Early detective shows starring Black actors

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Historically, the detective show genre hasn’t been particularly diverse. As recently as 2011, mystery shows like Midsomer Murders have been under scrutiny for their lack of diverse representation. And in the early days of detective dramas, the (often titular) star of the show was invariably a white man.

I have already written about early detective shows starring women on this blog. And as it is now Black History Month, I thought I would put together a similar post to highlight some of the earliest shows that featured Black detectives.

Although from the 1960s onwards there were additional shows that had Black actors in supporting roles, there were just a handful of shows in which a Black actor had the starring/titular role. Below, I profile just eight such shows that I have been able to identify, and then go on to discussing more recent shows and shows with ensemble casts.

The Mod Squad (1968-1973)

First up on my list is The Mod Squad, which ran for five seasons on ABC from September 24, 1968, to March 1, 1973. The show centered around three hip, young, undercover police detectives — one of which was Lincoln “Linc” Hayes, played by Clarence Williams III.

The cast of The Mod Squad with Clarence Williams III (center).

Although one could argue that certain other shows preceded The Mod Squad in featuring Black actors, this was the first time that a Black character had truly starred in a detective show. For instance, shows such as 1965’s I Spy and 1966’s Mission: Impossible were spy shows rather than detective shows; whereas the role of Peggy Fair on the 1967 detective show Mannix was a supporting role. Thus, although Linc wasn’t the only starring character on the show, he did have equal footing to the other members of The Mod Squad.

The Mod Squad continues to be popular and the full series has been released on DVD.

Shaft (1973-1974)

Following the end of The Mod Squad in 1973, there were a few shows featuring Black detectives that burst onto TV screens in the early 70s. And while these all notably had the Black detective in the titular role, they were very short-lived. The first of these was Shaft.

Richard Roundtree (right) as John Shaft in the TV series.

Shaft revolves around the life of a New York private detective named John Shaft, portrayed by Richard Roundtree. The series had its beginnings as a 1971 theatrical movie titled Shaft! (based on a 1970 novel by Ernest Tidyman), which was swiftly followed by two sequels: Shaft’s Big Score! (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973).

The theatrical version of John Shaft was slightly cleaned up and reimagined for a series of TV movies that ran on CBS as part of its Tuesday Night Movies wheel series. The first episode aired on October 9, 1973, and a total of seven episodes were produced for the TV series before it was ultimately cancelled, with the last episode having aired on February 19, 1974.

The series was released on DVD and is marketed as a TV movie collection.

Tenafly (1973-1974)

Just one day after the TV premiere of Shaft, another Black-led detective show premiered on NBC as part of its Wednesday Mystery Movie wheel.

Tenafly was created and written by Link and Levinson (the same team that created Columbo and Murder, She Wrote), and it starred James McEachin as the titular character, Harry Tenafly, a former cop and current private detective based in Los Angeles.

Unlike John Shaft, Harry Tenafly was a suburban family man.

Tenafly premiered on October 10th 1973, but it too was cancelled after its first season. A total of four TV movies were produced for the series, with the final one airing on January 2nd 1974.

Nowadays, it’s very difficult to find much information about the show. It has not been released on DVD and is not available to stream anywhere (to my knowledge). I have only been able to find a few (very) short clips of the show by searching on YouTube and other websites, and it’s such a shame it seems the show is otherwise lost. If you happen to have a copy of the show, I’d be very interested in seeing it.

Get Christie Love! (1974-1975)

The third Black-led detective show that premiered around the same time was Get Christie Love! The show starred Teresa Graves as the titular character, Christie Love, an NYPD detective.

The show had its beginnings in a TV movie pilot that aired on ABC on January 22nd 1974 as part of its “Movie of the Week”. The pilot movie was based on the novel The Ledger by Dorothy Uhnak; however, the protagonist of that novel, Christie Opara, was heavily reimagined into the character of Christie Love.

Ultimately, the pilot was picked up for a full series starting on September 11th 1974. A total of 22 episodes were produced until the series was ultimately cancelled, with the last episode airing on April 4th 1975.

The TV pilot has been released on DVD and you can sometimes find it on streaming services [click here for some options]. However, the show itself is quite difficult to find. I have managed to track down one episode and shared it on my YouYube channel:

Tenspeed and Brown Shoe (1980)

There was quite a gap before TV saw another Black lead in a detective show. Tenspeed and Brown Shoe was yet another short-lived series — it ran on ABC from January 27 until June 27, 1980, with a total of 14 episodes being made.

The show had two co-stars: Ben Vereen played E.L. “Tenspeed” turner, and his partner was Lionel “BrownShoe” Whitney (played by Jeff Goldblum). The two were an unlikely pair: Tenspeed was a former con artist, while Brown Shoe was a former accountant who read way too many private eye novels.

Ben Vereen (right) as “Tenspeed”

Notably, although Tenspeed and Brown Shoe didn’t make it past its first season, Ben Vereen did reprise his role as “Tenspeed” in the last five episodes of yet another short-lived series called J.J. Starbuck (this time on NBC).

Ben Vereen with Dale Robertson, the star of J.J. Starbuck, Episodes of this series are proving difficult to track down.

