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LORD OF THE ISLANDS

 Mainliner Magazine - February, 1970

By Eddie Sherman

Six mornings out of seven, a businessman in Honolulu rises at 4 A.M. and jogs a mile down the beach in front of his Kahala Ave. apartment. After a hearty breakfast, his most important meal of the day, he’s on the telephone talking to the mainland. By 6 A.M., he’s at work - a schedule not unlike that of many other businessmen in the tropics, where early rising is traditional.

But there the similarity with other business executives ends. Jack Lord’s office is in Hawaii’s first professional sound stage at Fort Ruger, on the slope of Diamond Head. His business is the starring role of Steve McGarrett, hero of the hit series Hawaii Five-0, seen on the CBS television network.

Lord’s business day is also unlike those of other executives who can leave t her offices at 5 P.M. or take an afternoon off for a round of golf. His grueling schedule calls for a 60-minute episode of the television series to be finished every eight days. The hours are long and the pace is tough, but it’s a job Lord is dedicated to and one which will make him a millionaire.

How did it all happen? Lord tells it this way:

"Leonard Freeman, creator of Hawaii Five-0, spent 37 months on the idea before a camera ever turned. The show went through six or seven rewrites and through many CBS committees before the final concept was agreed upon."

Freeman himself gives added details:

"In December of ’65, my wife and I made out first trip to Hawaii. Despite the fact that it rained most of the ten days we were there, I found this last Eden hauntingly beautiful. In films, I have always strived for realism, a documentary feeling, and that is best achieved by location shooting. The dinosaur eggs clustered on the antiquated movie lots of Hollywood always depress me. Making Route 66 was a joy because there was always this great, beautiful United States to use as a canvas. The next step in the evolution is obvious - why not make a series entirely on location here in Hawaii?

"My vacation, the first in 15 years incidentally, immediately turned into a think session. I visited and talked with various people in Hawaii and finally had one long think session with Governor Burns in his office. Out of that meeting came the nubbin which grew into Hawaii Five-0 - a four-man State Police Unite (even though Hawaii doesn’t have a state police force) headed by a Now cop, McGarrett. It only took three years of hard work to get it on the air."

Lord had starred for two seasons in Stoney Burke, playing a rodeo cowboy. Before that, he had feature roles in such movies as The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell, Gods Little Acre and Dr. No. He had starred in such top television dramatic shows as Omnibus, Studio One, U S Steel Hour and Playhouse 90. At the time Five-0 came into his life he was, in his works, "resisting television."

"I really didn’t want to do another show," he said. "I turned down Judd for the Defense, The Man from UNCLE and several others. I was under exclusive contract to CBS, which gave me the right to approve the properties, submitted.

"Paul King, vice president of CBS, called me one morning and asked me to read Leonard Freeman’s script for the Five-0 Pilot. I read the first act and my heart began to pound. I turned to my wife, Marie and said, ‘This is it, honey. This is the one we’ve been waiting for.

"We came to the islands in December, 1967, worked for about 30 days and made the two-hour pilot film, Cocoon. On the basis of that, the series was sold within two weeks. It was picked up by 203 CBS affiliate stations - the largest advance acceptance of a series in television history."

Sound like instant success? Lord’s and Freeman’s problems had just begun. The show was initially set for a 90-minute time slot, and their scripts had been written accordingly. They were then advised the tie would be limited to one hour on the network, which meant all the scripts on hand, had to be scrapped. A 90-minute script simply can’t be chopped down.

"We were supposed to go into production at the beginning of May, 1968," Lord said. "But we had no scripts, no crew, no trained help and no studio in Hawaii. We were pioneers. No one had ever shot an entire television series in Hawaii before. Exteriors had been filmed here, but interiors were always hot in Hollywood. Finally, on May 26, 1968, at the late Henry J. Kaiser’s Koko Head estate, we turned the first camera.

"The whole thing was exorbitant. We were budgeted at $184,000 per episode. At the end of 26, we were $500,000 over budget - half a million dollars in the hole! Even at that point, everyone had faith in the show."

That alone was enough to dishearten lesser men, but the enigma was further compounded by Hawaii Five-0 being pre-empted by other programs four times out of the first nine weeks it was on the air.

"It was frightening because the show had no opportunity to build up any impetus," Lord said of the every-other-week preemption’s. "You start out with a good show, and then the second week comes along and something entirely foreign is shown instead.

Nerves grew taut on the Five-o set. Lord was edgy, moody and worried. The show was good for Hawaii’s economy, and Honolulu newspapers plugged it hard.

Where once he had thought success was firmly in his grasp, failure loomed.

"Len Freeman and I asked each other why we were foundering," Lord went on. "I had an excellent reputation in television. I had done many guest star roles on top shows, and Stoney Burke had gone off the air with three awards. It had been described by Larry Laurent of the Washington Post as ‘the most successful failure in television.’

"Len had produced Route 66 and Mr. Novak - quality shows which won great critical acclaim. He had written and produced the Untouchables, one of television’s great hits. Both of us knew the business, but something was wrong.

"We asked, ‘Where have we failed? We should be in the Top Ten - what are we doing wrong? We finally decided we had gotten a bad shake, what with the pre-emptions. I know it was not deliberate, but it was deadly.

"We decided to redouble our efforts. To do everything possible from a publicity standpoint. To improve stores. To seek out better guest stars. To work harder and longer on every aspect of our show - pre- and post-production, logistics, casting, editing, scoring, dubbing, titles - every phase.

"And it was touch-and-go for a while. Then the network decided we were a quality show, despite our 67th place and we deserved a second chance. Mike Dann, vice president in charge of programming, switched us into the 10 p.m. slot on Wednesday nights, where Jonathan Winters had been. Even though out first program at that hour was on Christmas night - hardly a top viewing night - we gathered 36 percent of the audience. Madison Avenue and network brass figure that since there are three networks, a show has to grab one-third of the audience to be viable. We made it alive and kicking - with a little space to spare. 

"The following Wednesday was New Year’s - again not an outstanding night. But again we hold our own. And gradually we moved up - from 67th to 63rd, to 55th, to 45th, on and on, up and up - excelsior! At the end of our first year, we finished fourth in the nation among 78 shows. And we had ended up as the top-rated dramatic series on the air. There were other shows ahead of us, but they were situation comedies or specials. I think that’s something to be proud of. A modern day Phoenix story. They had us down for the long count. We - Len and I, the cast and crew - steadfastly refused to accept that verdict." 

On the Five-0 set and at the network, there is no longer any talk about fallout. But there is a determination to stay on top. Newspapermen find Jack Lord gracious, willing to interrupt filming so the press can take pictures and interview him. The crew is a happy one. Lord still drives hard, determined to keep up the show’s quality.

Along Madison Avenue and in the agency world, Five-0 is the hot show - where commercial minutes are bringing top buck and delivering top results. Sponsors are waiting in the wings because time is all sold for the new season. 

"We worked hard and never lost faith," Lord says of the early difficulties. "Like a cat, you learn to land on your feet in this business. I’m grateful to God for the opportunity to be here in these marvelous islands. Marie and I hope to spend the rest of our lives here. If we get four or five years out of this show - and I think we ill now - I’ll be in a position to do anything I want." 

For Jack Lord, that could mean painting, writing, directing films, pursuing archaeology, or - if he ever learns how to do it - just plain relaxing.

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