The Action-Packed Police Prowls of ‘Adam-12’

ADAM 12, (from left): Martin Milner, Kent McCord, 1968-75

Source Everett Collection

Why you should care

Because there was a time in the not-too-distant past when TV cops were more than just occasional heroes.

The Vietnam War, campus riots and the assassination of Martin Luther King was how 1968 was shaping up in the U.S. And strolling into the midst of all of that darkness and paranoia was a modest little TV show called Adam-12. Its premise was simple: A quasi-realistic take on what constituted a day in the life of what the show creator, Jack Webb, felt were working class heroes. Cops.

Adam-12’s run, from 1968 to 1975, was almost an oasis of cop drama, because even after World War II, in the full blush of a noir sensibility, the police were just as likely to be the bad cops as they were to be the good ones. Webb — the man behind the other previous cop king-of-the-mountain show Dragnet — felt a skosh differently. And with Adam-12, the cops Pete Malloy and Jim Reed, affectless and no-nonsense as played by Martin Milner and Kent McCord respectively, were unabashedly good guys. 

LAPD cops used to be openly bent, and this show was part of the rehab of their public image after Chief Parker took over.

Richard Von Busack, TV, film and media critic for MetroNews

“You got to understand,” said Eddie Williams, a now-retired undercover gang detail cop, “Guys in uniforms back then were called ‘pigs’ and not ‘cops’ by a lot of people.” So a show that lionized them — not with oversize depictions of cop derring-do, despite what the promos pimped — but sort of the really real day-to-day stuff of cop work, ended up being a hit. Seminally connected to any cop show later, even the ones that showed cops in less than flattering lights, Adam-12 completely came from the vantage point of cop as peace officer/public servant even if back then swaths of the public differed.

“It was a very ‘gung ho about the LAPD’ show,” said Richard Von Busack, TV, film and media critic for MetroNews. “LAPD cops used to be openly bent, and this show was part of the rehab of their public image after Chief Parker took over. They were no longer bribable, just brutal over-policers like I’ve never seen anywhere.”

Still alive in reruns, brand-marketed with replicas of the Adam-12 police cruiser, the show pulled only one Emmy nod — one in 1971 for Outstanding Achievement in Music Composition for a Series — and a raft of nominations for TV Land awards, of which it won nothing. But it did win the hearts and minds of a generation of kids that vibed full-on to its superego subversiveness. 

“Back when everyone was going crazy,” finished Williams, “they absolutely were not.” So a peaceful show about peace officers? Imagine that. Now imagine that no longer.

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