The 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.
The 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.
Martin's 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.
The 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).
In 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 its control.
But 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.
Within 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.
The 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)........... Shelly Novack
Quinn Martin, Philip Saltzman, Charles Larson, Anthony Spinner
September 1965-September 1973 Sunday 8:00-9:00
September 1973-September 1974 Sunday
Martindale, David. Television Detective Shows of the 1970s: Credits, Storylines, and Episode Guides for 109 Series. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1991.
Meyers, Richard. TV Detectives. San Diego: Barnes and London: Tantivy, 1981.
Newcomb, Horace and Robert S. Alley. The Producer's Medium: Conversations with Creators of American TV. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Powers, Richard Gid. G-Men, Hoover's F.B.I. in American Popular Culture. Carbondale, Illinois: University of Southern Illinois Press, 1983.