❉ We count down the 25 greatest TV action themes… ever!
Previously, on the 25 Greatest Action Themes Ever… we counted down numbers 25 to 21…
“David Banner drifts from town to town, looking for a cure to his little anger management problem. But we didn’t really care about that as kids – we were just waiting for Lou Ferrigno to appear in green paint and a dodgy frightwig as Banner’s roaring alter-ego.”
20. Hardcastle & McCormack (1983-5)
One of several entries in this list from the over-active imagination of Stephen J Cannell (The A-Team, Greatest American Hero, Riptide et al), this one has Brian Keith’s retired hardline judge Milton Hardcastle hiring Daniel Hugh Kelly’s hotrod ace-turned-car thief, “Skid” Mark McCormack (yes, really), to help him catch crims in a whizzy prototype sports racer, the Coyote X. Theme song Drive, written by Stephen Geyer and the great Mike Post, was a none-more-80s slice of FM rock of the type found on those endless Top Gear compilation CDs they always sell in motorway services.
FYI: The theme was briefly replaced during season 2 by Back to Back, sung by Joey Scarbury of Greatest American Hero “fame”, before Drive was reinstated due to popular demand, possibly.
19. Crazy Like a Fox (1984-86)
This was basically like a photo-negative Hardcastle & McCormack, with Jack Warden’s roguish, free-spirited private eye Harry Fox roping in his uptight attorney son Harrison (John Rubinstein) to help him crack cases. The fact both shows aired on ITV on Sunday nights (in some ITV regions, at least) has led many to confuse the two ever since. Or is that just me? The titles started with Harry phoning his son for helping and asking, “What could possibly happen?” The theme is another Arthur B Rubinstein (no relation) marvel, so jaunty it could be the soundtrack to a Disney parade.
FYI: It’s a measure of the show’s larky nature that Jack Warden received two Emmy nominations for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series.
18. The Master (1984)
Clearly aiming for a slice of The Karate Kid’s inter-generational chop socky action, this has Lee Van Cleef as an ageing Korean War vet-turned-ninja master who takes on a young drifter (Timothy Van Patten), training him to be a martial arts expert so he can help him find his daughter, while fighting baddies from their customised, A-Team-style van. The titles feature kung-fu fighting silhouettes and heavy use of throwing stars – which briefly became the weapon of choice amongst would-be playground ninjas in the mid-80s. (Though, just to be clear, we mainly threw them at bits of wood, not each other.) It comes with another of those better-than-the-show-deserves signature tunes, courtesy of Bill Conti, the man who, in happier times, gifted us the themes from Rocky, Dynasty and For Your Eyes Only.
FYI: The Master was one of the targets of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, the late 80s sci-fi comedy, in which a spaceship janitor and two robot companions are forced to watch – and take the piss out of – cheesy B-movies.
17. Greatest American Hero (1981-83)
A breezy and likeable cash-in on the success of Christopher Reeve’s Man of Steel, GAH stars William Katt as Ralph Hinkley, an unassuming school teacher who comes into possession of an alien suit that gives him superhuman powers – but first he has to work out how to use it properly, with hilarious consequences. The winsome country rock theme song, Believe It Or Not (another Mike Post and Stephen Geyer number, sung by one-hit wonder Joey Scarbury), was only kept off the top of the Billboard Hot 100 by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie’s Endless Love.
FYI: The lead character’s surname was changed to Hanley for two episodes following the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley Jr.
16. Scarecrow and Mrs King (1983-87)
Post-Charlie’s Angels, Kate Jackson developed her gift for screwball comedy as Amanda King, a divorced housewife accidentally drawn into the orbit of secret agent Lee Stetson (Bruce Boxleitner) – aka “Scarecrow”. When she proves herself a bit of a dab hand at the spy game, she has to keep her double life a secret from her family, while keeping on top of the ironing, etc. The madcap tone is nicely captured in Arthur B Rubinstein’s busy, playful theme, which sounds like a school orchestra hurriedly trying to finish their performance before the bell goes.
FYI: Sam Melville, who appeared as Amanda’s ex, had previously played Kate Jackson’s husband in 1972’s The Rookies.
