Some guys are just cool. Just inherently cool, without even trying. The way they walk, talk, the way they stand, the way they use their hands, the way they wear clothes. To my eye, Jack Lord definitely qualifies.
Tell me if you think that Jack Lord was of Irish stock – he was born John Joseph Patrick Ryan. The Ryans were, indeed, Irish Catholics from County Cork and Jack was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Queens. Jack’s father often sent the boy to work on freighters that were traveling around the world and during down times, the artistically inclined youth would often sketch his surroundings. He studied fine arts at NYU on a football scholarship and during his years at the university, young Jack Ryan managed to have two of his linoleum cuts acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Jack served in the Merchant Marine during World War 2 and then after the war he worked with the US Engineering Department in Persia. Jack’s dream was to live as an artist but he soon realized that he could starve on the money he made painting. While he had been in the Merchant Marine, Jack had made several training films and now he hoped to parlay that experience into an acting career. Jack began to study acting at the Actor’s Studio and it was there that he decided to adopt a stage name. This was something he did not want to do but there was already a “Jack Ryan” registered with the unions. Jack investigated his family tree and discovered the name “Lord” which he adopted, though never legally.
The newly christened Jack Lord had many Broadway credits to his name – including replacing Ben Gazzara as the lead in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – when he made his first film in 1949. Many medium-sized productions followed when, in 1962, Lord landed the plum role of CIA operative Felix Leiter in the debut film in the James Bond franchise, Dr. No. Now, don’t get me started on Felix Leiter. I’ve always said that here is where the Bond franchise really missed a great opportunity. Throughout the run of the films, I have always been underwhelmed by the actors chosen to play Leiter. And what a great chance to have a cool American cohort for the very-British Bond.
Lord plays the role well and, along with Jeffrey Wright in the Craig films, is the only solid representation of Leiter. It would have been great to have Lord reprise the role in From Russia, With Love (1963) but Lord demanded a higher billing and more money to return as the CIA agent. You can look at this a couple of ways; who does Jack Lord think he is making such demands? Get rid of him. Lots of actors would jump at the chance to play Leiter. This is legit because the films are all about Bond anyways. But the other side is by barring Lord the producers got what they wanted; a succession of duds in the role and the character being inconsequential to the series. A wasted opportunity. This is a notable early indication of the way Jack Lord would operate in Hollywood. He wasn’t there to simply take direction. He wanted control.
In 1959, Jack was considered for the role of Eliot Ness in The Untouchables and in 1962 he finally landed his own series, the western Stoney Burke. The rodeo-themed show costarred Warren Oates and Bruce Dern but lasted only one season. Then in 1966, Gene Roddenberry offered Lord the role of Capt. James T. Kirk of the starship USS Enterprise on the TV show Star Trek. As part of the negotiations, Lord asked for 50% ownership of the show and Roddenberry balked, eventually going with Canadian William Shatner.
Leonard Freeman produced the Clint Eastwood film Hang ‘Em High (1968) but was best known for his work on television when he decided to create the show that would become Hawaii Five-O. One version of how the show was created has Freeman talking with his friend, Richard Boone, about a show Freeman wanted to start and set in San Pedro, California. When Boone convinced Freeman to try staging his show in Hawaii, Freeman agreed and offered the lead role to Boone, who demurred. Gregory Peck also declined and Freeman contacted Jack Lord in Beverly Hills at the last moment. Five days after reading for the part, Lord was before the cameras.
Hawaii Five-O was a police procedural about a fictional state police force that reported directly to the governor (played by Richard Denning). To say the show was unique is an understatement. While shows had been set in the islands before – Hawaiian Eye (1959-1963) – Hawaii Five-O would be different in that the production of the show was based in the islands. This presented immense logistical problems as there were no facilities in Hawaii that could be used for making a show. All equipment and any sets that were used had to be shipped over from the mainland. The show was also groundbreaking as it utilized not only many practical locations but it also employed countless local Hawaiian actors and non-actors. In fact, even series regular Kam Fong Chun who played Chin Ho Kelly was a local non-actor; Chun was an 18-year veteran of the Honolulu Police Department. Additionally, regulars Zulu (“Kono”), Al Harrington (“Ben”) and Herman Wedemeyer (“Duke”) were all local actors. While we’re talking about the cast we of course should mention James MacArthur who most fans of classic television remember as Dan “Danno” Williams. MacArthur stayed with the show for all but the last season.
