‘Matt Houston’ (Season 1): Fun, breezy entry in the 80s P.I. craze

“Better cock your pistols.”

By Paul Mavis

Better-looking than Burt. Funnier than Tom. A few years back, Visual Entertainment Inc. (VEI) further expanded the television world of that genius TV producer Aaron Spelling by releasing Matt Houston: The First Season, a six-disc, 23-episode collection of the fondly-remembered ABC detective/action series’ premiere 1982-1983 season as part of their Complete Collection DVD set. Ridiculously handsome, macho lead actor Lee Horsley still makes the ladies light-headed (ask my annoying wife: “Uh…are you going to watch Matt Houston again tonight? You know…to review? Could you? I mean, I don’t care…but, um…are you?”), as he displays an engaging knack for light romantic comedy and even slapstick. Executive producer Spelling and frequent collaborator and producer Lawrence Gordon do what they do best here, too: pour on the gloss and girls while never letting the mysteries get in the way of the action and laughs (and they sure as shootin’ don’t feature no morals, no civics lessons, and no goddamn P.C. bullsh*t). Quintessential 80s escapism, and, as I’ve written many times before, thank god for that.

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A little background on Matt Houston. Texas millionaire oil magnate and former college football star Matlock “Matt” Houston (Lee Horsley), the son of an even richer oil baron, now operates out of Los Angeles after a falling out with his father. Living high atop his personal skyscraper in Hell-A, Matt pilots his own helicopter back and forth from his city penthouse to his huge ranch spread out in the Valley. Besieged by his beautiful female staff for decisions on his endless business ventures, the fabulously wealthy Houston would much rather shoe a horse, or rustle up a mess of chili―or solve a baffling crime―than worry about what company he bought that day.

Because you see, Matt Houston is an amateur detective, too―and a damn good one―who utilizes his vast fortune and endless connections to solve cases, for which he’s never paid (because who needs a buck with that bank account?). Assisting Matt in every way (well…maybe not every way), is Harvard-educated lawyer C.J. Parsons (Pamela Hensley), a beautiful right-hand who seems to be as much of a jack-of-all-trades as her employer, whether her duties include piloting Matt’s helicopter, or programming Matt’s NSA-quality penthouse computer called “Baby.”

Lieutenant Vince Novelli (John Aprea) of the LAPD offers tactical support and official screening for his friend Matt, along with plenty of spaghetti dinners courtesy of Vince’s mother, Mama Novelli (Penny Santon), who runs the best Italian restaurant in the City of Angels. Matt’s peripatetic, terminally anxious accountant Murray Chase (George Wyner) is around to either sell Matt on a new business venture, or hound him to sign off on a new business venture, while good ‘ol boys Bo and Lamar (Dennis Fimple and Paul Brinegar) offer a touch of Texas down-home humor as Matt’s ranch hands.

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In 1982, Burt Reynolds was just finishing out his unprecedented five-year straight run as the world’s most popular movie star, while on TV, CBS’s Magnum, P.I., starring attractive, funny hunk Tom Selleck, had quickly climbed to fourth place in the year-end Nielsen ratings. Who, then, could blame brilliant TV mogul Aaron Spelling for trying to get in on a little of that mustachioed gravy? His previous mid-level performing detective series, Vega$, had been canceled the year before (no cookie duster for Robert Urich, so out you go!), so why not plug in a new macho stud of the Selleck/Reynolds school, into the tried-and-true Spelling formula of glitz, glamour, girls, and a vast array of has-been “names” as weekly guest stars?

Owing not a little bit to the first season of the classic sixties actioner, Burke’s Law, which featured a suave ladykiller millionaire who also just happened to be a police detective (a series which also featured a ton of big-name special guest stars), Matt Houston traded in on several themes and formats that were attractive to TV audiences in the early 80s, from the renewed interest in cowboys and Western twangs (thank you, Urban Cowboy and horse-riding, brush-cutting President Ronald Reagan), to cartoonish, “high concept” actioners (next year’s hit The A-Team would epitomize this trend), to the rediscovered vicarious thrills of the grossly rich (Dallas, as well as pop culture’s re-embracing of capitalism). And while this mélange didn’t exactly spell smasheroo ratings (Matt Houston never cracked the Nielsen Top Thirty), it was well-enough received to score a not-bad three-year run for Spelling and company.

