❉ The top 10 Greatest Action Themes Ever!
“Isn’t it time an orchestra gave Mark Snow and Mike Post the John Williams treatment, with a proper live concert tribute to their work? Something for the BBC Proms to think about, amidst all the Rimsky-Korsakov and what have you.”
10. The Dukes of Hazzard (1978-85)
Good ole’ southern country boys Bo and Luke Duke (John Schneider and Tom Wopat) drive a Dodge Charger stock car, The General Lee, which can only be accessed by climbing through the windows – something their cousin Daisy (Catherine Bach) does often while almost wearing a microscopic pair of denim shorts that made a generation of young boys feel a bit funny “down there”.
The titles: Various shots of The General Lee jumping over stuff, intercut with the Duke boys in action, Catherine Bach in various states of undress and reformed ex-ridge-runner and Stinky Pete lookalike Uncle Jessie (Denver Pyle) pointing an accusing finger at his wayward nephews.
FYI: When Schneider and Wopat walked out in a row about merchandising royalties, they were replaced for the fifth season by Byron Cherry and Christopher Mayer as their cousins, Coy and Vance Duke. Schneider and Wopat were lured back with a truck-full of money when ratings plummeted – but there are still Coy and Vance lunchboxes available on eBay, should you desperately want one.
9. The A-Team (1983-87)
“In 1972 a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum-security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team.”
What he said.
The titles: After establishing shots of a helicopter in ‘Nam and the LA skyline (98.8% of the telly we watched as kids was set in LA), it’s various scenes of PG-rated carnage (remember, no-one ever died in The A-team, even if they were shot down in a plane) mixed with our heroes doing their trademark ‘business’. To whit: Hannibal Smith (George Peppard) smoking a cigar in various preposterous disguises – including that green lagoon monster; The Faceman (Dirk Benedict) can’t help but find a Cylon from Battlestar Galactica strangely familiar (Meta, innit?); Howling Mad Murdoch (Dwight Schultz) being howling mad and Bosco “BA” Baracus (Mr T) looking mean and angry, possibly because some fool tried to make him get on a plane. I pity that fool.
FYI: “Fifth A-Team member” Amy Allen, a feisty newspaper reporter played by Melinda Culea, was dropped midway through the second series. In the pilot, Face was played by Tim Dunigan.
8. T.J. Hooker (1982-86)
Thomas Jefferson Hooker (William Shatner) quits his job as a detective sergeant and goes back on patrol in uniform in order to rid the streets of lowlife crims like the ones wot murdered his partner, while also teaching at the local Police Academy. Among his charges are rookie officers Vince Romano (Adrian Zmed) and Stacy Sheridan (Heather Locklear). The precinct captain is played by Richard Herd, not Karl Malden. He just really, really looks like him.
The titles: Shatner does a lot of running and jumping. Zmed rolls over a patrol car’s hood. Locklear turns around and points a gun in a way that shows off her lovely, bouncy hair. The cap looks disapprovingly at some smartmouth wise-ass. A car rolls onto its side. There’s an explosion, and everyone dives to the ground. It’s basically every 80s American action show distilled into 1 minute and 27 glorious seconds. For added period detail, later versions included Locklear in a bikini and working undercover in a lapdancing club, and Shatner leaping from a helicopter. Into a speedboat.
FYI: Shatner’s Star Trek oppo Leonard Nimoy guest-starred in an episode, and directed another. The show also saw early appearances by Sharon Stone, Tori Spelling and Nicole Eggert.
7. Charlie’s Angels (1976-81)
The titles: Three ladies (Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett and Jaclyn Smith, with Farrah replaced by Cheryl Ladd, and Jackson later gave way to Shelley Hack, then Tanya Roberts…. Um, would a spreadsheet help?) run around and swish their hair in a series of stylish pantsuits while John Forsyth mansplains their career histories (“Once upon a time, there were three little girls…”). Weirdly, he goes to the effort of detailing which specific police academies each of them went to, as if anyone cares. The version presented for your viewing pleasure here features Smith, Jackson and Ladd (from left, karate chop, walkie-talkie, gun) – which surely we can all agree is the classic Angels line-up?
