FBI, appearing on ABC from 1965 to 1974, was the longest running
series from the prolific offices of QM Productions, the production
company guided by the powerful television producer, Quinn Martin.
Long time Martin associate and former writer Philip Saltzman produced
the series for QM with the endorsement and cooperation of the Federal
Bureau of Investigation. As Newcomb and Alley report in The Producer's
Medium (1983), Quinn Martin professed that he did not want to
do the show, primarily because he saw himself and the Bureau in
two different political and philosophical camps. But through a series
of meetings with J. Edgar Hoover and other Bureau representatives,
and at the urging of ABC and sponsor Ford Motor Company, Martin
proceeded with the show.
FBI marked the first time QM Productions chronicled the exploits
of an actual federal law enforcement body and each episode was subject
not only to general Bureau approval, but to the personal approval
of director J. Edgar Hoover. Despite this oversight, Martin reported
to Newcomb and Alley that the Bureau never gave him any difficulties
regarding the stories produced for the show. The Bureau's only quibbles
had to do with depicting the proper procedure an agent would follow
in any given situation.
The FBI featured Inspector Lewis Erskine (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.).
For the first two seasons, Agent Jim Rhodes (Stephen Brooks) was
Erskine's associate and boyfriend to his daughter, Barbara (Lynn
Loring). Agent Tom Colby (William Reynolds) was Erskine's sidekick
for the remainder of the series. All the principals answered to
Agent Arthur Ward (Philip Abbot). Erskine was a man of little humor
and a near obsessive devotion to his duties. Haunted by the memory
of his wife, who had been killed in a job-related shoot-out, Erskine
discouraged his daughter from becoming involved with an FBI agent,
hoping to spare her the same pain. But his capacity for compassion
ended there. This lack of breadth and depth sets Erskine apart from
other protagonists in QM programs, but neither he nor his partners
allowed themselves to become emotionally involved in their work
which focused on a range of crimes, from bank robbery to kidnapping
to the occasional Communist threat to overthrow the government.
attempts, with his team of writer/producers, to develop a multi-dimensional
Lewis Erskine were met with resistance from the audience. Through
letters to QM and ABC, viewers expressed their desire to see a more
stoic presence in Erskine--one incapable of questioning his motives
or consequences from his job. Erskine, Ward, Rhodes and Colby were
asked to view themselves simply as the infantry in an endless battle
against crime. The audience, apparently in need of heroes without
flaws, called for and received its assurance in the form of these
men from the Bureau. A male agent, Chris Daniels (Shelly Novack),
appeared for the final season of the show.
series drew critical scorn but was very successful for ABC, slipping
into and out of the Top Twenty shows for the nine years of its run,
and rising to the tenth position for the 1970-71 season. Shortly
after the series left the air Martin produced two made-for-television
films, The FBI Versus Alvin Karpis (1974), and The FBI
Versus the Ku Klux Klan (1975).
spite of the critics' attitude The FBI was Quinn Martin's most successful
show. Media scholars point to the program as most emblematic of
QM's approval and advocacy of strong law enforcement. The period
from the late 1960s into the early 1970s was one of significant
political and social turmoil. The FBI and other shows like
it (Hawaii 5-0, Mission: Impossible) proposed an answer to
the call for stability and order from a video constituency confused
and shaken by domestic and international events seemingly beyond
despite this social context the series differed from other QM productions
in its steady avoidance of contemporary issues of social controversy.
The FBI never dealt substantively with civil rights or domestic
surveillance or the moral ambiguities of campus unrest related to
the Vietnam war. One departure from this pattern was sometimes found
in the standard device which concluded many shows. Zimbalist would
present to the audience pictures of some of the most wanted criminals
in America and request assistance in capturing them. One of the
more prominent names from this segment was James Earl Ray, assassin
of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
the dramatic narrative of The FBI, however, a resolute Erskine
would pursue the counterfeiter or bank robber of the week bereft
of any feelings or social analysis which might complicate the carrying
out of his duties. For Martin, a weekly one-hour show was not the
forum in which to address complex social issues. He did do so, however,
in the made-for television movies mentioned above.
FBI occupies a unique position in the QM oeuvre. It is one of
the most identifiable and recognizable of the QM Productions. It
is also representative of the genre of law and order television
which may have assisted viewers in imposing some sense of order
on a world which was often confusing and frightening.
Inspector Lewis Erskine ................Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.
Arthur Ward ...........................................Philip
Abbott Barbara Erskine (1965-1966).................... Lynn
Loring Special Agent Jim Rhodes (1965-1967)...............................................
Stephen Brooks Special Agent Tom Colby (1967-1973).............................................
William Reynolds Agent Chris Daniels (1973-1974)...........
Quinn Martin, Philip Saltzman, Charles Larson, Anthony Spinner
HISTORY 236 Episodes
September 1965-September 1973 Sunday 8:00-9:00
September 1973-September 1974 Sunday
7:30-8:30 FURTHER READING
Martindale, David. Television Detective Shows of the 1970s: Credits,
Storylines, and Episode Guides for 109 Series. Jefferson, North
Carolina: McFarland, 1991.
Richard. TV Detectives. San Diego: Barnes and London: Tantivy,
Horace and Robert S. Alley. The Producer's Medium: Conversations
with Creators of American TV. New York: Oxford University Press,
Richard Gid. G-Men, Hoover's F.B.I. in American Popular Culture.
Carbondale, Illinois: University of Southern Illinois Press, 1983.