“The Rider Who Made A Difference”
A Long Time Ago … In A Place Far, Far Away … before Luke Skywalker and Han Solo battled the dark forces of an evil empire in a fictional world, there was a time when real issues plagued our own; a time when the Vietnam War raged-on, fear of the Cold War was contributing to bizarre nuclear safety drills, and the tail end of the Civil Rights movement was taking place. At a time when humanity was reaching the moon, there was one man and his group of friends whose influence and stardom made a difference in the consciousness of society. That man’s name was “Michael Cole.” He and his friends were, The Mod Squad, and they rode … motorcycles.
The star of the critically acclaimed, smash-hit, five-season run television series, The Mod Squad, Michael Cole literally started his career on a bike. Although Michael had appeared on a few projects prior to starring in the The Mod Squad, American audiences’ very first glimpse of him on the ABC action adventure crime drama was during his introduction shot where he was seen riding a motorcycle in the parking lot of Handy’s Burger joint. Although originally not wanting to play the part of a perceived gun-carrying snitch cop, Michael’s first meeting with Aaron Spelling (the producer of the show), essentially resulted in him telling Spelling to take his offer and shove it – preferring to play a bad guy with a motorcycle instead.
Recounting the story to me over the phone, Michael explains. “What did I know back then? I didn’t know who Aaron was at the time, and so, I told him, The Mod Squad, that’s the stupidest goddam title I ever heard. And, I hope it never gets on the air. But if you want me to do something on this show, make me a bad guy, and get me a motorcycle! Well, I thought I was gonna get thrown out of the office because of my arrogance, but before I could leave, Spelling jumped on his desk and said, ‘no, no, no Michael don’t leave, that’s exactly the attitude I’m looking for, for the character.’”
It was then that Michael became Pete Cochran, the hip, occasional bike-riding, cool cat undercover cop. Along for the ride were African-American stage actor Clarence Williams III, who played Linc Hayes, and Peggy Lipton, a blond model, singer, and actress, who played Julie Barns. The mixed gender and racial trio portrayed young hip undercover police officers who infiltrated places where the law couldn’t. Under the supervision of their boss, Capt. Adam Greer (played by the late great character actor, Tige Andrews), these iconic heroes tackled topics that other television shows shunned away from: abortion, racism, the Vietnam War, domestic abuse, children’s sex education, antisemitism, child abuse, immigration, the drug trade, American Indian discrimination, etc. While other programs simply entertained the country through escapism with comedies, westerns, and musical variety specials, The Mod Squad gallantly took on America’s most current, challenging and controversial topics of the day. Michael, along with his co-stars, in a sense became America’s moral compass; they made you think. They did this with compassion, thought, sensitivity, love, logic, and unbelievably mind-blowing kick-ass action that included motorcycles. Anybody who was anybody, wanted to meet them, and Michael was on his way to becoming an American Icon.
Michael Cole, thrust into stardom.
Nelson Rockefeller (Governor of New York during this time, before he became Vice President of the United States), traveled to the production set to meet the cast. Michael, to this day, still has a letter from Rockefeller, saying how much he appreciated meeting him. “He was a sweetheart. A sweet, sweet man,” says Michael. “I can remember going to work and seeing helicopters overhead, thinking they were probably flying around for Mission Impossible which was shooting on the lot [Paramount Studios]. Then I see guys on the roof of the stages talking into their lapels, and I’m thinking, shit what’s going on here? As I walk on the set, an A.D. [Assistant Director] comes over to me and tells me someone wanted to meet me. So, I say, ‘okay’. Sure as hell, I look over and notice the set chairs had “Rocky” on it, and his wife’s name and kids’ names. Then I see him, Nelson Rockefeller, come walking up to me and say, ‘just wanted to meet you. You’re doing a wonderful job, Michael.’ Well, I was star struck as you could be, I mean here comes, Rockefeller coming over to shake my hand - Jesus, God!