6. Magnum P.I. (1980-88)
The titles: Easy-going private dick Thomas Magnum (Tom Selleck – owner of the most famous soup-strainer this side of Clark Gable) races reclusive millionaire author Robin Masters’ red Ferrari around Hawaii, while sporting (or not sporting) a series of outfits that range from full Naval uniform to a pair of teeny tiny trunks. Iconic moment: Magnum turns to the camera and gives the boys and girls at home a cheeky wiggle of his bushy eyebrows. (He’s a very hairy man, is Tom.)
FYI: The unseen Robin Masters was voiced by Orson fucking Welles!
“Glen “A” Larson and Stu Phillips based the Knight Rider theme on Delibes’ Marche Et Cortège De Bacchus. It later formed the basis of Busta Rhymes’ 1998 hit Turn It Up/Fire It up, in which our man claimed to be ‘the street shit, the nigga your mama freak with’. (Delibes didn’t write that bit, in case you’re wondering.)”
5. Hart to Hart (1979-84)
The titles: Scenes of Jet-setting millionaire playboy Jonathan (Robert Wagner) and his missus Jennifer (Stefanie Powers) Harts’ Bel Air lifestyle (Lear jets, sports cars, skiing, a fair bit of canoodling) combined with their various scrapes, including the requisite Butch and Sundance-style leap from a rooftop. The music is another Mark Snow classic. Isn’t it time an orchestra gave Mark Snow and Mike Post the John Williams treatment, with a proper live concert tribute to their work? Something for the BBC Proms to think about, amidst all the Rimsky-Korsakov and what have you.
Best remembered for Lionel Stander’s immortal info-dump intro: “This is my boss – Jonathan Hart, a self-made millionaire. He’s quite a guy. This is Mrs H – she’s goygeous. She’s one lady who knows how to take care of herself. By the way, my name is Max. I take care of both of them – which ain’t easy; ‘cause when they met, it was (altogether now) murder.”
FYI: Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner wanted the opening titles to one-shot 1981 spin-off K-9 & Company to copy the intro to Hart to Hart. But instead of racing her convertible Merc through the LA sunshine, like Stefanie Powers, Elisabeth Sladen had to make do with driving a decapitated Mini Metro through the mizzling Gloucestershire countryside, and perching on a dry-stone wall with the titular robot dog. God knows how he got up there – or if he ever got down.
Bonus FYI: The show was created by Sidney Sheldon – the seventh best-selling novelist of all time, fact fans.
4. The Fall Guy (1981-86)
The titles: Stunts. Loads, and loads, of stunts. Train stunts, plane stunts, car stunts, helicopter stunts, fight stunts, jet-pack stunts. Plus, for the “dads”, Heather Thomas pushing through a pair of saloon doors in a powder blue bikini made from less material than the Jim Davidson Joke Book. As stuntman and part-time bounty hunter Colt Seavers, Lee Majors – still very much a six million dollar kind of guy as far as the networks were concerned – sang the cod-country ballad of The Unknown Stuntman, claiming to have got intimate with every A-list actress in Hollywood (including ex-wife Farrah Fawcett) before revealing he never actually got to first base with any of them, and had to contend with watching his leading ladies “kiss some other guy while I’m bandaging my knee”. We’ve all been there, mate. “But it’s only hay, hey hey,” he sings, philosophically.
FYI: The pilot featured a cameo from Farrah Fawcett, intended to show her recent divorce from Majors had been more amicable than the press had made out.
3. Starsky & Hutch (1975-79)
The titles: All four seasons had different opening credits and music, but each provided its share of iconic moments of the mismatched cops screening around the fictional Bay City, CA, in their cherry red Ford Gran Torino including: Starsky & Hutch driving the ‘Striped Tomato’ through an alleyway full of paper; Starsky (Paul Michael Glaser) blowing in Hutch’s (David Soul) ear while he’s mesmerised by a stripper; our heroes walking through a steam room in just towels and gun holsters; David Soul jumping arse-first onto a car roof (the actor has suffered decades of back pain, which he puts partly down to doing so many of his own stunts); S&H emerging sopping wet from a pool, with Starsky in that cardigan; the “undercover hairdressers”, and many more. Key moment: Starsky pushes a trolley through a locked door, before falling woozily into his pardner’s arms. Bromance, 70s-style.
