March 7, 2016

"Book 'em, Danno!" Why Hawaii Five-O 's Danny Williams is the perfect sidekick for Steve McGarrett

McGARRETT (JACK LORD) AND WILLIAMS (JAMES MacARTHUR): THE LEADERSHIP OF HAWAII FIVE-O




First things first. We're not talking about the new Hawaii Five-0 here, the one with the younger, hotter, more "reckless" cast. No, this is New Coke vs. Classic, Clear Beer vs. Miller, Edra furniture vs. Ikea.  Back when real men didn't eat quiche, cops were indestructible, and every suspect had the right to be shot while evading capture. In other words, the good old days. From here on in, don't even think about the new show.

I've long argued that Steve McGarrett should not be viewed as a "realistic" character. Yes, it's true that when he's shot he (usually) bleeds, and I've even seen a couple of instances when his hair moves. But, all joking aside, Hawaii's top cop is best appreciated when you think of him as an archetype, a metaphor for law enforcement, rather than a flesh-and-blood cop. I first came to this conclusion while watching an episode in which some fool criminal trying to evade the long arm of the law splashed McGarrett in the face with gasoline as he raced past as gas pump. McGarrett was slowed, but only for a minute, continuing his hot pursuit as he wiped his face. There was no burning skin, no long-term eye damage; McGarrett barely missed a beat as he closed in and eventually captured the killer.

Rather than rendering this scene laughable, however, I chose to look at it differently. If you accept the idea of the metaphorical McGarrett, then you see him as the indestructible, incorruptible lawman, one who takes even the thought of crime on the islands as a personal affront. It's symbolic not only of blind justice in that McGarrett is just as determined to right wrongs as he is to apprehend suspects, but also the inexorable beat of the law, which criminals may be able to evade for a time but from which they can never escape. It doesn't really make McGarrett that much different from other lawmen of the time - think of Matt Dillon, for example - but as we seem to demand more and more "realism" in television*, it makes watching a series like Five-O easier if you manage your expectations. Besides, why let those kinds of small details get in the way of what are usually pretty good stories?

*That is, assuming combat-scale shootouts and exploding vehicles are part of daily life in Honolulu, or any other city outside of Baghdad.

And that brings me to the real focus of this piece - McGarrett's number-two man, Danny Williams. Danno for short. Played by James MacArthur - in real life, son of playwright Charles MacArthur (The Front Page), adopted son of Oscar winner Helen Hayes, godson of legendary actress Lillian Gish, It is a testament to Danno's effectiveness as a sidekick that it's taken me four full paragraphs to get around to mentioning him. Even in the "TV Sidekick Blogathon," a blogathon dedicated to role players like him, he's overshadowed by his boss.

That, however, is what makes him a good sidekick. He has all the necessary qualities:

  • He doesn't overshadow his boss. You won't see him making any mistakes because he's dreaming of his name in the headlines.
  • He's dependable and reliable; Five-O isn't going to fall apart on those days when Steve's out of the office.
  • And yet, he's no threat to Steve. McGarrett can go about his business knowing he's not about to star in a remake of All About Eve, or see the point of a knife sticking out of his chest - the knife that Danny plunged in his back when he wasn't looking.
  • Best of all, he's motivated and highly competent, but not so ambitious that he has a lean and hungry look about him. 
  • He doesn't eat much and doesn't take up much room. By that, I mean his life is largely void of drama. Oh sure, there are a couple of times when he's falsely accused of murder, and then there's the time when he becomes obsessed with revenging the death of his girlfriend, but that's to be expected. No, Steve doesn't have to worry about him showing up late after an all-night bender, or sneaking out of the office to meet his pusher, or dealing with a half-dozen accusations that he failed to read someone their rights before booking him.

All these things mean that Danny is not just good, but the perfect sidekick. Perhaps he'd like a number one job himself, but he has no illusions about being as good as McGarrett, and for eleven seasons he was perfectly content to be the number two man in one of the best police forces anywhere.

