Character Studies 17: Five Really Rotten Villains

The series writers excel at portrayals of memorable bad guys, creating a consistent template of what constitutes the genuinely rotten criminal as opposed to pragmatic or opportunistic. These are career criminals, preoccupied with status, driven by money. They are aloof, smiling psychopaths, stripped of empathy. The very worst are ostensibly upstanding citizens, business people, sophisticated and worldly, outwardly sane. This list does not include characters such as molester Artie Solkin or serial killer Hector Salidas, among others, although they are terrible people doing terrible things, because they are helpless victims of mental illness, past abuse, and social abjection. They might have gone another way if the past had been kinder to them. Others are so frenzied in their stupidity (rapist Jo-Jo, or Huey and Chaco from “Texas Longhorn”, for example, their impulsivity nearly blunts the sharp edge of criminality; consequently they are less frightening than they are exasperating, and ultimately doomed to fail. I wrestled with adding Vic Humphreys (John Quade) to the list, because he is so close to the ideal template: an empire-builder, boiling with childish rage and driven by revenge. But he didn’t make the final cut, mainly because he lacks the external polish so necessary in the perfect psycho.

In this series, what really makes for Bad with a capital B follows this invariable equation: the consciously derived pleasure in the acts of violence must outweigh the material profits gained by those acts. In other words, they do what they do because they like it.

The Sadist
Ben Forest in “The Fix” (Robert Loggia), written by Robert Holt. A mobster with Ben Forest’s wealth and power could have any number of women without having to resort to kidnapping and torture, and yet he’s driven to do just that. A control-freak of the worst sort, he’s also spoiled and entitled. He makes others do his dirty work but gloats from the darkness. He’s murderously vengeful not because he wants Jeanie Walton but because he can’t stand to be bested by her. His satisfaction in watching Hutch’s treatment marks him as a sexual sadist, quite possibly using one beautiful blond as a stand-in for the other.

The Capitalist
Olga Grossman in “Gillian” (Sylvia Sidney), written by Ben Masselink and Amanda Green. Olga’s son, the brutal simpleton Al, is not on this list. That’s because Al is only obeying orders; he lacks the intelligence to attain truly rotten status. Olga is willing to throw away her highest-earning girl, enrage Hutch (akin to kicking a hornet’s nest), and send her criminal empire tumbling down just because of someone dared to stand up to her. As a procurer, you could also add sexual exploitation and human trafficking to her list of sins. While all others on this list are motived in some way by material gain, Olga stands out as a strategic capitalist derailed by a deep, unsettling immaturity.

The Abstractionist
Professor Gage in “Class in Crime” (Peter MacLean), written by Don Patterson. Gage does not need to engage in murder and blackmail. He does it because it gives him the illusion of mastery over others. He thinks he is some kind of Nietzschean superman. A pseudo-intellect and sociopath of the highest order, he poisons the minds of his impressionable students while pursuing his private agenda – which will always remain shadowy. Similar to the others, he is also cool under pressure, eager to engage in a bit of cat-and-mouse, victim of his own ego.

The Candidate
Sharon Freemont in “Starsky and Hutch are Guilty” (Lauren Tewes), written by David P. Harmon. Freemont’s pixie haircut and crisp little business suits disguise a truly evil heart. A compulsive liar, pathologically ambitious, you get the feeling most of her evil deeds are done for the fun of it, to see what she can get away with. Scheming, intelligent and manipulative, chances are she’d have no trouble rising to the top of any Los Angeles law firm without attempting to murder two police officers. She makes it to the list over more obvious thugs (for instance, charming hitman Jack Cunningham from “The Collector”) because of the jarring disconnect between the honorable nature of her profession and her corruptible character.


The Mastermind
James Gunther in “Targets Without a Badge” (William Prince), written by Joe Reb Moffly, Steven Nalevansky and Jeffrey Bloom. Ah, the ultimate in evil. Emotionless, bland, and forgettable, Gunther helps bring the series to a spectacular close by embodying most completely what it means to be truly rotten. He will be the poster-boy of all the suit and tie-wearing criminals in the series, all comfortable in their bookish dens and paneled offices, smoking cigars and sipping brandy. Gunther does not need to cause pain and suffering, but does for his own enjoyment. He already has plenty of money and power, accumulated through acts of terror and exploitation, and yet feels it’s never enough. Of all the truly rotten, he is the most disconnected, the most inchoate. Without the bullish intrusion of Starsky and Hutch, he is the kind of shadowy character who could never be stopped.


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6 Responses to “Character Studies 17: Five Really Rotten Villains”

  1. Daniela Says:

    Hello, again and interesting analysis on the archetypical bad guys.
    One questions though… in the last episode, did Gunther poison off his assistant at the end? I couldn’t tell for sure if he poisoned the coffee he gave to him before Hutch got there….
    But he was dead when Hutch did get there, right?
    To me it was just another example of how people are totally expendable, including close associated, just to accomplish a purpose, selfish and nasty purpose.
    But the good thing about these characters is that they bring out the best in S&H, in their intense purity of characters.
    Hutch’s confrontation with Gunther at the end, when he arrests him, is thrilling and chilling. One of the best pieces of acting I’ve seen in the series!

    • merltheearl Says:

      Yes, Gunther poisons his loyal Bates in the end and Bates lies dead when Hutch gets there. As you can probably imagine, I have all sorts of theories about why he does that! But you’re absolutely right, Hutch’s confrontation of Gunther is a heartstopping moment and one of the best scenes in the entire canon.

