Brian Keith has caught his second wind, or maybe his 12th wind by this time, and with it blows up an invigorating storm as Judge Milton C. Hardcastle in "Hardcastle and McCormick."
The new ABC crime series premieres tomorrow night at 9 with a special two-hour episode, after which it reverts to a weekly hour Sundays at 8, on Channel 7.
Grabbing hold of arguably the best role of his career--and bullying it, the scenery, and the audience into submission--Keith in effect gives America a new Archie Bunker, an angry old man of 66 who wears jogging shorts and tennis shoes under his judicial robes, growls around about crooks being freed on technicalities ("You didn't see Billy the Kid getting off on a technicality") and is known to his colleagues as "the toughest piece of gristle that ever sat on the bench." Facing forced retirement, the judge decides to enlist the help of an unlikely ally, an ex-con he had previously sent up the river, for a private, highly informal war on crime. Voila, the premise.
The partner, Daniel Hugh-Kelly as Mark "Skid" McCormick, makes an able foil, though the pair's game of point-counterpoint gets grating and irksome after awhile (like Braden and Buchanan did in about one million B.C.). Hugh-Kelly, who brought a good measure of dignity to the hapless role of the cuckolded husband in the summer's ickiest horror show, "Cujo," spent part of his acting career at Washington's Arena Stage. He is definitely not just another Hollywood pretty boy; there's some character there, although the producers, at least in the premiere, too often subordinate character to movement, chiefly the movement of cars.
Almost the entire last half-hour of the premiere is given over to car chases that become nearly hallucinatory in their repetitiousness.
But when Keith is on the screen, holding forth with his Burgeresque judicial philosophy, or challenging his young partner to a midnight game of one-on-one in the back yard of his palatial estate, or brandishing his New York Yankees cap and a T-shirt that says, "There's No Plea Bargaining in Heaven," or driving a Corvette Stingray with a license plate reading "D JUDGE," he seems not an original, exactly, but an awfully attractive American folk type.
He even fends off attempts by the script to sentimentalize him into mush. Keith is grandly combative and yet invests his rantings with a trace of poignance; it's like watching John Wayne ride off into the sunset again.
"Hardcastle and McCormick" originally had the working title "Rolling Thunder." There is too much rolling on the premiere, but the thunder summoned by Keith is enough to shake one's chandelier. But good.