There's another role he plays, however, and that's where I come back to the foundation I laid at the start. Because, in my opinion, if Steve McGarrett is the archetype, Danny Williams is the human face that allows the viewer to identify with the series. It is Danny who has the perspective that Steve sometimes lacks, not only in the crimefighting world, but as a connection to the larger world around them. 

Filer (Hume Cronyn) and his infamous phone
An example: "Odd Man In," a season four episode featuring Hume Cronyn reprising his season three role as bank robber Lewis Avery Filer. Filer has just broken out of prison utilizing a number of ingenious tricks including rewiring the phone system. McGarrett notes that there was enough phone equipment missing for Filer to start his own phone company, to which Danny drolly replies, "He probably will." Later, when McGarrett lists the various disguises Filer might be employing, Danny notes, "Wouldn't it be simpler to put an APB out on anybody?" In a story filled with gently humorous moments, it's Danny who, with those two lines, demonstrates his sense of the absurd, his ability to put even crime in perspective. Of course Filer will start his own phone company, Danny is thinking - and it'll probably be successful, too! Even in the most stressful of situations, life provides its own glimpses of humor, and Danny is the one who will see them. If McGarrett is the face of the relentless pursuit of justice, Williams is a reminder that policemen are men, not machines.

For all of his competence though, the viewer is never tempted to see Williams as a replacement for McGarrett. Every once in a while star Jack Lord will be virtually missing from an episode - usually this means McGarrett is "in Washington" attending hearings or meeting with top Justice Department leaders. At times such as this, it's up to Williams to take charge of the week's case. He doesn't always solve it himself, though - Steve might be just as apt to fly back for the episode's conclusion, taking the investigation Danny has headed and seeing it through to a successful end. Danny's work has been perfectly good, at times even brilliant, but we're never tempted to forget McGarrett's importance to Five-O. Just as Star Trek's Spock could never undermine Kirk's authority, Danny Williams will never suggest to us that Steve McGarrett is replaceable. 

Storywise, he also takes the burden off of McGarrett. As is the case with most sidekicks, Danno gets his own episode every once in awhile, one that allows the plotline to be about him. He may face allegations about his honesty, or he may be struggling with having possibly shot an innocent young man. It might be that he's lost his true love (see: Cartwrights, sons of Ben, for further examples), or it could be the aforementioned holding down the fort while McGarrett is away. On these occasions, Danny's more that up to the task, even if it's Steve who often solves the case. In real life, when James MacArthur leaves Hawaii Five-O after eleven seasons, it's not because he wanted more money, top billing in his own show, or even a movie career: it was because he felt the show had lost its edge, had become boring. Right to the end, he was the perfect second banana.

Is Danny Williams a conventional sidekick, in the same mold as many of the others we're reading about in this entertaining blogathon? I suppose not, but as we saw, when one lists the qualities needed to be a good sidekick, he ticks them all off. It's unusual in that Danny is just one of three "sidekicks" for McGarrett, but clearly he's first among equals. That means that in the world of sidekicks, he bears an extra burden, one that Chin, or Kono, or Al or Duke don't have. He has to be the not-quite star, the one who remains almost, but not quite. It's not everyone who can successfully manage that obstacle course, but Danny Williams, aka James MacArthur, does it quite well, thank you very much.


The TV Sidekick Blogathon is hosted by the Classic Film & TV Cafe. Please check out the rest of wonderful entries by clicking here.

21 comments:

  1. As part of that iconic catchphrase, Danno is TV royalty for sure! Likable but far from a buffoon or comic relief, Danno is, as you detail, the perfect right-hand man. What a great profile and the series wouldn't have lasted so many years without relying on James MacArthur's solid support of McGarrett. What a great profile!!

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    1. Thanks, Lisa! I think what makes Danno so credible, besides James MacArthur's performance, is that you always take him seriously. He doesn't function as comic relief, or someone who needs to be corrected - he's just a good cop who does a good job.

