Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Sleuthing in the ‘70s with The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew

Note: This is Comfort TV's contribution to The Classic TV Detectives Blogathon, hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Read more about it here!

What is it about some fictional characters that makes their popularity persist over decades and generations, while others capture our attention for a season, only to be quickly forgotten?
Whatever the criteria may be for such cultural endurance, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew are charter members in that elite company. The first Frank and Joe Hardy mystery novel was published in 1927. Its immediate success inspired the publisher to launch a new series with a female lead, and Nancy Drew was introduced in 1930. New adventures in both series were published in 2013.

Neither of their “creators” – Franklin W. Dixon for the Hardys, Carolyn Keene for Nancy – ever existed. They were pseudonyms under which hundreds of books were written by dozens of different authors who labored largely in anonymity. But the stories they told have influenced generations – Nancy in particular has been cited as a formative influence by everyone from Hilary Clinton to Oprah Winfrey to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Hollywood rediscovers the characters about every 20 years; the Hardy Boys first came to television on The Mickey Mouse Club in the 1950s. The most recent version debuted on Canadian television in 1995. Guess we’re about due for another one. The first Nancy Drew was Bonita Granville, who played the teen sleuth in a series of films beginning in 1938. The most recent Nancy Drew was Emma Roberts in 2007.

For my generation, the characters were personified by Shaun Cassidy, Parker Stevenson and Pamela Sue Martin on The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries (1977-1979). It aired Sunday nights at 7pm on ABC, where theoretically it should have found an audience among teens who thought they were too old for The Wonderful World of Disney on NBC, and too young to watch the grumpy old men on CBS’s 60 Minutes

That didn’t happen, and even now it’s hard to figure out why. Cassidy and Stevenson could not have been more poster-ready, with Cassidy’s teen idol status amplified by a string of hit singles that not surprisingly found their way into the show. 

And while Martin seemed to always get the weaker stories, she tried to capture some of the intelligence, resourcefulness and New England pluck that made Nancy so appealing in the books. 

No, it wasn’t a great show, but quality has never been a pre-requisite for TV success. Anyone expecting meticulously-plotted mysteries with shock twists and clever reveals left disappointed by whodunits that were more Scooby-Doo than Agatha Christie. By season two even the rudimentary mystery format was largely abandoned, in favor of dropping the characters into exotic (backlot) locales and telling the same kinds of stories you’d see on Barnaby Jones.

Despite the dearth of classic episodes the series did provide a few memorable moments. “The Mystery of the Diamond Triangle” is the best of the Nancy Drew mysteries – Nancy sees a car disappear after an accident, and launches her own investigation after no one believes her story. Rick Nelson, the Shaun Cassidy of an earlier era, meets the Hardy Boys in “The Flickering Torch Mystery.”

“A Haunting We Will Go” is a broadly played Nancy Drew whodunit with a fun guest cast – Bob Crane, Victor Buono, Carl Betz and Dina Merrill. “Sole Survivor” begins with Joe Hardy waking up in a Hong Kong hospital, where he is told he’s been in a coma for a year, and his father and brother are dead. 

It's also a great show for playing "spot the '70s guest star," with appearances from Debra Clinger ("Oh Say Can You Sing"), Joan Prather ("The Mystery of the Ghostwriters' Cruise"), Howard Cosell ("Mystery of the Solid Gold Kicker"), Casey Kasem ("Mystery of the Hollywood Phantom"), Maureen McCormick ("Nancy Drew's Love Match") and Maren Jensen ("Death Surf").

The show actually made one important contribution to Hardy/Drew lore, by allowing the characters to meet for the first time. 

Shockingly, despite sharing the same publisher for decades, Nancy and the Hardys never worked a case together in the books. That changed with the season two opener “The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew Meet Dracula.” In this two-part adventure, Frank and Joe trace their missing father to Dracula’s castle, which has been rented out for a superstar rock concert (said superstar played by Paul Williams). Nancy, who had been working for the brothers’ dad on a case, joins the search, and sparks fly between her and Frank.