15. Blue Thunder (1984)
Eschewing the darker tone of the 1983 film – in which Roy Scheider’s troubled Nam vet had uncovered a political conspiracy from the cockpit of an advanced military combat aircraft – this short-lived spin-off was always destined to be the poor man’s Airwolf which, let’s face it, was just a way cooler piece of kit. James Farentino acquired Schedier’s aviator shades, with support from a pre-Wayne’s World Dana Carvey. The title sequence opened with what’s clearly a deliberate homage to Apocalypse Now, before switching to the standard 80s TV model of action shots combined with the cast turning towards the camera in various states of amusement and/or surprise. Arthur B Rubinstein’s squally guitar theme is actually pretty good but, again, it’s no Airwolf.
FYI: Carvey’s character is nicknamed JAFO – police slang for “just another frustrated observer”. Except, of course, in the film (and in the real police), the F doesn’t stand for ‘frustrated’.
14. Tales of the Gold Monkey (1982)
A more appealing Raiders cash-in than Bring ‘Em Back Alive, Tales of the Gold Monkey mixes South Seas romance with Saturday matinee serial derring-do as flying ace Jake Cutter (Stephen Collins) battles everyone from slave traders to Nazi spies and, er, killer monkeys from his base on the fictional Pacific island of Bora Gora. His co-stars include a monocular Jack Russell terrier with an opal and sapphire false eye that Jake lost in a poker match (true story) and Bon Chance Louis, a bar owner in the Casablanca mode played by legendary apeman Roddy McDowall. The rousing theme was another Mike Post-Pete Carpenter collaboration.
FYI: In the pilot, Bon Chance Louis was played by Ron Moody.
13. Street Hawk (1985)
As Blue Thunder is to Airwolf, so Street Hawk is to Knight Rider. Rex Smith is Jesse Mach (seriously), an injured ex-motorcycle cop who, according to the top-of-the-show info-dump “has been recruited for a top secret government mission to ride Street Hawk – an all-terrain attack motorcycle designed to fight urban crime”. Norman Tuttle (Joe Regalbuto) is his standard-issue tech support nerd. The theme, amazingly, was provided by German electro pioneers Tangerine Dream, and is way better than it really needs to be.
FYI: It may have only run for 13 episodes, but Street Hawk got through 15 motorcycles, one of which later went on show at the now sadly defunct Cars of the Stars Motor Museum in Keswick, Cumbria. (The town’s Pencil Museum is still going strong, though, should you find yourself in the area.)
12. The Incredible Hulk (1977-82)
In this unusually bleak take on a Marvel comic book, Bill Bixby’s David Banner – presumed dead, tortured by existential angst and unable to form relationships on account of the fact he keeps turning into a big green monster – drifts from town to town, looking for a cure to his little anger management problem. But we didn’t really care about that as kids – we were just waiting for champion bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno to appear in green paint and a dodgy frightwig as Banner’s roaring alter-ego, while dads everywhere made jokes about how he always managed to keep his kecks on. The opening credits are a narrated re-cap of the pilot, with show’s “theme” played over the end titles.
Called “Lonely Man’, Joe Harnell’s plaintive, melancholic piano refrain would accompany Banner as he packed his bag and hitched a ride to the next town, like The Littlest Hobo only much, much sadder.
FYI: According to Marvel supremo Stan Lee, the network rejected the use of Banner’s original comic book name, Bruce, because they thought it sounded “too gay-ish”. Presented without comment.
11. CHiPs (1977-83)
Two motorbike cops – macho firebrand Frank “Ponch” Poncherello (Erik Estrada) and, initially at least, cool-headed easy rider Jon Baker (Larry Wilcox) – patrol the freeways of LA bustin’ crims and dealing with traffic violations and frequent multiple RTAs. The title is a pun on the California Highway Patrol acronym CHP, albeit not a very good one, which the titles go to great effort to try to explain. The funky, horn-heavy theme was written by John Parker, whose other credits include the funky, horn-heavy Dallas (for Parker, where there’s funk, there’s brass). But the most iconic moment for many wasn’t actually from the titles, but the ad bumpers which, in certain ITV regions, featured the radio message: “Beep beep, CHiPs will return in a moment.”
FYI: When Erik Estrada went on strike during the fifth season, he was replaced by Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner as Officer Steve McLeish.
❉ Want to know who’s made the A-Team? Our countdown concludes with the top 10 tomorrow!
❉ Paul Kirkley is a regular contributor to publications including Doctor Who Magazine, SFX and RadioTimes.com. He writes celebrity interviews and TV reviews for Waitrose Weekend, and the second volume of his book ‘Space Helmet for a Cow: The Mad, True Story of Doctor Who’ is published by Mad Norwegian Press. Say hello at www.interestingmedia.co.uk
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