December 20, 2023

Book Review: The FBI Dossier, by Bill Sullivan with Ed Robertson

I've told this story before, but it bears repeating: when I was growing up, the opening to The FBI was one of the most thrilling things I'd ever seen. This was before the real-life Federal Bureau of Investigation had become as controversial as it is today; back then, it was one of the most respected law enforcement agencies in the world, headed by J. Edgar Hoover, who'd attained legendary status from his wars against organized crime and communism. There were a lot of things we didn't know back then, perhaps things we didn't want to know, but that wouldn't have meant anything to a kid back then.

The FBI Dossier: A Guide to the Classic TV Series Produced by Quinn Martin and Starring Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. 

by Bill Sullivan with Ed Robertson

Black Pawn Press, 900 pages, $49.99

My rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Anyway, the first thing to appear on the screen (after the "In Color" slide) was the FBI's mission: "to protect the innocent and identify the enemies of the United States Government." That opening title scene was perfect, really; perhaps only the start of Perry Mason did a better job of summarizing what the show was all about. After a cold opening that gave us a look at the episode’s criminal, along with the case number and why he or she was wanted by the FBI, the scene dissolved into shots of Washington icons: the Capitol, the Washington Monument, and the Supreme Court, ending with a zoom-in on the Justice Department, home of the Bureau. Between that and the majestic theme, written by Bronislaw Kaper, it was enough to make you run right out there and sign up. I’m sure Hoover must have loved it.

After all that, it's pretty obvious that I'd be about as receptive as anyone could possibly be to a book about the show. Enter Bill Sullivan and Ed Robertson, authors of The FBI Dossier: A Guide to the Classic TV Series Produced by Quinn Martin and Starring Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. At nearly 900 pages, this is a big book: but then, this is a big topic. The FBI ran for nine seasons and 241 episodes between 1965 and 1974, with stories based on actual FBI cases. It was the centerpiece of the great Quinn Martin's television empire, and one of the hallmark series of the time; it even helped knock one of television's institutions, The Ed Sullivan Show, off the air. As for its cultural impact, one need go no further than the number of agents through the years who were inspired to join the Bureau because of the series. Including me; who knows but what, had I been older at the time it came on the air, you might be reading the musings of a former FBI agent. 

And yet, it's strangely overlooked today; as the authors point out in the introductory section, even the FBI's Wikipedia pages fails to mention the series in its "Media Portrayal" section. It is, as radio host Tom Gulley says, "the most successful long-running show that no one seems to remember." One wonders how we could be so shortsighted as to forget it? Fortunately, the entire series has been issued on DVD, and it's currently streaming for free on Tubi, making it possible for a new generation to discover and enjoy it. This book should do the same.

As you might gather from the page count, The FBI Dossier is much more than just an episode guide; it begins with a brief history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, before guiding the reader through the show's origins, from Quinn Martin’s initial reluctance to take on the job (he was, he thought, "too liberal" to tell the "conservative" Bureau's stories), to the close relationship between Zimbalist and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (he was invited to sit in the FBI section of mourners at Hoover's funeral). We read about behind-the-scenes activities involving both the series and the network, and we see a lineup of guest stars as good as that of any television series of the time: Richard Anderson, Anne Archer, Ed Asner, Michael Bell, Eric Braeden, Beau Bridges, Henry Darrow, Robert Hooks, Ketty Lester, Donna Mills, Stefanie Powers, Suzanne Pleshette, Peter Mark Richman, Roy Thinnes, Joan Van Ark, Lindsay Wagner, and Dawn Wells, among many others. The writing is knowledgeable, literate, and to the point.

There is an episode guide, of course, with each one getting between two and five pages on average, including credits for the cast and production personnel (many of which include interesting personal details). Additionally, there are recaps of off-season developments, ads for the show, reviews, pictures, and other production notes, plus appendices that provide neat details, such as "Episodes that depict FBI investigations into mob activities," and the transcript of the speech that former FBI director Robert Mueller gave honoring Efrem Zimbalist Jr. in 2009. An extensive bibliography and list of sources follow, for anyone who wants to pursue one or two of the rabbit holes that a book like this will invariably produce. Honestly, I can't think of anything that isn't covered in this book.

The authors, Bill Sullivan and Ed Robertson, are well-equipped to take on a project of this scope; Sullivan, in addition to a collection of 888 TV Guides from 1954 to 1971 (I must meet this man!) previously authored a guide to the Perry Mason series, while Robertson has written books on television classics such as The Fugitive, Maverick, The Rockford Files, and Star Trek, and hosts the syndicated talk show Television Confidential.* The FBI Dossier was seven years in the research and writing, interviewing many people involved in the making of the series, both in front of and behind the cameras, some of whom have passed away since; as I've often mentioned, these people from the era of classic television aren't going to be with us forever, and we owe a debt of gratitude to Sullivan and Robertson for capturing and documenting their stories before it was too late. 

*Full disclosure: In the past, I have appeared as a guest (albeit one of the lesser ones) on Television Confidential. I believe both you and Ed Robertson trust me enough to know that this would not and does not influence my review.

The book is dedicated to one of those actors, William Reynolds, who played Erskine's longest-running partner, Special Agent Tom Colby. Reynolds, who died just over a year ago at age ninety, was an important part of The FBI Dossier, with his insights, memories, and background on the early days of television. Ed Robertson's warm remembrance confirms what I, and anyone watching the show, might have suspected: that William Reynolds, in addition to being a talented actor and integral part of the success of The FBI, was a good guy.
Don't let the book's size be daunting; if you’re a fan of The FBI—either from its original run or through the DVDs that Warner issued in the last few yearsThe FBI Dossier is a must-have. If you’re unfamiliar with the series, or have seen just a few episodes, you’ll find yourself wanting to read, and watch, more. If you're already watching, you'll want to use the book to follow along, episode by episode. If you want to just pick it up at random and read about a few episodes, or the series in general, it's perfect. I’ve seen every episode of The FBI and own the DVDs, I’ve read articles about the series and its stars, and I found myself learning many things that I didn’t know—and things that I didn’t know I wanted to know.  

What more can I say, other than this: The FBI Dossier is a book I would have been proud to have written. I wish I had, except I couldn’t have done nearly as good a job. Bill Sullivan and Ed Robertson have given readers a wonderful book: not just a trip back in time, but a companion on a journey that's bound to continue.  TV  


  1. Having a blast watching these episodes on Tubi. Haven't seen them since they ran on Cable years ago, and I never did get the DVDs. The images are sharp and look like they were filmed yesterday.
    The one bit of trivia I remember, and I don't know if it's in the book, is that Hoover, still stuck in the 40s, wanted all the fictional agents to wear hats. Zimbalist refused, saying he looked ridiculous in a hat.

  2. James, we do address the issue of Hoover, Zimbalist, and fedoras as part of our coverage of the first season.

    Ed Robertson
    co-author, The FBI Dossier

  3. I love the show and especially the guest stars with their "spoken name" credits. The book turned me off with its reverse-image photo on the cover, but I still may pick it up. The kidnapping stories were comically repetitive (count on the kindly woman among the kidnappers to ruin the plan), but the one with Robert Drivas and Zohra Lampert was one of the best hours of TV I've ever seen. Glad to see the show getting its due.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!