- Starring: Ernest Borgnine, Alex Cord, Jan-Michael Vincent
Created by Donald P. Bellisario, who had already had such hits as 'Magnum p.i.' (1980-1988), 'Airwolf' followed the adventures of a hi-tech helicopter and it's reclusive pilot, Stringfellow Hawke.
Bellisario developed Airwolf (early working titles: Blackwolf, Lonewolf), from the looseCreated by Donald P. Bellisario, who had already had such hits as 'Magnum p.i.' (1980-1988), 'Airwolf' followed the adventures of a hi-tech helicopter and it's reclusive pilot, Stringfellow Hawke.
Bellisario developed Airwolf (early working titles: Blackwolf, Lonewolf), from the loose concept of a third season 'Magnum, P.I.' episode he'd previously written, titled 'Two Birds Of A Feather' (1983) - an unsold pilot about a treasure-hunting, adventure-loving ace combat pilot named Sam Houston Hunter (William Lucking). Bellisario had come up with the concept after Lucking played a similar character in a couple of episodes of another Bellisario series, 'Tales Of The Gold Monkey' (1982-3). After the proposed new series wasn't picked up, Bellisario took the bare bones of the concept, and eventually developed the premise into 'Airwolf'.
Airwolf itself was a hi-tech attack helicopter, equipped with cutting-edge on-board computer, surveillance and radar systems, able to fly quicker than the fastest jets, and armed with awesome fire-power. Dubbed "The Lady" due to it's slender grace, Airwolf had been constructed by "The Firm", a mysterious, top-secret division of the C.I.A., distinguishable by it's agents all-white dress code.
At the start of the Pilot adventure, we see Airwolf on its maiden test flight, piloted by its creator, Dr. Moffet (David Hemmings). But after the successful test flight, the twisted Moffet turns the chopper's lethal fire-power onto the flight tower, causing carnage, before heading off to Libya in the machine.
Michael Coldsmith-Briggs III, codename "Archangel" (Alex Cord), the head of the division who built Airwolf, is badly wounded in the assault but not yet out of the game. Now wearing an eye-patch and walking with aid of a cane as a result of his injuries, he calls upon ace combat pilot Stringfellow Hawke (Jan-Michael Vincent) to take the task of bringing back Airwolf from Libya.
Hawke is a cello-playing recluse, living in his scenaric cabin in the mountains – with a priceless art collection, and with only his dog Tet for company - ever since his brother St. John went Missing In Action in the Vietnam War, never to be found. Hawke eventually agrees to take the mission, aided by his only close friend, Dominic Santini (Ernest Borgnine). Much Hawke's senior, Dominic was very much his mentor, who was prone to the odd bout of grouchiness, but for the majority of the time was raucously cheerful. He owned Santini Air, a flight company that's main vehicles were decked out in stars and stripes, which specialised in performing arial stunts for films.
Hawke and Dominic prised Airwolf back from Moffet's clutches (blowing away it's twisted genius creator in the process), but Hawke wasn't ready to return it back over to the Firm just yet. Hiding it in a hollow mountain in the middle of the desert wilderness, he refused to return the super-chopper until the Firm found solid information about his M.I.A. brother St. John, be he dead or alive.
Thus was set the scenario for the series, with Archangel - usually accompanied by assistant Marella (Deborah Pratt) - calling upon Hawke in times of crisis to fly Airwolf on missions of national concern, with the occasional glimmer of hope regarding finding St. John - or at least solid information about his fate - thrown in for good measure.
The first season was intelligently written, with a very classy, elegant feel. It was in many ways ahead of it's time, being distinctly dark and dramatic, with heavy religious over-tones and symbolisms, and with stories revolving around cases of international espionage, spying, and such-like, and much talk of "the opposition" - be it taken to be Libyans, the Russians, or whichever assumptions one took.
The series did fairly well in the ratings, but CBS wanted to achieve even higher numbers, by "domesticating" the show more – to make stories less dark and symbolic, and to make things more light-hearted to try and win a wider audience.
When the second season arrived, it brought with it the most significant and notable change - the introduction of a regular female cast member, created by Bellisario after CBS's insistence. Introduced in the season's opening episode, 'Sweet Britches', Jean Bruce Scott was brought in as feisty Caitlin O'Shannessy, who within the season's first few episodes was set-up as a regular character, working at Santini Air, and before long became the occasional third Airwolf pilot. Also with the new season, The Firm was blended into the background somewhat, to allow more wider-ranging stories, again mostly due to CBS's insistence.
Overall the season did well, with much of the dark intrigue still surviving from the first series, mixed with the new slightly lighter-hearted, wider-reaching stories. In the meantime, Bellisario and Deborah Pratt, having met on the show, had married. But by the end of the season, Bellisario had grown increasingly tired of CBS' constant "interfering" with his original vision for the series, and eventually left, taking Pratt with him. The pair left to work on new projects of their own, the biggest and most popular to date being 'Quantum Leap' (with which Airwolf shares much of it's dark, religious over-tones, as well as also using a horde of the same Bellisario-favoured actors and crew).
