[Author's Note: All quotes and commentary that appear in this article were culled from interviews the author conducted with those individuals mentioned.]
The Streets of San Francisco was ahead of its time.
Five decades after its initial ABC run (September 16, 1972 — June 9, 1977), the ground-breaking police-detective series, which was filmed on location in San Francisco, remains on track with all the right moves, twists, and turns. The pulsating theme music (by Patrick Williams) still captures the attention. The writing is still crisp with grit, wit, and realism. The directing still dazzles in clarity with every frame. The superb acting still delivers the truth of each character’s moment.
Executive produced by Quinn Martin (The Untouchables, The Fugitive, The FBI), The Streets of San Francisco (TSOS) was adapted by Edward Hume from the Carolyn Weston novel, Poor, Poor Ophelia. Proving that solid source material most always bodes well for any television or film production, TSOS struck more gold with the pairing of its iconic stars.
With rubber-faced charm and four Emmy nominations, Karl Malden played the old-school, sweater-vest-wearing Detective Lt. Mike Stone with the classic fedora hat.
With teen-idol good looks and three Emmy nominations, Michael Douglas was the newly-minted Inspector Steve Keller outfitted in the era’s popular wide ties and sports jackets.
A veteran of dozens of films in the 1950s and 1970s, Malden (who passed away in 2009), had won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in the 1951 classic, A Street Car Named Desire). For him, San Francisco was a crowning achievement in a heralded career, which also included an Oscar nomination for On the Waterfront (in 1954), and an Emmy win for his chilling performance as Freddy Kassab in Fatal Vision (1985). He earned the respect of his prestigious peers (Gary Cooper, Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, Rosaline Rusell, William Holden), and settled for nothing less than quality work.
For Douglas, the son of icon Kirk Douglas (who Malden had known), The Streets were paved and polished with future gold. He made his screen debut in 1965 in his father’s film, Cast a Giant Shadow (now there’s a title that works!). But it was a small role. And his mother, Diana Douglas, was also an acclaimed actor.
However, the son also rose not by riding the coattails of either parent’s career but on his own merit. His perseverance, hard work, and talent earned Douglas early TV appearances on shows like The FBI and Medical Center, and the ABC movie-of-the-week When Michael Calls (another workable title).
Then came The Streets, which laid the groundwork for unending acclaim. The show served as a refined stepping stone for a remarkable achievement of manifold Academy Awards and other accolades as both an actor and producer (One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, 1975; Wall Street, 1987, to name just a few).
On STOS, Malden and Douglas combined their talent, showcased engaging chemistry, and brought to credible life an unstoppable crime-fighting team within a dynamic framework.
The show’s solid cast of semi-regulars also delivered the goods including Darlene Carr, Robert F. Simon, John Kerr, Reuben Collins, Lee Harris, Ray. K. Goman, Vince Howard, Fred Sadoff, and Stephen Bradley, among others.
While Collins portrayed Inspector Bill Tanner for 32 episodes, Carr had just completed a two-season run on The Smith Family with Henry Fonda and a pre-Happy Days Ron Howard. There, she was the hip college-bound daughter Cindy Smith to Fonda’s Detective Chad Smith on a 30-minute police/family hybrid show. On STOS, she was the feisty college-age daughter Jeannie Stone to Malden’s Detective Stone on a 60-minute full-blown crime drama. And it was Malden, with two daughters in real life, who had suggested Stone have at least one daughter in reel life.
Simon was a respected film actor beloved by TV watchers as Elizabeth Montgomery’s mortal father-in-law on Bewitched. On TSOS, he was first Captain O’Hare, the Police Commissioner, and then Captain Rudy Olsen, shortly before he became the first to play J. Jonah Jameson, Peter Parker’s boss on TV’s Spider-Man (the initial live-action rendition of Marvel’s web-making superhero).
