Television became the strongest cultural force of our time in the sixties. It moved from the raw canvas it had been in the fifties, to a revolutionary power that changed a dull black-and-white world into a cornucopia of information and fantasy. Its bulky cameras took us places we could not physically go, illuminating experiences we could once only dream of.
Through the birth of popular television dramas of the decade, television served as the magical bus that transported us into someone else’s life for half an hour or so each week. We sat on juries in Perry Mason’s courtrooms, assisted the good Dr. Kildare during operations, and ran from the police with fugitive, Dr. Richard Kimble. It was a magic carpet ride that took us on unbelievable adventuresevents that we could before only visualize in our minds through the medium of books, newspapers and radio that had dominated the communication world in decades past.
Here are some of the dramas we loved best:
GUNSMOKE-Doc, Chester, Matt, Miss Kitty and Festus. We couldn’t wait to let them into our living rooms each week, and we didn’t ask them to leave their guns on the porch. We felt the same about Ben, Hoss, Adam and Little Joe of BONANZA fame. Western dramas were the most popular genre in the sixties, even though not a single one graces our airwaves today. Other popular western dramas of the decade were WILD WILD WEST, LARAMIE, WAGON TRAIN, RAWHIDE, THE VIRGINIAN, THE RIFLEMAN, HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL and THE BIG VALLEY.
THE FUGITIVE-David Janssen was brilliant in his portrayal of real-life Dr. Richard Kimble. We applauded as he escaped, making another successful run from the law at the end of each episode. The television series spawned the 1993 theater version by the same name, which starred Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones.
ALFRED HITCHOCK PRESENTS-These were always nail-biters, and no one could write and direct a suspense drama as good as the master, Hitchcock. In every show opening, the camera faded in on a simple line-drawing caricature of Hitchcock’s very recognizable round profile. As ‘Funeral March of a Marionette’ played, Hitchcock would appear in silhouette from the right edge of the screen, and then walk to center screen to eclipse the caricature. He then almost always said his most famous monotone line: “Good evening.” TWILIGHT ZONE and THRILLER were a close kinship to ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, having a more supernatural flair.
LASSIE-Beloved by children and adults alike, we seldom saw a show that didn’t make us shed a tear. We loved Lassie and her faithful boy-companion, Timmy. The sixties were definitely the decade of popular animal shows. Other animal dramas we loved were GENTLE BEN (bear), FLIPPER (dolphin), DAKTARI (Lion and Monkey) MR. ED (talking horse) and MY FRIEND FLICKA (horse) and RIN-TIN-TIN (dog).
PERRY MASON-Setting the pace for all future courtroom dramas, this classic drama is an unforgettable trend-setter in television world, paving the way for modern-day courtroom dramas such as ‘Law and Order’, ‘The Practice’ and ‘Boston Legal’. It will forever be a timeless classic.
DANIEL BOONE-Another beloved drama that appealed to both the young and old, we fell in love with Fess Parker’s rendition of the historical pioneer and his Indian companion, Mingo (played by Ed Ames).
MISSION IMPOSSIBLE-And your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is were words we couldn’t wait to hear each week. This popular spy series also spawned three major movie productions, starring Tom Cruise. THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. and I SPY were two other highly popular spy shows of the sixties.
DAKTARI-This took us into deep African jungles and into the jaws of lions, rhetorically speaking, of course. This popular family drama was based on the movie, ‘Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion’. It was about a veterinarian and his daughter who ran a fictional clinic in Africa, studying animal behavior. We enjoyed Clarence and Judy the Chimpanzee as much as we did the human castand maybe even more!
DRAGNET-The sixties version of Law and Order, this police detective drama gave us our first glimpse of the reality of crime-solving, all the way down to the mountains of paperwork involved. Sergeant Joe Friday and Officer Bill Gannon were dull and expressionless characters, but we loved watching them solve their cases. Other crime dramas that we enjoyed in the sixties were THE NAKED CITY, THE UNTOUCHABLES and THE F.B.I.
DR. KILDARE-He was gorgeous and women across America fantasized about finding a real-life doctor just like him. The same can be said of BEN CASEY. They were the Drs. Steamy and McDreamy of the sixties. Just as DRAGNET set the pace for realistic crime-solving techniques, DR. KILDARE and BEN CASEY did the same for the field of medicine.
HAWAII FIVE-O-The late Jack Lord immortalized the role of Detective Steve McGarrett on this two-time primetime Emmy winner that came into our television sets in 1968, and lasted a long, successful twelve seasons. Five-O was a special state police unit answerable only to the governor of Hawaii. Dealing with organized crime, assassination attempts and felonies of every possible nature, HAWAII FIVE-O is often called the blueprint for the now highly-rated CSI Shows, aired on CBS.
PEYTON PLACE-An adult drama, and the first primetime soap in history. We ate up the continuing saga of the love triangle involving Allison (played by Mia Farrow), Betty (played by Barbra Parkins) and Rodney (played by Ryan O’Neal). The series was inspired by the book and movie of the same name. Not until DALLAS made its debut in the eighties, had we ever been as enthralled with a primetime soap.
MOD SQUAD-This dynamic success was Aaron Spelling’s first production role in television programming (along with co-producer Danny Thomas). About three hip young people who went undercover to avoid jail time, it paved the way for a brilliant television future for Spelling, and its first-of-a-kind story line captivated viewing audiences for six years.
Many of today’s television dramas are too risqu for younger viewing audiences. It was these pioneer family-friendly giants of drama that set the pace, and left us crying for more in the coming decades of television programming.