The Continuing Legacy of "Hawaii Five-O"

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Editor
(January 26th, 1998)

Residents watched the crime show with disdain or amusement for its mangles and ethnic stereotypes, but the world watched with admiration for its portrayal of "paradise"
Jack Lord on the Ilikai balcony
Jack Lord stands on the balcony of the Ilikai Hotel. This is not the same location as the TV show opening credits, however -- behind Lord is the view to the west of the hotel, including the Ala Moana shopping center.
Any Islander who's ever watched a "Hawaii Five-O" episode has savored a moment that had special meaning for locals only.

Last Wednesday, the death of "Five-O" star Jack Lord reminded us of the days when the whole state was a studio.

It might have been an instance of mixed-up geography, as when Lord's Steve McGarrett, chief of the fictional police unit called Five-O, would be tooling along on Kalanianaole Highway near Sea Life Park, muttering something about heading to the airport. Locals knew he was going the wrong way.

It could have been a "bust" at Ala Moana Beach Park, where you've relaxed and partied, or on Hotel Street, where you waited for a bus, or -- even better -- something shot right on your street, or near your cousin's house.

It could have been a mangled pidgin line -- hilarious to us, probably incomprehensible to Mainland watchers. Or perhaps it was an appearance by your Uncle Harry as an extra in a crowd at Iolani Palace.

"Five-O" became a part of us, even if it didn't reflect real life in the Islands and often caused controversy. You watched because your front yard had become a global phenomenon.

"You know, Hawaii was a very different place then," said Keiki Lee, referring to the show's 12-year run between 1968 and 1980.

Lee is a 46-year-old part-Hawaiian, a salesman who also raises lei flowers on his Kaneohe property. "The Hawaiian renaissance was just getting started. We still thought of the Mainland as the most important place, and of ourselves as being way behind them.

"We would get so excited when that music came on; we always watched it in our house. And we would laugh like hell at the lines they would give people like Zulu and Al Harrington and Uncle Moe [Keale]. I wouldn't laugh now because, you know, that show was really disrespectful to local culture. But that was then. You gotta respect the show in the then."

Glenn Cannon, a University of Hawaii drama professor, actor, and director, who had a recurring role as Attorney General John Manicote, said "Five-O" worked in its time as prime time crime drama, and still works today -- but as nostalgia.

"I think the show will be in syndication for the next 20 or 30 years, because it was a premier piece of work," said Cannon. "I don't think you can duplicate that formula today."

Not least because of the way non-Caucasians often were portrayed -- as exotic beauties, as hard-working not very bright thirds-in-command, as Chinatown prostitutes and aunties who spoke in fractured syntax.

"To me, it conveyed the worst caricature of Hawaii, of Hawaiians, as this kind of mysterious and dangerous place with beautiful women and strange pidgin-speaking locals. There was an underworld atmosphere that the haoles were trying to save us from," said Haunani-Kay Trask, a UH professor of Hawaiian studies. "It was just another violence-ridden Hollywood crime series and we happened to be the focus of it ... I disliked "Hawaii Five-O" and I still dislike it."

Still local actors wanted in.

"Hey. I wanted to play the bad guy, said radio personality Kimo Kahoano. "I wanted to be the toughie because it was a lot of fun role-playing."

Hawaiians and Asians commonly played crime lords, druggies, henchmen, but ignored the stereotypes for the sake of the work.

Cannon said the series would definitely have to be more culturally sensitive today, and probably have to resort to more on-screen violence to suit the current marketplace.

When CBS attempted a "Hawaii Five-O" revival last year, a controversy arose over the lack of ethnic diversity on the cast, especially in lead roles. And there was talk about how the use of pidgin might be received, whether it trivialized the non-Caucasian actors given the pidgin lines. The show was never picked up.

Said UH professor Lilikala Kame'eleihiwa: "I wish that we had an international show that represented Hawaii from the Hawaiian people's point of view ... or at least a show that represented more what Hawaii is really like.... ["Five-O"] was such a totally Hollywood vision and so totally haole-dominated," she said.

