Character Studies 22: Five Great Glaser Scenes

Paul Michael Glaser is an interesting actor: understated, perceptive and nuanced. If he were a painting he’d be an Edward Hopper: realism without sentiment, able to reveal deep insight in what many might see as the mundane or everyday. In a sense he has not been given as meaty a role as David Soul has, or, to be more precise, the substantive part of the character has always been intended to be the physical one. One can easily imagine network executives insisting, “Hutch is the thinker, Starsky’s the doer,” a dichotomy that was broken down very neatly by Glaser early on (although amusingly restated by Hutch himself late into the series when he claims, “I am the brains of this operation, and you are the not-too-inconsiderable brawn”). Starsky is thoughtful, dependable, self-contained, not given to many emotional displays – if anything he tends to clamp the lid down pretty hard – and his internal thermometer pretty well stuck at a sunny 72. If pushed, he goes quiet. Like Soul, Glaser can be very funny, and his natural physical grace lends itself well to comedy, especially those wonderful moments I think of as fundamentally Glaser-made: a kind of self-aware, deft muscularity we see in his numerous chase or fight scenes, which he plays with a mix of intensity and joy that is very rare and special.

In this way it can be difficult to isolate “big” moments in the series even though he is a powerful, at times overwhelming presence. He is warm, generous and attractive, yes, but he’s so much more as an actor. Very often his technical skills – the moments you say “wow, look at that!” – are so finely tuned, so subtle it’s possible to miss them the first time around. He has explosive scenes, occasionally loquacious ones too, but for me the most electrifying moments can be as small as a hooded look or suppressed smile, or his choice to remain silent when another actor might make a lot of noise, letting energy build up around him until you can feel it. This is his particular genius. And here are five elements that make up this extraordinary character:

Persuasive: A speech to the troops in “The Plague” (written by William Douglas Lansford). This is a great example of how Starsky is able to imply emotion without giving any out; he does this with Roper later in the episode as well. He keeps his feelings in check while barking out orders to the assembled police officers about to look for an escaped hitman in the California desert. He appeals to their duty, not their passions or prejudices. He doesn’t look anyone in the eye. He asks for empathy, not sympathy (“good partners are hard to find”). He keeps it short, but there’s a cadence to his speech – an actor’s instinctive rhythm – that gives it a gritty majesty. A similar example of this is in “Lady Blue” in which he convinces Dobey to let him investigate an ex-girlfriend’s murder.

Intelligent: Reminding his partner who’s boss in “The Game” (written by Tim Maschler) Throughout this conversation, which begins while playing pool, continues in the car and ends in the police station’s locker room, Starsky shows us how genuine authority isn’t always obvious. Hutch is certainly the dominant one here, but watch how Starsky actually engineers – and controls – the entire situation. It starts with a calculatingly mild insult (“you couldn’t find a beer in a brewery”) and ends with an irrefutable declaration (“I know how, where, when you eat, walk, sleep, talk, who you know, what you know and how you know it, and there ain’t no hiding behind that”). Hutch of course takes the bait, hook, line and sinker. The magic of this scene is not in the script, as good as it is. It’s in the way Glaser uses the dialogue in a way that can only be called sly, managing to infuse his biting words with powerful affection.

Romantic: A master class in flirtation in “I Love You, Rosey Malone” (again written by Tim Maschler, who seems to have a special connection with the character). Narrowing down moments of Starsky’s breathtaking self-confidence with women is difficult (so, so many of them!), but the scene with Rosey in her gallery is noteworthy because Starsky starts out on the wrong foot and must overcome many obstacles in a short amount of time – and he does. In spades. He wins the trust of a nervous, rather high-strung young woman by performing the Starsky Special: calm to the point of remoteness, with a splash of humor. It’s terrific fun to watch but it takes repeated viewings to really appreciate Glaser’s acting choices, that unsmiling deliberation that would seem off-putting or intimidating in any other man, but which is, in fact, spellbinding. Any other actor, I’m sure, would try more, and succeed less.

Resolute: A friend in need in “The Fix” (written by Robert Holt). Words like resolute, loyal or trustworthy don’t quite measure up to the depth of friendship evidenced in the marvelous scene that begins twenty-nine minutes into the episode. It would be easy to be overshadowed by David Soul’s shocking performance, but Glaser is the necessary anchor here. Another actor might turn this into bathos, but Glaser is perfectly composed, unflinching. In a sense this is all body language. Starsky holds onto Hutch’s arms, hugs him and gently slaps him in a loving way that would be completely revolutionary to the average viewer of the time.

Creative: Scaring the daylights out of a suspect in “The Shootout” (written by David P. Harmon). The interrogation scene with Harry Sample is is basically a comedy routine, as Starsky veers hilariously – but perhaps not so hilariously – between frustration, rage, limpid-eyed promises of amnesty, and skin-prickling menace. How ironic this is perhaps the greatest variety of emotions we ever see from him at one time, and it’s all faked. In reality, he is not given to big displays. The more something gets to him, the less he is inclined to share it. But give him a role to play and he goes whole hog (as The Fan in “Long Walk” and “Moonshine”, the Instructor in “Tap Dancing”, the photographer in “Groupie”). It occurs to me now this may be a comment on the asininity of acting – a sentiment Mr. Glaser may endorse – but I’m going to leave it there.


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9 Responses to “Character Studies 22: Five Great Glaser Scenes”

  1. KERRY COPP Says:

    I am thrilled that you are still sharing your insightful commentary with us. You have done a spectacular job here in giving us PMG on a silver platter. The scenes you chose are the same ones that have always struck a chord with me too.

