Super-Vehicle Saturday: “Airwolf”

"Airwolf" title card (Graphic by CBS TV)

On January 3, there was the Screaming Mimi on NBC’s Riptide.  Next, ABC’s Blue Thunder flew on January 6.  Then, on Sunday, January 22, 1984, near two years after the shadowy flight debut of Knight Rider, CBS introduced the world to Airwolfwhich went on to become a fan favorite every Saturday night.

Created by Donald P. Bellisario (Magnum, P.I.JAG and spin-off NCIS), the series starred the late, great Jan-Michael Vincent as the brooding Stringfellow Hawke, Vietnam veteran and skilled pilot who plays the cello and lives alone at his cabin with his dog Tet.  His only friend is mentor and father figure Dominic Santini (Ernest Borgnine), the owner of Santini Air. 

 Dubbed “The Lady”, Airwolf is a sophisticated Mach-1 plus helicopter that can kick butt with capabilities that includes over multiple weapons arsenal and twin turbine engines.  But when Charles Henry Moffet, its brilliant but nefarious creator, steals it, the Firm, a shadowy government agency led by Michael Coldsmith-Briggs III (Alex Cord), aka “Archangel”, asked Hawke to retrieve it.  Hawke did, but will only return Airwolf on one condition that the Firm help find his brother St. John (“Sinjin”), who’s been missing since Vietnam.  

Thus began the premise: Hawke flies Airwolf for the Firm for missions of national interest, while the Firm continues to searching for his brother as well as trying to get Airwolf back from him.

The first season was more adult and dark: mixing character and arc storylines with elements of the Cold War.  For instance, Archangel and the Firm, which includes his assistant Marella (Deborah Pratt, who was married to Bellisario at the time), always wore white: symbolizing themselves as the “good guys” like Hawke and Santini.  Whereas Hawke and Santini still believed the ideals of right and wrong, that right is might and just, and the right will always win in the end.  Archangel, on the other hand, is more of a businessman: operating within shades of grey.  

CBS, though, wanted the show to be more light-hearted in hopes of attracting an wider audience: making Airwolf more in the terrain of both Knight Rider and The A-Team.  In other words: “The Lady” really becomes a symbol for liberty, freedom, and justice for the United States of America. Jean Bruce Scott joined the cast in season two as Caitlin “Sweet Britches” O’Shannessy, a former Texas Highway Patrol officer that Hawke and Dom rescued. 

However, by the end of that season, Bellisario and Pratt left Airwolf over disgreements with CBS about the show’s direction; the two went to NBC several years later to work on the time-traveling Quantum Leap with Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell.  Also, more problems continued to surface off-screen with Vincent’s alcoholism and his problems with the law, which included charges of domestic violence against his wife.  

Sadly, in the spring of 1986, after three seasons, CBS canceled Airwolf.  However, USA Network picked up “The Lady” for a fourth season, but with a new cast that included Barry Van Dyke (Diagnosis Murder) as St. John Hawke and Geraint Wyn Davies (Forever Knight) as Major Mike Rivers.  None of the original cast ever made an appearance that season – except Vincent, who only appeared in the first episode “Blackjack”, where Dom was killed off, but Hawke’s brother St. John was finally found, and a new team was born: working on missions for the Company.  However, loyal fans weren’t able to accept this, and Airwolf was grounded for good in 1987.

Nevertheless, both the Mimi from Riptide and Blue Thunder: neither one was no match for “The Lady” known as Airwolf. TURBOS!!

-video by CBS “Airwolf”

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