I often caught Matt Houston when I was in high school, but thinking back on it prior to watching this DVD (I’m sure I haven’t seen it since its original run), I couldn’t remember much about it except Horsley’s moustache and lots of car crashes. For a detective series, it doesn’t skimp on the large-scale action gags, a few of them comparable to big-screen actioners of that time period. Chases by dune buggy, plane, helicopter, jeeps and even a hospital gurney (a la The Disorderly Orderly and Mother, Jugs & Speed) routinely show up, while various explosions and fistfights are commonplace.

None of that was in any way new or original in 1982, but today, I must say that I did find Matt Houston‘s airy, throw-away manner quite refreshing from the either too-serious or too-square genre offerings from that time period. The pilot, directed by vet Richard Lang, probably hits the high point of that insouciant attitude. There’s a breezy feel to the pilot and early episodes that owes a lot to the clever writing that never takes itself too seriously, as well as to the seemingly endless supply of charisma from Lee Horsley. I can’t remember now if there was ever a push to make Horsley a “big name,” and I do know that he’s had a steady, successful career, in various fields, since Matt Houston. But it does seem a shame that he couldn’t use the series as a stepping stone to a more prominent presence on the big screen…because he’s a charmer.

The producers put him front and center in virtually every scene, and he single-handedly carries the show (the supporting cast is excellent, but clearly he’s the focus). Spelling and the rest of the producers and writers on the show make no bones about highlighting Horsley’s obvious good looks and he-man appeal; after all, the title credits open on a huge close-up of his crotch, for christ’s sake (um…thanks for letting us know which way he “dresses”). But good-looking cowboys were (and are) a dime a dozen in Hollywood, and you need a little bit more than adorable dimples (my wife’s contribution here) and a bodacious ‘stache to anchor a weekly series.

Luckily, Horsley does more than just physically fit the bill as a pretty Texas cowboy millionaire. He’s surprisingly quick and nimble with his lines and shows an innate, natural sense of comedic timing that’s pleasantly on the mark (Selleck, a better dramatic than comedic actor, could sometimes feel forced in Magnum, particularly with that high, girly laugh that sounded lifted from Reynolds). Horsley makes the most of that slow, born-in Texas drawl, and he has a way with his funny double takes that feels entirely natural. Had Horsley been around during the old studio system days, he could have been a natural for light romantic/comedy/action roles in the Clark Gable/Joel McCrea mold.

Unfortunately, as entertaining as Horsley is, he’s not enough when some discreet retooling seems to flatten the series out towards the end of this season (and let’s face it: nobody did anybody any favors by having Matt Houston have a close encounter of the third kind. Even for Spelling, that’s pushing it). Early on, there’s quite a bit of fun to be had contrasting Houston’s Western ways with disbelieving city slickers who mistake that drawl for bumpkinness. But as the series goes along, they seem to drop more and more references to Houston’s ranch, and his cowboy interests, while refocusing him as an international man of action (more terrorists, less horse riding). And with that change, the tone becomes a little more by-the-numbers. After all, the whole appeal of the show should be: ridiculously rich cowboy who sleuths strictly as a hobby. Losing the cowboy angle cuts into that high concept, and introducing more and more stories that focus not on Houston as a dilettante detective but Houston as a terrorist/serial killer catcher, further erodes the puckish, rascally quality the series first put forth.

Still…even with the unnecessary tweaks to the format, it’s impossible not to be delighted once again with the “Spelling touch” of silly plots, gorgeous girls and the most inexplicable pairing-ups of stars on the way down, stars who were never stars, and ghostly names from the past you thought were long dead. Where else but in a Spelling production will you find Troy Donahue and David Cassidy in the same scene (together at last!)? Or Vic Tayback, Britt Eckland, and Mr. Blackwell (!) working as business partners in a fashion house? Or Sonny Bono as the karate- chopping bodyguard of Zsa Zsa Gabor (heaven)? Or Jimmy Baio as a Commie punk waiter? Or Stella Stevens (as a…Formula 1 racer!) and Barbara Rush having a cat fight? Or Love Boat‘s Gopher, Fred Grandy, as a serial killer of Las Vegas showgirls (knew it…)? Or for that matter, Oscar-winner George Chakiris doing a hilarious pre-Showgirls routine as a vicious Las Vegas chorus line director? Or how about Natalie Schafer (Lovey!) getting blown sky-high at a carnival? Or my favorite: Chuck Connors as a serial killer who looks for “the soul of man” inside women (Houston shoots him right by the rollercoaster that killed Timothy Bottoms in, what else, Rollercoaster)?

