Ben Vereen and Jeff Goldblum ARE “Tenspeed and Brown Shoe”

Tribute today to a show I enjoyed in my youth, the comical detective show, Tenspeed and Brown Shoe (1980).

Tenspeed and Brown Shoe was producer Stephen J. Cannell’s first show after The Rockford Files, and the one that came before The Greatest American Hero, The A Team, and 21 Jump Street, in that order. It was an early-entry mismatched buddy cop thing, with African American dancer Ben Vereen as Tenspeed, an ex-con who’s fond of disguises, paired with Jeff Goldblum as Brown Shoe, a sharply dressed accountant with a blackbelt in karate, who fantasizes about living inside mystery novels. And oh yes, the pair operates a detective agency! But know this…this was a year before Renko and Bobby Hill on Hill Street Blues, two years before the movie 48 Hours, five years before Lethal Weapon. It was a little ahead of the curve on the “He’s so white and he’s so black — but they’re partners!” high concept merry-go-round. And it was a very light-hearted show, played almost like a sitcom, although, as on Rockford, there was always a real mystery with real danger.

It’s worth running down the dossiers of the stars at this point. Vereen (b. 1946) had grown-up in Bed-Stuy, the son of a theatrical wardrobe mistress. He went to New York’s High School for Performing Arts, where he studied dance under Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and Martha Graham, the latter of whom hired him for his first professional gig in 1965. In 1967 he worked with Bob Fosse in the national tour of Sweet Charity, and later danced in the film version in 1969 in that preacher number with Sammy Davis Jr. He then understudied for Davis in the London production of Golden Boy. Incredibly, Vereen was also in the original Broadway casts of Hair (1968-72), Jesus Christ Superstar (1971-73), and Pippin (1972-74). Onscreen his major credits had included Funny Lady (1975, where he played the fictional; “Bert Robbins” a composite of several African American vaudeville stars alongside Streisand’s Fanny Brice), the original version of Roots (1977) and All That Jazz (1979), where he worked with Fosse for the third time. It’s pretty clear that singing and dancing were his meat and potatoes, though those skills weren’t really tapped into for Tenspeed and Brown Shoe. 

Though this was VERY early in Jeff Goldblum’s career (he was only 28 at the time) he had already been in a dozen films by this point, usually in small roles, though he often commanded attention in them. He had only one line in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) but everyone remembers it as a highpoint of the film. He has NO lines in Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975) and yet again he is very striking (he’s the dude on the three-wheeled chopper you see throughout the film). He played thugs in two Charles Bronson movies. He’s in Paul Mazurky’s Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976), the horror movie The Sentinel (1977), and in the disco musical Thank God It’s Friday. His last film credit just prior to Tenspeed and Brown Shoe was his biggest role to date, as one of the main cast members in Philip Kaufman’s terrifying remake of Invasion of The Body Snatchers (1978). He was still a few years out from his period of major stardom, but like Vereen, he was by then a well-recognized face and ready for his time in the sun.

Heavily advertised by ABC, Tenspeed and Brown Shoe was initially very popular, but audiences fell off enough that the show was cancelled after one 14 episode season. It was, I think, very gimmicky. But its two stars have seemed to fare well enough over the ensuing four decades.