About that 1997 unsold Five-O pilot

The original Hawaii Five-O ran for 12 years and a reboot ended this year after a 10-year run. In between is a mysterious 1997 unsold and never televised pilot for a revival.

Bits and pieces have shown up on YouTube (see embedded video above). But I finally had a chance to watch it. The pilot supposedly is awful and that’s why it has never had an official release.

I’m not sure about that. But it’s more like another 1980s/1990s cop-detective show that happens to be called Hawaii Five-O.

Background: CBS hired Stephen J. Cannell to write the pilot. Early in his career, he worked as a writer-producer at Universal, where his credits included co-creating and being a producer of The Rockford Files.

Cannell later started his own production company. The logo for that company showed Cannell furiously typing, then casually tossing a script page into the air.

Cannell was involved in producing such series as The Greatest American Hero, Riptide, Tenspeed and Brownshoe, Wiseguy, The A-Team and The Commish.

The writer-producer had no experience working on the original Five-O but presumably somebody was impressed with Cannell’s track record and he got the job. The title page for his Five-O script indicates he did the final scripting while it was co-plotted with Kim LeMasters.

Cannell originally wrote that Steve McGarrett was now governor while Dan Williams, aka Danno, was head of Five-O. In that original script, Gov. McGarrett is shot and Danno killed (!) by an assailant in a car that shows up in the middle of a public event. Cannell’s script also misspells McGarrett’s name as McGarret.

Story: In the filmed version, Danno (James MacArthur) is governor. It is stated he had succeeded McGarrett as head of Five-O prior to being elected governor. Danno’s successor at Five-O, Alex Bowland, is present and he is killed in the attack.

The public event was held to honor FBI agent Nick Wong (Russell Wong), who led efforts to rescue Danno’s daughter, who had been kidnapped. The bureau gave Wong a leave of absence for him to work with local law-enforcement officials.

Following the attack, Wong and Jimmy Xavier Berk (Gary Busey), who had been Bowland’s second in command, are appointed temporary co-chiefs of Five-O.

Jimmy getting the co-chief job is partly because former Five-O members Chin Ho Kelly (Kam Fong), Kono (Zulu) and Truck (Moe Keale) led lobbying efforts on behalf of Jimmy. It turns out they still have friends in Hawaiian state government.

Cannell now sets up an “Odd Couple” dynamic.

Wong is by-the-book, almost always wears a tie and gives orders ending in “and I want that 10 minutes ago!”

Jimmy, meanwhile, is a typical Cannell protagonist. He favors Hawaiian shirts follows his hunches, and isn’t afraid to break the rules.

Naturally, this duo will quarrel before, by show’s end, developing mutual respect.

Five-O’s lead suspect is Napoleon DeCastro, Hawaii’s current reigning crime boss. Five-O receives an anonymous recording fingering DeCastro and a subsequent search at the criminal’s home finds the murder weapon.

Of course, Jimmy’s gut tells him this is all too easy. (As an aside, it’s always too easy when the case appears to be solved in Act II.)

Without telling Wong, Jimmy has DeCastro freed from jail while Chin, Kono, Truck, Duke (Herman Wedemeyer) and retired lab man (!) Che Fong (Harry Endo) perform surveillance in old taxis.

Wong isn’t happy when he finds all this out. But the rigid lawman bends because Jimmy, despite being unorthodox, is capable and really does know what he’s doing.

Eventually, it turns out that a former KGB colonel is behind all this. He wants to frame DeCastro and take over Hawaiian crime himself. DeCastro had also just hired a woman tutor for his son. She, of course, is another former KGB operative who can mimic a flat, Midwestern accent.

The climax involves a big shootout. There is even a patented A-Team style car flip. The ex-KGB colonel and his men are taken into custody.

In the epilogue, Gov. Danno has recovered but will be on the mend for a while. The lieutenant governor appoints Wong the new permanent chief of Five-O. But Wong tells Jimmy privately they’ll continue as unofficial co-chiefs.

Problems: The biggest problem is that Chin Ho had been killed off at the end of the original show’s 10th season.

My guess is the other original Five-O cast members were fully aware of this. James MacArthur and Herman Wedemeyer were in that episode and Chin’s death was the major plot point. But, I suspect, there was no way they’d ruin a payday for Kam Fong.

Less jarring is when Che Fong says he’s “pulled the pin in ’68.” (“Geez, that’s almost 30 years ago,” Wong grumbles.) That sounds as if Che is saying that’s when he retired. Che also states this right after Duke says he retired six years earlier.

