The Sunday after Labor Day is designated Grandparents Day; we observe it by taking a look at ten police/ detective characters played by late-career actors to the delight of their usually equally mature audiences.
Agatha Christie’s aged amateur spinster/sleuth has been played by many actresses over the years, most famously Margaret Rutherford in a series of films made between 1961 and 1964.
Ole Blue Eyes (1967-1980)
Late in his career, Frank Sinatra struck a new chord by playing detectives in several popular movies. He played detective Tony Roma in two films: Tony Roma (1967) and Lady in Cement (1968), He was also a cop in The Detective (1968), Contract on Cherry Street (1987) and The First Deadly Sin (1980). He was 65 when the last of these came out. Later he came back once more to play a retired cop on Magnum P.I. in 1987. These parts just seemed kind of right for him, and besides, he already had the detective hat.
The Duke in the 70s
The title character in Dirty Harry (1971) was originally created for John Wayne. Wayne passed on the part, so Clint Eastwood took it. When the film was a huge hit, Wayne kicked himself, and took two similar parts in the mid 70s: McQ (1974) and Brannigan (1975). Wayne was in his late ’60s when these films were made, with only one lung, and rather a crude toupee plastered on his head, but he was portrayed as a highly physical action hero, engaging in foot chases and fisticuffs — the illusion of cinema!
Barnaby Jones (1973-1980)
In some ways the pinnacle of, and template for, a mini-genre. This Quinn Martin produced tv series was fodder for many a comedian at the time. Folksy actor Buddy Ebsen, who’d had a 40 year career by that point, did the near-impossible by reinventing himself yet again in the wake of being closely identified with the character of Jed Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies for a dozen years. His Barnaby Jones was a former private eye who comes out of retirement to solve the murder of his son and just remains in the business in his declining years. Ebsen was in his 60s and 70s when the show was on. The later Matlock and Diagnosis Murder always seemed to me to be fruit off the same vine.
Fish (mid-late 70s)
Abe Vagoda played his stationhouse codger Fish for laughs on the sit-coms Barney Miller (1974-76) and its spinoff, Fish (1977-1978). Vagoda was much younger than his character and surprised us all by living several decades after the fictional Fish was put to rest.
Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996)
Sweet old Angela Lansbury had played Miss Marple in the mystery The Mirror Crack’d in 1980. Subsequently a very similar role was devised for her in the guise of small town Maine mystery writer/ sleuth Jessica Fletcher. I always found Murder, She Wrote unwatchably derivative but audiences faithfully tuned in for a dozen years.
Andy Griffith was 60 and still living in the shadow of The Andy Griffith Show and Ritz Cracker commercials when he launched this show on which he played a criminal defense attorney who has to solve mysteries in order to exonerate his clients.
Columbo, Phase Two (1989-2003)
Peter Falk had already had a good run of it with the original Columbo series, which had ended in 1978. The original had been a PERFECT television show. Unfortunately for posterity the memory of perfection was tarnished somewhat when he came back a decade later with a new series of shows in his old character. The new Columbo deviated from the old formula and, for this, observer at least, the magic was largely gone. Falk was in his ’60s at the beginning of this phase and nearing 80 when it ended.
Broadway star Jerry Orbach was 57 when he began playing this much loved character on Law and Order in 1992, a role he held onto until 2002. Orbach’s job involved many sedentary wisecracks, but on occasion in the early years we would be treated to the spectacle of him trotting down the street in his trench coat in pursuit of a perp.
Diagnosis Murder (1993-2001)
One of the more implausible tv series ideas, but a successful one thanks to Dick Van Dyke’s charisma and acting chops. If it had been a stretch to have had Jack Klugman’s Quincy, M.E. out there in the field solving crimes, think how unlikely it is to posit Van Dyke as not just a surgeon, but a chief surgeon, called upon to do same in the line of duty. But, as with many of the actors listed above, it gave his career a third act, and audiences much happiness.