Several subsequent crossover episodes followed, but they couldn’t bolster the popularity of the Drew stories, which were dropped in the series’ final season. Pamela Sue Martin apparently saw it coming as she left before the end of season two, after appearing in a trench coat (and nothing else) on the cover of Playboy

Eighteen year-old Janet Louise Johnson took over the role for the final three stories featuring Nancy Drew. By then the show had already endured more recasts than Petticoat Junction. Susan Buckner replaced Jean Rasey as Nancy’s sidekick George, and Rick Springfield replaced George O’Hanlon, Jr. as the Nancy-smitten Ned Nickerson. Only the ever-stalwart William Schallert, as Nancy’s detective dad Carson Drew, went the distance.

Television eventually did get Nancy Drew right, but by then it was called Veronica Mars.

Flying solo again in their final season, the Hardys found themselves in somewhat darker stories, beginning with the murder of Joe’s fiancée, probably not the kind of tale that appealed to the show's teen girl demographic. The plug was pulled after eight episodes.

We will certainly see more attempts at reviving and updating Frank, Joe and Nancy, but until then The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries arguably remains the definitive treatment, despite its shortcomings. Why it didn’t connect with a wider audience may be the only mystery our trio of young sleuths could not solve. 


  1. While I seldom watched The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries during its initial run, I had friends who were smitten with Pamela Sue Martin. I always thought it was odd how she seemingly left the series in the middle of the second season. Last year, I met Parker Stevenson at nostalgia convention and interviewed him for my blog. He was a very likable guy and still speaks highly of his co-star Shaun Cassidy. This was a delightful post and you're certainly right about Veronica Mars (which was a terrific show).

  2. It's my unfortunate understanding that the DVD set for the final season of "The Hardy Boys Mysteries" (as it was now called) contains syndicated-episode cuts. Argh! I find this situation particularly aggravating since an episode known as "Game Plan" has Mary Louise Weller, the lovely blonde actress who played Mandy Pepperidge in "National Lampoon's Animal House."

  3. My heart rate elevated when you mentioned the Dracula's Castle cross-over episode! THAT TV moment was so exciting to tween viewers like myself in the late 1970s.

    And YES--you got that right with Veronica Mars. Thanks for another great post!

  4. Wonderful post about a show I was a little too old to appreciate when it came on! But what telegenic stars they found to bring the characters to life!

  5. Nice writeup. I only watched this show a few times and hadn't realized that Cosell guest starred on an episode. He sure made the rounds during the 1970s with guest appearances on a large number of shows (always playing himself of course).

  6. It's true the best characters come back via film and/or TV every few decades. Interesting that Nancy Drew was an influence for Hillary Clinton and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Senator Al Franken asked Justice Sonia Sotomayor about Perry Mason during her confirmation hearing since Fanken noticed that they both had watched the show. Shows how universal and influential these characters are -- especially the ones who are in multiple forms of media.

  7. I really enjoyed this show as a kid, especially the cross-over episodes! Had my share of Shaun Cassidy posters, too. Thanks for bringing back good memories!

  8. I'm a huge Hardy Boys fan, and will even say I quite enjoyed the "sexed" up 3rd season (joking a bit there), with the more adult stories. But really, anything Parker Stevenson is fine with me! :) I wasn't as keen on Nancy Drew as a kid, mostly because I was mad that she had a potential thing with Frank (I know... I was already living in a soap opera in my head!), but really enjoy revisiting her episodes now. PSM is pretty damn cool.

  9. "Shockingly, despite sharing the same publisher for decades, Nancy and the Hardys never worked a case together in the books."

    The books were for two different audiences.
    In my five-kid (three boys/two girls) family we had both series in the family library.
    The boys never read Nancy, though the girls did try the Hardy Boys, but didn't like them as much.

    Well-researched and written post.
    I'll be back for more...

  10. Nicely done, David, and terrific research. I didn't watch the series when it was on (because the single TV station in the town in which I lived didn't carry it), but it's such a great slice of life from a simpler time of adventure stories, and we shouldn't forget it. It definitely deserves a place of honor with the rest of these shows!

  11. Believe it or not, B-movie auteur Andy Sidaris directed an episode.

    1. Belatedly (very belatedly):

      Andy Sidaris's wife Arlene was one of this series's producers - in fact, the whole show was her idea in the first place.
      One of her reasons for doing it was to kickstart Andy's career as an action moviemaker; he'd spent the previous quarter-century at ABC Sports, directing various events.

      Andy Sidaris can be seen on-camera directing the football telecast in the feature Two-Minute Warning.

  12. Loved this show...and love this post !! Thank you !

  13. Loved this show...and love this post !! Thank you !