Kerr (pronounced like “churr”) was an acclaimed stage and film actor best known for his Tony-winning performance in Tea and Sympathy opposite Deborah Kerr (no relation and pronounced “car”). On TSOS, he played Gerald O’Brien, an attorney, which Kerr was in real life.
In the fifth and final season, Richard Hatch — later appearing on both the original and rebooted Battlestar: Galactica — joined TSOS with a noble performance as Inspector Dan Robbins, Lt. Stone’s new partner (after Douglas’ amicable departure in the fourth year).
Spanning 120 episodes, an impressive list of guest stars appeared in TSOS such as various classic TV, movie, and music icons Rick Nelson, Patty Duke, Bill Bixby, Larry Hagman, Maureen McCormick and Eve Plumb (both from The Brady Bunch), and John Davidson (as a transvestite killer!); stars-in-the-making Nick Nolte, James Woods, Mark Hamill, Martin Sheen, John Ritter, Anthony Geary; and soon-to-be TV crime-fighting partners Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers, and Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul. There’s even a pre-original-Magnum PI glimpse of Tom Selleck, who appears in the second season episode, “Spooks for Sale” — a particularly cutting-edgy story (written by Albert Ruben, and directed by Douglas) about a rouge syndicate of rogue government employees.
Other stand-out segments include:
“A Wrongful Death” (9–13–73): Written by Edward DeBlasio. Directed by Don Medford. Guest stars: Michael Constantine (Room 222, My Big Fat Greek Wedding). An angry father blames Keller for his youngest son’s death. But the real killer is the eldest son.
“The Twenty-Four Karat Plague” (11–8–73): Written by Robert Malcolm Young and Robert Sherman. Directed by Don Medford. Guest stars: Vic Morrow (Combat), Anthony Zerbe, and Herb Edleman (The Golden Girls). Here, four poker-playing men plan to heist radioactive gold which leads to a deadly game of insatiable greed.
“Shield of Honor” (11–15–73): Written by DC Fontana (Star Trek). Directed by Eric Till. Guest stars: Mariette Hartley, Robert Foxworth (Falcon Crest), and Peter Mark Richman (Three’s Company). This time, Stone and Keller investigate how a contracted assassin obtains inside information on the mob, which is complicated by Keller’s friendship with a crooked policewoman.
With riveting episodes like these and others, The Streets of San Francisco, and its total of 16 Emmy nominations, made for quality television. In addition to the behind-the-scenes creatives already mentioned, there were many others who played intricate roles in the show’s success. Those include executive story consultant/writer/producer John Wilder, who also directed episodes; as did Virgil W. Vogel, Walter Grauman, Harry Falk (brother to Peter), and Richard Donner (Superman: The Movie), among many others.
But more than anything else, it was the likable leading performances of Malden and Douglas that kept viewers tuned in every week (Thursday night at 9 PM). By each epilogue, no matter how dark the tale, Stone would be sure to somehow josh Keller, who he affectionately referred to as “Buddy Boy” (Malden’s real-life nickname for Douglas).
In 1992, Malden — a former President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — returned to television and his most-well known small-screen role, in Return to the Streets of San Francisco. The film was a reunion for him and Darleen Carr (if not Douglas or Hatch, who died in 2017) with the plot centered around Stone’s search for a missing Keller.
In October 2003, Malden was named the 40th recipient of the Screen Actor’s Guild’s Life Achievement Award for career achievement and humanitarian accomplishment. In February 2004, Douglas presented him with a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild. The following November, Douglas also was there to give Malden the Monte Cristo Award of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut. And in November 2005, the Los Angeles Barrington Postal Station changed its name to the Karl Malden Postal Station in honor of Malden’s achievements.
Meanwhile, in recent years, Douglas has starred in and produced the thriller Beyond the Reach, and played Dr. Hank Pym in Marvel’s Ant-Man franchise. In 2013, he won an Emmy, Golden Globe, and SAG Award for his portrayal of music legend Liberace in HBO’s Behind the Candelabra. The recipient of the 2009 AFI Lifetime Achievement, that year’s Producers Guild Award, and the 2010 New York Film Society’s Charlie Chaplin Award, Douglas remains one of Hollywood’s most beloved stars, renowned for his generosity to various charitable causes.