“I also remember around the second or third season, when I had just gotten married, and I was on the cover of a lot of magazines, we were on location somewhere, and I was just sitting there bullshitting with Clarence, and all of a sudden the whole crew stops working, followed by silence. I say, ‘Jesus, it’s Steve McQueen!’ Steve got out of his sports car and started walking directly towards me. I thought, ‘ah shit, did I do anything?’ But, oh man, he was so cool. He just walked up to me and said, ‘Hey, man, congratulations. I hear you just got married.’ After I mumbled though the first couple of sentences with him, we then became buddies. We ended up being friends. He’s the only guy I knew who drank Rye Whiskey. Although we never really rode bikes together, we used to hang out at that club on Sunset, Whisky a Go Go.”
Even the king, the king of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elvis Presley, at one of his concerts introduced his audience to Michael. That was the influence Michael’s presence had. As for The Mod Squad, every celebrity either wanted to be on the show or made appearances in it. (And when I say every, I mean every: Vincent Price, Richard Pryor, Sami Davis, Jr., Sugar Ray Robinson, Richard Dreyfus, Louis Gossett, Jr., Ed Asner, Dabney Coleman, Tom Bosley, Lesley Ann Warren, Daniel Day Travanti, Robert Duvall, Carolyn Jones, Joe Don Baker, Tyne Daly, Jamie Farr, David Cassidy, Jack Cassidy, Sam Elliott, Marion Ross, Billy Dee Williams, William Smith, Andy Griffith, Cesar Romero, Robert Pine, Fernando Lamas, and Milton Berle, just to name a few. Even Harrison Ford appeared as a silent cop, starting his career as a Hollywood extra, or background actor, in a sequence with Michael).
A roster of star-studded appearances on the show surrounded by motorcycles (whether they could ride or not) included everyone from teen-idols like Bobby Sherman (above), and dramatic performers like Martin Sheen (Below Left) and Leslie Nielsen (below right).
Additionally, guest charcter actors like, Herbie Faye (below), who played a motorcycle repair shop owner, was also sourounded by the two-wheel machines.
The Mod Squad wasn’t just a cop show - it was a cultural groundbreaking drama with numerous Emmys and Golden Globe award nominations. Garnishing a best leading actress Golden Globe award in 1971 for Peggy Lipton, Michael and the show’s impact truly did go global when it won 5 consecutive Australian Logie Awards for “Best Overseas Drama,” and “Best American Show”.
The show’s scripts touched upon so many controversial issues of the time while captivating its audience with creative plot-lines. It offered superb performances and top notch stunts with action scenes developed and performed by Michael’s friend, and stunt coordinator, Ronnie Rondell, Jr. (a founding member of Stunts Unlimited) and his stunt team, which included the likes of Alan Oliney, Bobby Bass, Charlie Picerni, and Patty Elder.
I can recall when I was a young boy and fan of the martial arts, I would usually look forward in anticipation every week to watch Linc (Clarence Williams III) bust into a room and perform a high-flying double-leg side kick on some bad guy. To me, Linc’s stunt double was always the true human “SuperFly”. It would be many years later working on Eddie Murphy’s set of Beverly Hills Cop III where I got to meet, and hang out with, Clarence’s stunt-double, Alan Oliney, who shared with me that he was able to perform all those repeated high flying acrobats because he was a gymnast.
As primetime viewing, The Mod Squad delivered in all areas, it was poignant, exciting, dramatic, and thought-provoking. It was a mind-altering spectacle that showcased the talents of an incredible and dynamic human being, who happened to be a motorcycle rider.
Born on July 3rd, 1940 in East Madison, Wisconsin, Michael struggled as a child. A poor, and fatherless upbringing, Michael, and his beloved older brother Ted, were raised by their faithful and loving Irish-Catholic mother, Kathleen Hyland. “My mom was good about letting me ride,” explains, Michael. “She knew how much riding meant to me. So, she said ‘ok.’
“I was around 14, 15 years old when I bought my very first bike”, recalls Michael. “It was a used 49 Indian Scout. My uncle, who was really a neat guy, and in the royal Canadian Air Force, which I thought was cool, well he and my mother got me that Indian. They paid for it, and working as a busboy at nightclubs, I eventually paid him back. It was a beautiful little machine. I was so proud. Then I had one of those old British bikes, an AJS. You could break your leg trying to kick start that goddam thing, or she’d spit you off 20 yards. Then, I had a BSA, which I loved, and I also had a 52 Triumph Thunderbird which I wanted because that was Brando’s bike.
