Angie Dickinson’s (b. Angeline Brown, 1931) birthday is today, a fitting time to remember her groundbreaking tv series Police Woman (1974-1978).
Police Woman was ground-breaking, and yet it wasn’t. In the 1970s, the notion of a female police officer was still somewhat exotic. At least as far as representation on television went, things had progressed very little since TV’s earliest days. Nearly every cop show (serious or comic, from Adam-12 to Barney Miller) would occasionally but fairly rarely depict a female police officer, but only under special circumstances. Much as when you’d suddenly shine a spotlight on a Chinese cop when a crime is going down in Chinatown, the lady cops would be brought in for “lady things”: vice, perhaps; meter maids, of course; and any crime when someone needed to have a fistfight with a female perp.
So Police Woman represented a welcome change, and the historical importance of the show did not go unnoticed at the time.
The reason I say it was and it wasn’t ground-breaking, is that Dickinson was not just a police woman, she was (even at age 43) a police FOX. (There was precedent here too; Peggy Lipton’s undercover hippie on The Mod Squad was hardly anyone’s idea of homely). Dickinson was a former beauty queen (she got her start in show business by taking second place in a beauty pageant) and was known for playing babe parts such as dance hall girls in westerns and the token moll of the Rat Pack in Oceans 11. As police sergeant Pepper Anderson, she remained ladylike and beautiful at all times, no matter what the circumstances. It occurred to me that what Police Woman immediately paved the way for was Charlie’s Angels (1976-1981): ludicrous scenarios about pretty ladies packing heat.
But the war of the sexes was on. Change was slow and reluctant. I often think of Tyne Daly’s role as Dirty Harry’s partner in Clint Eastwood’s The Enforcer (1976), a nag, a nuisance, a drag, a worthless police officer, someone Harry constantly needs to bail out. Eventually the only thing significant she does is get killed. Luckily, Police Woman had Earl Holliman on deck to provide machismo and balance, lest anyone think ladies could or should really get down and dirty — break a nail, say, when putting the cuffs on. It wasn’t until the ’80s, on things like Hill Street Blues and Cagney & Lacey, that something like realistic lady cops would be regularly seen on tv
Still, everything in its own time.