    I might have added ‘The lipstick moment in the Plague’ …where he never actually looked at the doctor while just quietly fixed on Hutch. There are probably more too – but you have brought us the standouts and described them beautifully.

    Now we can look forward to David Soul’s!


    • merltheearl Says:

      Thanks Kerry, your kind words mean more than you know. I was a little concerned the gush-o-meter might be set a little high, but I think I managed to keep it in check. That wonderful moment in “The Plague” you rightly mention also came to mind, and it proves my thesis that Mr. Glaser’s acting triumphs are difficult to articulate. Standing still and staring through the glass is as fine a moment as there ever was, but try explaining that to the non-initiated.

      • DRB Says:

        Great point about “standing still and staring,” but in thinking about Glaser’s portrayal, the strongest indication of what is going on with him is always revealed by his piercing blue eyes. Being able to express myriad emotions is a tribute to his craft. So many wannabees don’t understand; I can’t help but feel sorry for them when you can watch them and think, “Ok, the director said, ‘Look concerned here.'” Of course, there is a great deal more to Glaser’s acting than his expressive eyes; his body language is highly evocative, too. It’s interesting to note that Glaser’s facial expressions although always entertaining, appropriate, and effective are not his greatest strength; perhaps, this is due to his tendency to use “deadpan” while allowing the viewer to SEE what he is really thinking. This talent is most obvious in his exchanges with Soul; the two are the masters of communicating with the briefest of glances. One of the hallmarks of this series is that directors/writers, etc. stepped back and let their stars take the time to visually communicate with each other thus creating a far richer viewing experience than is normally available in any era of TV.

  2. Anachron Says:

    Thank you, Merle, for this lovely tribute to both Starsky and Paul Michael Glaser – you’ve captured their essences perfectly. I do think it must have been difficult at times for PMG to work with the character, as it was sometimes broadly written, and to give Starsky depth and soul, but he did it, and well. And, as you said, frequently with quiet, understated choices. I have found him to be a very physical actor, but he tempers that physicality with great restraint, and I am impressed by his ability to convey much in just a word or two, or with none at all – as in your example from “The Fix.” My favorite recent examples: in the scene you cite from “Lady Blue” in your entry “Great Soul Scenes” in which Hutch is on his loss-of-identity rant, he and Starsky contest who will take the call from the dispatcher. In the face of Hutch’s increasingly aggressive crabbiness, Starsky concedes with a simple “okay.” David Soul’s performance is brilliant, but I love PMG’s delivery of that one word for everything it captures. Also, I watched “Deckwatch” not long ago, and thought he did a great job at the end of the episode where he is waiting in the hall – no words, and not even much movement, yet he manages to convey the tension, concentration, and adrenaline of the moment.

    I’ve read that David Soul originally wanted to play Starsky, but was told no. I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of him (or anyone but PMG) in that role. I wonder, if he had gotten his wish, whether we’d still be discussing the show thirty-five years later. . .

    Thanks again, Merle! Love your work!

    • merltheearl Says:

      Anachron, reading your comment makes me realize I missed out on a great opportunity to say how the original expectations of Starsky’s character were met and then rejected, in a way, by Mr. Glaser. You’re right, it must have been difficult for him to reconcile his classical training and intelligence with the character as he is on paper. Starsky could so easily be a comic foil, or, as Hutch so nicely puts it, “the not-too-inconsiderable brawn of this duo”. It’s only through these quiet but profoundly oppositional choices he makes – and I so love your example, the hilarious “okay” over the radio argument – that he is able to give this character substantiality and enduring appeal. And also probably aided in the preservation of Mr. Glaser’s sanity.

  3. Nadine Says:

    Hi Merle
    One of my favorites was when in Black & Blue with Mrs Green. What tender moments when Starsky both hugs/holds and is held/hugged by her. He almost didn’t need to say anything – just the looks in both of their eyes was sufficient.

    It seemed at times that the writers almost wanted Starsky to be the “dumb” one in the partnership so that Hutch could point out his flaws, but PMG handled his role gracefully at all times.

    Here’s hoping you have many more avenues to explore with the show, characters, etc – this is one of the first websites I come to daily for my S&H fix.


    • merltheearl Says:

      Nadine, that is indeed a wonderful scene, and again you could call it “small” – I don’t know if there’s an actor around who has given so much with so little! Of course it helps that he is so photogenic.

  4. provencepuss Says:

    I love your analysis but I don’t agree about the meatiness of the role. DS said himself that he wanted to play Starsky because Hutch was ‘white bread’. Starsky was a very complex character – how did that street kid get to wear I-Ching coins round his neck and know about that statuette in Rosey Malone’s gallery? for example. PMG made Starsky beleivable (as did DS make Hutch so) but bevause Starsky was light years away from his own background I thought from the start that this was a superb portrayal – he convinced people that he was Starsky to the point that I remember people walking out of Phobia because the character was so low key and not (as Joe Naar – or was it William Blinn?) said in the DVD extras as ‘in your face’ as Starsky

    Two excellent actors with two very different approaches made this series what it was. but for me the fact that PMG had his talent ‘trained’ shows through.

    One of my favorite scenes – when Starsky showed all his vulnerability – was when Terri died….and with hindsight – what a terrible ‘dress rehearsal for real life’ that turned out to be for PMG

    • merltheearl Says:

      Thank you for your comments. And I love reasoned, impassioned disagreements because this is what this blog is all about. One of the quirks of my approach to the series is I do not, and never have, use secondary research materials. I have deliberately stayed away from interviews and other commentary for many complex and not altogether logical reasons. This is all my opinion, and only that.

      I hope I was clear that Mr. Glaser is an incredible actor and Starsky is a complex individual. From your comments it seems you don’t buy that entirely.

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