk’s outsider status informs both Reynolds’ portrayal and the show’s ongoing narrative. And that’s not surprising considering the series was created by Emmy and Peabody Award-winner Allan Sloane, a writer known for socially conscious scripts stretching back to the days of network radio. New York Times critic Jack Gould wrote in 1963 that Sloane “wielded one of the most sensitive pens in television,” and his commitment to informing while entertaining makes Hawk stand out in an era when cop shows were often simple morality plays. One standout episode revolves around a witness with autism, with a surprisingly nuanced depiction of a condition that’s still misunderstood half a century later.

Ironically, Reynolds’ portrayal of a “minority” lead in the racially charged mid-1960s disguises the fact that Hawk also features an African-American series regular – Wayne Grice as Hawk’s partner Dan Carter – which was a rarity in 1966 (and, sadly, still is today). Like Law & Order a generation later, Hawk fields an all-star team of New York actors: Broadway veterans; familiar faces from daytime soaps; and young actors on the verge of breaking out. The pilot features an unforgettable performance by Gene Hackman as a serial killer motivated by religious fanaticism. Other memorable guest stars include Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Billy Dee Williams, Scott Glenn, Kim Hunter, Diane Baker, and soon-to-be Dark Shadows star John Karlen.

Outside of nostalgia, there are a handful of reasons classic TV dramas resonate for contemporary viewers: writing, directing, acting, and music. Hawk is solid in all regards. The writing team featured playwrights, authors, and short story scribes, including Emmy winner Ellen Violett (Go Ask Alice) and Oscar nominee Don Mankiewicz, the son of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and nephew of All About Eve director Joseph Mankiewicz. Directors included Paul Henreid, who had a long career behind the camera after iconic roles in Casablanca and Now, Voyager. And all the action is driven by a percussive jazz score by Kenyon Hopkins, Shorty Rogers, and Nelson Riddle. (Riddle’s episode features a rousing fistfight that seemed choreographed with the knowledge he would be scoring it.)

Why Hawk didn’t last longer is hard to say. It was a thematically complex show, progressive in storytelling but conservative in its main character. It’s delightfully dark, and not just because most of the episodes take place at night. And it also had stiff completion Thursdays at 10 pm in Dean Martin’s hugely popular variety show on NBC. But Reynolds blamed a different culprit: the theatrically released films counter-programmed by CBS.    

“It’s absolutely impossible for a show that costs $150,000 to go up against a movie that costs $3 million,” he told The Chicago Tribune.

Ironically, Reynolds would soon be starring in big budget feature films, and would go on to direct a few of them. His first directorial assignment: the final episode of Hawk.

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