What makes Jack Lord so cool is that he was heavily invested in the production of Hawaii Five-O right from the start. While it may have not been officially noted in the credits, Lord ran the show with Freeman. In fact, Lord and his wife, Marie, became unofficial ambassadors of the islands. Jack often met with visiting dignitaries, government and tourist officials and appeared at local functions. Lord insisted on location shooting and on using local people. From a viewer standpoint, when you’re watching a non-actor on a show, you often will roll your eyes. But in the case of this program it only added to the authenticity. How realistic was the show? Producers of the show once received a telex from a foreign police agency asking “Five-O” for help locating a fugitive. The agency had to be informed that the show depicted a state force that did not exist. Lord also stipulated that only Ford vehicles be used on the show and the 1968 Mercury Park Lane Brougham that McGarrett drove through much of the series has become iconic and even appeared regularly in the 2010 remake of the series. (Great articles on this car here and here.)
There is a sticky “other side” to the cool of Jack Lord. Jack was nothing if not determined. He had a concept of how things should go and tended not to deviate from his ideals. To say he “ran” Hawaii Five-O is about as accurate as you can get. Lord – unlike many actors of his generation – chose not to follow his muse over many different films portraying many different characters. Instead, he chose to play one character on one show and – again unlike many actors of his generation – he took total control of that show. What many didn’t know during the show’s run was that not only was Lord producing each and every episode but he also had a financial investment in the program making him essentially a co-owner. If the show then was to be respected and successful Lord was going to make sure it was. He was a hard taskmaster and was not always gentle in his dealings. Lord’s investment obviously lead to the show being built around Capt. Steve McGarrett and featured his subordinates basically standing around while Steve told them what to do. Counter this with the fact that – let’s face it – as with other shows in history, millions tuned in every week to see one man in action. Also, Jack – much like Desi Arnaz on I Love Lucy – was labouring under a heavy workload. While Desi had the bulk of Desilu to run, Jack had become in many ways the face of the state of Hawaii, a role that came with much responsibility. To add to this, Leonard Freeman died in the middle of the show’s run, leaving Jack complete control over the show’s content. In honour of Freeman and his widow, Lord never took an on-screen Executive Producer credit. Jack was a perfectionist who expected the best from everyone around him; despite the fact that the television industry in Hawaii at the time was non-existent and many of the crew were new to the business and learning their craft as they went along. Reports from guest stars ranged from “Jack Lord is a tyrant!” to “Jack Lord made me a better actor”.
The show itself is a joy to watch. The realism resulting from shooting in Hawaii and in practical locations is so pleasing to the eye. I love me some Alfred Hitchcock. And Orson Welles. But I grit my teeth every time one of those legendary filmmakers inserts a process shot into their masterful films. You don’t get that on Hawaii Five-O. You get swaying palms, lush foliage and actual island homes, apartments and hotel rooms featuring that lovely period decor we all love. Often you will see Chin Ho – remember, played by a non-actor, an ex-cop – standing in an office and you can plainly see over his shoulder out the sliding glass doors the golden sand beach and the rolling Pacific. It’s a visual treat.
And what about McGarrett’s catchphrase; “Book ’em, Danno!”? This phrase has entered popular culture, along with, incidentally, the term “Five-Oh” now being used to refer to police everywhere. Usually at the end of the show, once 5-O has got their man, McGarrett will ask for the perp to be arrested or booked, often adding the charge afterwards; “Book ’em, Danno. Murder one. Two counts”. Catchphrases are funny – literally. Utilized by fans years afterwards, people will often laugh at them, simply because they’re so iconic and have almost come to mean something else altogether. But taken in their original context, many of history’s catchphrases were conceived seriously and are even heavy, revealing much about the character using it. Take “Dirty” Harry Callahan’s iconic interaction with a bunch of hoods holding up his favourite coffee shop, as seen in Sudden Impact (1983). One of the crooks has his gun aimed at the head of his hostage, a waitress Harry has known for years, threatening to shoot her. Harry utters the immortal line “Go ahead. Make my day”. People use this today in a comedic way but think about what Harry meant; “I like Loretta. I’ve known her a long time and I’d hate to have a goon like you kill her. A civilian shot in the head? Bad. BUT if you do shoot her, I’d get to blow your head clean off. And that would make me happy. I would like nothing better. It would make my day”. Think about what that says about Harry. It’s a great line. I digress but you see my point. McGarrett and his team have done some hard work. This scumbag killer has been apprehended and is now off the streets. They are about to arrest him. They’ve won this one. So, McGarrett’s catchphrase is a shout of victory and he’s thrilled to be able to issue the command. And “Book ’em” SOUNDS good; it’s pleasing to the ears much the same way the show is to the eyes.