Also behind the scenes, Jan-Michael Vincent's troubled personal life - including battles with drink and drugs, and frequence fights with his wife - were increasingly causing problems during production of the series. Vincent actually broke his arm during one such drunken row with his wife, mid-production of one episode, 'Sins Of The Past', with his right arm visibally hanging limp throughout much of the episode as a result.
CBS brought the series back for a third season, now without Bellisario's overseeing (his name on the show survived only as 'Created by' on the opening credits). While still offering up some good episodes, including some very impressive action set pieces (both airborne and otherwise), overall the previous sharp, clever script quality was now somewhat lower, and things were by now noticeably more watered down, with the series now acting as a more all-round "family" action-adventure show. Whilst they still occasionally had their moments, both Hawke's reclusive broodiness, and the whole eerie mysteriousness surrounding The Firm – two key factors in Bellisario's original vision - were by now very toned down. (Incidentally, with the third season, the Firm became spelt as an acronym, "the F.I.R.M.", though what these initials stood for was never explained.) The majority of episode plots were by now a far cry from the original season's dark themes; it's often commented (rightly so in several cases) that, far from the early stories of international emergencies, many of this season's stories seemed to revolve around little more than domestic feuds!
But the worst was yet to come... CBS finally called it a day with 'Airwolf' at the end of the third season in 1986 - the last episode being 'Birds Of Paradise', an avarage episode which didn't serve to round to series off in any way. Despite CBS's constant tampering trying to make it an even bigger hit, in the long-run was much the cause of the demise of the show, with ratings gradually dropping mostly as a result of the third season's many more "family friendly" story-lines which lost favour with many fans. Jan-Michael Vincent's ever increasingly troubled personal life had done nothing to ease production of the series, either. However, the rights to the series were brought by a small TV company, Atlantis, for the USA Network, and a new series was commissioned for syndication. The whole of the original cast were written out (no doubt due to cost) – both Hawke and Dominic are killed off in the opening episode (though only Jan-Michael Vincent is actually seen), Archangel is suddenly said to be assigned overseas, and what has become of Caitlin is never mentioned. Taking their place was an all new cast.
In the opening episode, 'Blackjack', Hawke's long-missing brother St. John (now seemingly his younger brother, not older, and played by Barry Van Dyke is suddenly located. The original series had several contradictions over St. John, but this new version completely threw any previous continuity out of the window! The Firm was now suddenly, unexplainedly called "The Company" (gone too were the trademark white suits), at which Jason Locke (Anthony Sherwood) is the new contact. He calls upon Major Mike Rivers (Geraint Wyn Davies) to help locate Airwolf – only to find that Dominic's niece, the - previously unmentioned - Jo Santini (Michelle Scarabelli) has already found it, and in it, they set off to rescue St. John. After his rescue began a new season of adventures, often with very little feel of connection to the original series.
The new series was filmed on a very low budget in Canada, and much of the aerial footage – including ALL footage of Airwolf in flight, was simply footage recycled from the original three seasons. Other times, very poor model effects of Airwolf were used. Special effects (bar the stock footage) were weak, most of the stories were incredibly dull and wooden, much of the acting was poor - the series was embarrassing at best. There seemed little place for logic, either - the new contact, Locke, clearly knew of Airwolf's location (and often flew it himself!!), yet made no attempt to return it to the Company.
In the original, Stringfellow Hawke, and at a push, Dominic or Caitlin, were capable of flying Airwolf – yet suddenly, each of the new characters could pilot it... the whole premise was full of holes. It seems maybe rather amazing (not to mention such a shame) that from the dark, classy, "ahead-of-it's-time" first season, things could end up as this. Understandably, many Airwolf "purists" will refuse to recognise this series as part of the "proper" Airwolf fodder.
Suddenly, despite all of the CBS third season's short-comings, fans now found themselves saying "come back third season, all is forgiven", and would have given anything to have the original series, in any of it's versions from the original three seasons, back in place of this crudely produced revamp! Airwolf wasn't the only "super helicopter" on air at the time of it's debut – there was also hi-tech police surveillance chopper 'Blue Thunder' (1984), spun-off from the 1983 movie of the same name; but even with that series having a big-screen film to kick it off, Airwolf generally emerged to be seen as the "ultimate" super-helicopter series, with - at it's peak - it's clever, cathartic scripts paling Blue Thunder's much wider, less serious take. Airwolf itself was a highly modified Bell 222b, with a number of fibreglass and aluminium sections fitted to give it its unique look. In the TV series Airwolf may have been capable of supersonic speeds, but in reality, the numerous additions resulted in only slowing the helicopter's speeds! Sadly, the aircraft used for Airwolf crashed in Germany in 1991 (however, most of the specially built modifications are still in existence in the depths of Universal Studios).
Note: This article, as well as episode guest cast lists, synopses and all other material in this guide (unless otherwise contributed) is written by the editor of this show. While it is intended for the reference and enjoyment of fellow fans of the show, please ask permission before using it, be it whole or in part, elsewhere. … Expand
- Genre(s): Drama, Action & Adventure