Starsky & Hutch Was the ABC Movie of the Week Pilot Factory’s Most Successful Show

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Starsky & Hutch Was the ABC Movie of the Week Pilot Factory’s Most Successful Show

From 1969 to 1975, ABC put out weekly films. They functioned as TV pilots, testing grounds for up-and-coming filmmakers, and places for new and old stars to shine. Every month, Chloe Walker revisits one of these movies. This is Movie of the Week (of the Month).

The majority of ABC Movie of the Week productions were standalone films. Roughly a third, however, were feature-length TV pilots. Airing these pilots during that slot both allowed the network executives to gauge the popularity of their potential new projects by testing them on a huge audience, and let the network sell advertising on the pilots they’d already shot, which would perhaps otherwise have gone unaired.

Although these MOTW pilots were born of business savvy, they had to undertake a daunting creative balancing act. They had to work as satisfying films in their own right, while also making the TV audience want more—more time with these characters, more adventures like the one they’d just watched. Thanks to the trickiness of that tightrope walk, only a fraction made it to series, and of those, an even smaller number lasted long enough to leave any sort of cultural impact. This select group included Kung Fu, Alias Smith and Jones, The Six Million Dollar Man and the cream of that particular crop, Starsky & Hutch. 

The movie opens in the middle of the night, with a couple of men chatting about John Wayne. They’re clearly waiting for something. Suddenly a car–tomato red, with a distinctive white stripe–pulls up. There’s a young couple inside, laughing and smoking. 

The men get out of their car and mow the young lovers down in a hail of bullets. 

Next, we meet our detective duo, out for another shift roaming the (fictional) streets of Bay City, California. At first it seems like a normal day on the job, yet as the shift progresses, Starsky (Paul Michael Glaser) and Hutch (David Soul) notice that the petty crooks they see day after day appear surprised to see them. Unsettled, the pair interrogate a group of minor felons and discover that they were meant to have been whacked the day before. 

When Starsky and Hutch return to the station, and see that tomato-red car–identical to Starsky’s–with a fusillade of bullet holes in the front window, they recognize just how much danger they’re in. But from whom? And why? 

Starsky & Hutch started life as a two-hour screenplay by William Blinn, written while he was working for famed TV producer Aaron Spelling, based on a New York Times article about two cops who only worked at night. Thanks to the technical difficulties surrounding shooting solely after dark, the project lay dormant for a long while, until Spelling suggested a rethink. The screenplay was retooled for a 90-minute time slot (which, as we know by now, is 70-ish minutes plus ad breaks), and the night element eradicated. The pilot for Starsky & Hutch was born.

While we are hardly lacking for cop shows and movies these days, in the 1970s, both the air waves and the cinema screens were positively flooded with them. Kojak, The Streets of San Francisco, The French Connection, Columbo, Hawaii Five-O, Dirty Harry, Serpico, Ironside, The New Centurions and many, many others all presented varying views of crime and justice, doled out by cops who ranged from lovable to terrifyingly corrupt. In such a saturated market, new police productions really needed a certain something to make them stand out. 

And what did Starsky & Hutch have? Well… Starsky and Hutch. From the moment we meet the duo, as Starsky picks Hutch up from the gym and the two head off to work together, they seem like men who have known and loved each other for decades. Although the “opposites attract” element of their friendship–Hutch is tall, blonde and smooth, Starsky is shorter, darker and more edgy–was already as old as the hills by then, their connection felt fresh and dynamic. 

Within a few minutes we’ve had interactions like this:

Starsky: You still seeing whatshername?

Hutch: Sure. Still seeing whatshername. Took her to the whatchamacallit. Gave her my thingamajig.

Starsky (with mock surprise): I didn’t know it was that serious.

Delivered with a sublime off-handedness, as if this was the kind of exchange the two shared countless times a day, their delectably casual comic chemistry made even the silliest repartee sparkle. Starsky and Hutch clearly enjoy each other’s company, and that enjoyment is infectious. The rest of the pilot movie is certainly solid–Blinn’s dialogue has a pleasing crackle and the mystery resolves in a satisfying manner–but to be frank, there’s not a lot else there that would have elevated it above the era’s reams of police procedurals. This is a MOTW that knows its strengths lie in the bond between its stars, and whether they’re cracking each other up during a rainy stakeout, or interrogating a suspect in a sauna wearing nothing but towels and their holsters, we’re allowed plenty of opportunities to luxuriate in that connection.

In a 2014 interview with TV Archive, Glaser recalls doubting the pilot would ever make it to series. He was very wrong. Much to Glaser’s displeasure–despite his immense charm in the role of Starsky, he would become notorious for his oft-stated desire to leave the show–Starsky & Hutch continued for four largely successful seasons, achieving popularity throughout the world. There were some changes made from the pilot movie (Bernie Hamilton replaced Richard Ward as Captain Dobey; Antonio Fargas’ legendary Huggy Bear would have a far greater role in the show), but for the most part, the series retained the feel of the MOTW that birthed it while adding more emotional depth and tenderness to that pivotal central relationship. 

Once the duo were welcomed into living rooms across America that first time, and it proved such a pleasure to spend those 70-ish minutes in their company, it’s no wonder so many chose to extend the invitation week after week, year after year…

… even into the new millennium, albeit in decidedly different forms. In 2004, Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson fronted a silly big-budget comedy feature remake (co-starring Snoop Dogg as Huggy Bear!) which included a cameo from Glaser and Soul. And this February, it was announced that an all-female TV reimagining is in the works. Whether the new cops’ chemistry proves as successful as the original double act remains to be seen. That a reimagining is in the pipeline at all, however, is another demonstration that almost 50 years on from its MOTW debut, Starsky & Hutch remains treasured in the public imagination.

Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.

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