12 Classic and Manly Cop and Detective Shows

by Brett & Kate McKay on June 10, 2010 · 131 comments

in Movies, Travel & Leisure

For over a century, cops and detectives have been icons of American masculinity. Combining brain power and brute force, these gumshoes represent the myth of the lone hero who is forever faced with new challenges and puzzles, a man who must rub shoulders with the criminal element but maintain his integrity, a prototype of the old pioneer, courageously facing down fear to make the world safe for women and children. The cop/detective icon has such a powerful grasp on the American imagination that many of the most popular TV shows in U.S. history feature cops or private investigators as the main characters.

Although TV today abounds with plenty of cop and detective shows, I always find myself going back to watch the genre’s classics. A big reason is straight up nostalgia. I remember watching these shows with my dad on our huge wood encased TV with rabbit ears. I guess it’s a way to relive my childhood a bit.

But another reason I like the oldies is because of their simple rawness. Cop and detective shows today are too slick and glossy. There’s no heart to them. Shows like CSI and Bones like to wow audiences with fancy technology and buxom lab techs, but at the end of the show, I just don’t feel connected to the characters. The classics have a grit and straightforward simplicity that I find appealing.

Below, I put together a short list of my favorite classic cop and detective shows. I think all of them showcase men who encapsulate that rugged and edgy manliness that we often admire. (Oh, and you can watch many of these shows for free on Hulu.com. If the show’s available on Hulu, I provided a link to it so you can watch it when you need a dose of crime-fighting manliness.)


Mannix is a damn manly name. And Joe Mannix lived up to it. He started his sleuthing career working at a high-tech detective firm called Intertect, but decided that he could do a better job than a bunch of crappy computers with just his wits and a gun. So he left and started his own detective agency. Mannix worked hard and played hard. He drove convertibles with awesome 1967 car phones. He told the hot L.A. sun to go to hell by wearing heavily patterned tweed sports coats. Yeah, Mannix was all man.

Magnum, P.I.

Tom Selleck plays Thomas Magnum (apparently having an uber-manly name is a prerequisite in this business), a private investigator that lived and worked in Hawaii. Magnum solved cases while sporting his signature manly mustache, Detroit Tigers ballcap, Rolex GMT Master wristwatch, and Hawaiian shirts strategically unbuttoned to let his manly chest hair peek out. Magnum was so damned manly that after the writers killed him off in the seventh season, he came back to life just so he could make an eighth season. You can’t keep a good man down. Or dead.

You can watch full episodes of Magnum, P.I. for free on Hulu.


Kojak was the man. Just look at him. His big bald Grecian head struck fear in the hearts of criminals prowling the South Manhattan streets. Theo Kojak (played by Telly Savalas) was a tough and tenacious NYPD cop who dressed well and liked to suck on his trademark lollipop. He had a gravely voice with a tough New York accent that made the ladies melt, especially when he dropped his foolproof line, “Who loves ya, baby?”

You can watch full episodes of Kojak for free on Hulu.com.

The Rockford Files

Ex-con turned private investigator, Jim Rockford (played by James Garner) wasn’t your typical TV private dick. He’d just as soon avoid a fight and go fishing than bust down a door with pistols a-blazing. Rockford rarely carried a gun and instead relied on his wits, smooth talking, and patented Rockford Turn, executed in his gold Pontiac Firebird Esprit. Rockford didn’t make much money as a private eye, mainly because his clients weaseled out of his “$200 a day plus expenses” fee.  So Rockford lived in a trailer by the beach and bought off the rack clothing. But he did it with the kind of charm and style that richer men could only aspire to.

You can watch full episodes of The Rockford Files for free on Hulu.com.

In the Heat of the Night

Based on the awesome movie of the same name, In the Heat of the Night follows small town police chief Bill Gillespie (played by Caroll O’Conner) and detective Virgil Tibbs (played by Howard Rollins). The show takes place in a small town in Mississippi where as a black man, Detective Tibbs must solve crimes while contending with the locals’ deep-seated racism. It doesn’t help that you got Archie Bunker as your boss. I’ve got a lot of memories of watching this show. It was one of my dad’s favorites.


