20 Top Detectives From TV and Cinema in the 1970s

Entertainment Films Lists Television

There has probably never been a decade like the seventies for smart sleuths and cool cops. And whilst the Americans commanded the larger part of the market, there were some unforgettable British contributions too. Here we take a look at some of the most memorable crime-busters to grace our screens during the glorious 1970s:

1. Kojak


“Who loves ya baby?”. The follically-challenged, lollipop-sucking NYPD lieutenant Theo Kojak was the perfect role for US actor Telly Savalas between 1973 and 1978. During this time Savalas also managed to cash in on his popularity by recording his own version of the Bread easy-listening number If, taking it to No.1 in the UK singles charts in 1975.

2. The Sweeney

“Shut it!”. Detective Inspector Jack Regan (John Thaw) and his subordinate Detective Sergeant George Carter (Dennis Waterman) were two tough-guy London cops from the Metropolitan Police Flying Squad (although Thaw was actually a Mancunian). Like many screen detectives of the day they were sometimes prepared to stretch the rules to get their man, whilst remaining just on the right side of the law. Garfield Morgan played their straight-man boss Frank Haskins, who would routinely chide them for their unorthodox approach to police work.

3. Starsky and Hutch

Starsky and Hutch

Played by Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul respectively, America’s own unconventional duo were detectives policing the fictional Californian resort of Bay City. Remembered for their iconic red and white Ford Gran Torino and David Starsky’s equally memorable tie-up cardigans, which began something of a fad, the series ran from 1975 to 1979. Soul, also a talented singer, recorded a number of hit singles on the back of his TV fame.

4. Van der Valk

A British crime drama about a Dutch detective, Piet van der Valk, this series was based on the novels of writer Nicholas Freeling and starred Barry Foster. Although remembered by most as a 1970s cult programme, it actually continued right up to 1992. Its signature tune, called Eye Level, was a No.1 hit in the UK singles charts for the Simon Park Orchestra in 1973.

5. Barnaby Jones

Jones, acted by Buddy Ebsen, was an American private eye who had come out of retirement to investigate the murder of his son Hal, to whom he had left his business – and then stayed on in the game. Unlike the hard-drinking detectives who tended to predominate back in the day, Barnaby Jones famously ordered a glass of milk whenever his work took him into a bar.

6. Hazell

This late-70s British TV series about the wise-cracking, Cockney private detective James Hazell was written by football manager and ex-player Terry Venables, in collaboration with novelist Gordon Williams, and starred Nicholas Ball.

7. Dirty Harry

Dirty Harry

This legendary 1971 cult movie (in fact it was the first in a series of movies) starred Clint Eastwood as Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan – a tough, cool but sometimes embarrassingly politically incorrect San Francisco police officer entrusted with the unenviable task of trapping a psychopathic killer plying his deadly trade under the moniker “Scorpio”. Despite his somewhat anarchic approach to policing he remained on the side of the system when a group of his colleagues decided to go rogue in the 1973 sequel Magnum Force.

8. Ironside

Entitled A Man Called Ironside in the UK, this US television crime drama starring Raymond Burr was first screened in 1967 and ran until 1975. Formerly a chief detective for the San Francisco Police Department until being paralysed from the waist down in a shooting incident, wheelchair-bound Ironside remained with the department as a consultant where his expertise became crucial in solving some of the city’s more challenging crimes.

9. Charlie’s Angels

Charlie's Angels

Launched in 1976 and spanning five seasons and 115 episodes, this American crime drama series featuring three private detectives who all just happened to be female and very beautiful was always destined to be a big hit in the glamorous seventies. Working for the mysterious Charlie, who was never seen and communicated with the trio only via a speakerphone, the Angels tackled baddies aplenty and in so doing won for themselves a huge fan following.

10. The Streets of San Francisco

Long-serving homicide officer Lieutenant Michael Stone (Karl Malden) and his young protégé Steve Keller (Michael Douglas) investigated and solved murders in the California city for five seasons between 1972 and 1979, before Douglas went on to become a star of the big screen in his own right.

11. The Rockford Files

Elsewhere in the Golden State, ex-con Jim Rockford (played by James Garner) turned to private investigative work after his release from San Quentin following his pardon for a wrongful conviction. Operating from his trailer in a Los Angeles parking lot, the modestly-attired P.I. generally avoided contact with the police as he solved insurance scams and missing persons cases for a living.

12. McCloud

Former Gunsmoke actor Dennis Weaver was the ideal choice to play a cowboy from New Mexico who somehow ended up as a special investigator working at the New York Police Department. Long before the idea had suggested itself to the creators of Crocodile Dundee, McCloud used the fact that he was often derided as something of a hick who was not to taken seriously to his distinct advantage. “There ya go!”.

13. McMillan & Wife

Hollywood hunk Rock Hudson played San Francisco police commissioner Stuart McMillan (what is it about Frisco that seems to attract so much police activity?) while Susan Saint James was his bright, bubbly – and much younger – wife Sally who was always on hand to offer help and advice on bringing the baddies to book. The show ran from 1971 to 1977, the last series being renamed McMillan after the character Sally had been killed off.

14. Banacek

George Peppard was Polish-American private detective Thomas Banacek, based in Boston, who specialised in solving crimes of theft – and was paid a share of whatever was recovered as a consequence of his efforts. The series ran for just two years during the earlier part of the 1970s.

15. Hawaii Five-O

Hawaii Five-O

“Book ‘em, Danno!”. Although largely thought-of as a 1970s production, this iconic show actually graced our TV screens from 1968 through to 1980. Set (and shot) in the Pacific paradise of Hawaii, Jack Lord found almost as much fame in his role of Detective Captain Steve McGarrett as did the programme’s eternally memorable theme tune. Most episodes concluded with that immortal command to his subordinate Danny “Danno” Williams as the bad guy prepared to be led away.

16. Cannon

The portliness of Los Angeles private detective Frank Cannon, a veteran of the Korean War, did not deter him from giving chase to villains whenever the occasion demanded. Played by William Conrad, Cannon drove a Lincoln Continental, albeit a different one for every season in which the show appeared between 1971 and 1976.

17. Police Woman

Elsewhere in 1970s Los Angeles, the foul deeds of many a wrongdoer were being exposed thanks to the daring undercover activities of Sergeant “Pepper” Anderson, played by the delightful Angie Dickinson, who appeared in a variety of guises including schoolteacher, waitress and prisoner in order to gain the confidence of suspects, and valuable information in the process which would lead ultimately to their downfall.

18. S.W.A.T.

Once again in California, but this time in an unspecified city, the Special Weapons and Tactics team took on armed and dangerous criminals throughout most of 1975. The signature tune, entitled Theme from S.W.A.T., reached number one in the US singles charts.

19. The Professionals

The Professionals

This was a British TV drama produced by the creators of The Avengers. “Criminal Intelligence 5” (abbreviated to “CI5”) was a fictional department within the UK security services with a brief to use any means necessary to challenge serious criminal activity that was beyond the capability of the police. Bodie (Lewis Collins) and Doyle (Martin Shaw) were the tough-guy agents working for controller Cowley (Gordon Jackson). The show ran from late 1977 into the early 1980s.

20. Columbo


“One more thing…” the celebrated, if somewhat scruffy homicide detective Lieutenant Columbo, played by the incomparable Peter Falk, would say before concluding an interview, wrong-footing the suspect who had underestimated the diminutive and unassuming sleuth with the unfashionable, crumpled raincoat. The question which followed was invariably the curved ball. With his irritating persistence and contrived ineptitude, Lt. Columbo was the undisputed king of the TV detectives with a mastery of his technique unequalled by any of his peers.

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