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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

"She's a Cop. Oh Yeah!": Get CHRISTIE LOVE

Welcome to The Horn Section's contribution to The Classic TV Detectives Blogathon, hosted by our friends over at the Classic TV Blog Association!  Be sure to check out all the posts here on some of television's all time greatest sleuths, both private eyes and police.

The investigator we're spotlighting belongs to the latter category.  She's a cop.  (Oh yeah!)  A true prime time pioneer, played by a beautiful star who charmed us and then walked away from it all at age 27.  Without further ado--GET CHRISTIE LOVE!

Teresa Graves as Detective Christie Love
With the twin successes of Pam Grier's COFFY and Tamara Dobson's CLEOPATRA JONES at the box office in the summer of 1973, the time seemed ripe to bring an African-American heroine to network television.  The source material for David L. Wolper's pilot was provided by former New York City detective turned bestselling novelist Dorothy Uhnak. After 14 years on the force, Uhnak found success with a trilogy of novels about Detective Second Grade Christie Opara.  George Kirgo (DON'T MAKE WAVES) adapted the second Opara book, The Ledger, changing the white protagonist's race, location (to Los Angeles) and name--to Christie Love.

The limitations of network standards circa 1974 ensured that the resulting GET CHRISTIE LOVE! would bear more of a resemblance to the PG rated JONES than the R rated COFFY, but other factors were in play as well.  Being a cop, Christie would work within the system (like intelligence agent Jones) while Grier's Coffy (and later, FOXY BROWN) dispensed vigilante justice.  Foxy Brown memorably told us her black belt was in "bar stools", but Detective Love shared Cleopatra Jones' aptitude in martial arts.

One final similarity came about unintentionally, when Cicely Tyson (the original choice to play Detective Love) passed on the pilot film--officially, due to a scheduling conflict with her Emmy-winning AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MISS JANE PITTMAN--and the role was accepted by Teresa Graves.  While no one could tower over the bad guys like 6'2" model Tamara Dobson, 5'10" Graves shared the CLEOPATRA JONES star's above average height, age (5'3" Tyson was also two decades older) and slim physique.

Teresa Graves' solo LP (1970)
Teresa Graves was born in Houston, TX but moved to Los Angeles at age five.  In high school she was a 4.0 student active in both glee club and drama society, and it was her vocal talent that brought her to the attention of Doodletown Pipers founder George Wilkins in 1966.  Graves elected to take his offer to join the singing group over a fully paid music scholarship to U.S.C. and spent the next three years touring North America with the Pipers.  It was with the group that she made her initial television appearances.

In "Downbeat for a Dead Man"
 While Graves was soon to become the first African-American female to star in a dramatic series, it was her comedic talents that first brought her into households on a weekly basis.  She was cast in the notorious LAUGH-IN ripoff TURN-ON (cancelled after a single episode on February 5, 1969), then joined  LAUGH-IN itself--still the nation's # 1 show in the Nielsens--for the 1969-70 season.  Her third series was another sketch comedy, NBC's THE FUNNY SIDE (opposite John Amos) in 1971.  It was the telefilm (and pilot) GET CHRISTIE LOVE! that gave the stunning performer top billing for the first time when it premiered to strong ratings on the ABC Tuesday Movie of the Week on January 22, 1974 (immediately following the second episode of some new sitcom called HAPPY DAYS).

Detective Love here!
Christie Love (Graves) is the lone female detective assigned to Captain Reardon (Harry Guardino) of the LAPD.  Our introduction to Love finds her on Sunset Boulevard posing as a prostitute--a guise utilized by the aforementioned Pam Grier characters.  However, this opening scene is atypical, for both the Detective and her series.  (Note: all comments that follow are my observations based on the TV-movie and the eight subsequent episodes I've watched recently--a significant sample, but not a complete one.  I still have 14 more to go.)

Christie Undercover
Titillation was never a David Wolper trademark, and while Love looks enticing in her outfit for her undercover work, she's also dressed about as modestly as a prostitute could be while remaining convincing.  This was the shortest skirt we'd see Graves wear on the show, and subsequent disguises were considerably more dignified (one exception: her "heroin dealer" in Emperor of Death Street).  Once Christie has her man, it's made clear that the only reason she's been impersonating a hooker was to trap a criminal who is a major concern--a serial killer.  So rather than what the viewer expects at first--that she's relegated to the humiliating assignment of arresting solicitors (due to her gender, race or both)--Detective Love is in fact a valued member of the force who is simply the best choice to apprehend a very dangerous perp.

Christie encounters one prospective John en route to the entrapment, and after his price haggling is firmly rejected, he retaliates by yelling the N-word at her.  But this is the slur's only appearance in the movie (or, AFAIK, the subsequent series), and once it's trotted out, Detective Love dispatches it and the delivering bigot with a cool two word retort.  We will observe Christie facing sexism on the job (Pawn Ticket for Murder) but little to no racism--not even, surprisingly, from the criminals she arrests.  A tad idealistic, perhaps, but still a refreshing approach for Wolper to take.  Equally novel is the utilization of Seventies slang, in that it mostly comes from Reardon (sounding just like a teen's father trying to be hip) and the villain's squeeze (played by Louise Sorel)--not our hero.