In this following exclusive interview, Douglas now shares his memories of The Streets of San Francisco and Malden, to whom he remains loyal and credits with ensuring the show’s enduring integrity.
HJP: The quality of scripts was superior on The Streets of San Francisco. But my sense is that neither you nor Karl would have settled for anything less.
MD: For me, the show was my first big opportunity. For Karl, it was the twilight of his career. He was persuaded to get into television. He was renowned for his work ethic that was beyond anyone. And he really set the tone for the show in more than a few ways. For one, he had it written in his contract that, while working on one episode, he would have the next week’s episode script in hand.
And whenever there was a break in shooting, Karl would take me aside, and we would run lines for the next week’s script. The writers were a little frustrated because our scripts ran about eight pages longer than most of the other Quinn Martin scripts, simply because we were so well-rehearsed, and picked up our cues so easily. So, they had to make longer scripts. And by having the scripts completed earlier, we had a chance to review them, and rewrite them [if necessary].
HJP: What made the show different from other Quinn Martin productions and 1970s police detective series in general?
MD: Our show was shot in San Francisco, and that was one important element that separated it from other shows on the air at the time. The first year, we went back and forth between the studio work and some location filming. But then we realized that it just made better sense to shoot the entire show in San Francisco. And at that time, certainly, in television, there just wasn’t much location shooting going on. And being in San Francisco, filming a show that was based in San Francisco, created a wonderful environment.
But in the first year, we were not warmly received by the San Francisco media, and paparazzi, who felt we were exploiting their city. And I remember both Karl and I were kind of hurt, and a little offended by all of that. But by the second year, the show had become such a hit, that all of San Francisco realized that it was a love letter to their city. It was a homage…the greatest one-hour commercial the city could possibly have…shooting all of San Francisco at these great locations. And so, therefore, their tune changed very quickly.
And because the people had finally embraced us, they loved the show. We were made to feel like part of the town and its people.
HJP: So, how did you become involved with the series?
MD: I had appeared in a CBS Playhouse called ‘The Experiment’ with Tisha Sterling, which was written by Eleanor Violett. It was reviewed well, and I moved out to California and was contracted with CBS Films [the feature film division of the network]. I made a couple of movies with them and then began to do episodic television, including The FBI, which was produced by Quinn Martin.
Quinn was a successful producer with many shows on the air, and he was entangled in a lawsuit with ABC, who had made a commitment for a series that they reneged on. Quinn then sued ABC and won. As a result, he got an hour show with 26 episodes, plus a 2-hour film that introduced the series. Very seldom is there ever any kind of commitment like that. A network usually gives you a pilot show to see how it does and maybe gives you a short order of 6 episodes. But this was a guaranteed 26 episodes plus a 2-hour movie. And my agent at that time said, ‘Listen, for you as a young actor, this is a great opportunity. Quinn Martin is an excellent producer.’
Quinn definitely had a good, classy patina. And Karl Malden was an Academy-Award winner. As an actor, he had worked closely with those like Marlon Brando, and when I worked with him, I began to learn why so many people wanted to work with him. Because he was so good.
As a young actor, I still had a little bit of stage fright in front of cameras, but I could not turn away from such an incredible opportunity with a commitment for an entire season of episodes.”
HJP: The chemistry between you and Karl is solid. Please talk about that.
MD: Chemistry is a unique thing. I had it with Annette Benning when we did The American President , and it was there with Karl when we did The Streets of San Francisco…because he made himself accessible. He was the lead of the show. And back in those days, when filming, the second lead was usually about two feet back from the lead, who was normally filmed in soft focus. The focus couldn’t hold both the lead and him. But Karl looked at me and said, ‘Hey, Buddy, come on. You come up here. You take the front.’ Very early on, he realized that, just because he was number one on the call sheet, that doesn’t always mean he had to be in the number one position on camera. Sometimes, he knew how important it was to stay in the background. And he was very comfortable in allowing me to take those front spots once in a while. And I am entirely indebted to him for that courtesy.”