But 1968 was the year the original show began. Different actors played the part until Harry Endo took over. Che Fong made his last appearance in 1977.

Review: This is essentially a Stephen J. Cannell show that happens to be called Hawaii Five-O. You could take Jimmy Xavier Berk and put him in any other Cannell series and it’d work just as well.

Reinforcing that is the score. The version I saw had no credits but it sounds like Mike Post, who worked on a number of Cannell shows. But whoever worked on the music, there is a decent version of the Hawaii Five-O theme by Morton Stevens.

Cannell could produce snappy dialogue and does so here in spots.

It was nice to see the old Five-O gang get a final curtain call. If you view this as a Stephen J. Cannell program with Five-O cameos, it’s easier to watch.

1996: Five-O fans meet (almost all of) the original cast

Hawaii Five-O logo in the main title of the original series.

In 1996, fans of the original Hawaii Five-O series had a chance to meet with almost all of the main cast members of the series at a fan convention.

The event took place in two locations: The first half in the Los Angeles area, the second in Honolulu.

James MacArthur, Gilbert Kauhi (stage name, Zulu) and Kam Fong, the supporting actors in the 1968-80 show, were there. Jack Lord, who starred as lawman Steve McGarrett (six years after playing Felix Leiter in Dr. No), was still alive but had retired to private life.

I attended the Los Angeles part of the event. Among the things that happened there:

On the first day of the gathering, MacArthur, Zulu and Kam Fong just hung around with fans, engaging in casual conversation. It was very low-key and informal.

-MacArthur, asked why he left the show after 11 seasons, said he simply had done enough. He described telling the powers that be about the decision and that he didn’t want to make a big deal of it.

–Zulu was asked why he left the show. He replied that he and Jack Lord never got along all that well. “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.” Zulu said he tried at the start of one season (I suspect season three but he didn’t specify) he tried to get off to a new start with the series star.

Zulu’s title card during the first four seasons of Hawaii Five-O.

“Hey Jack, you’re looking great!” But Lord walked off. Zulu said he was confused. Then he was told the actor had gotten a facelift during the series hiatus.

Zulu told another anecdote in which the Five-O team apprehended a suspect. According to him, Lord felt Zulu was little slow. On the next take, according to this anecdote, Zulu zoom around the others. “OK, McGarrett! I’ve got him.” In this telling, the Big Kahuna wasn’t happy.

After, some time elapsed, a late-arriving fan again asked Zulu why he left the show. For a moment, I felt bad after hearing the stories he told earlier. But Zulu didn’t miss a beat. He grinned and repeated his “Lord taketh away” line.

–MacArthur, commenting to Zulu, said the Hawaiian actor was burning the candle at both ends in those days. Zulu did his Five-O work during the day and did a night club act in the eventing.

–Rose Freeman, widow of Five-O creator Leonard Freeman, told attendees that Jack Lord was cast only days before filming of the pilot began. Initially, American actor Robert Brown (not to be confused with the British actor Robert Brown, who played M in four 007 films) had been cast.

–Fans watched episodes shown with a film projector. At one point , Zulu was there watching with the fans. One episode shown had his replacement, Al Harrington. Zulu did a mock boo. Another one of the episodes shown was Bored, She Hung Herself, an episode that was shown only once on CBS and hasn’t been seen since, in either syndication or home video. The story behind that is a little complicated. 

–I let myself get outbid for a copy of the 1967 first draft of Leonard Freeman’s pilot script for a charity auction. I scanned it and committed to memory what I could. There was no Danno and McGarrett was the only Caucasian of the Five-O characters.

–A friend of Five-O theme composer Morton Stevens showed up. He had heard about the event and wanted to check it out.

–On the final day in LA, many of the fans were preparing to head to Hawaii for the rest of the event. I prepared to head home. As I was leaving the hotel to head to LAX, I ran into Zulu at the door.

“I just want to thank you for being here,” he said.

Obviously, he would have said it to any other fan. But it was a great moment for me, nevertheless.

“No, thank you,” I replied.

Hawaii Five-O’s 45th anniversary: cop show with a spy twist

Jack Lord as Steve McGarrett

Jack Lord as Steve McGarrett

Forty-five years ago this month, Hawaii Five-O debuted. While a cop show, it had an element of international intrigue from the start.

The two-hour television movie version version of the pilot, which first aired on CBS on SEPT. 20, 1968, concerned a plot where Red Chinese intelligence operative Wo Fat was torturing U.S. intelligence agents in the Pacific Rim and obtaining important information.

