The concern of many actors is being so strongly associated in a long running role that it is hard for an audience to accept them as another character. Some actors attempt to escape typecasting by choosing roles that are opposite to the types that they are known for. Having played the invincible defence lawyer Perry Mason for nine years on US television from 1957 to 1966, Raymond Burr might easily have fallen into the typecast trap. But almost immediately after leaving the courtroom he seamlessly stepped into another role that he is now equally associated with.
In fact, Ironside could so easily have been Perry Mason in retirement and the audience would have accepted him without batting an eyelid. Instead, he was cast as retired Chief of Detectives Robert T. Ironside. Debuting as a two-hour TV movie in 1966, Ironside (retitled A Man Called Ironside for UK audiences), begins with a murder attempt on the former detective’s life by a sniper’s bullet. The sniper is unsuccessful and two days later Ironside awakens in hospital to be told that due to nerve damage sustained in the shooting, he is paralysed from the waist down and will never again be able to walk.
Visited by two police officers, Detective Sergeant Ed Brown and policewoman Eve Whitfield, both of whom Ironside had previously mentored, the injured chief is more concerned about identifying his would-be assailant. But when the officers inform him there has been no significant progress, Ironside puts in a call to Police Commissioner Randall and insists on taking over the case himself as soon as he gets out of the hospital. As Brown and Whitfield drive Ironside back to San Francisco, he scolds them for thinking of him as a "cripple," and insists that he will not be impeded by his disability. He meets with Randall and, through a series of legal loopholes, gets him to create a position as a ‘special consultant’ in the police department. He is given an unused room to operate out of and asks for Brown and Whitfield to be on his ‘staff.’ Ironside also takes on Mark Sanger, a former juvenile delinquent, as his driver and caretaker, on condition that the youngster go back to school when not working.
The TV movie was received so well that a full series went into production the following year and Ironside became Burr’s second major television hit, earning him six Emmy and two Golden Globe nominations. Barbara Anderson, who played Eve Whitfield earned an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in Drama Series in 1968 and was nominated twice more in subsequent seasons. She left Ironside in 1971 and gave up full-time acting but still made occasional television appearances. Ironside continued to wage his unrelenting war against crime until 1975.
Burr was proud of portraying a disabled person in a major television series. Interviewed later he stated that the series was not only a challenge to him but also an eye-opener: “There are many people incapacitated in many ways, not just paraplegics, who are being ignored. We kind of push them away into the dark.” In the USA, in 1973, the Rehabilitation Act prohibited businesses with federal contracts to discriminate in employment or services based on disability.
Ironside’s theme tune was composed by Quincy Jones and appeared as a funky, extended workout on his 1971 album Smackwater Jack. Quentin Tarantino would recycle it in Kill Bill, whenever Uma Thurman was entering a rage. Jones composed the entire score for the first eight episodes of the series.
The series, a production of Burr's ‘Harbour Productions Unlimited’ in association with ‘Universal Television’, consistently reached the top 25 in viewing figures throughout its eight-year run and was only terminated by Burr’s ill-health. In 1974 he suffered his first heart attack followed by further illnesses which necessitated spells in hospital. In 1993, months before his death, Burr starred in the TV movie The Return of Ironside. Sadly, by this point, the wheelchair was no act. Burr was suffering from kidney cancer and required the chair. In the USA Raymond Burr was ranked #44 on TV Guide's 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time in 1996.
There was also a spin-off from the series. NBC's 1971 fall TV season opened with a two-hour crossover between Ironside and a new series, as part of the NBC Mystery Movie. Amy Prentiss starred Jessica Walter as a relatively young investigator who becomes Chief of Detectives for the San Francisco Police Department. Four two-hour episodes were aired.
During its run Ironside featured a number of guest stars, many of whom went on to greater fame. These included a number of Star Trek regulars – William Shatner, DeForest Kelley, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols and George Takei. A veritable Who’s Who of actors passed through, too many to note here, but some of the names might surprise you: David Carradine, Susan Saint James, Ed Asner, Burgess Meredith, Jack Lord, David Cassidy, Martin Sheen, Bobby Darin, Myrna Loy, Frank Gorshin, Leslie Nielsen, Harrison Ford, David Soul, Jodie Foster, Cloris Leachman, Loretta Swit, Cesar Romero, Ingrid Pitt, Bruce Lee and Rod Serling.
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and Ironside has had more than its fair share of mentions in other shows. In British sitcom Phoenix Nights, Alan Johnson (one half of the resident musicians at the club) has wheelchair-bound club owner Brian Potter saved into his mobile phone as 'Ironside'. In the fourth season of the series Breaking Bad, the character Hank suffers from a spinal bullet wound that prevents him from walking. When asked to go back on the case he was working on before he was shot, he replies, "What am I, Ironside?" In an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary's boss, Lou Grant, goes into the hospital to have a piece of WW2 shrapnel removed. Later, as he is leaving the hospital after being released, seated in a wheelchair, he says, "Why do I suddenly feel like solving a crime?" But my personal favourite is from the US sitcom Cheers. Woody, the bartender, offers to show a visitor around Boston. She asks to see Old Ironsides. Woody replies, "I don't know if Raymond Burr lives in Boston."
Ironside is available to purchase from Amazon
Published on January 17th, 2021. Written by Marc Saul for Television Heaven.