Who’s DAN AUGUST? How the 1970 Cop Show Propelled Burt Reynolds to Film Stardom

by getTV Staff

It was 1970 and Burt Reynolds needed a hit.

After a decade on television, Reynolds had sought movie stardom in action-packed Spaghetti Westerns, but what worked for Clint Eastwood in the “Man with No Name” trilogy didn’t bring Burt the same fistful of film roles. So the 34-year-old went back to the primetime grind, guest starring on shows like Love, American Style. And he waited for his next big break.

Meanwhile, prolific producer Quinn Martin (The UntouchablesThe FugitiveThe F.B.I.) was expanding his empire into made-for-TV movies. His first starred Christopher George as Lt. Dan August, a homicide detective in the fictional Southern California city of Santa Luisa. Based on the novel of the same name, House on Greenapple Road was a ratings success, and ABC ordered a spin-off series for the fall of 1970 to be called Dan August.

But there was a problem. Christopher George didn’t want to be Dan August.

“Chris wanted to do (the sci-fi series) The Immortal instead,” his widow Lynda Day George remembered in the 2008 book Quinn Martin, Producer: A Behind-the-Scenes History of QM Productions and Its Founder. “Chris and Burt Reynolds were good friends and Chris kept saying to Quinn, ‘Look! You’ve gotta get Burt.’”

George – who had recently wrapped the military action series The Rat Patrol – went so far as to screen tapes of Reynolds’s 1966 cop show Hawk for Martin. But the producer was unmoved, and briefly attempted to negotiate a compromise with Paramount (producers of The Immortal) wherein George would star in both shows. Eventually he relented, and Burt Reynolds became the new Dan August.

With a younger actor in the title role, Dan August went through some changes on its journey from Greenapple RoadNorman Fell (age 46) was cast as Dan’s partner Sgt. Charlie Wilentz, replacing 54-year-old Keenan Wynn. Richard Anderson took on the role of chief-of-police George Untermeyer, played in the telefilm by Barry Sullivan (14 years Anderson’s senior). Returning from the pilot were Ned Romero as Sgt. Joe Rivera and Ena Hartman as investigative assistant Katie Grant.  

By the time Dan August debuted on September 23, it had evolved from a middle-aged police procedural to a kinetic action series with stories ripped from the headlines. As a plainclothes detective barely out of his 20s, August advocates for younger characters and gives voice to their concerns – a sea change for the older-skewing primetime cop show format. While Dan August is no Mod Squad, and Reynolds’ straight-laced hero was hardly counterculture, there was a clear effort to tailor stories to viewers who today might be described as “woke.”   

In one episode, Dan detoxes a teen junkie. In another, he visits a gay bar (one of the first depictions of such an establishment in primetime, according to the book Queer TV: Theories, Histories, Politics). He quells a campus uprising, saves a hippie from being set-up for murder (by the man!), advocates for low-paid migrant workers, helps a young priest in love with a woman, and prevents a black activist from taking a phony rap. With its socially conscious narrative and ethnically diverse cast (including an African-American woman as a member of his team), Dan August has an unusual degree of contemporary resonance. But for Quinn Martin, the controversial content was a surprise – and not necessarily a welcome one.

“Quinn said to me, “Are we doing propaganda here?’” producer Anthony Spinner said in Quinn Martin: Producer. “I said, ‘Yeah, because I’m tired of diamond heists and kidnapped girls and all that stuff. How many times can you do that?”

While Martin may have been skittish about the “relevant dramas,” he was surprisingly comfortable with his name-above-the-title star risking serious injury by doing his own stunts. Reynolds’ go-for-broke stunt work can be almost disconcerting. It’s him in literally every shot – fighting, falling, jumping off moving cars, flying in helicopters, and running through burning houses – and that realism adds a different dimension to the standard QM Productions formula.

“It was very important to Burt that Dan August succeed,” series director Ralph Senensky remembered. “This was his fourth series. If Burt didn’t make it this time, where did he go next?”

While Reynolds’ groundbreaking Hawk should have lasted longer, Dan August improves upon the earlier show’s greatest flaw: relentless intensity. Unlike the winking antihero of Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run, the Burt Reynolds of this era was serious as a heart attack. And while he smiles more in one episode of Dan August than in the entirety of Hawk, the latter series benefits from what Hawk lacked: an ensemble that humanizes Reynolds.

Norman Fell, best known today for Three’s Company, is hilariously deadpan as Dan’s neurotic, hypochondriac partner. (There’s even an episode with John Ritter, six years before Jack Tripper would meet Mr. Roper.) And Richard Anderson, unforgettable as mentor Oscar Goldman in The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, is surprisingly effective here as Dan’s boss and primary antagonist. Like all Quinn Martin shows, Dan August benefits from an incredible group of guests, including some before they were stars such as Harrison Ford and Billy Dee Williams (nine years before they would face off as Han Solo and Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back) as well as Martin Sheen and Gary Busey. There were still other guests who were established actors from classic Hollywood like Mickey RooneyRicardo Montalban, and Vera Miles. The series also boasts a memorable theme song – one of the oddest in the Quinn Martin oeuvre – from composer Dave Grusin.

Though Reynolds was nominated for a Golden Globe for his work on Dan August, the series was not renewed for a second season. But the story doesn’t end there. According to production manager Howard Alston, the show’s editors assembled an outtakes reel demonstrating how charming and funny Reynolds could be when he didn’t think the cameras were rolling.

“Burt took that gag reel, he went on these talk shows, and he changed his whole career around,” Alston remembered. “He had this whole personality change in front of the camera as a result. He became a motion-picture actor on the basis of that gag reel!”

It may have happened after the show was cancelled, but Dan August was Burt Reynolds’ big break after all.

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