Steve McGarrett, the no-nonsense head of state police unit Hawaii Five-O is drawn to the case because the latest victim was a friend of his. The lawman, a former U.S. Naval intelligence officer, isn’t one to back down from official pressure to lay off.

The pilot immediately grabbed the attention of viewers. A short pre-titles sequence shows Wo Fat using a sensory deprivation chamber for the torture. That’s followed by a 90-second main title featuring a stirring theme by Morton Stevens.

The composer initially thought about re-using the theme he wrote for an unsold pilot, CALL TO DANGER. His wife, Annie Stevens, strongly advised against the move, according to a 2010 STORY IN THE HONOLULU STAR ADVERTISER. As a result, Stevens created one of the greatest themes in television history.

The series was conceived by veteran television producer Leonard Freeman, who wrote the pilot. Freeman’s 1967 first draft had a team led by McGarrett, with a mid-20s Hawaiian sidekick, Kono Kalakaua, a third, heavy-set detective and Chin Ho Kelly, who was the Honolulu Police Department’s liaison with Five-O. In the final version of the story, the sidekick became the Caucasian Danny Williams; the Kono name was given to the heavier-set character; and Chin Ho was made a full-fledged member of Five-O.

Freeman & Co. were preparing to film the pilot with American actor Robert Brown as McGarrett. Rose Freeman, widow of the Five-O creator, told a 1996 fan convention in Los Angeles that CBS objected to the casting and, just five days before filming was to start, Brown was replaced with Jack Lord, the first screen incarnation of Felix Leiter in Dr. No. Brown ended up starring in another 1968 series, Here Come the Brides.

The pilot had Tim O’Kelly as Danny. When the series was picked up, Freeman recast the part with James MacArthur, who a small, but notable role in Hang ‘Em High, a Clint Eastwood Western film that Freeman had produced.

The international espionage aspect of Five-O remained throughout the show’s 12-year run, though less so in the later seasons. Wo Fat, played by Khigh Dhiegh, made a NUMBER OF RETURN APPEARANCES, including the 1980 series finale. As the U.S. and China began to normalize diplomatic relations, Wo Fat became an independent menace. In the ninth-season opener, Wo Fat attempts to take over the Chinese government.

Five-O matched wits with a number of other spies played by the likes of Theodore Bikel (who had tried out for Goldfinger), Maud Adams and Soon Tek-Oh. George Lazenby, the second screen James Bond, played a secondary villain in a 1979 episode filmed on location in Singapore.

Five-O wasn’t always an easy show to work on. Freeman died in early 1974, after the sixth season completed production. Zulu (real name Gilbert Kauhi), who played Kono left after the fourth season; he told fans at the 1996 convention about problems he had with Jack Lord. His replacement, Al Harrington as another detective, departed in the seventh season.

Nevertheless, Five-O had a long run. When it left the air, Five-O was the longest-running crime drama, a status it held until Law and Order, the 1990-2010 series.

Lord’s Steve McGarrett emerged as one of the most recognizable television characters. In 2007, 27 years after the final Five-O episode, THE NEW YORK TIMES’S OPINION PAGES summed up Five-O’s appeal.

“Evil makes McGarrett angry, but when he speaks, his voice is startlingly gentle, exuding a quiet control that a beleaguered generation of parents surely wished they had when facing the forces of social decay,” reads the commentary by Lawrence Downes.

The writer ends his piece describing what it might be like if McGarrett was president. He dispatches Kono and Chin to stop illegal immigration and tells Danny that he wants undocumented workers “legalized. Tell Congress to send me a bill. I want it tough, and I want it fair. And I want it on my desk Monday morning.”

Cast of the 2010 Hawaii Five-0

Cast of the 2010 Hawaii Five-0

In 2010, CBS introduced a new version of the show, with a slightly different spelling (Hawaii Five-0, with a digit instead of a capital O as in the original), a younger McGarrett (Alex O’Loughlin), a Danny with more attitude (Scott Caan) and a woman Kono (Grace Park).

CBS will begin televising the fourth season of the new Five-0 later this month. The show been shifted to Friday nights after falling ratings during the 2012-13 season, including a 25 percent decline for its season finale compared with a year earlier.

Even if the new Five-0’s ratings stabilize, it doesn’t seem likely editorial writers will muse what it’d be like to have McGarrett 2.0 as president. On the other hand, the producers were smart enough to keep the Morton Stevens theme music.