Wednesday, July 3, 2024

My 50 Favorite Classic TV Characters: Kate Jackson as Sabrina Duncan


Recently Kate Jackson made her first appearance at one of those collector’s shows where fans pay for a couple of minutes of conversation with a celebrity, and take home a photo or an autograph as a memento of the occasion. 



I heard from two people at the show who described how Jackson was not at an open table on the convention floor like the other attendees, but ensconced behind a curtain, with a representative advising fans on what they could and could not do when they entered.


This was not an arrangement I’d seen at any show like this that I attended, but it will not surprise anyone who has followed Jackson’s career. “Difficult” is the word most often used to assess her deportment, and at 75 she has yet to mellow with age.


When I co-wrote The Charlie’s Angels Casebook back in 2000, I interviewed co-stars, producers and crewmembers, and heard quite a few disparaging stories, some too inflammatory to print without risking a lawsuit. And yet, to a person, every one agreed that the series would not have been as popular or successful without Jackson’s Emmy-nominated portrayal of Sabrina Duncan. 



Talent trumps shortcomings in television. That is why, despite her reputation, Kate Jackson enjoyed a successful career in series TV, from Dark Shadows to The Rookies to Charlie’s Angels to Scarecrow & Mrs. King, and still had fans lined up decades later for a few moments of her time.


She wasn’t just good in these shows – she was exceptional. When she was on screen your eyes were automatically drawn to her. A standard, even clichéd, line of scripted dialogue came alive when she spoke it in a flinty but still melodic voice that impelled viewers to pay attention, and to believe what she was saying.


It’s hard to quantify why we like to watch some actors more than others, but such has always been the case with television, and Kate Jackson belongs in that elite class of the medium’s most engaging stars. She had an indefinable charisma that many of classic television’s most revered performers possessed, from David Janssen to Diana Rigg, Elizabeth Montgomery to James Garner.


Charlie’s Angels has been derided as exploitative jiggle TV, and lauded as a proto-feminist breakthrough in popular culture. Maybe it was both, or neither. But it was extremely popular, drawing ratings that would be beyond the imagination of any series now. In its first season it was featured on the cover of Time magazine, back when that publication only put entertainment stories on the cover when the subject had transcended its genre. 



Sabrina was, it was said at the time, the only employee at the Charles Townsend Agency who was believable as a private investigator. But while that may have been true it should not be taken as disparaging of Jackson’s costars, whose contributions were equally valuable. I’ve lost count of how many times Charlie’s Angels has been rebooted, but the only time it really worked was with Jackson, Jaclyn Smith and Farrah Fawcett (and later Cheryl Ladd). 



Which is why the show was never the same after Sabrina left.  In retrospect it’s surprising how easily it survived Farrah’s departure after just one year, given how ubiquitous she was in the culture at that time. But there was no coming back once Kate Jackson was gone. Ratings plummeted during the Shelley Hack season, and by the time Tanya Roberts arrived in season five everyone else was ready to leave.


To understand what made Jackson irreplaceable, one must acknowledge that not a lot of thought was put into Charlie’s Angels beyond its premise – three beautiful woman detectives. On a show like this, what actors bring to their roles is far more essential to success than it would be on a series with better scripts and more clearly defined characters.


No detailed backstories were provided for Charlie’s trio of investigators before they joined the police academy. Kelly was an orphan who had a rough childhood; Jill was a sunny California girl who loved fast cars; Sabrina was married once unsuccessfully. That’s about all we got. If the audience found them credible and appealing, the cast deserves all of the credit. 



When Sabrina shined, it was because Kate Jackson imbued her with qualities beyond what were provided by writers and directors. In “Target: Angels” we meet her ex-husband, a police detective (Michael Bell) and in just a short scene together we believe the history they shared and the affection that remains in their relationship. In the book I wrote how she switches effortlessly “from comic banter with her ex-husband to a touching scene with her father, to a no-nonsense detective grilling a tough mercenary.”


In the fan-favorite episode “Consenting Adults” she elevates a standard kidnapping scene through the power of her personality. In “Dancing in the Dark,” Sabrina goes undercover as a neurotic heiress to set herself up as bait to expose a blackmail scheme, and makes a convincing case that the show worked best when it didn’t take itself too seriously. 


However, in “Angel Baby,” a grim tale about baby brokers, Jackson plays it deadly serious as a cold, brittle would-be adoptive mother. Whatever tone was established by widely varying scripts, she made it work, probably better than it should have.


I could go on, but if you know the show you get it. Even if you were a teenage boy, as I was when the show debuted, getting the vapors from Farrah’s dazzling smile or Jaclyn Smith wearing a bikini like no one before or since, you also noticed Kate Jackson, and you liked her. 


And it was hard to imagine Charlie’s Angels without her. Her co-workers may not have missed her, but viewers certainly did and probably still do. Had I been at that collector's show, I'd have happily waited to get inside the curtain and tell her so.







  1. Sabrina was always my favorite Angel. Something was real about her, and even as a kid, I picked up on it. I watched Scarecrow and Mrs. King because she was the star. Don't know much about the actress herself, but I miss Sabrina and Amanda.

    1. I never really got into Scarecrow and Mrs. King, but she was wonderful on The Rookies and, of course, as Sabrina.

  2. I was only 10 when The Rookies premiered, and didn't always understand what was going on, but still watched it every Monday night with my dad and I loved her on that. I'm embarrassed to admit I only watched one episode of Charlie's Angel's it's entire run, when Cheryl Ladd joined the show! No desire to watch it still, but I'd love to see Scarecrow someday. This was a good read, thanks David.

    1. As I mentioned above to Joe I was not a Scarecrow fan, but I was definitely the right age to be dazzled by Charlie's Angels when it debuted, and all these years later I still see why it was such a phenomenon at the time.