Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Honey West: Purchase or Pass?

When a television series is labeled as “ahead of its time” it usually means it won’t be around very long. That describes Honey West, which lasted just one season. 

It was definitely ahead of its time, as a forerunner to shows featuring a strong, smart, independent female protagonist who can handle herself in a fight. That genre would reach its zenith 30 years later with Xena, La Femme Nikita and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

But Honey, the stylish private investigator played by Anne Francis, got there first. At least in America. The Brits had already introduced Cathy Gale on The Avengers, who would be replaced by Diana Rigg as Emma Peel in 1965, the same year Honey West debuted on ABC.

The show was inspired by a series of 1950s pulp mystery novels written by “G.G. Fickling,” a pseudonym for authors (and married couple) Forrest and Gloria Fickling. The books were considered pretty racy at that time: “A golden g-string, a masked stripper and murder – with Honey West, the sexiest private eye ever to pull a trigger, hot on the trail!” 

I’ve never read any of them, so I can’t tell you how faithfully they were adapted by the show.  In fact, I was not even aware of the series until some time around 1998, when I began researching The Charlie’s Angels Casebook and discovered Honey West was an early foray into series television for Aaron Spelling, who served as its executive producer. I was intrigued to check out his first attempt at a show about a sexy female detective, but it would be several more years before Honey West was released on DVD.

When I finally watched it, it did not disappoint.

It’s nothing like Charlie’s Angels, even if Anne Francis was frequently garbed in swimsuits and cocktail waitress outfits and Nolan Miller gowns. Honey relied more on electronic surveillance than sex appeal to solve a case. 

One of the show’s strengths was atmosphere, established through a jazzy musical score and film noir vistas of Los Angeles in stark black and white. The freeze-framed images in the opening credits appear inspired by the covers of the Honey West books and other seedy pulp fiction novels. Though the stories were often tongue-in-cheek, the show retained enough of an edge to (mostly) stay above parody. 

It’s also a half-hour detective series, a rarity for the genre that works well here as it did for Peter Gunn. There is just enough time to establish a case, add a couple of twists and wrap it up, with no time for filler. My kind of show.

Anne Francis is clearly the star but she receives able support from John Ericson as Honey’s partner Sam Bolt. He yells a lot and also gets knocked out from behind a lot. Irene Hervey is wonderful as Honey’s Aunt Meg, usually called upon to referee disputes between the partners, and occasionally assist in cases  (“Oh, good, I get to play too!”).

The first episode, “The Swingin’ Mrs. Jones,” opens with Honey taking down a blackmailer ­and getting cold-cocked from behind by his associate. That sets a precedent for several subsequent episodes, in which she gets a case, screws it up, and then has to go back and make things right.

Other standouts among many: “The Owl and the Eye,” in which Honey and Sam try to beat a museum’s security system to make sure an expensive jade carving is safe, only to have it stolen the next day. Guest star: veteran TV creep Lloyd Bochner.

“A Matter of Wife and Death” delivers a canny mix of action, humor, fashion and fake-outs, featuring guest-star James Best.  “The Gray Lady” is a delightful caper about a high-society jewel thief written by Columbo creators Richard Levinson and William Link.

“Come to Me My Litigation Baby” features Ellen Corby as a little old lady (what else?) scamming insurance companies with phony accident claims. It features the show’s most entertaining fight scene. “It’s Earlier Than you Think” may be the silliest episode but it will hold your attention: a man in 19th century garb arrives on horseback and drops dead in Honey’s office, but not before warning that President Lincoln is about to be assassinated. Then three men in Scottish garb show up one at a time, all claiming to be the victim’s brother.

As if you haven’t guessed by now, my answer to the purchase-or-pass question is an enthusiastic “Purchase.” My only disappointment with the DVD set is that it did not include the first appearances of Honey and Sam, in the 1965 Burke’s Law episode “Who Killed the Jackpot?” 

When Burke’s Law was revived in the 1990s, Anne Francis appeared as “Honey Best” in an episode set at a private eye convention. The show was much too cute with its stunt casting of actors from other detective shows – a shame, as it could have made a nice bookend for the character.

It also would have given Francis the curtain call she deserved. After making a big splash in Forbidden Planet she floundered through unflattering guest spots for the last 20 years of her career. In Honey West she found the role she was born to play. It’s a shame she didn’t get to play it longer. 


  1. It's a fun show and I own it. However, I didn't care for John Ericson nor his characters. Frankly, Honey was too cool to have a male sidekick!

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  3. Mr. Hofstede, do you think a "Honey West" reboot would've fared relatively well in the '70s or '80s?

    BTW, you might be interested in joining a Facebook group known as "Quinn Martin shows Fans." Here is the URL for it: