Monday, April 12, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK #106: Airwolf: "Pilot"

From 1984 to 1986 on CBS, "the attack helicopter of the future," -- dubbed Airwolf -- flew circles against the competition, including a disastrous TV version of Dan O'Bannon's Blue Thunder (1983).

Created by Donald Bellisario (Tales of the Gold Monkey), Airwolf aired at 9:00 pm on Saturday nights, and -- at least during its first season -- featured a dark, brooding quality that distinguished it from run-of-the-mill 1980s TV action-adventure fare. Less jovial than MacGyver, less tongue-in-cheek than The A-Team, this series charted its own distinctive trajectory.

The universe of Airwolf is introduced in "Airwolf: The Movie," the two-hour pilot episode written and directed by Bellisario. A traitorous genius, Dr. Charles Henry Moffet (David Hemmings) steals the futuristic attack helicopter (a re-dressed Bell 222A) from a branch of the C.I.A. called "The Firm." Moffet takes the top-secret craft, which can exceed the speed of sound, to Libya, where he uses it under the employ of America's big enemy of the early 1980s, Colonel Mu‘ammar al-Qaḏāfī.

A high ranking official in the secretive "Firm," code-named Archangel (Alex Cord) attempts to recruit loner and pilot, Stringellow Hawke (Jan-Michael Vincent) to steal Airwolf back from Libya after Moffet uses it to destroy an American naval destroyer at sea. Hawke isn't inclined to help out at first, but the Firm steals all of his priceless art collection (gifted to him by his grandfather) as an incentive. Also, another agent, gorgeous Gabrielle (Belinda Bauer) romances Hawke, and the two fall in love.

With the help of pilot and old family friend, Dominic Santini (Ernest Borgnine), Hawke finally undertakes the mission to recover Airwolf, but in the process loses Gabrielle, whom, Moffett tortures in the Libyan desert and leaves for dead.

Using Airwolf's awesome weaponry, Hawke kills Moffett and takes the chopper back to the States. But instead of turning it over to Archangel and the Firm, Stringfellow decides to hide Airwolf in an undisclosed location. He will only return the fearsome weapon of destruction to the government when the Firm reveals to Hawke everything it knows about his M.I.A. brother, St. John, who disappeared in Vietnam.

Archangel suggests that an accommodation can be reached, especially if Hawke occasionally flies important missions in the Firm's interest.

The quality that largely differentiated Airwolf, at least during its first season, from the vast majority of action series on the air at the time (like the immensely enjoyable but cartoonish A-Team), was its melancholy tone and personality. Jan-Michael Vincent portrayed a taciturn, haunted hero who clearly forecasts "the dark age" of such heroes following Tim Burton's Batman in 1989. In its original review of the series, Variety noted Hawke's "intricate background," and much of that personal history is revealed in the pilot movie.

Specifically, Stringfellow's parents died when he was twelve. The love of his life died in a car accident when he was a young adult. And his beloved brother disappeared in Vietnam during the war. And, following the action of the pilot, Gabrielle is also dead and gone. This history explains why Hawke lives the life of a hermit at his log cabin in Big Bear, keeping only a dog and a circling bald eagle as company: he believes he is cursed. Anyone who gets too close to him will die.

Introspective and cynical, Hawke spends his days playing a Stradivarius cello for the aforementioned flying eagle, a lonely serenade from one majestic creature to another, perhaps. As TV Guide's Robert MacKenzie noted, Vincent has a "glum magnetism" in the lead role of Hawke, and "can carry a scene." Indeed he can. The most emoting Vincent ever does is with his cheek muscles. They flex when he's angry. He's the show's unlikely center of gravity, unmovable and mostly unmoved by the destruction surrounding him.

A loner and a musician, Hawke was also presented on Airwolf as something of a serious, independent thinker, at least initially. In the pilot movie, he wonders if there's any real difference between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Archangel's assistant, Mariella answers that the Americans "wear white hats." Stringfellow doesn't look convinced at that distinction. During the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, Stringellow's question about the use of power (and weaponry) was rare on television, if not all together invisible.

might have quickly proven a cold, mechanical series about a super helicopter blowing things up, but with the unconventional and downright anti-social Stringellow Hawke as its lead character, the first season boasted the sort of gravitas and humanity that today we associate with modern action characters like 24's Jack Bauer (who has faced his share of personal tragedy too.)

