I wrote about “Hawaii Five-O” on March 15 and heard from one of the show’s writers. Jerome Coopersmith is 93 and is one of the survivors of the original “Five-O” team. He told me several of his favorite stories.
“It was six of the best years of my life, writing 32 episodes (including two of feature length) for the original “Hawaii Five-O.”
Coopersmith wrote them in his home on Long Island, N.Y. He dropped them off at the CBS mailroom on 6th Avenue in Manhattan. From there they would be flown in an overnight pouch to (producer) Leonard Freeman’s office in North Hollywood, Calif.
“I did fly out to the West Coast about once a month for meetings with Len and his assistant Bob Sweeney to discuss storylines for future episodes. They were great people to work with.
“One story that stands out in my mind is Len’s telling me about his meetings with the CBS ‘suits’ when he was trying to sell them the idea of ‘Five-O.’ They resisted strongly,” Coopersmith said.
“One of the suits said: ‘There are two kinds of people in America; those who have been to Hawaii and those who have not. The ones who have been there have already seen it, and those who have not obviously don’t care. So why on earth would anyone watch this thing?’
“Despite the ‘corporate wisdom’ of the suits, Len somehow persuaded them to authorize the production of six episodes as a test. I wrote one of them. The series was picked up and ran for 12 years, from 1968-1980, in its original form.”
‘Diary of a Gun’
“One of the things I liked about it was the opportunity it gave me to handle themes of importance. For example, I conceived of an episode that would dramatize the need for gun control.
“Entitled ‘Diary of a Gun,’ it tracked the history of a cheap, $20 hand pistol as its possession shifted from one owner to another. Wherever it went, tragedy or near- tragedy occurred. CBS was afraid of doing the show, but Len Freeman and Jack Lord were strongly for it, and it was done.”
“Another outstanding episode I can think of was the casting of ‘Retire in Sunny Hawaii — Forever.’ It was about Danno (James MacArthur) getting a visit from his Aunt Clara, played by Helen Hayes.
“Helen Hayes was actually James’ mother. It was the only time in their lives that mother and son co-starred together.
“After the shooting, I phoned Helen Hayes to ask for her signature on a photo of herself and James, and we had a nice conversation.” The photo, signed by both, hangs in Coopersmith’s office.
“The episode had not yet been aired, but I told her I had seen a screening of it and liked it very much, and I hoped she would like it too. She told me she had not seen it, and probably never would because she didn’t like to watch herself on screen.
“Hayes said that her feelings about that went back to 1932 when she co-starred with Gary Cooper in ‘A Farewell to Arms.’
“The other actors would storm into the producer’s office demanding to see rushes (raw footage from the previous day’s filming), but not Helen.
“She was primarily a stage actress, and was afraid that seeing herself in a movie scene might persuade her to change her way of acting for the screen.”
I asked Coopersmith why the original “Five-O” used so many local actors in meaty roles and the current show doesn’t.
“Len Freeman wanted authentic Hawaiian faces on the ‘Five-O’ team,” Coopersmith replied. “That’s why he cast it that way.
“Besides his fondness for locals, there was another reason. When you cast Hollywood actors from the mainland you have to pay their travel and living expenses on Oahu, which strains the budget.
“So as a rule, there would be one guest star from Hollywood in a key role, and everyone else was a local (except McGarrett and Danno).”
I asked Coopersmith what people want to know about his writing for “Five-O.”
“What people mostly asked me about was where my story ideas originated. Some were suggested by the producers, but for the most part, the ideas came from reading the newspapers.
“A fabulous variety of crimes are committed every day. All I had to do was figure out how to transplant them to Hawaii, and how to make the criminals smarter than they are in real life so that it would take ‘Five-O’ an hour to catch up with them and not just five minutes. In real life most criminals are stupid.
“Sometimes the producers did make a suggestion of value that I accepted,” Coopersmith added. “When you work on a series, the speed of production is so fast that you welcome help wherever it comes from. But I never had any changes that I didn’t like forced down my throat. Good suggestions were often made by story editor Curt Kenyon.”
“One additional story I can think of is in connection with ‘Nine Dragons,’ a feature-length episode I wrote to kick off season nine. It takes place in Hong Kong.
“McGarrett has been kidnapped by Chinese pirates, and held as prisoner aboard their ship. When they were in Hong Kong harbor, he manages to free himself, dive off the ship, and swim to shore.
“When we were discussing this before moving out to location, Jack Lord asked Bob Sweeney how he was planning to shoot the scene.
“Sweeney replied that what he would normally do is have a stunt double dive off the ship, then cut to a Hollywood water location where we would see Jack swimming, then cut to Hong Kong harbor where we would see Jack soaking wet having just ‘emerged’ from the sea.
“‘That’s what I thought you’d say,’ Jack replied, ‘but I don’t want to do it that way. For once, I want true gritty realism. I’ll jump off the boat and swim in Hong Kong harbor myself.’”
“‘Whatever you say, Jack,’ Sweeney replied. Jack left with a smile on his face, feeling he had won a major point.
“After Jack was gone, Sweeney laughed. ‘Wait till he sees the garbage floating in Hong Kong harbor!’
“When the episode was being shot, a call came to Sweeney from Jack Lord. ‘Bob, I think you were right about shooting the swimming sequence in Hollywood. We can wrap much faster that way.’”
All he wanted to know about McGarrett
“Len often told me that all he wanted to know about Steve McGarrett was that he was a cop. When Len died at a youthful age of 53 in the midst of a heart operation, new producers took over and began to violate Len’s concepts.
“The new producers wanted to know more about McGarrett, so they started to give him romantic relationships, such as old sweethearts from the past showing up on Oahu.
“I felt this compromised the impact of the show, and anyway I had other things I wanted to do, so I left. But my six years with the original version remain as gems in my life.”
Coopersmith has writing credits on over 25 shows, including “Kraft Theatre,” “Spenser for Hire,” “Armstrong Circle Theatre,” “An American Christmas Carol” and “Combat.”
The Rearview Mirror Insider is Bob Sigall’s weekly email that gives readers behind-the-scenes background, stories that wouldn’t fit in the column and lots of interesting details. My Insider “posse” gives me ideas for stories and personal experiences that enrich the column. I invite you to join in and be an Insider at RearviewMirrorInsider.com. Mahalo!