Due to the popularity of Jeff Goldblum, it’s thankfully possible to find episodes of Tenspeed and Brown Shoe. The pilot movie and the remainder of the series have been released separately on DVD. The series (minus the pilot) are also available to stream on Amazon Prime and on ShoutFactoryTV.

Sonny Spoon (1988)

There was yet another long gap before we saw another Black lead in a detective series. Part of the reason was that the one-man detective shows of the 70s gave way to more ensemble casts in the 80s (which I’ll talk about later). However, one standout show featuring a Black lead as the titular character was Sonny Spoon.

Sonny Spoon starred Mario Van Peebles as a hip, young private eye. It was yet another short-lived series that ran on NBC from February 12 to December 16, 1988, and a total of 15 episodes were produced.

An early ad for the premiere of Sonny Spoon.

Unfortunately, it appears to be impossible to find any episodes of this show, which is a shame because from the few clips I have been able to find on YouTube, it looks amazing. If anybody reading this does happen to have a copy of the show, I would love to see it.

A Man Called Hawk (1989)

Immediately on the heels of Sonny Spoon were a couple more detective shows with Black actors in the titular role which appeared in 1989. One of these was A Man Called Hawk, based on a character from Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels.

Avery Brooks played a sidekick character in Spenser: For Hire (1985-1988), and when that show ended he got his own spin-off in A Man Called Hawk (which found the character moving from Boston to Washington, D.C.). The show aired on ABC from January 28 to May 13, 1989, and only 13 episodes were ever made.

EDIT (June 23rd 2022): While in the past, the show has been difficult to find, I am happy to report that it is now available to stream (for free with ads) on Tubi.com in the US.

Gideon Oliver (1989)

Another Black-led detective show that premiered in 1989 was Gideon Oliver. The show could perhaps be more accurately described as a series of TV movies that ran as part of the ABC Mystery Movie wheel (alongside Columbo) from February 20th until May 22nd 1989. A total of five episodes/movies were produced.

The series was an adaptation of a book series by Aaron Elkins, and it starred Louis Gossett, Jr. as an anthropology professor who uses his knowledge of past cultures to solve crimes.

An early ad for the premiere of Gideon Oliver.

As is the case for many of the shows profiled in this blog post, Gideon Oliver has never been released on DVD and is otherwise proving impossible to find. If you happen to have a copy of any of the Gideon Oliver TV movies, I’d be very interested in seeing them.

Ensemble casts from the 80s and 90s

As I mentioned earlier in this post, there was a notable shift from the one-man detective shows that dominated in the 70s, which by contrast gave way to more ensemble casts in the detective shows of the 1980s. As such, although there were many shows that had Black actors among its cast, it can be difficult to identify whether the characters that these actors played could be considered a “lead” character (as opposed to a sidekick or supporting role).

Although in this blog post I wanted to focus on shows with Black actors in the title role, I did nonetheless want to at least briefly mention a few notable ensemble casts from the 80s and 90s:

  • The A-Team (1983-1987) — Mr. T as B.A. Baracus was as much The A-Team as any of the other cast members, and was probably the most popular of all the leading characters.
  • Miami Vice (1984-1989) — Philip Michael Thomas as Rico Tubbs was unambiguously the co-lead (next to Don Johnson’s Sonny Crockett). The Miami Vice squad also included Olivia Brown as Detective Trudy Joplin.
  • 21 Jump Street (1987-1991) — Holly Robinson as Officer Judy Hoffs was the only original member (aside from the Captain) that remained for the full five seasons of the show’s run.
  • In the Heat of the Night (1988-1995) — Although Carroll O’Connor as Chief Gillespie became more of a central character in the TV show than the same character had been in the movie it was based on, Howard Rollins as Virgil Tibbs was nonetheless a crucial co-star in this series.
  • Among many other notable ensemble casts of the 1990s, I will just specifically mention Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-2005) as it had multiple people of color in its main cast from the beginning and throughout its run. Notably: Yaphet Kotto as Lt. Giardello, Clark Johnson as Meldrick Lewis, and Andre Braugher as Frank Pembleton.

More recent examples of TV shows featuring Black detectives

Black representation in detective TV series is (very slowly) improving, with Black actors playing more supporting roles (e.g. the entire supporting cast of Death in Paradise) and co-starring roles in buddy-cop/ensemble casts (e.g. Gabrielle Union in LA’s Finest). However, finding Black actors in titular roles is still rare. A few of the more recent examples include: Idris Elba as DCI John Luther in Luther (2010-2019) and Queen Latifah as Robyn McCall in The Equalizer (2021-present).

This blog post is not meant to be an exhaustive list, and I’m sure that there were many excellent shows that I missed naming here. I’d love to hear who some of your favorite Black TV detectives were, so please let me know in the comments!

2 comments

  1. There was a different Captain during the first season of 21 Jump Street, a white guy named Captain Jenko (played by Frederic Forrest). The Black actor who played the Captain, Steven Williams, took over in the second season.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this list and all the information. it is good to see POC represented and talked about, it also shows we still have much work to do, but progress is moving along no matter how slow.

    Like

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