The ’80s was a golden decade for original TV programming. The great mind of Glen A. Larson gave us The Fall Guy, Knight Rider, and the magnificent Magnum P.I.Donald P. Bellisario gave us Tales Of The Gold Monkey, Airwolf, and was co-creator of Magnum… but it’s Airwolf that I want to focus on.
Airwolf was a key part of popular culture for every adolescent boy in 1984. A recurring debate subject to regular scrutiny in the playground at lunchtimes was who would win if Airwolf were to engage Blue Thunder in aerial combat maneuvers. Arguably the igniting spark behind the whole Heavily Armed Helicopter bandwagon, the Blue Thunder TV series was a crashing disappointment following the underrated Roy Scheider movie, proved by the fact that it only lasted for 11 episodes, compared to Airwolf‘s [ahem] four seasons. Perhaps more importantly though, the reason Blue Thunder didn’t inspire the same passion that people still have for Airwolf was that we just didn’t give a crap about the characters and the opening credits and accompanying music didn’t give you goose bumps every single time you saw it.
Frank Chaney (played by James Farentino) didn’t come close to offering the same depth or draw of Stringfellow Hawke, played by the ruggedly handsome Jan-Michael Vincent. This was, and still is, one of the finest examples of perfect casting. Vincent’s own strong-yet-silent personality was tailor-made for this part. His voice alone could turn knees to jelly and almost all the expression needed in each episode could be found in just his eyes.
Designed by Dr Charles Henry Moffet – a genius with a psychopathic taste for torturing and killing women – and built by the Firm (a division of the CIA) Moffet and his crew steal Airwolf during a live-fire weapons test. During the theft, the cold-blooded Moffet opens fire on the observational bunker, killing many innocent people and seriously injuring deputy director Michael Coldsmith-Briggs, known as Archangel. Moffet, played convincingly by David Hemmings, takes the gunship to Libya, where he begins performing acts of aggression, like sinking a US destroyer, as a service for military dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who in return allows Moffet to keep Airwolf on Libyan soil.
The concept behind the gunship was a super fast and heavily armed helicopter that could ‘blend in’ by appearing to be civilian and non-military in origin, a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ if you will. Airwolf’s insignia patch as worn by the flight-crew reflected this and featured a snarling wolf’s head with gossamer wings that appears to be wearing a sheepskin complete with the head of lamb over the wolf’s forehead.
Archangel recruits the reclusive Hawke, the chief test pilot during the development of Airwolf, to recover it, which he eventually succeeds in doing, but only after his love interest from the agency is captured, tortured and killed by Moffet. Without mercy, Hawke wastes Moffet in a hail of gunfire from Airwolf before returning to the US.
However, straight from the file A56-7W, we learn in the briefing given at the end of the season one opening credits that Hawke refuses to return Airwolf until the Firm can find and recover his brother, Saint John, who has been missing in action since the Vietnam War. Archangel agrees to protect Hawke from the US Government, which has officially charged him with stealing it and in return, Hawke and Santini fly missions of national importance.
Perhaps Blue Thunder didn’t have the budget behind it that Airwolf did – although much of that went to Vincent, as he soon became the highest paid actor in American TV – but episodes of Airwolf were more interesting and often featured impressive low-level helicopter flying. Blue Thunder was fun. Airwolf was cool. And that much was evident even from the opening credits*…
For the first few seconds no music plays and the screen remains black. We can already hear the signature sound of Airwolf’s engines, the repetitive thud of the rotors and that unique, haunting howl. We cut to a desolate, desert terrain and we can just see the top of Airwolf’s rotor blades as she slowly comes into view, rising menacingly over a sand dune. The pilot is barely visible and the weapon system is deployed, she hovers just for a second or two and stares right at you.
Then that instantly recognizable theme by Sylvester Levay starts. It begins with four bars of serious-sounding introductory baseline, the kind that your body can’t help but tap its foot to. It sets a no-nonsense tone straight away, even if you’ve never heard of Airwolf, you’re made aware within 10 seconds that you do not mess with this machine.
Engineering schematics flashing across the screen indicate that this is clearly a technologically superior combat helicopter, far more advanced than anything else that exists today. These are mixed with shots of Airwolf in action, her twin 30mm and 50-calibre chain guns extending from the side pods and the missile launcher sliding into place on the helicopter’s underside.
