Welcome to Retro Television Reviews, a new feature where we review some of our favorite and least favorite shows of the past! On Fridays, I will be reviewing Half Nelson, which ran on NBC from March to May of 1985. Almost all nine of the show’s episodes can be found on YouTube!
The year was 1985 and actor/singer Joe Pesci was at an interesting place in his film career.
In 1980, Joe Pesci was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Robert De Niro’s brother in Raging Bull. Raging Bull was Pesci’s second film and he earned critical acclaim for his performance as the second most angry member of the LaMotta family. In the years immediately following his first Oscar nomination, Pesci went on to play character roles in a handful of other films, including Dear Mr. Wonderful, Easy Money, Once Upon A Time In America, and Eureka. While no one could deny Pesci’s talent or his unique screen presence, it was also obvious that Hollywood wasn’t quite sure what to do with him. While Pesci was apparently high on everyone’s list when it came to playing gangsters with hair-trigger tempers, no one was willing to give Pesci a starring role.
Fortunately, television always has room for an Oscar nominee and, in 1985, Half Nelson came calling. Created by veteran television producers Glen A. Larson and Lou Shaw, Half Nelson was a detective show. Joe Pesci starred as Rocky Nelson, a tough New York cop who relocated to Los Angeles to pursue his acting career. While waiting for his big break, Rocky worked for Beverly Hills Security and lived in Dean Martin’s guest room. And when I say that Rocky was living in Dean Martin’s guest house, what I mean is that Dean Martin actually appeared on the show, playing himself.
NBC liked the idea enough to air the pilot film and then schedule the show as a mid-season replacement. Audiences were a bit less interested in the show and Half Nelson was canceled after only 8 weeks. Pesci went on to win an Oscar for Goodfellas and he never starred in another television show. Half Nelson would probably be forgotten if not for the fact that someone recently came across the opening credits on YouTube. When shared on Twitter, this video went viral as “the most 80s thing” ever created.
After I watched that video, I knew I simply had to review Half Nelson as soon as I finished up The Brady Bunch Hour. Fortunately, almost all of the episodes have been uploaded to YouTube so, for the next few weeks, I’ll be taking a look at Half Nelson, starring Joe Pesci!
Episodes 1 & 2 “The Pilot”
(Dir by Bruce Bilson, originally aired on March 24th, 1985)
Half Nelson begins in New York City, with NYPD’s finest, Detective Rocky Nelson (Joe Pesci), disguising himself as a waiter and sneaking into a mafia-owned restaurant. After punching out two guards, Rocky enters a backroom and discovers a group of guys with a lot of heroin. Rocky arrests them and becomes a hero. As Rocky explains in a voice-over, it’s the biggest drug bust in history. When Hollywood asks for the rights to the story, Rocky insists that he be allowed to audition for the lead role. Rocky quits the NYPD and heads out to Los Angeles. Rocky’s going to be a star!
And, at first, it seems like Rocky’s dream might actually come true. The film’s director (played by the veteran TV character actor, George Wyner) watches Rocky’s audition and announces that Rocky has the screen presence and talent of Al Pacino. Unfortunately, Rocky is also only 5’3. “You’re too short to play Rocky Nelson,” the director explains.
“But I am Rocky Nelson!” Rocky exclaims.
Despite the fact that Rocky’s telling the truth, it doesn’t matter. A tall British actor is cast in the film. As a dejected Rocky leaves the audition, he’s approached by a security guard who offers Rocky a job with Beverly Hills Patrol, a private security firm. Rocky’s skeptical until the security guard mentions that Rocky will get to live in Dean Martin’s guest house.
We jump forward six months. Rocky is now a trusted employee of Beverly Hills Patrol. When he’s not working as a bodyguard, he’s auditioning for roles. At the office, his boss is Chester (Fred Williamson) and the office manager is Annie O’Hara (Victoria Jackson). Chester is cool and all-business. Annie is flighty and has an obvious crush on Rocky. She also gives Rocky a pit bull named Hunk. Hunk is very loyal but also very quick to attack anyone who isn’t Rocky. I don’t know if a show could get away with a comic relief pit bull today but whatever. Hunk is a cute dog with a ferocious bark.
In just six months, Rocky has become surprisingly well-known in L.A. Some of that might be because he lives with Dean Martin. Martin appears in three scenes of the pilot and, to be honest, he definitely looks and sounds a bit worse for wear. Half Nelson was Dean’s final acting role. (He died ten years after the show was canceled.) But even though Dean was clearly not in the best shape when he appeared in the pilot, his natural charisma still shines through and there’s a lot of pleasure to be found in his scenes with Joe Pesci. For one thing, Pesci himself seems to be genuinely excited about acting opposite Martin.