Sgt. Rick Hunter (played by Fred Dryer) was a rule breaking L.A. homicide detective who couldn’t hold onto a partner. On top of that, he had family in the mob. Needless to say, Hunter’s leaders weren’t too happy to have him around and tried to give him the boot.  Eventually Hunter partnered up with Sgt. Dee Dee ‘The Brass Cupcake” McCall (played by Stepfanie Kramer), a tough and sexy female crime detective. I guess having a broad around helped smooth out Hunter’s rough edges. He ends up staying with McCall for 8 ass kicking years.

You can watch full episodes of Hunter for free on Hulu.com.

Miami Vice

This was a quintessential 80s show filled with white suits, New Wave music, and of course, crime fighting. Don Johnson played Sonny Crockett and Phillip Michael Thomas played Rico Tubbs. The two team up as undercover detectives to fight drug trafficking and prostitution rings in Miami. Filled with epic car and boat chases, Miami Vice had plenty of action to go around. And, for better or for worse, Miami Vice had a big impact on men’s style. Come on, admit it. If you were a 20-something in the the 80s, you wore black t-shirts under a white blazer. Oh yeah….

You can watch full episodes of Miami Vice for free on Hulu.com.

Hill Street Blues

Hill Street Blues changed American TV dramas. Before Hill Street Blues, most TV dramas had very simple plots. Hill Street Blues was the first show to introduce multiple story lines and incorporate elements of the characters’ personal lives into their professional work. The show takes place in an un-named American city (it was Chicago) where the cops and detectives fight gang violence and other crimes. It’s a pretty straightforward, day-in-the-life-of-a-cop show. A memorable catch phrase from the show that other cop shows and movies have endlessly recycled came from Michael Conrad’s character, Sgt. Phil Esterhaus. He ended every briefing by lifting his finger and telling his officers, “Let’s be careful out there.”

You can watch full episodes of Hill Street Blues for free on Hulu.com.


Adam-12 spun off from the wildly successful 60s cop show, Dragnet. The show follows two LAPD patrol officers, veteran Peter Malloy and rookie cop Jim Reed. The stories in Adam-12 were pulled right from LAPD case files. One episode might feature an exciting chase with the help of a helicopter pilot while another episode would show mundane police procedures like bookings or debriefings. The plots are simple, but highly entertaining.

You can watch full episodes of Adam-12 for free on Hulu.com.


Dragnet is the Great Granddaddy of pretty much every cop/detective show in television history. Jack Webb created, produced, and starred as the iconic Joe Friday in Dragnet. The show began as a radio program, but made its way to television in 1951. Webb wanted to create a cop show that portrayed police work as realistically as possible. To do that, Webb attended police academies, went on night patrols with LAPD officers, and frequently visited police headquarters to research for his episodes. During its run, the main detective, Joe Friday, went through a few partners, but his most memorable partner was Officer Bill Gannon played by Harry Morgan. Gannon played the funny man role, while Friday played the straight man in this double act. An interesting fact about Dragnet is that while Joe Friday is often quoted as saying “Just the facts, ma’am,” he never actually uses that line during the series. The closest he came was uttering, “All we want are the facts, ma’am.”

You can watch full episodes of Dragnet for free on Hulu.com.

Hawaii Five-0

Five-0 is a special police force that takes orders only from Hawaii’s governor. Ex-Navy intelligence officer Steve McGarrett leads the squad. He battles murders, terrorists, and kidnappers on Hawaii with his guns, brains, and awesome hair. The show featured a bevy of bikini clad babes and awesome car chase scenes with Hawaii’s beauty in the background.  At the end of every episode, we could count on McGarrett telling his subordinate to “Book ‘em Danno!”

Highway Patrol

Broderick Crawford plays a gruff state police commander named Chief Dan Matthews. Every episode you’ll find Chief Matthews barking orders into a two way radio while wearing his signature fedora. In the show’s early days, the California Highway Patrol actually provided technical assistance to help make the show as realistic as possible. Nothing fancy here. Just good old fashioned storytelling.

You can watch full episodes of Highway Patrol on Hulu.com.

What are your favorite classic cop and detective shows? Share them with us in the comments!