“Back then, as a teenager, I was drinking and getting into a lot of trouble in Madison. My stepfather, who adopted me for a little while, well, we didn’t get along too much. We had a lot of fights and that was one of several reasons I wanted to leave home; the details are in the book [Michael’s recently released autobiography, “I Played The White Guy”], but he had cancer and that affected me. You know, I wore his personal ring on the show for years until it was stolen from a dressing room when I was on the road doing a show. I had asked him for the ring and he was very touched. It became a part of the show until it was stolen. I was very upset when it was taken. It had a lot of meaning for me. And even the viewers noticed it was missing during the 5th season. In fact I have friends [Michael’s fans] who are so dedicated to the show, they can actually tell you how many times I twisted that ring in my scenes, because it had become on-screen business that I would normally do.”
Michael’s treasured ring given to him by his stepfather, worn on The Mod Squad.
Michael continuing on the phone, “Anyway, what happened back home in Wisconsin was that my buddy Dave, and I, after dropping out of high school, drove one of those drop-off cars, to Las Vegas. It just so happened that 4-5 guys that we normally had hung out with back in Madison had jobs there as bartenders, so I had a job right-away, and man, let me tell you, it was a fun time. We owned the place. Although I didn’t ride when I was in Vegas, I was saving up the bucks to go down to LA to find an acting school to study.”
Once in Los Angeles, with nowhere to stay, Michael went from living under freeways, to eventually moving to Estelle Harman’s Actor’s Studio, after Harman recognized Michael’s talent. Landing The Mod Squad then placed Michael in Spelling’s home, before finally settling down in his show’s dressing room. Referring to his new dressing room, Michael states, “I finally had a place to stay. It was pretty neat.”
Now settled in a place to stay, and full employment in the craft he loved, Michael’s relationship with other motorcycle riders began, as he started bonding with Ronnie Rondell, Jr. and his stunt-team.
Michael, explaining his first meeting with Ronnie, “I did a pilot at Fox, for a TV show before The Mod Squad and had to run down a hallway of a 4th floor and go through a candy-glass window [a fabricated breakaway window made of sugar-glass] onto a fire-escape. To be honest, I was kind of nervous about it, but at the same time I didn’t really give a shit about anything in those days. I mean, I was in my Marlon Brando, James Dean mode back then. Although production hired Ronnie to stunt-double me, my macho ego got the best of me and I did the gag and went through the window. It turned out to be a great shot. But as I was cleaning the fragments of glass off me, I’m thinking this isn’t what I really had in mind to be doing. Anyway, so he was there on the set and everybody was telling me, he’s as good as it gets, Ronnie Rondell. We had similar looks and so I just asked him right then. I said, ‘hey, I’ve been talking to some people about another pilot, and if I do it, will you be my stunt guy?’ And, he said, ‘absolutely’. So that’s how we originally got tied together.”
Michael Cole (left), and good friend and stunt double, Ronnie Rondell, Jr. (right)
“I was always willing and eager to do my own stunts,” asserts, Michael. “I mean Bob, [Bob Conrad from The Wild, Wild, West] was doing a lot of his own stunts, so I said to myself, I can keep doing this. But, funny, one day when I was doing my own stunt, which wasn’t really much, this girl was running towards me and got shot. As she got shot, she did this reactional twist, and with the full force of her body, fell into my arms as I caught her. So, after I laid her down, I realized I couldn’t fu*k’n move. It was my ribs, my back, I just couldn’t move. So, while Ronnie was standing over me, I said Ronnie, from now on, you got it, man. That was one of the dumbest things I ever did. So, I just left that stuff to him, to stunt-double me, you know for the crazy stuff. I mean he was dead-right on everything. And, I trusted him 100%. He truly was incredible; he would jump over The Empire State Building if you told him to.
