AIRWOLF – 10 Facts About the 1980s Series Starring Jan-Michael Vincent And Ernest Borgnine

by getTV Staff

Vietnam veteran Stringfellow Hawke (Jan-Michael Vincent) steals a military grade helicopter from its traitorous creator and uses it to fight evil with the help of mentor Dominic Santini (Ernest Borgnine). Archangel (Alex Cord) watches over them from a shadowy government agency known as The Firm, assisted by first lieutenant Marella (Deborah Pratt) and others. And feisty co-pilot Caitlin O’Shannessy (Jean Bruce Scott) keeps everybody flying on the straight and narrow.

Created by prolific producer Donald P. Bellisario (Magnum P.I., Quantum LeapJAGNCIS), Airwolf hit the airwaves in 1984 with delightfully grown-up stories of Cold War intrigue. The pilot film – written and directed by Bellisario - featured graphically violent ends for both villainous Dr. Charles Henry Moffet (David Hemmings) and beautiful agent Gabrielle (Belinda Bauer), Hawke’s love interest. Hawke himself is depicted as a dark, troubled figure in early episodes, haunted by memories of his M.I.A. brother.

Over time, Airwolf evolved into a more traditional, less complex action series. But through it all, it remained a reliably entertaining hour that’s still highly watchable three decades later. Here are 10 facts about one of the most enduring adventure shows of the 1980s:

1. 1984 was the Year of the Helicopter on TV.  

Three different shows about crime-fighting helicopters debuted on primetime television in January of 1984 – one on each network. Like most things in Hollywood, this wasn’t a coincidence. After John Badham’s Blue Thunder became the surprise box office hit of the summer of 1983, TV scrambled to capitalize on its unexpected success. NBC won the race with Stephen J. Cannell’s Riptide on January 3. ABC was next with the TV spin-off Blue Thunder from producer Roy Huggins three days later. CBS was last with Airwolf on January 22. Airwolf may have lost the battle, but it won the war. It outlived both of the other shows and has had a far greater afterlife.

2.  TV’s helicopters flew in a different direction.

While the film version of Blue Thunder (1983) was a cautionary tale about the dangers of a militarized, Orwellian police force, none of the TV shows it inspired took that path with storytelling. All depicted their copter’s capabilities as a positive development, an enhancement for law enforcement that was only misused when it fell into the wrong hands. This is essentially the story of the Airwolf pilot episode, wherein the aircraft’s inventor goes rogue, kills a team of observers, and hijacks Airwolf to Libya.

3. Airwolf is really a Magnum P.I. spin-off.

A Vietnam veteran uses his skills as an ace combat pilot to fight for the good guys. Sound familiar? Almost a year before Airwolf premiered, that was the plot of an episode of Magnum P.I. written by series co-creator Don Bellisario. William Lucking played the flyboy in Birds Of A Feather, a “backdoor pilot” for a weekly adventure series that CBS ultimately passed on. After Blue Thunder created a demand for airborne action, the concept was altered, Jan-Michael Vincent was hired, and the formerly grounded pilot took flight as Airwolf. Jean Bruce Scott had a recurring role on Magnum before, during and after she was cast on Airwolf, and film legend Ernest Borgnine had guest starred on Magnum just months before he was cast as Dom Santini. And speaking of Borgnine…

4. Ernest Borgnine was a butt-kicking senior citizen. 

Watch Airwolf and you’ll notice something: Ernest Borgnine does a lot of action scenes. He’s driving, punching, scuffling, jumping, dodging bullets. And he runs more in a single episode that some of us do in a week. It’s worth noting that the iconic actor (born 1917 as Ermes Borgnino) was nearly 70 by the end of his three-season run as Dom. The Oscar winner for Marty (1955) was amazingly durable and kept working nearly until his death at age 95 in 2012. He even scored an Emmy nomination for ER in 2009. He’s the true heart and soul of Airwolf.

5. Airwolf changed in season two.

Season one of the series featured complex stories of espionage set in international locales (though usually filmed on the Universal backlot) with Hawke and Dom often at odds with The Firm. Season two brought more family-friendly action, as CBS sought to expand the show’s appeal with simpler stories. While the network-mandated changes may not have pleased Bellisario, they did increase the show’s popularity with younger viewers.

6. Bellisario departed the series before season three.

After two successful seasons, Don Bellisario stepped away from his role as Airwolf showrunner (though he retained his creator credit). He was replaced as executive producer by Bernard L. Kowalski – a director on the Blue Thunder TV series. “I decided I didn’t want to deal with the difficulties,” Bellisario told the TV Academy in a 2012 interview. Bellisario’s next project was the popular and well-remembered sci-fi series Quantum Leap.

7. There were Airwolf toys. And there still are.

Not surprisingly, a show about a cool helicopter inspired the production of toys. There were die-cast replicas of the hero aircraft from the Ertl Company and a mini gas engine copter from Cox. More recently produced collectibles have included a Hot Wheels Airwolf copter replica and elaborate model kits. 

8. Jan-Michael Vincent’s stunt double died during production.

On January 18, 1985, Vincent’s stunt double Reid Rondell, was killed when an Airwolf flying sequence went awry. The 22-year-old was burned to death when the helicopter he was riding in crashed in Pico Canyon, 25 miles north of Los Angeles. Stunt pilot Scott Maher was rescued by Airwolf second unit director and aerial coordinator David Jones. Rondell was a third-generation stunt performer and the episode he was filming was dedicated to him.

9. Airwolf was rebooted, sort of.

Unlike shows that are rebooted years later. Airwolf’s reboot came during its original run. CBS cancelled the series after season three, but producers choose to continue with a new network, new cast and lower production costs. In the season four premiere, Hawke discovers that his missing-in-action brother St. John “Sinjin” Hawke (Barry Van Dyke) is alive and on a secret mission. After Hawke is severely injured by an unknown assailant, he’s secreted to safety (and off the show) by his brother. St. John takes over as Airwolf’s pilot, assisted by Dom’s niece Jo Santini (Michele Scarabelli) and Air Force major Mike Rivers (Geraint Wyn Davies). Jason Locke (Anthony Sherwood) replaces Archangel as the government liaison and occasional pilot.

10. Where are they now?

Don Bellissario retired in 2007, but his company still produces NCIS (currently in its 15th season). Jan-Michael Vincent (now 73) has not acted since 2002 and has experienced health challenges in recent years. Alex Cord retired from acting and is now an author. Jean Bruce Scott stopped acting 15 years ago, but came out of retirement in 2012 to reprise a character she had played 30 years earlier on NBC’s Days Of Our Lives. In real life, she’s spent the last two decades as the executive director of Native Voices At The Autry, which produces new plays by Native American writers at the Autry Museum of the American West.

11. BONUS! Airwolf lives on.

Two Airwolf novels were published during the original run and, three decades later, Stringfellow Hawke and Dom Santini returned to the printed page. In 2015, IDW published a new graphic novel anthology of Airwolf stories called Airwolf: Airstrikes. Action was updated to the 21st century with Hawke, Santini’s adopted son (also called Dominic), and a new Archangel. No word yet on a second edition.

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