Once More to the Well

Film & Television's Most Valuable P.I. Players

There have been some great performances by actors in both film and television. And some horrible ones. But these master thespians weren't content to go to the gumshoe well just once...

  • Humphrey Bogart

For better or worse, Bogie pretty much defined the private eye for generations to come, with his career-making performances as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep. The tough guy patter, the deadpan stare, the world weary set of his shoulders, the flinty cynicism wrapped around a battered but still beating heart -- this is the private eye dreams are made of. Even if his horny fratboy interpretation of Marlowe still seems rather un-Chandler-like.

Hardly ever the star, and I don't recall him ever being a private eye, but Cook's presence in everything from The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep to Peter Gunn and Magnum P.I. definitely makes him one of the genre's MVPs.

  • Robert Mitchum

The man who could have, should have been Marlowe. He could have easily stepped into Bogie's or Dick Powell's shoes in the forties as Chandler's sleuth. Instead, he played doomed, damned private eye Jeff Bailey in the all-out noir classic Out of the Past (1947). He wouldn't get to actually play Marlowe unti almost thirty years later, in 1975's Farewell, My Lovely and in it's ill-conceived sequel, The Big Sleep (1978). Not that he was bad in them -- he was fantastic, all brooding cynicism and bruised romanticism, but he also looked tired and sleepy. He did, however, manage to shine as a more age-appropriate gumshoe, Harry Kilmer in The Yakuza (1975, Warner Brothers), where his age worked for him, and he wasn't too shabby in the 1982 made-for-TV movie One Shoe Makes It Murder.

  • Dick Powell

The best film Marlowe ever, this former song-and-dance man played Chandler's world-weary gumshoe with unexpected grace, wit and toughness in Murder, My Sweet, and never looked back, starring in numerous hard-boiled crime films for the rest of the forties. He eventually moved on to play light-hearted private eyes Richard Rogue and Richard Diamond on radio before turning to television production, where he became instrumental in bringing Diamond creator Blake Edwards to TV and also giving David Janssen his first big break when he decided to produce Richard Diamond for television, and concluded he was too old for the part. Not that Powell had given up playing private eyes entirely. He eventually starred as Willie Dante, an older, kinder take on Rogue, in Dante's Inferno which ran as part of the Powell-produced Four Star Playhouse.

  • Darren McGavin

The Lon Chaney of TV private eyes, McGavin managed to star as such varied eyes as newshawk George Harmon Coxe's Flashgun Casey in Crime Photographer (1951-1952), a surpringly effective (if occasionally goofy) Mike Hammer in Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer (1958-60), a pre-Rockford Rockford David Ross in The Outsider (1968-69), straightman private eye Nick Small in Small and Frye (1983) and, perhaps most memorable of them all: vampire and werewolf-chasing newshawk Carl Kolchak in The Nightstalker.

  • David Janssen

His big break was stepping into Dick Powell's shoes when they moved Richard Diamond from radio to TV, and his most famous role was in the Roy Huggins-created The Fugitive, but there are many (including me) who think his greatest performance was as cynical, cranky beach bum private eye Harry Orwell in television's Harry O (1974-76, CBS)

  • James Garner

He played a slick, 60s-verson if Chandler's gumshoe in Marlowe (1969), but it didn't really work. Then he took the same character, roughed him up a bit, gave him a fishing rod and a beat-up house trailer on the beach, and created the most memorable TV eye ever, Jim Rockford.

  • Paul Newman

Newman earned his P.I. bones playing Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer in two films, Harper (1966) and The Drowning Pool (1976), but he really brought it home in a sort of unofficial sequel playing aging gumshie Harry Ross in Robert Benton's Twilight (1998), giving a rich and varied performance that could have been torn right out of any Macdonald book. In fact, I'd like to think his character's last name was intended as tribute. It's also worth seeing for an awesome supporting cast, which includes both James Garner and Gene Hackman.

  • Gene Hackman

The actor's actor played two of the genre's most memorable eyes almost back to back. In Francis Ford Coppola's Watergate-era The Conversation (1974), he played Harry Caul, a surveillance expert hired to do a little illegal wiretapping, and the following year he played Harry Moseby, an ex-jock turned half-ass private eye circling the drain in the noirish Night Moves. You might even make the argument that he reprised the role Harry Caul in 1998's Enemy of the State, starring Will Smith, where Hackman appeared as a Brill, a disillusioned and paranoid loner, a former NSA op now selling off his expertise to lawyers, while trying to conceal his identity from just about everyone. It isn't difficult to imagine Brill as an older, burned out version of Caul, operating under another name.

  • Robert Urich

A journeyman TV actor, handsome and always affable, Urich bounced around the networks, appearing in a multitude of shows over the years. He finally struck gold with Vega$ in 1978, playing hip, blue jean-wearing Vegas P.I. Dan Tanna for three seasons. Since playing a gumshoe had worked so well for Urich over at ABC, NBC figured they'd give him another whack at it. But by this point, straight up private eye drama was on the wane, so the producers decided to give it a twist. Gavilan was a former CIA operative who worked for a California oceanography institute as an inventor, consultant and special troubleshooter, but the cheesy Magnum P.I. ripoff was all wet. It survived one season. Urich fared much better in Spenser: For Hire, where he played Robert B.Parker's former palooka turned private eye for three seasons, as well as a handful of made-for-TV movies.

A work in progress, respectfully compiled by Kevin Burton Smith.


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