How the old Police Story TV show broke ground with new rules for modern crime dramas

1970s Police Story TV series at Click Americana

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Once upon a time in the world of television, crime dramas were often diluted down to formulaic plots and one-dimensional characters. Then came Police Story — a groundbreaking series that changed the landscape of the genre.

Police Story TV show premiere episode (1973)

How old cop shows used to be

Before the Police Story TV show burst onto the scene, television was filled with crime dramas that often lacked the realism and complexity that would later become a hallmark of the genre. These old detective shows, though entertaining, often leaned towards simplistic narratives and characters.

For example, the series Dragnet, while innovative for its time, portrayed its detective protagonists as nearly infallible figures of authority. Their investigations were usually neatly wrapped up by the end of each episode.

Angie Dickinson and Joseph Campanella in Police Story
Angie Dickinson and Joseph Campanella in Police Story

Similarly, Perry Mason showcased a defense attorney who almost never lost a case, solving complex crimes that the police couldn’t handle, usually in the span of a single episode.

The Untouchables, based on the real-life exploits of federal agent Eliot Ness, painted a picture of law enforcement as a battle between clearly delineated good and evil, with Ness and his team always coming out on top against gangsters during Prohibition.

These shows, while classics in their own right, offered a more idealized and simplified depiction of crime and law enforcement. They paved the way for shows like Police Story, which added a new level of realism and complexity to the genre, highlighting the human side of law enforcement officers, and showing the grayer areas of their work.

Police Story episode with Vic Morrow and Edward Asner (1973)

Police Story broke the mold

First airing on NBC in 1973 and running until 1978, Police Story dared to be different. The show, conceived by former police officer Joseph Wambaugh, presented an authentic, grittier, more human side of law enforcement, a deviation from the superhero police image often portrayed on TV.

Rather than following a single set of characters throughout its run, Police Story utilized an anthology format. Each episode was a standalone story, focusing on the complex and often less-glamorous aspects of police work. This format allowed the show to explore a wide range of characters and scenarios, highlighting the diversity of experiences within the law enforcement profession.

Vintage 70s cop car chase scene from Police Story

Police Story was known for its stark realism, gritty narratives, and, most importantly, its portrayal of police officers as real people, not just crime-fighting machines. The show didn’t shy away from the more challenging aspects of the job, dealing with subjects such as police corruption, stress, and the personal toll the job takes on officers and their families.

In a somewhat unusual twist, five scripts written for the show’s original run in the 70s were remade a decade later, with those revival episodes airing in late 1988. For instance, “Gladiator School,”  which starred a young Benjamin Bratt in one of his earliest TV roles, was a revamp of the 1978 ep called “The Broken Badge.”

80s Police Story Gladiator School TV movie with Robert Conrad and Benjamin Bratt (1988)

For fans of classic television, Police Story is a beacon in the annals of crime dramas. Its commitment to realistically and empathetically portraying law enforcement carved a unique path in the genre, shaping the narrative and stylistic choices of numerous subsequent shows, including heavy-hitters like Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and The Wire.

Without a doubt, the original episodes are period pieces — with over-the-top music, low-fi sound effects, and expository dialogue at nearly every turn — but that’s part of the charm. Still, it’s worth a watch for anyone who wants to see a genuinely groundbreaking and — dare we say, arresting — piece of television history.

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Police Story TV show’s different: Realism (1973)

By Edgar Penton in the Sioux City Journal (Iowa) November 5, 1973

What makes TV’s Police Story series different from other cops-and-robbers programs? The answer is realism.

Behind the realism is Joseph Wambaugh, a 13-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department and author of three best-selling novels: “The New Centurions,” “The Blue Knight” and “The Onion Field.” Wambaugh is the creator and consultant for the weekly anthology series, colorcast on Tuesdays, 9-10 p.m.

Police Story scene with actor Vic Morrow (c1974)
Police Story scene with actor Vic Morrow (c1974)

“For the first time on television,” Wambaugh says, “people will have an opportunity to see real-life police dramas done with taste — not just entertaining fantasies. “My books are real and people like them. So they should like a real television show.”

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Police Story, seen as a two-hour movie last season on NBC-TV, is Wambaugh’s first venture into television. The former steel mill worker, 36, who began writing in 1968 during his off-hours, had written several short stories. none sold. When an editor suggested he try writing a novel, he spent his off-hours as a sergeant in the detective bureau at Los Angeles‘ Hollenbeck station writing “The New Centurions.” Next came “The Blue Knight.”

Wambaugh’s view is that most other dramatized versions of policemen depict them only as people think they should be, not as they really are. “Cops are human beings first, then policemen,” he says. “That’s something I want to show, rather than all the stereotypes and cliches.”

