Long before The Wire, Homicide, Chicago PD, NYPD Blue, or even Hill Street Blues, there was Police Story.
Co-created by cop-turned-writer Joseph Wambaugh, Police Story aired on NBC from 1973 to 1978. It was an anthology series, with each episode following a different member of the LAPD as they deal with crime and social issues in Los Angeles. For its time, it was ground-breaking in its realistic approach to the life and work of the police. Interestingly, the show wasn’t always blindly pro-cop. Often the cops featured were deeply flawed and the war on crime was frequently portrayed to be unwinnable. Over the course of its run, Police Story was a regular Emmy nominee and won the award for Best Drama Series in 1976.
Police Story started, in 1973, with a two-hour TV movie. At the time it aired, the pilot was called Stakeout but it has since aired in syndication under the title Slow Boy. Vic Morrow stars as Sgt. Joe LaFrieda, a plainclothes detective who can’t keep his marriage together but who can take criminals off the street. LaFrieda is the second-in-command of a special squad of detectives who specialize in watching and taking down high-profile criminals. Their methods frequently come close to entrapment but they usually work. Their current target is Slow Boy (Chuck Conners), the son of a mafia chieftain, who enjoys robbing stores. When LaFrieda’s first attempt to put Slow Boy in jail is thwarted by a liberal judge and departmental bureaucracy, he and the squad come up with a second, less-than-legal plan to take Slow Boy down.
Considering the involvement of Joseph Wambaugh, it’s no surprise that plot is secondary to exploring the day-to-day lives of the blue-collar cops trying to take Slow Boy down. The heart of the movie is in the scenes of the cops shooting the breeze and trying to keep each other amused during length shakeouts. Their humor is often grim and the fascinating dialogue is cynical, dark, and, even by today’s standards, surprisingly raw. One of the detectives (played by Harry Guardino, who specialized in loud-mouth city cops) is an unapologetic racist. Though he gets a comeuppance of sorts, the way the film and the rest of his squad handle his racism will undoubtedly make modern audiences uncomfortable, even if it is authentic to the era in which Slow Boy was made.
The underrated Vic Morrow gives one of his best performances as the tough but sympathetic LaFrieda, who is bad at everything but his job. He is ably supported by a host of familiar character actors. Ed Asner plays LaFrieda’s reactionary lieutenant while Sandy Baron is great in the role of an informant. Diane Baker was also perfectly cast as LaFrieda’s potential girlfriend. (She first meets the detective while Slow Boy is holding a gun to her head.) Finally, Chuck Conner is as intimidating as always as the sadistic Slow Boy.
Slow Boy is a tough and uncompromising police procedural and it provided a great start for Police Story. Reruns of Police Story currently air on H&I on Sunday morning.