HJP: So much of the show involved you and Karl driving in the famed Ford sedan, with the portable siren. Any memories of those journeys?
MD: I remember all the long exposition scenes that we would do while I was driving the car. That’s when, basically, each time there was a sound man in the trunk of the car, and two police officers on motorcycles riding along with us, one in front and one in the back of the car. And we would do a 5-page scene and, the director would stay in the back. And in those days, we had those old Panavision cameras with a thousand reels. And we had them stacked on either side of the car, going out and doing cross shots on me and cross shots on Karl and the other way around. I would turn on the camera and then started driving. One police officer would be in the front, another would be in the back and another one would be stopping traffic at a stoplight and just keep on going and driving around. It was insane. And I only had one little ding. We’d drive and there’d be these big cameras hanging off the side of the car. And I didn’t know if we’d have enough room to fit through. We had no plan. No map. I just kept on driving, while the motorcycle drivers kept stopping us.
But my most vivid memory of driving happened our the very first day we filmed. We were up on top of Nob Hill in San Francisco and it was getting late in the afternoon, and the AP [associate producer] banged on my dressing room door and said, ‘Okay! We gotta go! We’re losing the light! This is just a drive-by, so we need you right away.’ So, I rushed out to the car, and Karl was seated inside and the AP said, ‘Okay, once you go down the block, go around Nob Hill, past the Fairmont Hotel, and down that hill.’ And he said, ‘Karl, you put the gun ball [the siren] on the roof!’ Now, I prided myself on being a pretty good driver…driving Formula F1 racing cars and such. So, it didn’t bother to mark out the route. They said, ‘Go here, down that corner and around.’
So, when we were ready to shoot, and the director yelled, ‘Action!’ Karl put the gun ball on the roof, and I went down to the Fairmont and up the hill. And all I can tell you is that I went off the hill, totally airborne. And while in the air, I had time to look over at Karl, and he looked back. The car wheels were squealing when I stopped the car. Karl got out, and said, ‘You call that driving? That’s not driving! That’s theatrical driving!’ I thought, ‘Oh, my God! I’m gonna’ get fired the very first day I’m here.’
At which point, Karl said, “Okay, all right! I’m done. I’m going back to my trailer and change my underwear.”
HJP: You left the show because you wanted to leave acting behind and start producing?
MD: I always wanted to act. I never even thought about producing. It was simply my love for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And the fact that I was able to have access to the material because my father had the property at one time. Then in my third year with The Streets of San Francisco, I was feeling comfortable and there was no question I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity of being allowed to direct an episode. It all had to do with how much more comfortable I was becoming with the entire process of filmmaking. And for all the separations that there were back then between television and feature films, I still considered the show a 52-minute film [with 8 minutes for commercials] that was shot in 7 days. And you learn a lot.
HJP: You were ready to learn more?
MD: I understood the opportunity that I had. Some actors, they get there [succeed], and then they are kind of seduced by the attention but don’t take advantage of the opportunity they are given. And for an actor to be in front of the camera one episode after another. It’s a beautiful format. You have 7 days and then you’ve got another story. I enjoyed some of the undercover parts that you do when you’re trying to play undercover. And, it was extremely hard work, but so rewarding…so very rewarding.
HJP: Being on the show was an education in a way.
MD: Once we got to San Francisco, we shot 6 days a week. We did 26 hours. And the hour show at that time was 7 shooting days, which meant one week and one day for each of 26 episodes…at 26 weeks. So, that’s about 6, 7 months of the year…straight, you know? And 6 days a week. So, I learned a lot of things. I learned about script structure. Because we had the Prologue, four acts, and the epilogues…that format was Quinn Martin’s line. I learned all about discipline and work ethic and having to maintain that kind of schedule. Working with different directors. A different guest star each week. This was phenomenal training. It was like an entire career in one season.
