Monday, March 8, 2021

Ranking the Ranks of TV’s Top Cops


Police shows have been a television staple since the earliest days of the medium. 


And like many such shows they can educate the public about the profession they portray, even if that is not their primary intent. Most viewers may never see the inside of a police station (hopefully!), but thanks to four decades of cop shows they probably have a pretty good idea of how metropolitan police departments are organized.


Which characters best personified their law enforcement ranks? It’s a tough call given the memorable work of so many actors in so many classic series. But we don’t flinch when it comes to the difficult choices.


Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up the chain of command.


The Beat Cop

Joe Forrester

One of the biggest complaints about law enforcement today is the disconnect between police and the public they are sworn to protect. Beat cops have become an endangered species, but in TV Land you’ll still see them patrolling the streets and getting to know the people in their neighborhoods. Lloyd Bridges played Joe Forrester in a 1975 episode of Police Story that was adapted into a series that same year. It didn’t last long, but it provided an accurate depiction of community policing the way it ought to be. 


The Patrol Officer

Pete Malloy and Jim Reed

On Adam-12, Martin Milner and Kent McCord played Officers Malloy and Reed, who spent their days in a mobile patrol unit answering a variety of calls that ranged from humorous to potentially fatal.  



Joe Friday

Dragnet is the alpha and omega of TV cop shows, so there’s no other possible choice here than the iconic Sgt. Joe Friday (Jack Webb), who served with honor in a classic 1950s show and its late ‘60s revival. He worked practically every division at the Los Angeles Police Department – bunco, forgery, narcotics, robbery, public affairs – and always captured his perp.


Those that prefer police shows with more action might prefer Fred Dryer as Sgt. Rick Hunter. I’ll stick with Friday, though I acknowledge that no one ever referred to his partner as the Brass Cupcake.


The Lieutenant

Theo Kojak

Most TV police lieutenants are always mad about something, whether it was dealing with renegade street cops under their command, like Lt. Ryker (Gerald S. O’Loughlin) on The Rookies, or having to put up with busybody private investigators, like Lt. Trench (Anthony Zerbe) on Harry O, or David Nelson (Greg Morris) on VEGA$.


Philip Gerard earned a lieutenant rank on The Fugitive, but he spent four years chasing the wrong guy and never caught him, so he’s out. And while I liked Lt. Mike Stone on The Streets of San Francisco, I have more vivid memories of Karl Malden when he was selling American Express Traveler’s Checks.



So my choice here is Theo Kojak, played with hard-boiled charisma by Telly Savales. It was a star-making role for a journeyman actor who probably thought he’d never be a household name. Who loves ya, baby. 


The Captain

Barney Miller

This may be the rank featuring the most outstanding field of contenders: There was Amos Burke (Gene Barry) from Burke’s Law – but he was a millionaire who lived in grander style than our other nominees, so he was a winner already. Steve McGarrett (Jack Lord) held the rank of Captain on Hawaii Five-O, but spent more time in the field and probably thought of himself as a detective first.


The office of Captain Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) on Hill Street Blues often served as an oasis of calm surrounded by chaos – at least in the moments when his ex-wife didn’t show up to whine about something. But admirable as Travanti’s performance was, and as much as the series was praised for its gritty street-level realism, I suspect that Hal Linden’s Barney Miller might actually be closer to showing the authentic day-to-day travails of a big city precinct captain. 



The Chief

Tyler Watts

In keeping with the American tendency to mock those in authority, it’s not surprising that the most prominent TV police chiefs haven’t been the most admirable public servants. From the vacuous, corrupt Chief Daniels on Hill Street Blues to Batman’s Chief O’Hara, head of Gotham City’s useless police force, these are not the guys you want showing up if you dial 911. So let’s go with Billy Dee Williams as Tyler Watts, who ends a decades-long murder spree in rural Georgia in the outstanding 1983 miniseries Chiefs. Never saw it? Get thee to YouTube. 


The Commissioner

Stewart McMillan

I know the most famous Commissioner is Gotham City’s own James Gordon, but San Francisco’s police commissioner Stewart McMillan (Rock Hudson) solved more crimes and had a feistier wife (Susan Saint James).


The Policewoman

Pepper Anderson

 “Policewoman” is not a rank, obviously, but it’s certainly a status with its own challenges, especially in the classic TV era. I couldn’t choose between Cagney and Lacey, so we’ll cancel them out and instead go with Angie Dickinson as TV’s most popular (and alluring) policewoman, Sgt. Pepper Anderson. She wasn’t the first – that title belongs to Beverly Garland in the 1957 series Decoy. It’s on DVD but I haven’t watched it yet, so I reserve the right to amend this entry. 



The Detective


There have been dozens of TV detectives that carry a badge, but there’s only one Columbo (Peter Falk). 


The Highway Patrolman

Dan Matthews

Only two options here: Ponch and Jon from CHiPs, or Broderick Crawford as gravelly-voiced Dan Matthews on the series Highway Patrol. When the choice is between old school and really old school, I usually opt for the latter. 


The Sheriff

Andy Taylor

We associate this rank either with stories set in the old West, or with lawmen in sleepy small towns like Mayberry or Twin Peaks (two locations with very little else in common). The Andy Griffith Show is a comfort TV staple, so Sheriff Taylor takes the win. 



Okay - who did I miss? Opposing views are always welcome. 


  1. This was great! I was going to ask why you didn't start with rookie cops (and "The Rookies"), but they certainly weren't as well known as these other characters. And the only ones who really mattered to me was Adam-12, man I love this show just as much now as I did when I as a kid--own the entire series on DVD. Anyway, had a good chuckle over Gotham City's useless police force(!) and it never occurred to me to include Andy Taylor! I will be getting thyself to Youtube to check out the Billy Dee Williams miniseries "Chiefs", never heard of it--thank you David :)

  2. One show I cannot find on cable channels or DVD is The Blue Knight, both the pilot movie with William Holden or the series with George Kennedy. Help!

    1. Bill, "The Blue Knight" miniseries (yes, the one with William Holden) has been released on Blu-ray as well as on manufacture-on-demand DVD. Amazon definitely sells the Blu-ray stuff at the present time, but if you REALLY want the DVD-R of "The Blue Knight" miniseries, try

  3. OK, Or what about modern era like Lennie Briscoe and Ed Green of Law and Order, Benson and Stabler of SVU, and what about the Reagan clan of Blue Bloods?

    1. They may be great characters on good shows, but this blog is focused on the classic TV era - 1950s-1970s, and occasionally the 1980s.

  4. Marshal Sam McCloud?
    Deputy with Henry Fonda?

  5. Sergeant Frank Drebin, Detective Lieutenant Police Squad! seems like he ought to fit in somewhere. So does Inspector Sledge Hammer (David Rasche).

    I don't know, CAR 54's Captain Block and beat cops Toody and Muldoon deserve mention. Hell, Toody was instrumental in sending the entire Mafia to the federal pen at Leavenworth. Let's see Reed and Malloy do THAT!

    And personally I think Christie Love is strong competition for Pepper in the policewoman category. Sledge Hammer's partner Dori Doreau too.

  6. Ok with all except the chief should go to Frank Reagan. Or, have a "commissioner" catagory.

  7. The detective squad: The Naked City; another beat cop - The Blue Knight.