The Streets of San Francisco

1972 | United States

Based on the novel "Poor, Poor Ophelia" by Carolyn Weston and produced by the legendary Quinn Martin (The Untouchables; The FBI; Cannon and others), "Streets" is probably best-known today as the police drama that launched a young Michael Douglas--son of the legendary film actor Kirk Douglas--to film stardom. It was also the best-known role for co-star and veteran actor Karl Malden, who parlayed his "Streets" role into a series of memorable commercials for American Express Travellers Cheques.

Set in the beautiful Bay Area, Streets of San Francisco focused on widower Mike Stone (Malden), an experienced veteran of the San Francisco Police Department who was assigned to the Bureau of Inspectors Division. His partner was young Steve Keller (Douglas), a college-educated man but inexperienced cop. Lee Harris played their boss, Lieutenant Lessing.

The series began with the shooting death of a fellow cop and a longtime friend of Stone's; he promises the cop's widow to "get the punk who did it". From there, episodes involved such plots as the murders of clergymen who went to the same seminary; a longshoreman who steals cobra venom; and a female impersonator who develops, as "TV Guide" described it, a "murderous split personality". (And like Martin's FBI, "Streets" was literally a running ad for the Ford Motor Company; the detectives drove big Ford LTD's or similar models; the bad guys were always seen in Fords, Lincolns and Mercurys.)

Besides the gorgeous scenes of San Francisco and reasonably plausible scripts, the main reason the show worked was the chemistry between the older Malden and the younger Douglas; the two had a professional and working relationship that was in many ways like father and son. That bond ensured a large and loyal audience; at one point in the mid-1970's The Streets of San Francisco was third-ranked ABC's most-popular series.

In 1976, Douglas left the series to pursue what would become a successful film acting and producing career (he was one of the people behind the scenes of the Oscar-winning "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest"). Producers had Steve Keller written out by having him shot and wounded in the final episode of the fourth season by a post-Partridge Family/pre-L.A. Law Susan Dey; after recovering, Keller decides to leave the SFPD and become a teacher. (In 2002, Douglas--in a nod to his television roots--guest-starred in an episode of Will & Grace. He played, of all things, a gay police investigator who had the hots for Will!)

To replace Douglas, Richard Hatch (who would later go on to Battlestar Gallactica) became Mike Stone's new partner, Inspector Dan Robbins. But the dynamic of the show changed; fans thought Hatch was nowhere near as good or as compelling as Douglas. The ratings dropped, leading ABC to cancel the show in 1977.

A stream of now-famous names passed through "Streets" during its five-year run, including Nick Nolte; Dabney Coleman; Leslie Nielsen; Cheryl Ladd; Ned Beatty; and a young bodybuilder who would later become a movie action hero: Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The Streets of San Francisco was in many ways typical no-nonsense 1970's drama that showed the jobs and morals of cops in black and white terms. But it was Karl Malden and Michael Douglas who helped make it one of the era's most memorable police procedurals.

Published on February 4th, 2019. Written by Mike Spadoni (January 2003) for Television Heaven.