Along with becoming friends with Dean Martin, Rocky has also befriended Parsons (George Kennedy), a Los Angeles police chief who is eager for Rocky to quit the Beverly Hills Patrol and to join the LAPD. Rocky turns down the offer, however. Rocky is done with police work. He’s going to be a star!
Of course, he’ll also find time to solve some crimes along the way.
For instance, in the pilot, Rocky investigates the death of his best friend and co-worker, Jerry (Nicholas Surovy). Parsons insists that all the evidence shows that Jerry murdered his girlfriend, Monika (Morgan Brittany), and then shot himself. However, Rocky doesn’t think Jerry would do something like that. When Jerry’s father (veteran screen actor Rory Calhoun) asks Rocky to find the people who killed his son, Rocky doesn’t have to be asked twice.
It turns out that Jerry and Monika were taking money from a tabloid magazine publisher (Terry Kiser). They had a video tape that would have been very embarrassing to some prominent Angelinos, including a businessman (Rod Taylor), a restauranter (Tony Curtis), a general (Mills Watson), an astronaut (Gary Lockwood), and a television executive (Bernie Kopell). Rocky assumes that the people on the tape ordered the murders but then he learns that, while the general did send two government agents to find the tape, he also made clear that no one was supposed to be killed. Instead, someone else who wanted the tapes committed the murders on his own.
Searching for the killer means that Rocky will have to assume many disguises and show off his acting skills. As an actor, he’s able to wander into the local movie studio and not only raid their wardrobe department but also borrow their cars. Over the course of the film, Rocky disguses himself as both a cowboy and a traffic cop. He also drives a Ferrari, a Cadillac, a jeep, a motorcycle, and KITT, the talking car from Knight Rider. (KITT, unfortunately, does not talk in Half Nelson.) On the one hand, the use of disguises is a little bit silly because Joe Pesci is always going to be Joe Pesci regardless of what costume he is wearing. The pilot’s silliest scene involves Rocky dressed up like a cop to confront two men who have been following him. Somehow, they fail to pick up on the fact that the 5’3 cop with the New York accent is the same 5’3 New Yorker who they’ve been tailing for the last few days. And yet, it’s one of those things that’s so ludicrous that you can’t help but think that the show was showing a bit of self-awareness and commenting on just how ludicrous most television shows tend to be.
Eventually, Rocky figures out that the killer is …. SPOILER ALERT …. Parsons! That’s right. The same police chief who kept offering Rocky a job with the LAPD turned out to be the murderer for whom Rocky was looking. What’s interesting is that, after realizing that Parsons is the killers, Rocky doesn’t arrest Parsons or attack him or do any of the other things that a typical TV detective might. And Parsons doesn’t try to flee or fight. Instead, the two men take a leisurely drive and talk about life, morality, and regret. Parsons talks about how he was once an honest cop but Los Angeles corrupted him. Rocky expresses some sympathy and says that he hates that he discovered that Parsons was the murderer. It’s a well-acted and surprisingly well-written scene. When Rocky asks Parsons about the murders, Parsons replies, “I had to empty my gun, just to drown out their screams.” (Yikes!) Parsons lets Rocky out of the car and tells him, “Don’t let them get to you, kid.” Parsons then drives the car over a cliff as Roberta and Chester (who have been tailing Parsons) run up to Rocky.
“Hard to believe that a man like that would kill himself!” Roberta says.
“That’s just the funeral,” Rocky replies as Parsons car explodes, “He died a long time ago.”
Wow, that’s dark! Fortunately, the mood is lightened during the show’s final scene, in which Rocky’s pit bull attacks boxer Larry Holmes.
The pilot for Half Nelson was nicely done. It set up the series and it gave us an introduction to the characters, which is exactly what a pilot is supposed to do. The cast showed off their chemistry and the final scene between Parsons and Rocky indicated that the show had the potential to be something more than just another mid-80s detective show. The pilot’s greatest strength, not surprisingly, was Joe Pesci. Pesci has played so many mobsters and crooked lawyers that it’s easy to forget what a likable actor he can be. The pilot featured Pesci at his most amiable and it also gave him a chance to show off his comedic timing. All-in-all, the pilot was a success and I could understand why NBC would have ordered more episodes after watching it.
But what about the series? Would the series live up to the promise of the pilot or would it just become another generic detective show? We’ll find out over the next 8 weeks!
You had me believing that this was a real show until you said the dog attacked the Easton Assassin! No way!
It actually does sound pretty good – what could have gone wrong? I look forward to finding out
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