Louise Sorel
The GET CHRISTIE LOVE! telefilm doesn't skimp on the action.  A half dozen fatalities, with no fewer than three different informants meeting a violent end--the first in an exploding boat before we even meet our protagonist.  We have the requisite car chase as well, despite the fact that our heroine drives a Beetle.  Detective Love also dispatches two foes via martial arts in the first fifteen minutes, to mixed results.  While the nighttime struggle with the sex offender is effectively staged and edited, Christie's hotel fight in Miami has an exciting commencement but concludes in somewhat awkward fashion.

Harry Guardino---nightcap, ladies?
While she can take care of herself physically and verbally, Christie Love mainly relies on smart, determined sleuthing to get the job done.  And afterwards, she uses her memorable catchphrase: "You're under arrest, Sugar!"  Captain Reardon grumbles a lot, but he's also turning on the charm throughout.  In the coda, he's hoping (for the second time) that Christie will invite him in for a "nightcap" after he chivalrously walks his ace Detective home.  The workplace sexual tension was certainly not unusual for the era, but the attempted swirling was--this was a full year before THE JEFFERSONS gave U.S. prime time its first interracial couple on a weekly basis.

When wits and karate fail, there's always this third option.
Graves stressed that Detective Love "wouldn't be a superlady".  She told the Lakeland Ledger's Dan Lewis that Christie "will use her wits" and "not necessarily feminine charms" to get out of tough situations.  She and Wolper both envisioned that Christie Love would be "more Columbo than Mannix" when the pilot was picked up for by ABC for its Fall 1974 schedule.  The star was baptized as a Jehovah's Witness in January 1974, and her newfound faith resulted in a number of requests for the episodes to follow.  Graves did not wish to perform kissing scenes and in general asked that the show's sex and violence be toned down even further.  Given that GET CHRISTIE LOVE! was scheduled at 10 PM Eastern Time on Wednesdays, it made competing for that time slot's audience (generally used to spicier content) more difficult.  Comparisons to NBC's racier POLICE WOMAN (also a 10 PM offering, on Fridays) would be inevitable.

Harry Guardino did not return for the series, and departing with him was any hint of attraction between Christie and her boss.  On the weekly series, Reardon would be a married man played by Charles Cioffi.  While Cioffi is a dependable character actor (and ten years younger than Guardino), his Matt Reardon seemed even older than his predecessor's, coming across as more of a stock "exasperated boss".  All in all, Cioffi's Captain was 180 degrees from the one played by the ruggedly virile Guardino.

Charles Cioffi and Teresa Graves
Andy Romano returned as Christie's partner for the series, but his character (Sgt. Greenburg) was renamed Caruso.  (Caruso's backstory was fleshed out a bit in For the Family Honor.)   Female African-American NYPD detective Olga Ford was hired as a technical advisor for the series, with a number of scripts inspired by Ford's real cases.  (Though it must be noted that Ford told writer Wesley Hyatt years later that her input was "minimal" at best and ended after only a few early episodes.  A sixteen year veteran at the time, Ford retired after 25 years on the force in 1983.)

Cioffi, Graves, Romano (L to R)
Graves and Wolper might have aspired to make Love a female COLUMBO, but GET CHRISTIE LOVE! lacked the distinctive writing that helped make the NBC stalwart so popular.  With envelope pushing content also missing, the sexy sleuth quickly faced a weekly struggle in the Nielsens.  ABC re-tooled the show at mid-season in an effort to boost the ratings.  Glen Larson took over behind the camera, and Cioffi and Romano were replaced by Jack Kelly (yup, Bart Maverick himself) and a young Michael Pataki in front of it.

With her third and final boss, Captain Ryan (Jack Kelly)
Kelly and Pataki proved to be solid additions, but there was one particularly ill-advised change that coincided with Larson's arrival: the show's theme song.  Replacing some of the montage was expected--the cast had changed, after all.  But the new producer missed the mark when he discarded Luici de Jesus' driving intro in favor of a much more generic sounding instrumental piece co-written by Larson himself (with Stu Phillips).

You be the judge.  Would you have replaced this theme song:

With this one?

Well, your mileage may vary, but IMO:

No way, Sugar!
With all the turnover and other production problems, GET CHRISTIE LOVE! usually went exactly as far as Teresa Graves could carry it--which was often a long way.  That the series is so well remembered four decades after its single season is a tribute to its star's charisma and talent.  Graves received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Dramatic Series in the winter of 1975 (and overseas, won Best Foreign Actress at TP de Oro) but it wasn't enough to save GET CHRISTIE LOVE! from cancellation.  Her well received performance seemed like a springboard to major stardom, but Ms. Graves elected drop out of show business altogether and dedicate her life to her religion.