Stunt legend Ronnie Rondell, Jr. playing a biker gang member alongside friend and star, Michael Cole on The Mod Squad (left), and Rondell, performing one of his signature wheelies (right)
“He could choreograph a fight scene like a ballet. And his team, like Alan [Oliney], oh, he was a beauty, a great guy, were all top-level guys. Ronnie was a perfectionist. I mean the first double Clarence had, you could see during dailies [raw printed camera footage] was not up to par to production’s standards, so Ronnie found Alan through the recommendation of a UCLA coach, where Alan was a gymnast. Alan could jump over the fu*k’n Mississippi river if he wanted too. Man, Alan was brilliant. He was a beautiful guy, and still is. Boy did I like him. Everyone liked him so much.”
Linc, played by Clarence Williams III (above) and his stunt double, Alan Oliney (below)
Originally when Michael was in Aaron Spelling’s office auditioning for The Mod Squad and defiantly suggesting to the producer that he would rather portray a bad guy on a motorcycle, I was curious why he included the bike. Besides being influenced by Brando’s character from The Wild One, Michael explained where the origin of asking for a motorcycle truly came from.
“When I was living at the actor’s workshop, the casting people from Paramount Studios called to tell me Academy Award winning screen writer Stirling Silliphant (The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Heat of The Night), had heard about me, and wanted to meet me. I had no clue why he’d want to see me. Are you kidding? Why me? So the day I went over to the studios, I was doing a reading for this girl who got this part on something, and afterwards, when I was leaving, they gave me some script pages for a scene and asked me to come back at 4:00PM to read for this part for Mr. Silliphant, who would be there for the reading. Well, the role was for a young guy from San Francisco who showed up in LA on a motorcycle with a bunch of scripts that he had written and wanted to get produced into films. And that’s actually really where I got the idea for me to be on a motorcycle for The Mod Squad when I was in Spelling's office auditioning.
“In regards to getting a motorcycle on the show, because I could ride bikes fairly well at the time, and actually I think I was riding a Norton then, jeez that was a real powerful bastard, but because my character was from a rich family who threw him out of the house, he had money, so I wanted him to have a motorcycle. So, we started to use the bikes right away, because I wanted one. I simply said, ‘let Pete have a motorcycle.’”
It was interesting how much influence Michael had as a relatively unknown, to be able to suggest that his character have, and ride a motorcycle; I listened with amusement as he confirmed, “yes, absolutely. As a matter of fact, right after that, since somebody in production made a deal with Yamaha right away, when the show just started, one of Ronnie Rondell’s best friends, a stunt guy, and I, went with his van to the Yamaha warehouse to ask them if we could have a couple of bikes to get use to riding them for the show. Because The Mod Squad had already aired and audiences had gone crazy over it, Yamaha said, hell, yeah, take whatever you want. Take whatever you think you can get into the van, they said. So, every couple of months, we would take the van and go back out to Yamaha and put 4 or 5 bikes in the back of it, and just leave. They never asked for them back. I’m not sure, but I think we ended up accumulating around 20 motorcycles or something like that.”
(Below, In the lead), Michael, as undercover cop, Pete Cochran, infiltrating and riding with a group of risk seeking skydiving-bikers… long before projects like Keanu Reeves’ Point Break.
Michael, continuing to share about his motorcycle experiences on the show, “On the set, helping out, the Transportation department was always around when we needed them, but it was mostly Ronnie and his stunt team who wrangled and handled the motorcycles. Those guys were really good with bikes. Oh, and gals too. Peggy had a great, great, girl. Her stunt-double was, Patty Elder. She could ride motorcycles and horses, but rode beautifully on the bikes. I mean she could do wheelies for blocks.”
Below: Julie (Left), played by Peggy Lipton, and (Center, Right) her stunt double, Patty Elder.
“At home”, confesses Michael, “I always had about 4 or 5 bikes in my garage at one time, sometimes as much as 8 to 10, and all for absolutely nothing. I never had to return them. I mean on the show we could say we wrecked them in scenes, who-the hell cared, then. They were making millions off the show. So, we kept them. Yamaha was getting great advertising. And, I use to purposefully try to slide sideways to make sure the cameras would see the Yamaha logo on the gas tanks. I really enjoyed riding those bikes.
Michael Cole (Above), doing his own riding as Pete Cochran, showcasing one of, if not the first, true duel sport motorcycles on the market, a Yamaha Enduro Trail Bike.
