The undercover cop goes way back in time in TV history, but you may just be surprised at the name of the actor who essentially played the title role in one of the earliest TV visions of what life is like for the cop who attempts to blend into her surroundings as a member of the criminal subculture. Other undercover cops on TV that appeared in the wake of this show owe a tremendous debt to its status as a genuinely groundbreaking piece of entertainment.
Beverly Garland was the actor’s name and, believe it or not, Casey Jones was the memorable undercover cop’s name. “Decoy” was the title as well as a reference to the purpose of Casey Jones in the LAPD. Jones took on the role of a decoy in a series of episodes that saw her go undercover to investigate crimes ranging from mob control of the boxing racket to fixing college basketball games. Lest you think “Decoy” was all about undercover cops in the sports milieu, Casey Jones also blended into the atmosphere surrounding shoplifting and corruption in the garment industry. “Decoy” was truly a precedent-setting show in being a cop show about a policewoman, but it also stands the test of time as a show about undercover investigation simply as a result of the stunning breadth of criminal behavior that the show’s undercover agent got involved in.
Undercover cops did not begin with the urban jungle. Not if we are to judge by “Colt .45” at any rate. Wayde Preston was the name of this Old West cop, but his undercover nom de plume was far more memorable. Christopher Colt was the name and selling the pistol that bore that name was his game. Well, technically, his game was going undercover to solve crimes, some of which involved famous names from the time period such as Billy the Kid, Calamity Jane and Edwin Booth, brother of the killer of Abraham Lincoln.
“Wiseguy” was also a title that essentially refers to the undercover cop at the center of its stories. Unlike “Decoy,” however, the real stars of this show were not the cops, but the low-lifes he spent much time infiltrating. Part of that may have had something to do with the fact that Ken Wahl played the undercover cop while actors like Ray Sharkey and Kevin Spacey played the criminal bosses he went undercover to bring down. What did make “Wiseguy” as much as a standout from the crowd and groundbreaking show as “Decoy” was that it revealed the probable truth that when you are so deeply undercover that you spend far more time among the criminals you are trying to bring down than other cops, you tend to develop closer emotional attachments with the bad guys. Sadly, Buckwheat, the truth is that the most memorable undercover cop on “Wiseguy” was not the character around which the show was conceived but a CIA operative doing deep cover work for the CIA named Roger Loccoco.
The Mod Squad
Talk about your hip undercover cops! Perhaps the most memorable undercover cop team in TV history is this white guy, black guy and blonde chick. They looked like hippies, Black Panthers and prostitutes. And they could infiltrate their way into the youth counterculture of the 1960s that, frankly, would have been off-limits to any of the lantern-jawed cops from shows like “Dragnet” or “Rocky King: Inside Detective.” Of course, one imagines that Linc, Pete and Julie might have had a bit more trouble going undercover in those neighborhoods where the most serious criminals in America were working their con circa 1968-1973: Wall St., Pennsylvania, Avenue, Crawford, TX.
The Silent Force
That’s where the undercover cops known as “The Silent Force” worked their magic. “The Silent Force” last only about half a year despite being a show about undercover cops smack dab in the middle of the highly successful run of “The Mod Squad.” When you consider that the these quite memorable if mostly forgotten undercover cops were infiltrating criminal activity not among the pimps and junkies like “The Mod Squad” but among the dry cleaning industry, corrupt political machines and the record business, the failure of the show to catch on is not surprising. The only question is how many white collar industries refused to advertise on a show with the potential to reveal the ugly underbelly of their cash machines.
Hill Street Blues
One of the most memorable undercover cops on TV for some people was Mick Belker on “Hill Street Blues.” For me, Belker was a third rate ripoff of Frank Serpico and little more than a caricature of great undercover cop characters like Casey Jones or Roger Loccoco.