Also showing up for all the silliness on Matt Houston this first season: Barbara Carrera, Jill St. John, Art Metrano, Dale Robertson, Cesare Danova (twice), Bradford Dillman, Herb Edelman, Murray Hamilton, Heather Locklear, Stuart Whitman, Cristina Ferrare, Carol Lawrence, John Beck, Scott Brady, Dick Butkus, Phyllis Davis, Rockne Tarkington, Forrest Tucker, Janet Leigh, Kiel Martin, Caesar Romero, William Smith, Jill Whelan, Army Archard, Dabbs Greer, Carmen Zapata, Sid Caesar, James Coco, David Hedison, Hope Lange, Misty Rowe, Lloyd Bochner, Gary Frank, Don Gordon, Dorothy Malone, Michelle Phillips, Lori Laughlin, Gerard Prendergast, Tina Louise, Hugh O’Brian, Richard Romanus, Norman Fell, Monte Markham, Jessica Walter, Beverly Garland, Gayle Hunnicutt, Gary Lockwood, Cameron Mitchell, Jeanette Nolan, Susan Tolsky, William Windom, Dennis Cole, Dorian Harewood, Richard Jaeckel, Diane McBain, Stan Shaw, George Takei, Berlinda Tolbert, Barbi Benton, Pat Crowley, Gary Grimes, Werner Klemperer, Janis Paige, Shelley Berman, Alan Hale, Jr., Mary Ann Mobley, Dick Sargent, Kevin Brophy, Brett Halsey, Edward Mulhare, Dennis Fimple, Ed Nelson, Raymond St. Jacques, Don Stroud, Robert Alda, Dane Clark, Shelley Fabares, David Groh, Alex Henteloff, Dawn Wells, Ernest Borgnine, Larry Harmon, Rebecca Holden, Anne Jeffreys, Chuck McCann, Andrew Robinson, Ann Turkel, Jayne Meadows, Michael Constantine, Don DeFore, Bo Hopkins, Ben Murphy, Ron Palillo, Robert Goulet, Fred Grandy, James Luisi, Renee Taylor, Bruce M. Fischer, Ed Grover, Michael Halsey, Lenore Kasdorf, Lynne Marta, Tim O’Connor, Tori Spelling (of course), Ron Ely, Peter Isacksen, Lynn Holly Johnson, Gerald S. O’Loughlin, Norman Alden, Richard Anderson, Joseph Campanella, Denny Miller, Terry Moore, Markie Post, Martin Landau, Mark Shera, Elyssa Davalos, and Lee Patterson. Whew!

Unfortunately, such illustrious company didn’t exactly translate into boffo ratings this first season out (or for any season of Matt Houston, for that matter). Stuck on a problematic night (Sunday), at an impossible hour (8:00pm), ABC’s Matt Houston didn’t stand a chance against CBS’s indomitable line-up, with viewers queuing up at the start of the evening with 60 Minutes at 7:00pm Eastern (the number one-rated show for the year), and then kept right on going, with Matt Houston‘s direct competition, the final year of the retitled All in the Family (Archie Bunker’s Place) still snagging an entirely respectable 23nd for the year, and first time/last time contender, Gloria (unlikely spin-off of said All in the Family), nailing its timeslot with an incomprehensible 18th for the year (and they canceled it with that rating?). The rest of the CBS line-up proved too popular a pull, with The Jeffersons (12th), One Day at a Time (16th), and Trapper John, M.D. (19th), making it difficult for the other networks to get a foothold (nobody was watching Matt Houston‘s other direct competition over on NBC, “CHiPs”, in its final season). A day change, plus a significant format change, wouldn’t prove any more successful for Matt Houston‘s sophomore season….

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.

Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.

2 thoughts on “‘Matt Houston’ (Season 1): Fun, breezy entry in the 80s P.I. craze”

  1. Good show and review of course! Horsley was Archie Goodwin on NBC’s 1981 short-lived series called Nero Wolfe with William Conrad. He was excellent in that role and no wonder someone saw he had potential to head his own series.

    Like

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