How An Ex-Rodeo Rider Went West To Enjoy The Good Life As a A Hawaiian Cop

TV Guide, January 4, 1969

Jack Lord, the actor, has come a long way from the dusty rodeo and fair grounds of Stoney Burke -- a one-season wonder of a few years back which Lord calls "the most successful failure in television."

After the demise of that program, Lord -- to the tune of what he estimates, probably exaggeratedly, at $200,000 annually -- embarked upon a series of personal appearances as Stoney. "They thought he was a real person in those small towns," he says, "and I still get mail addressed to Mission Ridge, South Dakota, which was supposed to be Stoney's home town." Jack, in his cowboy boots and Stoney Burke costume, would walk into the arena with his saddle slug over his shoulder, say a few words to the folks in the stands and then sing some Western songs, which he had learned in an intensive four-week vocal course.

Now he is thousands of miles and a world away from all that, starring in the CBS series Hawaii Five-O. He and his wife of 17 years, Marie ("the best thing that ever happened to me"), live in a 4500-square-foot apartment adjacent to the Kahala Hilton Hotel on the beach at Waikiki, where, when the moon comes up behind the palm trees, it looks like a Hawaiian picture postcard. The apartment, identified by Lord's real name, J.J. Ryan (his wife calls him "Mick"), is decorated with his own paintings and has "His" and "Hers" lanais -- his filled with artists' supplies, easels and unfinished paintings (the Metropolitan Museum of Art owns five of his works done when he was 18 years old), and hers with a dressmaker's dummy, sewing machine and other sewing supplies (she was formerly a dress designer but hastens to add "in the garment district").

Only the cowboy boots remain to remind one of Stoney Burke; but now, often as not, they are pure white and worn with a white Nehru suit or a dashing red dinner jacket.

Lord dresses more conservatively -- dark blue suit, white shirt, plain dark tie, but still the cowboy boots -- for his role as Steve McGarrett, head of the mythical Hawaii Five-O unit. But even at work his surroundings are luxurious -- a 30-foot-long, 16,000-pound, all-steel mobile dressing room, decorated by his wife and complete with bedroom, kitchen, bath, make-up area, stereo, two air-conditioners and a self-contained water-purifier. Lord's idol, the late Gary Cooper, never had it so good, even in his palmiest days.

But then Gary Cooper probably never worked as hard as Lord does. The Hawaii Five-O company, imported mostly from Hollywood, puts in a six-day week of days that are sometimes 18 hours long. Lord insists that "it's fun," but it is hard, grueling work too. Often it involves as many as five different locations a day, ranging from the seamier sections of downtown Honolulu, where Lord once found a lady of dubious repute stark naked in his fancy dressing room, to the canebrakes outside of town, where the company's "studio" is located. This studio, beyond Pearl Harbor, is a converted Navy warehouse, where standing sets of McGarrett's and the governor's offices are maintained, Not soundproof, it is near a rifle range and is also susceptible to rebounding rain on metal roof and to passing trucks and airplanes ("Is it one of ours?" someone inevitably cries).

There are other, lesser, hazards, Once, for instance, a frog was on a bookshelf in one of the sets. Everyone assumed that it was a prop -- a decorative, porcelain bit of bric-a-brac. It remained motionless -- white the scene was being shot, then, when the action was completed, suddenly leaped from the shelf and hopped out of the studio.

The frog was heading for where most of Hawaii Five-O is shot -- outdoors. This was the basic intention of the program's creator and executive producer, Leonard Freeman, who wanted to get away from conventional motion-picture sound stages, which he refers to contemptuously as "dinosaur eggs." Freeman, who had previous experience in and out of the studio with Mr. Novakand Route 66, says, ''I wasn't about to do another reprise of an old series shot in Burbank." Three years ago he decided, although he had never been there, that "our 50th state would be a wonderful setting for a series --the crossroads of the world, full of color, a now place." After visiting the islands, he approached CBS with the idea of doing a show there, "involving a cop." The network liked it. Then Freeman returned to Hawaii and convinced Governor Burns -- who is played by Richard Denning in the series -- that a major television production "was the sort of smokeless industry Hawaii needed." (It has been estimated that Hawaii Five-O will pump $5,000,000 a year into the islands' already booming economy.) CBS continued picking up its options on Freeman's idea until a movie-length pilot film was made to get the series underway last September.

Jack Lord was not an automatic or immediate choice for the role of Steve McGarrett. "You always start with Gregory Peck," says Freeman. "Who knows? You might call him up and he'd feel like doing a television series that day. After that, you put a lot of names in a hopper and finally sift them down to one." Not that Lord's name was at the bottom of the hopper. He and Freeman had worked together on an unsold TV pilot called Grand Hotel, and, according to Freeman, "He's terrific. I'm a perfectionist, and so is he. Having a star like Jack is like having money in the bank. He's always on time, no bags under his eyes, and he always knows his lines." Freeman also feels that Lord fits into what he calls "credibility casting -- like E.G. Marshall and Ben Casey and Jack Webb. When he flashes his badge, people believe it." Lord, who takes everything seriously -- principally himself -- feels that there is more to his role than that. He chooses to believe that "McGarrett has more facets than Stoney Burke." The seriousness with which he can attack a cops-and-robbers role is probably a throw-back to the days when he was doing really serious acting in New York, his birthplace. "You can't work this hard and this long without being serious," he says. After working as a seaman and in the merchant marine, attending New York University on a football scholarship and serving in the Navy during the Korean war, he studied under Sanford Meisner, who recalls him as "very intense," Then Lord went on to such Broadway plays as "The Traveling Lady," with Kim Stanley, and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Of those days he says, somewhat sadly, "I've drunk from the cup a couple of times."

Lord says things like that. He also recites poetry at length and will solemnly compare a TV show to the sonnet form: "A television show must be done in an exact time, and a sonnet must be 14 lines no more, no less." This is also a throwback to the days when his father, a shipping magnate ''who made . and lost two fortunes," would give the five Ryan children a penny for every line of poetry they memorized.

Although Jack Lord has a rather unbending facade, he is a sensitive, vulnerable man, who still remembers bitterly a magazine article during his Stoney Burke days in which it was said that he visualized himself as another Gary Cooper. He and Cooper met when Lord, a struggling actor, was trying to pick up eating money selling Cadillacs in New York. One day Cooper came into the showroom to look at an old Duesenberg he had formerly owned. When he learned that Lord was an aspiring actor, he took him to lunch at Schrafft's. In 1955, Lord came to Hollywood and was cast in "The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell," which starred Cooper. Lord said, "Do you remember me?" Cooper answered, "Yeah, you're the guy that likes Duesenbergs." The two were friends until Cooper's death, but Lord denies any illusions of filling his idol's boots.

If he ever did entertain any such illusions, Lord has probably long since abandoned them. Once, years ago, when he tested for the role of Bo, the innocent cowboy, opposite Marilyn Monroe in the movie of "Bus Stop,'' the director, Joshua Logan, told him, ''You can't play a virgin -- your face looks lived in." Today, starting to get a bit jowly, the face looks more lived in than ever. But -- with the apartment at Waikiki, the luxurious mobile dressing room, a piece of the action on Hawaii Five-O (Lord is a shrewd businessman, one of the few Hollywood actors not represented by an agent), and the dust of the rodeo arenas far behind him -- Jack Lord is really living.