Before long we catch our first glimpse of the pilot, the legendary Hawke. He’s strong, composed and supremely focused, yet he hides a sensitive side. As the montage of clips continue, we’re reminded of his complicated character when we see him playing the cello, with evident emotion, by the beautiful blue water of the lake next to his log cabin-style retreat. Stringfellow’s own Fortress of Solitude.
The intro sequence is interspersed with clips showing the full flying capabilities of the Mach one-plus attack helicopter and an extremely clever maneuver made by the 34-year old Hawke as he uses the turbo boosters – while on the ground with the landing gear down and outnumbered by circling enemy helicopters – to evade the enemy and escape.
Further evidence of his complex persona can be seen when we’re shown him embracing a beautiful brunette and kissing her passionately, his hands hold her bare, sweat-covered body in what is undoubtedly a backroom in seedy, smoke-filled dive bar, somewhere on Earth where only the fearless or the foolhardy dare to tread. Hawke’s chiseled good looks can catch any woman; they’re powerless to resist from the moment they’ve laid eyes on him, yet his personal feelings remain locked away and he is a man who will stop at nothing to get the job done. He’s single-minded and selfless, struggling only on the inside with his own demons. Not only is Hawke one of the best combat pilots alive, but he’s confident and capable of infiltrating the enemy on his own, undercover, using only his wits, cunning and maybe a 9mm to survive.
Hawke does not give his loyalty easily or quickly and the only person in the world he trusts is his long-time friend and father figure Dominic Santini, played by Ernest Borgnine in another superbly cast role. Santini raised both the Hawke brothers, Stringfellow and Saint John (pronounced “Sinjin”) after their parents were killed in a tragic boating accident, and he is one of the very few who have seen Hawke’s vulnerable side. There is no one as dependable in Hawke’s life as Santini, who will just as easily offer a word of advice as he would lay his life on the line. We’re shown this as Santini races with grim determination, carrying a vital jerrycan of fuel while the rotors of Airwolf throw up a veritable sandstorm behind him.
The music mirrored exactly what Airwolfwas, it was dangerous, it was pulsating and it was exciting. Season two also introduced Jean Bruce Scott as Caitlin O’Shannessy and many fans argue that this was utterly unnecessary and spoilt the flow and style successfully created in the first season.
Regardless, in a little under 60 seconds, the opening credits sequence has shown us an advanced supersonic helicopter with stealth capabilities and glimpses of the intriguing story behind it. Many of the snippets come from the movie and remind us that it is actually an extremely dark origin story, something that could easily be found in a Craig Thomas thriller or Alistair MacLean novel. The original VHS movie, often shown on TV as a two-part episode, even carried an 18 certificate in the UK (In hindsight however, this was probably because of a few swear words dotted about).
There’s even a crowd-funded attempt by a few dedicated fans to make a documentary about the series. Two key members of this crew are Mark J. Cairns and Jan Michal Szulew. Promotional sections of the footage they have already can be found on YouTube, but the one that looks at the theme music is here and Jan Michal Szulew’s blog entry when they eventually tracked down Sylvester Levay – a mission that took 18 months so Mark tells me – is here. You can keep track of how this project is unfolding at www.airwolfthemes.com.
Despite the subtle changes made with each season’s opening sequence, my fondest memories of the opening credits come mostly from season 2 and as much as the first season is considered superior, there were still many quality episodes from the second.
As you’ll see in that documentary footage, Alex Cord, who played Archangel says, “When you heard that, it was as familiar as hearing the music from Jaws.”
And Alan J. Levi, producer and director remarked, “It’s one of the few opening themes of a show that exactly matches what the show is all about. I mean, the opening music was Airwolf.”
*unless otherwise stated, this reflects the season 2 opening credits and by all accounts I refuse to accept that season 4 exists.
My top 10 Airwolf episodes:
1. To Snare A Wolf (season 1, episode 11) IMDb rating 8.02. Mind Of The Machine (season 1, episode 10) IMDb rating 8.63. Dambreakers (season 2, episode 19) IMDb rating 7.44. Hawke’s Run (season 3, episode 18) IMDb rating 7.35. Bite Of The Jackal (season 1, episode 3 )IMDb rating 7.46. Moffett’s Ghost (season 2, episode 3) IMDb rating 8.37. Echoes From The Past (season 1, episode 6) IMDb rating 8.08. Inn At The End Of The Road (season 2, episode 14) IMDb rating 7.69. The Horn Of Plenty (season 3, episode 1) IMDb rating 7.410. Short Walk To Freedom (season 2, episode 22) IMDb rating 7.4