Season One boasted a dark, brooding (and, it has to be said, pretty fabulous) theme courtesy of Lalo “Bullitt” Schifrin, before Tom Scott’s funkadelic “Gotcha” – the iconic S&H theme – was introduced in Season Two. Season Three saw another change, with Mark (X-Files) Snow wigging out on one of them newfangled keyboards, before a reworked “Gotcha” was brought back for the fourth and final run.
FYI: The 2004 film switched the personalities of the two cops, with Ben Stiller’s arse-clenched Starsky exasperated by Owen Wilson’s maverick Hutch. Sacrilege.
2. Knight Rider (1982-86)
The titles: A cop wakes up after a near-fatal shooting to find he’s been given the face of German chart sensation David Hasselhoff, and a snarky talking supercar called KITT (voiced by William Daniels). Together, they fight crime on behalf of a frankly dubious private “justice organisation” run by dandy English billionaire Devon Miles (Edward Mulhare) – mainly by driving really, really fast and jumping over lorries and stuff. KITT emerges through the desert, like Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia, if Omar Sharif had been a Pontiac Firebird Trans Am (which he wasn’t, obviously), as a Solemn Voiceover Man informs us that Knight Rider is “a shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man who does not exist”. That man being Michael Knight, “a young loner on a crusade to champion the cause of the innocent, the helpless, the powerless in a world of criminals who operate above the law.” Which is weird, because to the rest of us it was the show about that dude with the talking car. Key moment: Michael presses TURBO BOOST and Kitt jumps over a flatbed truck, some wrecked cars and a, er, gymkhana fence.
Producer Glen “A” Larson and regular musical wingman Stu Phillips based the naggingly catchy, Giorgio Moroder-riffing theme on a mix of Euro synthpop and Delibes’ Marche Et Cortège De Bacchus. It later formed the basis of Busta Rhymes’ 1998 hit Turn It Up/Fire It up, in which our man claimed to be ‘the street shit, the nigga your mama freak with’. (Delibes didn’t write that bit, in case you’re wondering.)
FYI: Patricia McPherson, who played mechanic Bonnie, was fired after the first season and replaced with the “sexier” Rebecca Holden as the equally good-under-the-hood April. McPherson was then re-hired for the third and fourth seasons, apparently on the Hoff’s insistence.
1. Airwolf (1984-87)
“This briefing is from file A56-7W, classified top secret. Subject is: Airwolf.” Jan-Michael Vincent plays Stringfellow Hawke (yes, really), a reclusive flying ace who steals a supersonic attack helicopter and hides it in a mountain, refusing to give it back to the CIA until they find his brother St John, an MIA in Vietnam. He does agree to fly secret black ops missions for them, though, with help from US Army veteran and father figure Dominic Santini (the great Ernest Borgnine). A brooding, damaged soul, when he isn’t blowing shit up in his super-helicopter, Hawke likes to play his cello by a lake. As you do.
The titles: While the budget may have limited actual flying time in the show, the title sequence is a greatest hits package of Airwolf hero shots, mixed with animated blueprints and Hawke playing his cello. Because he’s a string fellow, you see? Maybe you had to be there. Key moment: Airwolf rises out of its canyon hideaway like a ruddy great flying shark.
Music-wise, let’s cut to the chase, here. Sylvester Levay’s Airwolf theme is not just the greatest TV theme ever written, it’s one of the greatest works of instrumental music of all time. I mean, nice try, Beethoven – your Ninth Symphony is not too shabby at all. But it’s no Airwolf.
FYI: As well as losing all the original cast, the fourth season (starring Barry Van Dyke as the rediscovered St John “Sinjin” Hawke) had no access to the Airwolf prop, so all the flying scenes were recycled from earlier episodes.
❉ Mindhorn is in cinemas May 5; Lethal Weapon is on Fridays at 9pm on ITV, of all places.
❉ 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