“I remember one time we were on location up by Griffith Park, and I was riding around like hell during lunch. When it was time to go back to the honey-wagon, I was going really fast. It was dumb. But, all of a sudden, I see Aaron (Spelling) standing outside the dressing trailer and he literally had to dive through a door to get out of the way because I almost hit him. So it came down from the head of ABC, no more motorcycles, especially for Michael. But I still didn’t give a shit, and I’d take them out anyway. I mean the show was so popular, what were they gonna do, fire me?
Michael Cole (below) performing alongside motorcycles wrangled by the show’s stunt team.
“Of course, I didn’t just ride on the show. I used to go riding out in the desert on the weekends with some of the stunt guys too. We’d have all the gear and leathers on, and after riding around all day, we’d store up the bikes and go get a beer in some desolate bar somewhere. We also rode at Indian Dunes Motocross Park in Valencia. I mean I couldn’t ride or compete like them. They were so goddamn good. And, I was legitimately under contract with ABC, which included a no-racing clause, so I had to be careful about that stuff. But the deserts were safer than the streets. A lot of us shied away from riding on the roads. Riding defensively on the streets simply took away from the enjoyment of the motorcycle experience. Although most of my life motorcycles offered the intrigue of danger, the truth is I found that the tranquility it offered outweighed the danger aspect if I stayed off the city streets. I’d compare it to a cowboy riding his horse along the countryside in the old West. The body and mind communing with nature, what a marvelous way to work out the frustrations of everyday living, to get away from all the pressures of society.”
Sharing some wisdom from experience, Michael emphasizes, “But, when you’re riding, anywhere, especially for the new riders out there, you have to respect the bike. It’s never about you. When someone forgets that they and the bike are a team, well, that’s when it’s time to sell it, or store it away. When a person gets too much confidence and forgets to respect the bike, that’s when they’ll get hurt. When you ride, it’s not just about you. It’s about you and the machine. I basically learned that from the stunt guys, and it reminds me of how Steve McQueen felt. So, if that frame of mind was good enough for the best stunt guys in the world, it was good enough for me. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have some crazy fun either.”
Humorlessly, Michael continues, “You know I was afraid of heights, still am…I and a bunch of the stunt guys had all the motorcycles we needed, and like I had said before, we’d go play in the desert and we’d come across big fu*k’n gorges, and those guys would just fly over it and I’m thinking, shit, I ain’t gonna do that! So, I’d wind the bike up and let it go on its own and watch it fly across the ravines and then I’d walk down, lift the thing and get on the bike like I rode it over. And yes, I broke a lot of bikes.” In a “Stars in Sports” magazine article from June 1974, Michael stated he had a stuntman friend who took care of his motorcycles for him, explaining that he (Michael) would break them, and his friend would fix them. “That’s true,” Michael declares. “I had a Bultaco bike that was patched up so many times; I couldn’t remember what model it was originally”.
Michael goes on to confess, “And well, I’ve banged myself up pretty good too. One time I was alone and turning a corner and I slid on some pea gravel, and the goddam thing went down. My arm somehow got stuck to the exhaust-pipe. You could smell the burn, and of course I pulled my arm off. But, I had a huge bruise, burn. You know, not so much from the riding, but with all the past stunts, and real fights I’ve put my body through, let me tell you, all that shit comes back to taunt and haunt you. It’s like 50 years later, after that stunt or fight, that bruised-up right shoulder says to you, ‘hey motherfu*ker, you thought I went away, but I’m still here, and you thought I went away.’ Personally, all I can say for myself is that I did try my very best. But, now I’ve got a bad knee, a bad back, but at least the scenes turned out great. I think Ronnie lives out in the mid-west these days, and like me, has to wobble around too. A lot of his stunt guys did as well. We call each other every once in a while and bullshit about all the bruises. But shit, we did it, man. And, we were the best at it.”
Michael is absolutely correct when he states they “were the best.” Ronnie Rondell, Jr. and his stunt team developed some of the finest action scenes ever created for episodic television. The show wasn’t just ahead of its time in what it broadcasted, but how it was broadcasted, including superb sound and innovative camera techniques, that included hand-held setups, birds-eye views, character POVs, and so on. Even the staged fight sequences incorporated such advanced moves that audiences wouldn’t come to understand for 30-40 years, such as rear naked chokes, arm lock submissions, and leg sweeps.
