Nostalgia corner: Remington Steele (1982-1987)

If you could invent your boss, would you invent Pierce Brosnan?

Remington Steele

“Try this for a deep, dark secret. The great detective Remington Steele, he doesn’t exist… I invented him. Follow: I always loved excitement so I studied and apprenticed and put my name on an office but absolutely nobody knocked down my door. A female private investigator seemed so… feminine, so I invented a superior, a decidedly masculine superior. Suddenly there were cases around the block. It was working like a charm until the day he walked in with his blue eyes and mysterious past and before I knew it he assumed Remington Steele’s identity. Now I do the work and he takes the bows. It’s a dangerous way to live but as long as people buy it I can get the job done. We never mix business with pleasure, well, almost never. I don’t even know his real name.”

It’s hard for women to get to the top in business. Don’t believe me? Just check how many women are CEOs or members of the boards of directors for Fortune 500 companies.

The reasons for this are long and complicated, involving history, discrimination and a whole lot more. In particular, there’s perception. Some people, both men and women, don’t think women are going to be as good as men are at certain jobs.

Particularly private detectives. Or at least people didn’t in 1982, before VI Warshawski, Anna Lee and co. Certainly, Laura Holt (Stephanie Zimbalst) found it hard to get any work when she started out. She may have come top of her class at pretty much everything, but with her name on the door, for some strange reason, no one was interested in hiring her.

So crafty Laura Holt decided to invented a boss with a very masculine name: Remington Steele (Remington as in gun, rather than Fuzzaway). Suddenly, for some equally strange reason, people were queuing up to hire her – well, they wanted Remington Steele, but he was always out of town on business but somehow he always managed to solve his cases with the help of his ‘assistant’.

All was going well with this set-up until a movie-loving, very handsome con man (Pierce Brosnan) turned up and assumed Steele’s identity. Together, he and Holt end up working together, solving crimes. But would their relationship ever become more, when it was all founded in lies – hell, she didn’t even know his real name? Well… that would be saying.

Here’s the intro from the very first episode – the observant will notice the wording is different. After that, the full, rather catchy, Henry Mancini-scored theme tune, and then every episode title from the show, all of which were puns.

Ironically, the idea for Remington Steele had been around since the late 1960s, when director Robert Butler came up with the idea for a show about a female private investigator. However, despite Honey West having aired four years earlier, this was a relatively new idea: whereas West had had a male partner for the rough stuff, this detective was to work alone, since her boss was to be entirely fictional. However, when Butler pitched the idea to Grant Tinker, he was told the series was too far ahead of its time.

Fast forward a decade and Butler pitched the idea to MTM (Mary Tyler Moore’s company, one of the great sources for quality entertainment in the US in the 1980s) where Tinker now worked. This time he was told he only had half an idea and suggested he work with Michael Gleason (Sword of Justice) to find the other half. It was Gleason who wondered what would happen if Laura Holt’s boss turned up and drove her crazy.

MTM pitched the idea to NBC, which initially rejected the show. However, when Tinker left MTM and took over as chairman of NBC, the network changed its mind. It also needed quite a beating to be persuaded to cast Pierce Brosnan, then a complete unknown in the US in the lead role, but eventually they did, pairing him with established actress Stephanie Zimbalist.

The show was quite a success for NBC, lasting five seasons, its major innovations being the “will they, won’t they” nature of Steele and Holt’s relationship. Unlike many of the other shows of the time featuring ‘man candy’, Brosnan’s appeal was more sophisticated and the layers of deceit with which the writers layered Steele meant that he could be both charming and a bad boy, rather than the more open, heroic types of the time. He was also notably a poor detective initially, with Holt being the primary investigator who solves all the crimes, despite Steele’s ‘help’.

Indeed, the show was something of a female fantasy in the vein of Cover Up. Zimbalist was a hard-working, high-achieving everywoman, who gets to have the handsome stranger who loves her for her skills and intellect. With Brosnan’s character needing to be a mystery for much of the show’s run – Holt never even finds out his real name – most of the character development and background work is given to her, and the stories are largely from her point of view. Secondary characters that do appear (such as Murphy Michaels, played by James Read, another private detective who works for Holt) are largely potential love interests for her or are former lovers of Steele’s whom he abandons in favour of Holt.

There were some notable exceptions. Zimbalist’s father Efrem Zimbalist Jr rather weirdly appeared regularly as another conman, Daniel Chalmers, Steele’s former mentor and surrogate father, who’s eventually revealed in the final episode to be Steel’s actual father. Holt also had a secretary: in the first season, that was Bernice Foxe, played by Janet DeMay, but when James Read said he wasn’t happy with his character, both Foxe and Read were let go and Holt got a new secretary, Mildred Krebs, played by Everyone Loves Raymond‘s Doris Roberts. Perhaps the only aspect of the show that didn’t play to female fantasies was making Steele a movie fan who liked to quote from old films and indeed, bases most of his detective work on those movies. What a nerd, hey? But, hey, the writers were nerds, too, and based a lot of the plots on old movies, too.

The show proved both a critical and ratings success, showing the same qualities that marked out other MTM shows like St Elsewhere. Unfortunately for Remington Steele, however, although it still had a 28% share of the audience during its fourth season and the two main characters had faked a marriage together, there was no room in the NBC schedule for the show after Hunter got an early pick-up, so the show was cancelled. Brosnan and Zimbalist both moved on to the movies: Zimbalist was offered the part of Anne Lewis in RoboCop and Brosnan was offered the part of James Bond in The Living Daylights. The rest is history.

Except, it wasn’t. In a bizarre turnaround, the fan outcry was huge, there’d been an upswing in the ratings towards the end of the season and NBC changed its mind, summoning back Zimbalist and Brosnan for a final fifth season of TV movies. That meant Brosnan couldn’t be Bond – at least, not yet – and Zimbalist had to pull out of RoboCop. While those movies did give the fans something of what they wanted, they did ultimately conclude the Remington Steele story.

Follow: the big irony of this, of course, is that Pierce Brosnan became the big star while the movie career of the arguably more talented Zimablist was entirely restricted to TV movies following the end of the series. Even more ironically, given the nature of the show, when it was released on DVD, the DVD production company neglected to mention on the cover that she was even in it, and when it was pointed out to them, they had to put big stickers on the packs with “And Stephanie Zimbalist” written on them.

Still, even if it didn’t give Zimbalist the boost she deserved, many women were still inspired by her and Laura Holt, one of the few unmarried career women on TV at the time, and who got to have it all (almost).