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Home Entertainment Review

Red Hot Police Pepper
by Scott Holleran

Another 1970s cop series, Police Woman, premieres on DVD in the first and probably best season of the television program, which starred Angie Dickinson (Rio Bravo, Ocean's 11, Dressed to Kill) in the title role as sexy Pepper Anderson. The show ran on NBC from 1974 to 1978.

Fifty dollars suggested retail nets 1,100 minutes of red hot Miss Dickinson, paired in classic man-woman banter with Earl Holliman (The Rainmaker), finding the perfect groove as her stud partner, in 22 entertaining episodes. The package also includes "The Gamble," the original pilot, which was an episode of NBC's anthology series, Police Story, based on writer and ex-Los Angeles policeman Joseph Wambaugh's (The Onion Field) bestselling police novels.

So Police Woman began as an inviting, crackling spin-off with a sexy twist that ticked feminists off and delivered character-driven action in prime time. As crime drama, it isn't as intelligent as Kojak or Hawaii Five-O (long overdue on DVD, by the way) but it wasn't all eye candy, and the first season stands on its own; good for action, laughs and nostalgia.

The place was L.A. in the 1970s, the cops were black and white, male and female, and it was no big deal. Pepper Anderson was a long-legged blonde with an autistic sister she occasionally visited and a mysterious past which implied she'd seen it all. Pep—as Holliman's character affectionately called her—was tough but real.

Pepper made it to the police force with little fanfare—certainly not a lot of feminist grandstanding—she just showed up and did her job, and she looked terrific in a pair of slacks. Her partner was Sergeant Bill Crowley (Holliman) and their associates, Royster (Charles Dierkop) and Styles (Ed Bernard).

In one first season episode, she cocks a shotgun and blows down a stoned hippie-girl bank robber reminiscent of Patty Hearst. In another, she bonds with Ruby Dee (A Raisin in the Sun) as a Marxist, and she goes undercover as a nurse, a stewardess, a stripper and a prostitute.

In "Ice," she gets tanked on Margaritas in Mexico, dances the tango with Holliman and strips for Michael Parks (of the Kill Bill movies), an episode featuring optional commentary by Miss Dickinson and Holliman, whose chemistry made the show a huge hit. That episode also starred James Keach—the Folsom prison warden in Walk the Line–as the heavy.

Other memorable episodes—several were watched for this review—include "Fish," with Pep undercover in a women's prison with the skimpiest miniskirts (Pep does a killer headlock), "Warning to All Wives," starring William Katt (The Greatest American Hero) as a hospital rapist—the first episode shot in the series, climaxing on the rooftop at Valley Presbyterian Hospital—and "Nothing Left to Lose," a tragic Hollywood tale starring Patty Duke (The Miracle Worker) in her Valley of the Dolls mode as a strung-out kid trying to make it in L.A., singing "Me and Bobby McGee" as Pep tries to rescue her.

The value of having these classic TV shows on DVD is partly archival: where else can you catch Motown singer Smokey Robinson as a drug-addicted gym teacher, Della Reese as a big mama madam cooing Pepper into service, and the late Pat Morita (The Karate Kid movies) as a porn photographer? Others include TV actresses Elinor Donahue, Joyce Bulifant and, in an eerie hint at his real-life Autofocus demise, Bob Crane (Hogan's Heroes).

Nostalgia aside, the best part of the show is the repartee between characters Crowley and Pepper, carried over into the hilarious commentary by the actors, popping off on their tight pants and black lingerie. When Pep leaves undercover Crowley alone in a hospital room with a nurse taking his temp, she opens the door to exit and deadpans: "Try to keep it down." Police Woman broke new ground, too. In "Flowers of Evil," Pep takes on a trio of murderous lesbians and, in a tender scene, confesses her own experience.

Sony gives the DVD a good treatment, remastering the episodes in high definition and scattering Miss Dickinson's and Holliman's commentary across five discs—they enjoy actually watching the episodes—in three thin snap cases.

One mystery remains from the program's history: the DVD box claims her character's real name is Suzanne—other Web sites report that, too, and so does The Complete Directory to Prime Time and Cable TV Shows—and, by this account, they're all wrong: in the pilot, her name is Lisa Beaumont, but, in the regular series, the only reference is to Lee Ann (Pepper was a nickname). By any name, Pep was TV's sexiest, and not incidentally a competent, Police Woman and she still stings on DVD.

• 3/8/05 - Close-Up: Actor Earl Holliman

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