“Ah. That ought to warm you up.” – Dominic Santini
“Yeah” – Stringfellow Hawke
Sunday was the 25th anniversary of the cult action series Airwolf, which premiered on CBS as a two-hour movie. Created by Donald P. Bellasario (Magnum P.I., JAG, NCIS), Airwolf — also “The Lady” — was an elite, stealth helicopter with state-of-the-art technology and the most advanced weapons arsenal ever.
When it’s brilliant yet sadistic creator Dr. Henry Moffett (David Hemmings) took it, The Firm calls upon test pilot Stringfellow Hawke (Jan-Michael Vincent) to retrieve it. With the help of mentor and friend Dominic Santini (Ernest Borgnine), Hawke gets Airwolf back but keeps it hidden in the Valley of the Gods.
He promised to return the Lady to the Firm under the condition that its deputy director Michael Coldsmith-Briggs III (Alex Cord) — code name Archangel — use all the resources to track down his brother Saint John, who’s MIA in Vietnam for over an decade. So, a deal was made: Hawke agrees to fly Airwolf on missions of national interest while The Firm searches for his brother.
Season one of Airwolf was very mature, dark, character-driven, and adult with stories of international intrigue as well as dealing with the Cold War, where the world is sometimes gray — like The Firm, who wears white that distincts them as the good guys. For example, the episode “Echoes of the Past” finds Dominic choosing between telling Archangel where Airwolf is hidden or keeping it a secret in honor of his friend, who’s been kidnapped.
Stringfellow Hawke was the precursor of JAG‘s Harmon Rabb, Jr. (David James Elliott), as both men continues to hold out hope for their lost family members (Hawke, his brother; Rabb, his father). Hawke was originally a tragic protagonist: a stoic, strong, silent loner who was destined to believe that anyone he loves or might love will die. Over the course of Airwolf, this reluctant hero slowly breaks down his defenses and opens up, as deep down there was an sensitive man of idealism willing to do what is right.
However, CBS wanted the series to be more “family-friendly” and action-driven in hopes of attracting an wider audience, so Bellasario lighten the show a bit during season two in the fall of 1984 with the introduction of feisty Caitlin O’Shannessy (Jean Bruce Scott), who becomes an member of the Airwolf team, and putting the Firm was in the background. Season two still deliver with episodes such as “Sweet Britches” (written by Bellasario), “Firestorm”, “Moffett’s Ghost”, “Fallen Angel” (written by Bellasario’s then-newlywed wife Deborah Pratt, who played Archangel’s assistant Marella), “HX1”, and “Once a Hero”, where Hawke was almost close in finding his brother. Airwolf was now defending America against crime and injustice as the Lady became a symbol of freedom, liberty, honor, and justice.
When Airwolf returned for its third season in the fall of 1985, both Bellasario and Pratt left in season two due to disagreements with on CBS over the show’s direction. Plus, Vincent, the series’ leading man, became more difficult due to his alcohol and drinking problem as well as his troubled personal life that caused delays production and made it harder for his co-stars to work on the set. Though the show was becoming more expensive to produce, season three still did well with the introduction of villainous tycoon John Bradford Horn and the F.I.R.M. assassination team The Zebra Squad, along with episodes such as the fan favorite “Airwolf II”, involving the team and Archangel being dismissed by the F.I.R.M. in favor of a self-centered pilot and Redwolf, the evil twin of the Lady, leading to a climatic battle of Airwolf against Airwolf.
Despite good ratings, CBS cancelled Airwolf in the spring of 1986. However, it was picked up by a then-fledging USA Network for 24 episodes when the series’ fourth season premiered in January 1987. This time, Airwolf was on a new network with a new cast shooting in Canada on a shoestring budget, with Barry Van Dyke now in the lead as Saint John Hawke, the long-lost brother of Stringfellow Hawke, who only appeared in the season opener “Blackjack”.
None of the original cast members returned, as the Firm was now “The Company”, and gone were the white suits. Fans didn’t accept the new version and dismissed it as season four — preferring the original, which is still the best.
Airwolf was finally grounded in 1987 yet its impact and legacy continues to live on due to fan-made websites as well as the release of all three seasons on DVD — showing that was one of those rare television shows with an sense of realism, and proving that it was more than Knight Rider with an helicopter.