{ 129 comments… read them below or add one }

101 Frank Rizzo June 26, 2010 at 7:33 am

Nobody mentioned the show “SWAT”, from the mid 70′s. Come on.

102 Bernie Kerik June 26, 2010 at 8:16 am

Fantasy pop culture like this explains our economic morass better than anything else. It would be more honest if cop shows such as these and so-called “reality” shows were viewed as entertainment only, without any notion of reality. There are only a couple honest cop shows, but coincidentally they are comedies – Barney Miller and Reno 911.

103 t skeren June 26, 2010 at 9:32 am

Just one more thing, sir.
There are a couple of loose ends I’d like to tie up. Nothing important you understand.
But, I worry. I mean, little things bother me. I’m a worrier. I mean, little insignificant
details – I lose my appetite. I can’t eat. My wife, she says to me, “you know, you can really be pain.”

Without a shot fired, or innocent lives jeopardized, and always gets the bad guy…but once, not the bad girl. Now that’s a real man.

104 Wiley June 26, 2010 at 9:57 am

Not really a police show but George Peppard in Banacek was a great series of mystery shows. All of them are available on DVD now.
Houston, TX

105 Kevin June 26, 2010 at 10:24 am

What about “Burke’s Law?” THAT was a REAL MAN!!!

106 Max Allan Collins June 26, 2010 at 10:51 am

Pleased to see DRAGNET on the list, but it’s the ’50s version of course that truly rates. Both MIKE HAMMER series should have been noted — McGavin and Keach, even if the latter was tongue-in-cheek. CRIME STORY is about as manly as it gets, and THE UNTOUCHABLES (Stack version, of course). PETER GUNN kicked off the private eye craze of the late ’50s without which you’d have none of the PI shows listed. Fun list, but some sense of history would be appreciated.

If you’re going British at all, THE SWEENEY, MAN IN A SUITCASE and DANGER MAN are hairy-chested fare.

107 PC in T.O. June 26, 2010 at 12:00 pm

I yes! I too watched the FBI and The Streets of San Francisco with Dad years ago. Also, loved Adam-12, Dragnet, Emergency, Ellery Queen, Hawaii Five-O, and although not a cop show, there was plenty of detective work in Perry Mason – loved his PI Paul Drake. Can’t watch modern TV after all that good stuff from previous years spoiled me.

108 Pete Hummers June 26, 2010 at 12:15 pm

Have to agree with Colombo, Homicide: LotS, and, as a neighbor of Andy’s, The Andy Griffith Show. Also Law and Order: Prime. I remember during its first season, there were complaints that not enough women were involved, after which Dick Wolf began including some of the hottest foam-at-the-mouth-and-fall-over-backwards females in TV history! I also enjoyed Wolf’s short-lived version of Dragnet with Ed O’Neill.

109 Marley Greiner June 26, 2010 at 1:21 pm

What? No Wiseguy!!!!! Who can ever forget Kevin Spacey as truly perverse bad guy Mel Profett and his relationship with Vinnie?

Other additions:
Man Against Crimem (talk about manly!)
T.H.E. Cat
77 Sunset Strip
Mike Hammer (w/ Darren McGavin)

110 Puck30 June 26, 2010 at 2:27 pm

Honey West, Danger Man aka Secret Agent & The Saint (Roger Moore of course) on the Comedy side, Barney Miller & Car 54.

111 Kipling June 26, 2010 at 3:14 pm

Peter Gunn had the classic film noire look, and the episodes directed by Robert Altman, with overlapping dialogue, were remarkable.

112 Manly Man June 26, 2010 at 5:38 pm

What a great list of manly shows. Why I feel so manly I want to get pumped and oiled, down a six pack of malt liquor, a half bottle of Jack Daniels, smoke the biggest, stinkiest cigar around and trade off color and thinly veiled jokes about homos with other manly men in an old wooden bar that smells of stale beer and old whiskey where we slap each other on the back a little too hard and too frequent and challenge newcomers to arm wrestling matches.

113 mike June 26, 2010 at 9:23 pm

We seem to be crossing genre. We have cop shows like Adam 12 and Dragnet, and then we have pure detective shows like Mannix, Rockford and Magnum P.I. The one I would call the Man’s Man is Banacek, with George Peppard as the Steve McQueen styled detective. Banacek was suave, sophisticated and filthy rich, and he always had a good looking lady around.