Although Rondell incorporated everything from judo flips, flying sidekicks, aikido techniques and boxing, he was truly presenting to the world what would many years later become “MMA” (Mixed Martial Arts). Rondell was using everything from Jiu-Jitsu to pounding hammer-fist blows. Even ABC’s earlier, but short-lived series The Green Hornet, with martial arts legend Bruce Lee, didn’t offer the spectrum of techniques that The Mod Squad had.
(Below) Pete, Michael Cole, applies a “Rear Naked Choke” on the bad guy (left). Linc, Clarence Williams III, restrains a suspect with a “Submission Hold” (center). Linc, engaged by a Karate student’s spinning back kick, takes the man to the ground and “Sinks in the Hooks” and places the bad guy in a rear choke (right). No doubt the show broke grounds in many ways.
Some cutting-edge motorcycle action sequences offered by the stunt team.
“One of the highlights with the bikes and stunt guys, I remember fondly”, Michael shares, “which I was so proud of, was organizing a visit on motorcycles to the Braille Institute in Los Angeles, to spend time with the blind and visually impaired kids there.
“You see, I was at Indian Dunes to watch Ronnie racing one day, and the sounds of the motocross really got to me, and so I spoke to him about it. I said, ‘Ronnie, the sound here is so incredible, what about doing something with the bikes at the Braille Institute for the blind kids. You know, get some of the guys with their bikes and go to the Institute,’ which was out in the valley. So we called them up [the institute] and they went crazy for the idea. I mean they really went for it. So Ronnie and his stunt buddies like Glenn Wilder, and Bobby Bass, I mean a lot of those guys from Stunts Unlimited, which was starting out during The Mod Squad period, jumped on board.
“So, all of us rode our bikes to the Braille Institute, and all the kids were outside waiting for us. And man, you could see in their opaque eyes, how excited they were. You could just see it in all their eyes. It was incredible. We brought helmets for them all. We also brought a bike with a sidecar that was rigged with a camera. And, we rode some of the kids around this big old track that was located right next to the place.
“While riding we’d have them feel the camera-rig and explained to them while moving forward how it all worked as they were touching the equipment. Man, they got such a fu*king kick out of that. The mothers and fathers of these children were so proud. I mean their kids were on our motorcycles and it just thrilled them. I put one boy on the bike with me. I sat behind him, and I’d place his hand on the clutch and I’d place my hand over his hand and we’d pull the clutch in together. Then I’d tell him to put his foot on top of mine and explained we were putting the bike in first gear. As we slowly but surely released the clutch, we moved forward, and he caught on. We actually went around the track a couple of times and he shifted the gear.”
Michael goes on, “the basic idea of it all, I explained to them, was that the next time any of the kids hear a motorcycle go by, or hear it in a movie, they’d know what the hell it really was that they were hearing, because they were on one! It was a really great experience for everyone. And, along with all the motorcycles, we also brought, and rigged, a horse fall stunt for them.
“We explained to the kids about the physical action that would take place about 10 yards in front of them. We’d say a bad guy is gonna ride a horse around the track, and you’re gonna hear a gunshot, which is the horse’s cue, and she and the bad guy riding her are gonna fall down. That horse was so beautiful, and the kids were so excited listening to it all. When the horse wrangler fired the gunshot and the kids jumped up, bless its heart, that horse fell right on her mark and stayed down. Then the wrangler allowed the kids to walk over and pet her. It was so neat. And then I had a surprise for them. I explained to the kids, that not only did they have difficulties seeing, but that the horse did as well, that she was blind in one eye. Well, the kids were taken back, and I reminded them that any time they got a little afraid because of something they couldn’t see clearly, that they should think of this horse, and she’d get them through it. Man, they just cheered and cheered so excitedly, I’m telling you it was so beautiful, Joey, it choked me up.” Hearing Michael’s raspy voice starting to break up, I got the sense he was about to cry. Michael is a very sensitive man who wears his emotions on his sleeve. He’s a rare breed of celebrity, a star who doesn’t recognize his admirers as “fans,” but rather, as “friends.”