HJP: And you left the show in the fourth year to produce One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
MD: Yes — and it made me the worst boss in the world. I’d tell [the actors and production team], ‘All right, here’s how it worked [on The Streets of San Francisco]. I did 26 hours a season, plus a 2-hour movie. 6 days a week. We would work for sometimes 8½ months straight.’
So, nobody worked harder than we did. I think that work ethic kind of stayed with me for the rest of my life. Plus, I kept my eyes open, and I learned a whole lot about production. People were sort of shocked about how much I knew when it came time for Cuckoo’s Nest. So, I was very grateful. And the final coup was both Quinn Martin and Karl knew of my passion for Cuckoo’s Nest, as I was working on it. And I was finally able to get it financed and prepared and went to them and asked them to let me out of the contract for the final season…the 5th season.
Now, first of all, it was a big hit show. Everybody thought I was nuts. They asked, ‘So, you’re going to leave a big hit show?’ And I said, ‘I really want to do this.’
But today, in television, nobody is going to let you out of your contract. But both Quinn and Karl said, ‘Absolutely — go for it. We loved working with you.’
And I always look back and think about how fortunate I was at that early point in my career to be associated with two mensches like Quinn and Karl.
HJP: Clearly, Karl was terrific to work with.
MD: We loved each other. He always told me, ‘You’re the son that I never had. I had my daughters. But didn’t have a son.’ And, as influential as my father was, I could never really deal with him in a professional, working relationship. But I ultimately found my niche with Karl. He had such a strong work ethic, and I found that helpful. Though I did also try and loosen him up a little bit. I’d crack a joke or find some humor somewhere so he could relax a little bit, and not be so tough ALL the time [he says with a smile].
HJP: You’re an icon in the industry. But how is it that you have managed to stay so grounded and down to earth?
MD: Thank you for that. And you know, people always talk about the advantages or disadvantages of being a second-generation actor. And I think just being around my father growing up and watching how he conducted himself in front of people, in front of the press, or just simply acting in scenes…seeing all of that sort of took the magic out of moviemaking and opened my eyes to the reality of the job. Rather than being a kid from Ohio that comes to Hollywood with stars in their eyes, and illusions of how you’re supposed to behave. So, that had a big part in my professional development.
But the second big influence in my life and career was Karl Malden. He was from Gary, Indiana…a steel mill town. He used to talk about how hard that work was, and the deep appreciation he had for acting. And what a great gig it is and how it should never be taken for granted.
HJP: And your father had worked with Karl?
MD: Karl Malden and my father were in summer stock together. And they changed their names at the same time. Karl was Mladen Sekulovich and Dad was Issur Danielovitch. And they realized, pretty early on, those [names] would be pretty tough to fit up in lights on the marquis and on the screen. So, Mladen Sekulovich became Karl Malden and Dad became Kirk Douglas. And Dad told me about Karl, and what a great guy he was. And then Karl became the mentor of my life…someone from which I learned so much.
And one of the things that I learned from Karl was how much he worked to make the other actors comfortable. He realized pretty early on that, even though he spent most of his career in a supporting role situation, he always made other actors feel comfortable. Because he wanted the other actors to do THEIR best work. And when you’re tense, you don’t do your best work.
So, he was never afraid of being upstaged or somebody stealing a scene. He knew — and it was an early lesson for me — that if he was good and everybody around him was good, he’d be good. And that was a very important lesson…that, and the amount of time that we would spend on [preparing for] a scene.
HJP: Sounds like working on The Streets of San Francisco was remarkable.
MD: I was fortunate enough to get the show, and I will be eternally grateful for the experience. The Streets of San Francisco made way for my entire career…including as a producer. I applied the wonderful lessons that I learned on the show to all the other projects that happened after.