Ironside is a legendary television show that has seen two incarnations. Both shows revolve around a tough veteran police detective.After being shot and paralyzed, he is confined to a wheelchair. Only the detective refuses to accept retirement or a disability. He manages to get himself reinstated and continues investigating violent crimes, constantly confronting felons and putting himself in physical jeopardy for the sake of public safety, but the character always manages to triumph again and again.
Ironside (September 1967 – January 1975)
The original series was produced by Universal. It starred Raymond Burr, who was already a television fixture having played another legendary character, Perry Mason. The detective was first introduced in a popular TV movie. Burr became so connected with the character, he often spoke about how surprised people were to see him walking even though the world knew he wasn’t handicapped. Burr’s portrayal earned him two Golden Globe and six Emmy nominations for best actor in a drama series.
Burr played a chief of detectives that becomes the victim of a sniper’s bullet. Confined to a wheelchair and forced to retire, Ironside gets himself appointed the position of “special department consultant” by a resistant police commissioner. The detective’s staff included Eve Whitfield, Ed Brown and Mark Sanger, an ex-con that was first suspected of wanting to kill the wheelchair-bound character. Sanger became Ironside’s assistant, which mostly consisted of pushing his wheelchair, though later in the series he would become a lawyer and eventually a judge.
Audiences were drawn to the show. At the time, TV detectives were steel-jawed, two fisted and punched their way out of most situations. People appreciated the idea of a television detective that used brains to solve problems. In fact, it wasn’t long before the airwaves were filled with shows that featured characters that were as brainy as they were tough. This included Columbo, Barnaby Jones and Longstreet, a blind insurance investigator.
Music legend Quincy Jones was behind the music for the first eight episodes. He also wrote the theme song, which was synthesizer-based, unheard of in television at the time.
Like many shows of its day, Ironside used a roster of guest stars that today reads like a who’s-who of entertainment royalty. This includes Mort Sahl, Bill Bixby, Edward Asner, David Cassidy, Paul Winfield, Normal Fell, Burgess Meredith, Bruce Lee, Pernell Roberts, Anne Baxter, Jodie Foster, Harold Gould, Rod Serling, Robert Reed, Harrison Ford and Jack Lord.
The show was popular enough to be parodied not just in the likes of Mad and Cracked magazines, but on shows like Get Smart, The Benny Hill Show and a 1980 television movie that spoofed famous television detectives, Murder Can Hurt You.
Burr and many of the original cast members reprised their roles for a TV movie in 1993.
The remake of the classic series starred television mainstay Blair Underwood (L.A. Law, LAX, New Adventures of Old Christine). Opposed to the original’s dealing specifically with crime stories, the new show wanted to align more with current police dramas. So the character became a sexy, tough and acerbic police detective that happened to be in a wheelchair. It was grittier and darker, to fit in with the likes of CSI and Law & Order. There were dramatic differences between the two characters. The new Ironside was quite physical. He was often shown in physical confrontations, easily and aggressively besting opponents. Unlike the original’s sniper, the new show shrouded his disability in mystery. It provided glimpses into the character’s past via flashbacks. So the audience saw the detective running and walking. There were many flashbacks and conversations which intimated what may have led to his disability. Lastly, the show clearly demonstrated the character was actively and physically involved with the opposite sex.
As in the first show, Ironside is disabled and forced to retire. Here, the undaunted detective sues to get reinstated. His badge is not only returned, but like on Burr’s show, the character is given a hand-picked team. (The notable difference, he does not have anyone to push his chair.) The character is relentless in his pursuit of answers and struggles to not let the chip on his shoulder interfere with his job.
Among the show’s cast are TV mainstays like Pablo Schreiber, Brent Sexton and Kenneth Choi (. The show’s prominent guest stars included Ernie Hudson, Lou Diamond Phillips and Danny Glover.
There are only nine episodes of this show.
If nothing else, Ironside – intentionally or not – was the first television series that showed a handicapped person functioning in normal society without being a figure to be pitied or helped. Unlike previous depictions of people in wheelchairs in film and on the small screen, there were no tears for the condition. The show led to other shows trying to put a spin on the television detective archetype, exemplified by the likes of the then top ranked Mannix. Often the distinctive might have been ridiculous (Kojak was bald), or arbitrary (Barnaby Jones was old; Cannon was overweight) or curious (Columbo was sloppy and distracted). There was Longstreet, a blind investigator that was not only trained to defend himself by Bruce Lee himself, but drove a car.
Thanks to Raymond Burr’s iconic and often stoic performance, television audiences were looking differently at the potential of the disabled. If you watch Ironside online, you will see how it elevated the television detective series and could even inspire someone to try and repeat the success over four decades later.