Police Story episode Requiem for CZ Smith from 1974
Police Story episode Requiem for CZ Smith from 1974, with Tina Louise

The policeman/author thinks these fantasies are dangerous: “People who have those false impressions of cops cherish that myth and could perhaps be shattered by its lack of validity someday. Others, who don’t like establishment symbols in the first place, get further turned off by being expected to swallow that stuff. Then we lose all communication with them. In that way, they can be harmful.”

Wambaugh works full-time as a policeman and intends to remain on the force until retirement. His police work keeps him off the set of Police Story — his job is to suggest ideas based on actual police work and work the ideas into scripts with the show’s assigned writers. Two more behind-the-scenes men help make the series a realistic look at the world of cops.

Police Story on the cover of TV Guide (April 10-16 1976)
Police Story on the cover of TV Guide (April 10-16 1976)

Executive producer David Gerber brings a long list of production credits and diversified background and experience in television to Police Story. He is a former vice president of 20th Century Fox Television, where he began producing television series after having been involved with the sales of more than 30 prime-time series and selling TV specials, animated programs and daytime series.

After packaging Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea for 20th, Gerber’s first production was The Ghost and Mrs Muir in 1968, followed by Nanny and the Professor. Last season he served as executive producer of Cade’s County.

Ron Pinkard in Police Story TV show - Season 1 (1973)
Ron Pinkard in Police Story TV show – Season 1 (1973)

Producer Stanley Kallis also has a long list of credits that include the series Hawaii Five-O and Mission: Impossible, for which he received an Emmy nomination. Kallis also coproduced The Dick Powell Show earlier in his career, so the anthology concept is not a new form to him.

Gerber and Kallis have enlisted the aid of off-duty policemen to assist with Police Story as technical consultants. In addition, police officers around the country are interviewed as to their own knowledge and experience relating to specific episodes.

Young Kurt Russell in Police Story (1975)
Young Kurt Russell in Police Story (1975)

Each episode is a complete story. There are no series stars. Each week a guest star cast is featured. Subjects covered on Police Story range from the problems of a policewoman assuming the same exact job of a policeman on the beat, to teen-age gangs in a poverty-stricken area; from a policeman dying of cancer who takes dangerous assignments on purpose, to a policeman’s relationship with an informant.

Police Story episode with Lloyd Bridges - The Return of Joe Forrester (1975)

The realism in Police Story does not end with the script. “If we’re dealing with real situations, we should be showing them in real locations,” says Christopher Morgan, the show’s associate producer.

Each episode is filmed during a minimum seven-day shooting schedule (the normal hour show allotment is six days). And four of those days are usually spent shooting at various locations around Los Angeles.

Police Story TV series - Season 1

“If we’re showing a pool hall, it’ll be a real pool hall in the area we’re supposed to depict,” Morgan says. “It won’t be on a movie lot.”

The same holds true for exterior shots. Morgan scouts locations mainly in the impoverished area, since “that’s where most police work usually happens.” Since most crimes are committed at night, that’s when much of this show is filmed.

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Vintage Police Story actor Vic Morrow (1970s)
Vintage Police Story actor Vic Morrow (1970s)

A few interior sets are constructed on the lot at the Burbank Studios, where the Screen Gems production is filmed. While most television shows use one stage, Police Story is using three. One houses a typical old, rather run-down police station, another a more modern one, and a third has general sets — inside of an apartment, an office.

One thing that Police Story is not is a series of “caper” stories. It does not deal in fantasy, clinches or stereotypes, according to Gerber. “We get inside police work,” he promises. “Some realities are harsh, many are controversial and important questions are often raised.”

Police Story TV show episode with Cliff Gorman and Donna Mills (1975)
Police Story TV show episode with Cliff Gorman and Donna Mills (1975)

Producer Kallis puts it another way: “We’re walking viewers down streets they’ve never seen before. There’s danger and excitement down those streets and stories at a high-voltage level will result.” The show does not promise to solve every problem, to answer the questions for all to see.

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Wambaugh doesn’t claim to have all the answers. Regarding the country’s rise in crime, he says, “I really don’t have a law-and-order position. “I just think crime and violence rises in proportion to the amount of freedom we have. It’s easy to suppress 80 percent of the crime — they do it in places like Moscow and Peking. It’s not easy to do it in a free society.”

Bert Convy in Police Story episode The Gamble (1974)
Bert Convy in Police Story episode The Gamble (1974)

Wambaugh says he does not advocate a lack of freedom. “I like having a lot of freedom. I’m not going to use this freedom to create crimes against society. But you’ve also got to give freedom to my neighbor, and maybe he will.

“People should have just as much freedom as we can tolerate and still keep crime in the streets at some kind of sane level. It’s going to have to be up to the people — not the cops –to find that balance. There’s no magic formula.”

It’s one of the problems Wambaugh and the men behind Police Story promise to explore in the weekly look at the very real world of policemen.

Police Story episode A Dangerous Age with Ed Asner (1974)
Police Story episode A Dangerous Age with Ed Asner (1974)

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