Who Was The Best TV PI?

Someone asked me this question in an email today and I thought I’d share my answers with you.

For me, it’s a toss-up between Jim Rockford (THE ROCKFORD FILES) and Harry Orwell (HARRY O).  The runner-ups would be Joe Mannix (MANNIX),  Thomas Magnum (MAGNUM PI) and Spenser, though he’s not truly a TV character, since the series was based on the Parker novels.

HarryoI also have fond memories of Darren McGavin as PI David Ross  in the short-lived series THE OUTSIDER, sort of a no-nonsense precursor of THE ROCKFORD FILES. McGavin also starred in one of the worst PI shows ever, as a detective who’s partner can shrink to microscopic size (SMALL AND FRYE).  While we’re at it, Tony Franciosa starred in two of the worst PI shows ever made — MATT HELM (yeah, he was a PI!) and FINDER OF LOST LOVES.   

What are your picks for best and worst TV PIs ever?

20 thoughts on “Who Was The Best TV PI?”

  1. To me, it’s Rockford. He turned around that whole smart aleck tough guy archetype and went the con man route. And you see Rockford in a lot of later book PI’s: Ben Perkins, for one, by Rob Kantner, and more recently, Michael Koryta’s Lincoln Perry. (Perry, in a moment that would do Rockford proud, is confronted by two thugs whom he eventually cons out of $20.)

  2. I’d have to second the Rockford vote, he’s pretty much the only TV PI whose adventures stand the test of time. Magnum episodes I watch in reruns do not hold up well and neither do many of the others. My second pick would be Spenser. Even though he appeared in novels first, Robert Urich made him very much a TV detective and he was my first exposure to Spenser. If I recall right, The Equalizer was a PI too and he kicked ass. And Angel, he’s the PI character I’ve always wanted to write but could never pull off.
    And Jim, that scene in TISG with the Russians was absolutely hilarious, brilliant even.

  3. Tied for first place, I have to say Rockford (of course) and Columbo, followed very closely by Quincy, who wasn’t a PI, per se, but he acted like one.
    I can’t this of a worst at the moment…

  4. My top 3 would feature Simon & Simon (both brothers), Magnum, and Spenser. I was pretty young when The Rockford Files was on, but have enjoyed the few re-reruns I’ve seen.
    Bottom 3? The couple from Moonlighting, the three guys from Riptide, and Remington Steele.

  5. It’s hard to top Lee’s choice for best (Rockford and Harry O), but I’ll also admit to a soft spot for the Surfside 6 gang.
    As to the worst, “The Michael Richards Show” wins hands down. I have to believe that if someone picked another show in this category, it’s because they (mercifully) missed this turkey. I didn’t think it was possible for a PI series to be worse than “Snoops.” I was wrong.
    PS Hey, John, no fair picking Columbo. He’s a cop. 🙂

  6. I was always partial to Thomas Magnum and Remington Steele. But then, I am a child of the ’80s.
    On the other hand, as time wore on, I became more and more convinced that Jessica Fletcher was in fact a deviously clever serial killer herself…
    Worst? Never saw the Michael Richards show. Does Manimal count?

  7. Yes, Jessica Fletcher and Mark Sloan are really both serial killers to keep finding those bodies. 🙂
    Actually, while I know both shows can be mocked for things like that, I love them both. I just laugh off all the jokes and enjoy the fun.

  8. Now, are we talking best privates eyes in talent/skill, or best private eye shows?
    For shows, I would easily pick “The Rockford Files”, “Spenser: For Hire”, “Private Eye” (short lived 80s show with Michael Woods and Josh Brolin), “Magnum, P.I”, “Riptide”, and if we stretch the meaning a bit, I’ll add “Columbo”, “Raven”, “Stingray”, and “John Doe.”
    Jessica Fletcher was rather brilliant, wasn’t she?
    Michael Richards’ show was absolutely terrible. Wasn’t even good in a “so bad it’s good” way.

  9. HONEY WEST was hot.
    JOHNNY STACCATO was cool.
    THE EQUALIZER could take a shot.
    EMMA PEEL made me drool.
    (Okay, I’m cheating a number of ways on that last one, but Diana Rigg in the 60’s….)

  10. I’ll go with the strict construction, which eliminates Spenser as he was in books before TV. That leaves me with Joe Mannix and Jim Rockford, but I’d also like to mention a second Cannell creation, Dennis Booker (played by Richard Grieco). I can best describe Booker as a rock n’ roll rebel P.I. The show was an interesting blend of cultures as Booker left the Jump Street cops to be mainly employed by staid Japanese corporation Teshima.

  11. From north of the 49th:
    Worst: Mom P.I. (late 80s – 30 min. With ‘Angel’ from Rockford)
    Best: Seeing Things (psychic newspaper reporter – 1 hr. Light fare, similar to Monk)

  12. I have to agree with the Rockford vote. He was the best.
    I also have a soft spot for Jessica Fletcher and Dr Sloan. It was nice to see Simon and Simon get a mention on here I would love to be able to see some of the episodes again.

  13. I was wondering about a PI show that ran back in the late 60’s or early seventies. He was a billionaire that ran his PI business in Houston TX. Does anyone remeber this show?

  14. I’d say Rockford was the best. Always seemed to have a good show. Could handle that firebird. And I think it was said that he done alot of his own stunts. That’s why his legs are junk today. Really liked Cannon also. Also remember watching Barnaby Jones as a kid, just don’t know if he was a P.I., cop, lawyer or something else.


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