114 I. Dunno June 26, 2010 at 9:30 pm

If hulu doesn’t work, try youtube or other sources.

115 Andy June 26, 2010 at 11:52 pm

Let me cast another vote for The Streets of San Francisco. Karl Malden was the most convincing cop in television history, hands down.

116 J Elijah June 27, 2010 at 12:07 am

Nero Wolfe, the fantastic detective of Rex Stout’s fiction, was adapted for TV by A&E. It ran for two seasons. Really worth watching!!! Solving murders out of a upscale New York brownstone in the ’50′s with a cadre of PI’s, Wolfe never fails to keep his Alpha dog role. http://www.nerowolfe.org/ or check NetFlix

117 Dan June 27, 2010 at 8:03 am

“The Proffesionals” Bodie, Doyle, and Mr. Cowley while not really cops, made Britain a far safer place in the early 80′s. Kind of like Starsky and Hutch but far grittier with better car chases and pleanty of double malt scotch. The best episode was where Bodie and Doyle were acompanied by another CI 5 opperative: Tommy, Culminating with Tommy lunching an RPG from a row boat in order to foil a desperate group of hitmen!

118 Greg June 27, 2010 at 4:00 pm

If you can find them,the ORIGINAL DRAGNET, with Webb and Ben Alexander, was even better; alsointhe casr\t was Richard Boone an Dennis weaver as captains. Sometime WGN runs the original Dragnet movie; tape it. This is from ’52, pre-Miranda,etc.

119 Bill Brandt June 28, 2010 at 12:34 am

Can’t disagree with any of your choices! Of all of them I miss Magnum and Rockford the most.

And until recently there were plans to introduce a new Rockford. James Garner was Rockford and nobody could replace him.

120 James Smyth June 28, 2010 at 7:16 pm

Homicide: Life on the Streets was the most outstanding police show ever made. I still miss Frank

121 Mike Nucci July 14, 2010 at 2:55 pm

For those that remember, Peter Gunn had the “coolness’ of it’s day. Every time Peter would walk in that bar and Edie would give him that look, it’s a wonder he ever got any detective work done!

122 Randy McNary July 26, 2010 at 8:49 pm

I like to think Dragnet is what got me into police work, but I can’t discount Highway Patrol either

123 Daddy-O August 5, 2010 at 6:39 am

Barney Miller is fantastic. One of my favorites.

I dig Hawaii Five-O, but to be honest, Jack Webb’s hair was at times too distracting.

124 Dennard August 11, 2010 at 5:52 pm

Great post. I enjoyed several of the shows on the list, Dragnet most of all.

125 Nick August 12, 2010 at 10:48 am

Hey guys, not sure if this has been mentioned, but what about Peter Gunn? Jazz music and a smokin’ hot girlfriend in a joint called ‘Mothers’ in an unnamed town. He was a private investigator. A lot of the plot lines “Oh, you’re going to jump me in the alley? There’s two of you with guns? Allow me to introduce you to ass-kickery. Skiddly-bop-bop.” Yeah, it’s pretty sweet.

126 Jonathan August 13, 2010 at 12:21 am

Who didn’t want to be Jim Rockford? And the first two seasons of Homicide: Life On the Streets, had to have one of the best cast of character actors ever assembled: Ned Beatty, Jon Polito, William Baldwin (yes, someone other than Alec can act), Yaphet Kotto, Richard Belzer… the entire cast was golden.

127 Mitch August 13, 2010 at 5:58 pm

Very early ‘cop’ show…. The Lone Ranger
Everyone forgot Gunsmoke as well

128 DJ June 10, 2013 at 10:51 am

My dad always watched Spencer For Hire and Mike Hammer all the time when I was a kid. We are sorely lacking in good cop shows like those (and the ones listed above) nowadays.

129 Carolyn January 19, 2014 at 5:34 pm

M Squad starring Lee Marvin. Just his voice was tough guy, manly man enough. All the episodes are avaialbe on Youtube. Great stuff!

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