Alas, CBS was apparently baffled by the gloomy, serious tone and burgeoning story arc of Airwolf, and demanded "family friendly" changes for the ensuing seasons. For one thing (in the tradition of Mission: Impossible), the action would shift from foreign to domestic, hopefully to ramp-up audience interest and identification. For another thing, a possible regular love interest for Hawke was added to the series with the outgoing, spicy character of Caitlin O'Shannessy (Jean Bruce Scott). Hawke and Santini also became more willing, less-questioning agents for the Firm.

Still, even these modulations in formula looked great compared to Airwolf's final TV sortie. The series shifted from CBS to the USA Network for its fourth season, ditched Jan-Michael Vincent, and featured an all-new cast (including Barry Dillon as the missing St. John). Even Airwolf herself was MIA: the series now only featured "rerun" stock footage of the amazing chopper (culled from previous episodes). The second and third seasons might have been a corruption of the series' original adult intent, but the fourth season was an out-and-out travesty. In all, 79 episodes of Airwolf were made; 55 of them airing on CBS.

As we all realize, remakes of once-popular properties are arriving hot and heavy these days, so it's likely only a matter of time before someone takes a crack at an Airwolf feature film. While it would be nice to see the further adventures of Stringfellow Hawke, one can only hope that prospetive producers recall the program's first season, and the mood of icy introspection, loneliness and melancholy that the series crafted with relative skill. Otherwise, Airwolf is just a show (or movie) about a cool helicopter...and that gets old. Fast.


  1. I haven't thought of Airwolf in ages, John! Like you, I really appreciated the early episodes and the darker look at the current events and the questioning done by the lead character. It was a fun cast, too. It was a pity the Jan Michael Vincent's personal travails (really covered as almost a soap opera by the news media at the time) left his TV/movie career in tatters. I think my wife mentioned she saw him once on Nash Bridges (a show she loved). Airwolf really was the best of helicopter concept TV shows that were triggered by the '83 BLUE THUNDER film (a fun movie who's story-line would never be re-made today). Thanks for the look back.

  2. Le0pard13:

    Another Airwolf fan! Yay!

    I hadn't thought about it in years, either, then I saw that episodes were available on Netflix and got a disc. The show is still fun, and at least to start out, a little more than that too.

    Ever since Airwolf, I've been a Jan-Michael Vincent fan. I too wish his personal travails hadn't been so tough. He's really good as Stringfellow Hawke. (But recentlly, I've watched two 1990s horror movies where he's just sort of sleepwalking through...)

    Thanks for the comment!


  3. Great review! The wife and I watched the DVD of the first season, and I'd forgotten how good the pilot was - definitely a cut above the rest. She'd never seen it - and she loves it now! The characters of Hawke and especially Moffet - you'd never get that on a early evening kid's show like the A-Team or Knight Rider!

    Compare the Airwolf pilot to the Blue Thunder movie (it was on UK TV last week) and BT falls some way short. I love Roy Scheider but it just didn't work for me! It took about 45 mins into the film before we saw the 'copter!

    It's a shame that you can see how the network tried to make it more family friendly and it started to go downhill from then becoming more of the same formula every week. I still bought the second and third seasons DVDs! I don't acknowledge the 4th season as it's so poor! You can't beat JMV as Stringfellow Hawke.

    Now how about a review of The Equalizer?!!

  4. John, I know I'm writing this nearly eight years after you posted your review of "Airwolf", but the strange fact is that I just ran across your posting! I think I can safely say that "Airwolf" changed my life. To explain; I was so fascinated by the first season that I wrote a series of articles for a fanzine. These articles appeared in print in early 1986, and directly led to a correspondence (snail-mail, of course) with another fan, one Lucy Prochazka of Philadelphia. After several month's pen-pal action I met her face-to-face, and the next year (1987) we were married. This month my very favorite "Airwolf" fan and I celebrate our 31st Anniversary--and, yes, we still "geek out" with cult TV and cinema every chance we get!