But there's also the matter of what "Five-O," and Lord, who insisted on making it all-on-location show, did for the Islands' bottom line.

Selling Hawaii

"Jack Lord loved Hawaii, and he sold Hawaii like no other," said Hank Wong, who was state movie commissioner from 1973 to 1984.

Wong said "Five-O" laid the foundation for future Isle-based shows such as "Magnum, P.I.," "Island Son," "Jake and the Fatman," and "The Byrds of Paradise."

"It was the first network show done totally on location, in Hawaii," said Wong. "The term 'runaway production' came from this show -- all done here. We always had a saying: 'If you think Hawaii is pretty, wait till you see it live.'"

"Lord's vision of doing "Five-O" as a show totally shot on location helped put a lot of people to work, and many are still working the industry today," said Georgette Deemer, manager of the Hawaii Film Studio. "I think it would also be accurate to say that "Five-O" still is the standard against which everyone else who films in Hawaii measures itself."

Oahu Film Commissioner Walea Constantinau agrees. "It introduced Hawaii to the world, it showed Hawaii to the world every week, even in syndication," she said.

The program, reaching a global audience of 300 million in 80 countries in its heyday, continues to sell Hawaii in syndication today. Here, it still airs 10 times locally on two stations.

Lord and master

Lord was an icon -- stoic on the screen, accessible but vain in real life, respected in art circles, a covert supporter of Hawaii's film festival, and a very private person.

While his official age was listed as 77 when he died, it was said he was much older -- a guessing game that plagued Lord in life.

You never asked his age in interviews; you never shot his picture without his permission; you always approached him with caution.

In public, he looked very much as he did on TV. He always wore stage makeup while shopping for produce at Star Market at Kahala Mall, ogling the apples as he would a crime scene, knowing there was someone over by the lettuce bin whispering, "Hey! It's McGarrett."

You could spot him tooling along the freeway with his plantation-style hat and scarf in the oversized white sedan with "Five-O" plates (stolen from his car in his Kahala garage a while back, by the way).

He was nicer to fans than colleagues. But many who bore his verbal assaults acknowledged that his goal was a better show, said Joe Moore.

"I was a skinny young guy, just out of the Army, when I did my first of about 15 'Five-Os,'" said Moore, KHON Fox 2 news anchor, who was then doing sports on KGMB-TV, the CBS affiliate.

"My favorite was the last one I did, in which I played a heavyweight boxer contender."

Moore said Lord was a stickler for everything-must-be-right. "But he also had a sense of humor," said Moore. "I remember that last show I did, when he did an impression of Rod Steiger talking to Marlon Brando, as if he were Steiger and I was Brando, 'You couldda been a contender. I couldda looked after you.' It was a loose side very few people got to see."

Few knew of Lord's philanthropy. "He was one of the first people in Hawaii to embrace the idea of the Hawaii International Film Festival before it was a popular notion," said Jeannette Paulsen Hereniko, founder and former director of the film festival, now director of the Asia Pacific Media Center. "Jack and [his wife] Marie, without hesitation, helped put their name and money on the film festival concept, and continued to generously give their time, advice, guidance and financial support to the festival, from year one [1980]."

He "will remain a star inside my heart forever."

Did you know ...

How the show got its start

Gov. Burns had task force idea

Gov. John Burns and TV producer Leonard Freeman's mother-in-law are believed to have been the catalysts for the birth of "Hawaii Five-O."

In Luis Reyes' book "Made in Paradise," the origin of "Five-O" is credited to an idea of the late Gov. Burns to form a police task force to deal with unusual Island crimes.

The task force never materialized, but Lenny Freeman, who later died during the show's run, took the idea as the basis for an Island-based TV series, with the ulterior motive of getting to Hawaii more often so the family could see his mother-in-law, who lived in Honolulu.

By the time "Five-O" had logged 284 episodes over 12 years, between 1968 and 1980, it is estimated that the show provided benefits of $100 million to Hawaii's tourist industry. Further, the show contributed $180 million to the state's economy, paying an estimated $16 million in state taxes and creating 7,992 jobs a year.