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.
Airwolf 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 prospective 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.