      So sad that we’re coming to the end of the series and I’ll have to stop writing … unless I can think of other excuses to keep going. Thanks once again for commenting – I really look forward to your thoughts.

  2. Daniela Says:

    I’d like to hear (read) your theories as to why Gunther poisoned Bates. My first idea would be so he wouldn’t talk about Gunther to the police. Maybe he hoped he could get away with killing Hutch (the nerve!) and continue the activities, but Bates might have been a liability….

    About getting to the end of the series, well, I am sure you can find something else to write about…
    There is so much what was not dug deeper in many of your analysis for the sake of the length of the posts…. I am sure you can dig some more and extend the writings…..
    I’ll share a thought with you about something that occurred to me just recently….
    Reading your posts and looking back at S&H brought back memories of TV I used to watch as a kid, and seeing how you can find everything on Youtube, I found some of the series I used to watch….
    Well, nothing compares to S&H.
    They could be rebroadcast today and still be fresh…
    The set up and the acting and the filming, are still very contemporary and very good.
    The come back of the fashion of the 70s helped make the clothes less dated but the hairstyle of the girls could not be helped…. But other than that….. it is a very modern series.
    Looking at other old series, they are really really dated…. I tell you, I used to watch a series with Tony Curtis and Roger Moore (yes, I know… I liked blond/dark haired couples of guys….), a British series, and the whole thing, looking at it now, looks like it was made in cheap cardboard scenery studios, with clothes made by the Sgt Pepper’s costume designer…. And the acting was so phoney I couldn’t even look at more than one episode….
    And they even copied one of the story lines from S&H! The nerve!
    Ok, enough about other series!!
    Keep them coming, I love to read your posts.
    I had a couple of questions on some past posts, like the one about “the game” and some other one. if you find them, let me know what you think.

  3. Dianna Says:

    Nice insights, Merl. I would like to suggest a sixth Really Rotten Villian, coincidentally from the episode I just watched.

    The Narcissist
    Don Widdicombe in “Blindfold” is a world-class narcissist, convinced of his own superiority in excess of his actual accomplishments, and treating his allies and his enemies alike as if they are robots or pawns. His motive in the jewelry theft is more ego gratification than monetary gain, because Pinky is a fairly small-time fence, someone he knows he can push around easily. He charms Emily into participating in his criminal activities, then roughly shoves her out of the way when fleeing Starsky, and when she is blinded, he shows not a whiff of concern at her plight. He smirks and manipulates people, and is certain that he has complete control over what his brother, for instance, will and will not say. He does not see that other people have their own feelings or needs, because he is convinced that he himself is the only one who is actually a real person.

  4. Laura Says:

    Great choices, Merl! I also like the titles you gave to each villain.

    I feel an honorary mention should go to Stryker from “Snowstorm.” Not a remarkable criminal, but he sticks out in my memory because he is responsible for killing Dobey’s partner, Elmo Jackson, back when Dobey was a young police officer.

    Dobey is often frustrated by Starsky and Hutch, but he is clearly fond of them. I think he respects the loyalty they have to each other and the job. I also think that their relationship reminds him of what he once had with Elmo. Before telling them that his partner was found dead on a meat hook, he says about Elmo “Like you and Hutch, we went a long way together,” and later describes him as “my best friend.” We never see Dobey particularly close to anyone at work, though there may be relationships we’re not aware of. Perhaps it’s a case of “once burnt, twice shy,” as getting close to someone when you’re in a dangerous job can have painful repercussions, or perhaps it’s just the nature of his job as Captain. Quick to temper and somewhat crotchety at times, he strikes me as a bit lonely. I’m glad that he has a sweet family to go home to. Without them, he’d be a pretty sad character.

    Stryker is apparently slick, as Dobey laments that he wasn’t held responsible for Elmo’s death because “Nobody ever connects Stryker.” At the end of “Snowstorm,” episode #6 of the series if you count the pilot as #1, the boys make it possible for Dobey to finally arrest Stryker for Elmo’s murder. Looking back on this now, I wonder if this episode was written to make Dobey somewhat indebted to Starsky and Hutch, enough so that he would be quite lenient with them when it comes to enforcing standard procedure. Most of the time, he gives them a lot of latitude, even bending the rules to give them a chance to work their magic on a case.

    That creepy scene in the parking garage where Stryker corners the boys and tries to buy back the cocaine that he thinks they pocketed shows us how sure of himself Stryker is. He’s not afraid to threaten two cops and demand they return his merchandise. It strikes me a bit odd that he offers them money for the drugs, rather than just outright threatening them. Perhaps, thinking they are dirty cops, he thinks he could establish a relationship with them that could prove to be mutually lucrative. Like many villains, there’s no lack of hubris here.

    What’s up with all the cheese eating by Stryker? For some reason, this scene cracks me up, especially when his lackey refuses to share his cheese (“No thank you, I’m on a diet.”). I suppose even evil criminals need to get their calcium.

    Goofy set award: There is a copious amount of paneling in the offices of all the “high class” bad guys in this show. Of course, the paneling looks pretty ritzy compared to all the dirty walls we are treated to. Criminals, drug addicts, and stoolies apparently do not have the time to wash their walls. They are so dirty in some scenes, that I sometimes find it distracting and wonder how they could have possibly gotten that dirty.

    A final comment on the villains of Starsky and Hutch: I like the way many of them were portrayed with shades of gray, making them much more interesting and believable characters. Earlier TV had characters that were clearly black or white, all bad or all good. It made the stories far more compelling to have characters with such dimension. Merl, if you’re ever looking for a new topic, you could do “Shades of Gray – Characters with Depth.” The series has many you could pick from.

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