Needless to say, Jack Lord was spent when Hawaii Five-O went off the air in 1980 after 12 seasons. At the time, it was the longest-running cop show in Hollywood history; in fact it has only since been bested by never-ending shows like Law and Order, CSI and NCIS and their descendants. After a proposed pilot of Jack’s was not picked up in 1980, he retired from the business. This doesn’t mean he stopped being cool. Jack returned to his first love, art. He sold many of his canvases and many of his pieces hung in museums around the country and in Paris. He and Marie stayed on in Hawaii and lived at Kahala Beach and forged a relationship with the 50th state. When the show began, many were concerned that a program that showed the crime evident in Hawaii would harm tourism. But Lord’s insistence on showing instead the natural beauty of the islands proved to be a boost; the number of tourists visiting the islands went from 800,000 when the show premiered to 4 million by the time the show left the air.
The Lords were so linked with their adopted home that, upon Lord’s death in 1998 at age 77, Hawaii benefitted greatly. Jack suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease for at least the last seven years of his life; some reports suggest that signs of the disease were evident in the final season of the show. He eventually succumbed to congestive heart failure in Honolulu. Jack Lord left an estate valued at $40 million. Jack and Marie “were savvy investors who accumulated a large portfolio of stocks, bonds and real- estate investments”. Upon Marie Lord’s death at age 100 in 2005, the estate was used to start the Jack and Marie Lord Fund that would distribute money to local charities. The fund generated upwards of $2 million that would be distributed between 12 Hawaiian non-profits. The Lords personally selected the charities, some of whom said that without the Lords’ endowment they would have ceased to exist. The Lords’ condo was sold with the proceeds going to charity and Jack’s extensive collection of memorabilia was also auctioned. A bonus: there is a bronze bust of Jack Lord at the Kahala Mall that was unveiled in 2004. Cool, let’s go there. Photo op.
Some actors that become known for one role end up inevitably typecast. But there’s another aspect of playing one role for a long time that can adversely affect an actor’s legacy. An actor does great playing one character for years but: can they actually act? Think of Robert Stack in The Untouchables. Similarly, Jack Lord’s Steve McGarrett was a no-nonsense police officer. And the show was a police procedural that focused on the detailed work that went into capturing criminals. We almost never saw McGarrett in a situation where laughter, for example, was called for. There were no episodes depicting Steve going to a party and getting drunk or trying to pick up girls at a bar or dealing with in-laws suddenly moving in with him. The show was about police work and that usually called for Lord to strike only one or two notes per episode resulting in – much like Stack as Ness or David Janssen as Dr. Richard Kimball – a continuously stoic performance. Could Jack Lord act? Sure, I think so. Could you tell from Hawaii Five-O? Not really.
Forget all that. Jack Lord epitomized cool in the 1970’s. No less an authority than Elvis Presley was friends with Jack Lord. When King was in the islands for the Aloha from Hawaii special in 1973, he sent – he sent – Col. Tom Parker over to the Lords condo to invite them to be Elvis’ special guests at the show. The next day, another of King’s employees reiterated to the Lords how much their attendance would mean to Elvis. Jack and Marie attended and were seated with Elvis’ then-girlfriend, Linda Thompson, in the section for Presley’s special guests. When King introduced his band, he also gave Jack a shout-out; “One of my favourite actors is in the audience, Jack Lord, I gotta say that, you know, Hawaii 5-0”.
After the show, Jack and Marie met Elvis backstage and Jack invited the whole gang to come to Jack and Marie’s condo before they left the islands. The Lords thought it unlikely with Elvis’ schedule but he and several others did indeed visit with Jack at his condo. The King did not come empty handed. Elvis gave Jack a box containing a solid gold Walther PPK; “plus six bullets. In case you ever need them!” Jack was speechless. That night, Elvis admired a rare Gibson 6-string banjo from the early 1900’s that Jack owned and Lord made King a present of it. The two remained friends – as much as Elvis’ lifestyle permitted – and a month later the Lords sat at Elvis’ table for several shows in Las Vegas. Presley again introduced Jack from the stage and the applause was thunderous; “Sit down, Jack. You’re getting more applause than I am.”
That’s how cool Jack Lord was.
There are two ridiculously extensive sites you can check out for more info. They were invaluable to me:
Really enjoyed reading this. He was so cool. I can’t imagine anyone else as Steve in that series.
I agree with you, Maddy! Thanks for reading.
Very enjoyable read. It brought back so many memories.
Good! I’m glad. That’s what I’m here for.
[…] films. For example, with her character in Man of the West (1958, co-starring Gary Cooper and Jack Lord) “Julie was given the chance to express…the wistful, longing qualities of her […]
Nice write-up, Gary, but you are wrong that no one could tell if Jack would act from watching him in Hawaii Five-O. There were episodes where he smiled, laughed, and even broke down into tears when his nephew died.
Thanks for your comment! I’ll have to go back and reassess Jack as Steve.