Michael’s charitable contributions and moral compass in real life reflected very much the counterpart he was portraying on The Mod Squad. Recalling how the press at that time would play up the racial make-up of the cast, Michael explained, “they [the network] asked us if we’d go out on the road to do some PR before the show went on the air, and so we said ‘sure’. So we were scheduled to do a tour junket for about 12 to 15 cities. But, by the time we got to the second city, I was just so outraged with the press. They didn’t get what we were about, at all. They saw a black guy, a blonde, and a white guy [hence the title of Michael’s recently released autobiographical book, “I Played The White Guy”]. The press would make all their questions out to be about racial differences because this was the late 1960s. Well, Clarence and I were getting a little agitated with them, and so, I was a bad boy in regard to my behavior during the press tour, because we became very uncomfortable. So, I let them have it. Since they wanted statements, I gave them one. I said, ‘see if you can write this in your fu*k’n papers! Clarence is the first black guy to kick the shit out of a white guy on television! Print that mother-Fu*kers!’ Well, that was it, ABC then pulled us off the tour after only 2 cities. ‘Get those guys off the road and bring them home,’ is what they said. And, that was that, they brought us back to LA. Our show was about three people that loved each-other, and we actually did. And that resonated on screen. It was about caring, not fabricated differences which the press was trying to dish-out.”
Although three years before The Mod Squad, the television show, I spy, originated the partnership of a black-and-white friendship in the lead characters, portrayed by Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, that show did not touch upon the racial division that the country was going through. It was agreed to early in production of I Spy by Culp and Cosby that their on-air “statement, regarding race, was a non-statement”. Race was never an issue in any of the scripted storylines, minus a rare reference. The show never tackled the important subject matter of the day, and mostly focused on international scenic locations with a flare of adventure and humor. It was part of the escapism programing audiences watched to get away from the problems they were facing during the current times.
Though, both The Mod Squad and I Spy shared the same musical composer, Earle Hagen, for their exciting and respective musical opening title sequences (Hage’s credits included thousands of film and TV compositions), and that Michael and Clarence moved into Robert Culp and Bill Cosby’s old dressing-rooms, both shows could not have been more different.
As for Michael’s statement to the press about Clarence being “the first black guy to kick the shit out of a white guy on television”, it was true. Although Bob and Bill (Robert Culp and Bill Cosby), on I Spy, did have terrific action sequences, and well-choreographed fights, they were created to be adventure moments in a spy genre-oriented setting. Explains Michael, “On our show, the way Ronnie set the fight scenes up, it was a brutal fu*king fight scene. The sequences were set up with a real sense of savagery and realism. That’s why I felt comfortable then to tell the press, that Clarence was the first black guy to really kick the shit out of a white guy on television.
“Our show did stuff that no one else dared to ever do,” explains, Michael. “And, thank god Aaron [Spelling] was there, because he fought his ass off for those scripts, of returning vets from the Vietnam War, abortions, and so forth. I was very proud of those shows, and believe we were able to make a difference in people’s lives while entertaining them.”
Above: With close attention, the show not only made its points, and statements through the written dialogue, but with the camera framing as well. These young cops were about making things right for everybody.
Whether the audience realized it or not, they were being educated and informed, as well as entertained. In an episode entitled “My, What A Pretty Bus” (in the 1st season), Michael’s character towards the end of the show reunites with Linc and Julie, and they all embrace. As Michael wrote in his book (“I Played, The White Guy”), that end sequence made broadcast history as it was the first time a white man, black man, and blond woman were seen on television embracing, or for that matter just touching each other, in a loving manner, in a single shot. It’s the scene that famously convinced legendary entertainer, and rat pack alumni, Sammy Davis, Jr., to want to appear on the show (and which he did, several times). “Yeah, the next day that episode aired, Sammy Davis, Jr. called Aaron Spelling and said, ‘Man, I gotta do this show,’” Michael explains.
