USA / NBC / 1982 – 1987
Pierce Brosnan as Remington Steele
Stephanie Zimbalist as Laura Holt
Doris Roberts as Mildred Krebs
James Read as Murphy Michaels (First Season)
Janet DeMay as Bernice Fox (First Season)
Jack Scalia as Tony Roselli (Fifth Season)
The gimmick was going to be that Remington Steele didn’t exist. Really.
As Remington Steele was originally conceived, Laura Holt’s invention of a mythical employer in order to attract business to her agency (she came up with his name by combining the names of an electric razor and the Pittsburgh Steelers NFL team) was the whole concept. No Pierce Brosnan. No male lead at all.
But NBC objected (who said network hotshots are always wrong?) and a potentially good show became a Very Good Show when creators Michael Gleason and Robert Butler took that monkey wrench tossed into their plans and used it to retool the show in absolutely marvelous ways.
Let’s face it, the idea of having Stephanie Zimbalist’s stylish and attractive Laura Holt trying to explain away her superior’s absence to every new client certainly had possibilities. But that approach was a one-trick pony which would have inevitably paled. Add Brosnan’s mysterious con man into the mix, however, and the possibilities expanded exponentially.
There was the mystery of who this guy really was (we were to learn that even he didn’t know), there was the always amusing exercise of watching “Steele” try to stay one struggling step ahead of the game (for mystery fans, the subtext of the underlying similarity between the private eye and the con man was a particular delight) and there was the sexual tension between the two lead characters (a typical TV relationship handled here probably as well as it ever was).
The series opened with “License to Steele” and with Laura’s Remington Steele Investigations caught between a rock and a hard place. The client who hired the agency to protect a shipment of rare jewels insisted that Steele himself oversee the operation. Brosnan’s character, who was hanging around looking to make a buck, stepped into the role (against Laura’s wishes) and we were off and running.
Remington Steele Investigations had two employees during the first season: an associate detective, Murphy Michaels (James Read), and a secretary, Bernice Fox (Janet DeMay). Most of the stories were solid, well-plotted TV fare, with the Steele subplot important but not predominant.
But there were hints of things to come. We would quickly learn that, for a guy with no past, Remington Steele had a lot of old acquaintances. In the fifth episode, “Thou Shalt Not Steele,” former girlfriend Felicia (Cassandra Harris) wanted Brosnan to steal a cursed painting for her. And in the next to last episode of the first season, “Sting of Steele” (you may have noticed that all episode titles feature some play on the title character’s name), Daniel Chalmers, Steele’s con man mentor, turned up. In an inside joke of sorts, Chalmers (who came back several times over the show’s run) was played by Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., Stephanie’s father. (Beverly Garland played Laura’s mother in both the above episodes, then was never seen again.)
A special two-hour episode, “Steele Away With Me,” opened season two and set the core cast for the rest of the show’s run. Murphy and Bernice were gone and IRS agent Mildred Krebs (Doris Roberts), who was hot on Steele’s tail because he’d never filed a tax return (heck, he’d didn’t exist) decided to cross over from the Dark Side and go to work for the agency. The main plot had to do with Steele and Laura in Mexico and a dead man with a diamond-stuffed fish. Don’t ask.
The “Who is Remington Steele?” question remained a subplot throughout the second and third seasons, now and again emerging to the forefront. Examples? Well, there was the time it appeared that Steele was in fact a vicious murderer (“Steele Frame”), or the time he foolishly called attention to himself by being named one of LA’s most eligible bachelors (“Steele Eligible”). Then, of course, somebody out his past, usually an ex-girlfriend, was always showing up, followed by trouble (“Woman of Steele”).
Steele and Laura even made periodic attempts to see if the chemistry between them was for real. “Steele At It,” which opened season three, found them on the French Riviera, but he was more interested in a valuable dagger than romance. Daniel Chalmers returned to talk Steele into posing as a long-long British heir (“Blue-Blooded Steele”), and Steele even managed to get amnesia (“Steele Your Heart Away”), not an easy trick for someone whose past was a blank to begin with. Mildred got to take center stage a few times each season as well (in “Steele in the Family,” season four, her nephew gets into trouble by helping a friend hide a dead body).
But things were coming to a head. Season three closed with “Steele of Approval,” in which Steele and Laura quarreled about the future of the agency (his lack of a past threatened the license) and he disappeared.
The fourth (and last full) season became more and more about the central characters. It opened with a two-parter, “Steele Searching,” picking up from the season three cliffhanger. The storyline had Steele in London, where Chalmers and Felicia (remember them?) wanted him to assassinate the Earl of Claridge. Trouble was, evidence indicated the Earl might be his father. No sooner did Steele get out of that mess and back into the agency than the star-crossed duo had to confront Laura’s embarrassing appearance in (doctored) porno photos (“Steele Blushing”). Steele was subsequently hit with another bit of amnesia, awakening in a hotel room with no memory of the past two days to learn that he had apparently gambled away the agency (“Forged Steele”). And in “Beg, Borrow or Steele,” the two returned from a business trip to discover that they were reportedly dead and that Mildred had killed them. Bummer.
The season (and, supposedly, the series) ended with “Bonds of Steele,” in which Laura married Steele rather than see him deported. Brosnan was apparently happily off to fulfill his ambition of playing James Bond in the movies, but, to his dismay, NBC decided all the Bond publicity warranted enforcing a contract provision and bringing the show back for an abortive fifth season.
It was hardly worth the trouble. Year five consisted of only a pair of two-hour movies and a third movie shown in two parts. The basic story of the year was that Immigration agent Tony Roselli (Jack Scalia) tried to remove Steele from the picture because he wanted Laura for himself. Neatly, just about everything got resolved in the two-hour series finale, “Steeled With a Kiss.” Steele inherited a castle in Ireland. Chalmers revealed an important secret about the past and conveniently died thereafter. And the frustrated couple finally got to consummate their marriage.
OK, the rapid and somewhat forced resolution wasn’t really very satisfying. Still, Brosnan eventually did get to play Bond in the 1995 hit, Golden Eye; Zimbalist, an accomplished actress, was free to return to the more serious pursuits she preferred, and devoted fans got to see how “will they or won’t they?” turned out.
It’s difficult to argue that it wasn’t, all in all, a happy ending.