Many expected her to return to performing someday, but GET CHRISTIE LOVE! would remain her TV swan song.  Tragically, Teresa Graves was killed in a fire at her Hyde Park home in 2002.  It would be a mind boggling 37 years before ABC would have its second hour-long dramatic series headlined by an African-American actress (Kerry Washington's 2012 hit Scandal).

37 years???  Are you kidding me???
The feature-length GET CHRISTIE LOVE! pilot has been ubiquitous for a decade now, thanks to its lapsed copyright--you can find it on YouTube, at Amazon Prime and on bargain DVD's everywhere.  The series has been harder to find, but Centric did bring it out for a two day marathon last August to celebrate the show's 40th anniversary.  Hopefully, the network will give us an encore presentation soon, or even move Christie to its regular schedule on weekends.  (hint, hint!)
While this is Christie Love's first appearance here at The Horn Section, it's far from her last, Sugar!  We'll be starting our GET CHRISTIE LOVE! Episode Guide with the next installment, eventually working our way through all 22 episodes of the late, great Teresa Graves' most famous role.  Thanks for stopping by today, and be sure to check out the rest of the posts from my fellow Classic TV Bloggers over at the Classic TV Detectives Blogathon! 


Classic TV Blog Association said...
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Rick29 said...

Hal, I remember GET CHRISTIE LOVE well, but that's almost totally because of Teresa Graves. She was charming, tough when required, and possessed the proper amount of attitude. I saw one of Pam Grier's films a couple of months ago and that brought back memories of GET CHRISTIE LOVE, so I was excited to learn you were reviewing it for the blogathon. And you did an awesome job with your write-up of the pilot film and the episodes you've viewed so far! I knew that Ms. Graves died at a young age, but not why she left acting after her show's cancellation. It's a shame that network television didn't cast more African American actors in starring roles in the 1970s. The TV series SHAFT (sadly watered down from the movies) and TENAFLY didn't last long either. Thanks for a bringing back memories of GET CHRISTIE LOVE! (And yes, I prefer the original opening song.)

Lisa said...

Great write-up! Clearly a lot of missed potential with this series and cancelled too soon. (I didn't mind the theme change, more generic but maybe more action-promising, which is a good way to get viewers to the table.) Teresa Graves surely had all the charisma any TV show would need, but seems like a "too soon" situation. Interesting about her revolving co-stars, too. Harry Guardino would have lent such oomph to the series!

Craig Edwards said...

What a fantastic and well researched piece, Hal! I have seen the pilot film thanks to one of those bargain DVDs - now I really want to see the series, especially the latter ones as I'm a big Jack Kelly fan. It's funny too that you posted this piece with the Tamara Dobson mentions at the same time I ran a Cleopatra Jones review over at my blog.

Joanna said...

Yeah--I've seen the easy-to-find TV movie too. But I haven't seen any of the series. I'm keeping my eye on Centric, hoping they re-air it too! Thanks for writing this.

Unknown said...

This is a great piece about an often overlooked series. I love that you're going to do an episode guide. Like others, I hope that more of this series becomes available for viewing someday.

ImagineMDD said...

Thanks for posting this article. I wish the series was available to watch, too. Not only does it sound like a great show but it's significant historically and people should be able to see it. Thanks for creating the episode guide.

Amanda By Night said...

Nice retrospective, sugar! :) Looking forward to getting more Get Christie Love on your blog!

I've only seen the movie, but enjoyed it, although it's a tad confusing. It's a testament to Graves' talent and appeal that she carried it off so well.

Hal said...

Craig: yes, pure coincidence on the timing too, as I've been planning a Christie ep guide starting with this overview, but decided to hold it for the blogathon. And I didn't think about it before, but that does mean Jack Kelly will have two episode guides going here now. :)

Rick: thanks for hosting the blogathon, I always enjoy participating.

And thanks to everyone for reading and commenting. I'm looking forward to revisiting the remaining shows; the first installment of the episode guide should be up sometime in March.

Hal said...

Also, Rick, I had forgotten all about TENAFLY but would love to see it again; James MacEachin was so good in so many TV shows in the 70s and 80s.

Britt Reid said...

Have the pilot on DVD.
Bummer that Guardino didn't continue on the show.
There was chemistry there...which may be the exact reason he wasn't kept!
Unfortunately, Police Woman is the exception that proves the rule that female-lead crime shows don't last.
Angie Dickenson's Pepper was constantly being rescued by an entire team of guys while kick-butt ladies like Christie and Honey West(another one-season wonder) end up disappearing into the ether.
Great article!

Lee Goldberg said...

Great piece....and thank you so much for posting those main title sequences on YouTube! I've been looking for the mid-season version for years. But someone has to teach you how to convert a DVD to a digital file so you can get clean versions of the main titles up on YouTube...instead of what you shot off your TV.