In that episode’s ending, coincidently, Pete had arrived on the back of a motorcycle. Michael reveals, “Yeah, that wasn’t in the script, the bike, I mean. After the police run into me on the beach, they were supposed to escort me to get the bad guy who was in a van heading to the docks. I could have arrived in a squad car, but I felt being behind a beautiful old Harley police cruiser would be more exciting, and it was. It turned out to be a beautiful shot.
“The motorcycle rider transporting me was terrific. I forget his name, but he rode with all the greats, like Steve McQueen. This guy could make a Harley, sing. So, I felt very comfortable.
“Eventually with the help of that police bike, we ended up catching the bad guy’s van at the docks. And I know I keep repeating this, but that final hug really was such an important moment in our history because it was the first time ever on TV, that a mass audience got to see a black guy, a white guy, and a blond girl, hug each-other. And, that’s what we were all about.
“You know, that image made the entire back page of the New York Times, from top to bottom. Our embrace solidified to audiences at the time that we really loved each other, and I think that helped break a lot of the racial and cultural differences that we had as a nation, in a massive way. But it was so really true. We really did all love each other. We truly were loving friends. I can even remember an enormous ship passing by in the background just after we embraced and it just made the whole sequence that much more impressive visually.”
When I reminded Michael that his show’s title included the word “MOD” (signifying the current times), and that motorcycles were being used currently throughout the media at the time, with Ghost Rider in the comic books, Evil Knievel on sports networks jumping over buses, Michael Park’s short run biker series Then Came Bronson on the small screen, and Easy Rider and On Any Sunday on the big screen, plus Clint Eastwood’s film Magnum Force, which had actors David Soul and Robert Urich playing vigilante motorcycle cops, Michael, interjected. “I knew David [Soul] really well and knew he was doing that film. He was having a hell of a time. But as for our show, all I knew back then was being on a bike was a big piece of my accepting and wanting to do The Mod Squad. That’s how important motorcycles were to me personally. And Aaron wrote those scenes in, to get the bikes in there.
“In retrospect, I think it worked out well, because our Motorcycles had a hell of a lot to do with the popularity of the show. It wasn’t just the young people that liked the bikes, but all sorts of people wrote in letters. We had tons of mail about how much people liked the bike stuff.”
Whether set-dressing, or an essence of the plotline, bikes were essential in The Mod Squad.
The Bad Guys, in The Mod Squad, using their motorcycles.
The Good Guys, in The Mod Squad, using their motorcycles.
Michael Cole’s influence incorporating motorcycles into the ambience of the series truly proved to be very successful, making the bikes a staple within the show. His character, Pete, had his first introduction shot riding a bike in the pilot episode. Pete and Linc vacationed on bikes. Capt. Greer (Tige Andrews) was noted in an episode, that he himself (the Capt.), had started his career in law enforcement on a bike, as a Motorcycle Cop. Several episodes revolved specifically around biker gangs. Two that come to mind were, “A Town Called Sincere” in Season 2, and “The Thundermakers,” in Season 5. And, as Michael stated in his book, one of the most culturally important scenes in television history showing the loving embrace between racial divides included a motorcycle that had brought them together.
“I get mail even today,” Michael touchingly states, “from wonderful people telling me how they’re sharing DVDs of the show with their children because of the messages we conveyed, such as racial unity. And, I can’t be more proud being part of that journey for another generation of human beings searching for resolution.”
Indeed, Michael, you should be proud. While mass audiences today generally look for heroic inspiration from the next generation of heroes using lightsabers and laser-blasters to fight fictional wars in front of fabricated green screens with special effects, it’s important and shouldn’t be forgotten, that a long, long, time ago there were 3 young, hip, and genuine superheroes using their intelligence and kick-ass stunt team to entertain while truly making a positive difference in the real world. It’s certainly worth remembering considering the atmosphere we live in today.
Michael may not have been riding imaginary land-speeders while saving the world, but he did ride real motorcycles while changing it - for the better. And nothing beats the real deal.
Concluding our conversation, Michael reflects, “It was an exciting time to ride motorcycles on and off the screen back then, when the show brought people together and contributed to racial unity. I appreciate everyone that supported us. And, I appreciate the life I was given and the life I have, with my beloved wife, Shelley. It was an amazing ride, and I had a great time, Joey. It was really neat.”
Yes, Michael. It was. It was, groovy.