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  2. Fond though I was/am of "Hawaii Five O", I would often get frustrated by MacArthur's status of number two man. He could do so much more, but it is a sign of how good he was that he kept Danny so steady through those years.

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    1. You're absolutely right. I think having watching it on DVD the last couple of years, I've gotten an appreciation for how difficult that must have been, particularly when you see how many actors were not able to do that on other series.

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  3. Danno is a prince among sidekicks. You're so right about balancing out the mythical McGarrett with the humble (and human) Danny. Steve can take all the gas in the face that suspension of disbelief will allow, but it's Danny's paperwork that keeps the crooks off the streets.

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    1. Thanks, Jaina! You're never going to see one of Danny's arrests get thrown out of court on a technicality!

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  4. "He doesn't eat much and doesn't take up much room"--that's priceless. The importance of Danny Williams (and James MacArthur) to HAWAII FIVE-O cannot be underestimated. As much as I love Jack Lord, I think watching him was McGarrett without a fallible, but smart and sensitive sidekick would have been too much. This was a marvelous ode to Danno! By the way, I think Danny would have been human enough to admit he liked quiche--like me.

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    1. You're right, Rick - the two of them balance each other so well. And what's great about the show is how both the writers and Jack Lord's own performance make it clear how much McGarrett values Danny not only as a colleague but as a policeman.

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  5. Great article! I'm sort of a newbie when it comes to Hawaii 5-0 but obviously am well aware of Danno and MacArthur's role in the show's success. I always liked him, probably for that famous line, and because he seemed so genuine in the role. I agree, he was the human face behind the metaphor, which is just a wonderful way to look at the series.

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    1. Welcome to the real Five-O, Amanda! Thanks for the kind words - Danny, unlike so many sidekicks (though none of them from our Blogathon!) is someone who doesn't grate on your nerves. Always steady, always reliable.

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  6. Very well done and another great sidekick choice!

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    1. Thanks, Kurt - appreciate the kind words!

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  7. I confess that with all my years of on-and-off Five-O viewing I never gave this much thought to Danno, outside of his reassuring support and consistent competence. That will change the next time I revisit the series! Another great contribution to what has been a most enjoyable blogathon.

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    1. Thanks as always, David! I think you might be on to something there - the fact that Danno doesn't draw that kind of attention to himself is itself a testimony to his competence, his willingness to accept the role he's given within the Five-O structure. And, of course, to James MacArthur's performance!

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  8. Great choice, MacArthur was essential to the series. I don't think it is a coincidence that HAWAII FIVE-0 ended one season after he left. As others mentioned, not having Danno upset the show's balance.

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    1. I think you're right, Hal. It's always difficult when you upset the chemistry of a successful show, and McGarrett without Danno - well, as one might say, it's like a pencil without lead: pointless.

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    2. Hawaii Five-O didn't end because there was no Danno. Jack Lord agreed to do one more season, provided it would be the last one. It was decided before Season 12 began that the show would end at the end of that season.

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  9. Great essay here. You made me laugh out loud with the "All About Eve" reference. Danno always stood out to me--he seemed more relatable than his boss. Now I think I know why. Thanks for sharing about this series.

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    1. Thanks, Joanna! Coming from you, that's high praise indeed! :)

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    2. McGarrett was not inhuman and without human flaws or traits. He was not a machine. He has his sensitivities and vulnerabilities. I found McGarrett to be relatable. I noticed his softer side early on, when watching this show as a child, and even as an adult, that observation didn't change. The time he cries when his nephew dies, when an old girlfriend rejects him again, when another is murdered, when a suspect or witness dies, when he talks about his father's death ... How did you all miss that? Maybe, Mitch, you should examine that in a future blog.

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  10. MacArthur stated that he left the show to do other things. William Smith,who replaced him (playing Jim 'Kimo' Carew) said in an interview in Filmfax that MacArthur left the show because they wouldn't give him his own trailer like Jack Lord had.

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!