Before Charlie’s Angels in 1976 – 1981, before Angie Dickinson played Sergeant Pepper Anderson in Police Woman from 1974 to 1978, even before Anne Francis reinvented Honey West in one 1965-1966 season that became a bit of a cult favorite, there was New York Police Officer Casey Jones, memorably played by Beverly Garland in the 1957-1958 season’s Decoy.
Now only a retro TV and pop culture forgotten footnote, Decoy was actually a groundbreaking series. Inspired in part by the successful Jack Webb series Dragnet, Decoy was the first TV show to film on location in New York City, the first show to feature a police woman as its main character and, in fact, the first full-season dramatic series to feature a female protagonist at all.
As with Dragnet, Garland provides voice-over narration to introduce the episodes, bridge scenes, and sometime break the ‘fourth wall’ to offer a summation at the episode’s end. Little is revealed about Officer Casey Jones’ personal life. She has no regular partner, and normally works out of different precincts, assigned to handle a wide variety of cases and crimes, sometimes in uniform, more often undercover. There’s a wonderfully gritty urban edge in almost every episode, making the most of the locations, with only selected scenes shot on interior sets built in New York’s 26th Street Armory. Tight budgets and fast-paced six-day per week schedules demanded on-the-fly filming with few amenities: No plush stars’ trailers, the actors changing in apparel store dressing rooms, using restaurant restrooms and wearing thermals under their costumes during winter time shoots (though Garland usually had to forego even a sweater because it made her uniform look too bulky). Beverly Garland often did her own stunts and fight scenes. Known primarily as a B-Movie actress at this point, though actually one of Hollywood’s more reliable TV actors, Garland does a magnificent job in diverse roles and situations, sometimes playing a no-nonsense uniformed cop or more often going undercover as everything from a thief to a junkie, a nightclub singer to an asylum inmate. Officer Casey Jones is consistently capable, smart, aggressive but compassionate, a good shot and handy in tussle, and best of all, seems to command the full respect of her fellow officers and superiors. Garland gets down and dirty for some undercover roles, and glams it up in others, in what must have been one hell of a part for an actor to play.
I know there are some episodes on YouTube, and I’ve seen public domain DVD sets with a few episodes each in used bookstore bargain bins, but I can’t vouch for the picture or audio quality on those. Once I read about this series, I bit the bullet and bought the Film Chest Media Group Complete Series DVD Set, and the quality is really top notch, the visuals darn near as striking as a period film noir, just as the scripts pulled no punches on some pretty edgy stuff for the time.
Sadly, the series only lasted one season. Right from the start, the networks and potential sponsors were uneasy about a dramatic series with a female lead, and a cop show at that. Westinghouse was the primary sponsor, but when the series failed to deliver the hoped for viewership, it was cancelled, though it continued in syndication for the next seven years.
If you get a chance to see some episodes of Decoy, I think you’ll agree that it’s a surprisingly mature and well-made show for its time, and Beverly Garland did some memorable work when roles like this simply didn’t exist. Do look for it.