The US cop show Starsky & Hutch is fondly remembered for its high-speed car chases and its gritty storylines as well as the good looks and banter between its stars Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul. However, the Seventies TV series also proved culturally significant because of the inspired casting of two African-American actors: Antonio Fargas as Huggy Bear, the streetwise informer who provided much of the comedy, and Bernie Hamilton, as Capt Harold Dobey, the no-nonsense boss attempting to rein in the main characters.
Hamilton was not the original choice to play the firm-but-fair police captain; the gravel-voiced actor Richard Ward had portrayed Dobey in the pilot episode. However, the producers, Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg, had seen Hamilton excel in similar parts, including an unsold pilot for a black detective series called Stone in which he played Robert Hooks's sidekick. The pair didn't hesitate to make the switch when filming on the series proper began.
Hamilton appeared in 68 of the 72 episodes of Starsky & Hutch, spread over four seasons between 1975 and 1979. African-American police chiefs are now a staple both on television and in films, thanks in no small way to Hamilton's sterling performance as the reliable, steady presence in the eye of the storm created by the fast-moving David Starsky and Kenneth "Hutch" Hutchinson.
Born on the east side of Los Angeles in 1928, Bernie Hamilton ran away from home in his teens but managed to attend Oakland Technical High School while living in a friend's garage. He was interested in sports and acting and appropriately made his film début in 1950 as a baseball player in the biopic The Jackie Robinson Story, about the African-American sportsman who broke the baseball colour bar, with Robinson himself in the title role. Throughout the Fifties and the Sixties, Hamilton was a regular on television, including roles in the Tarzan series and The Virginian, and in films, appearing in The Devil at 4 O'Clock (1961) and The Swimmer (1968). Gradually, his parts became more substantial.
He impressed as a jazz musician on the run from a lynch mob in The Young One, a picture directed by Luis Buñuel, which won a special mention at the Cannes Film Festival in 1960. Four years later, he appeared with Barbara Barrie in One Potato, Two Potato, a groundbreaking film about an inter-racial marriage, at a time when such a union was still illegal in more than a dozen US states. Hamilton then played a detective lieutenant in The Organization (1971), the third of the crime dramas starring Sydney Poitier as Detective Lieutenant Virgil Tibbs, and he was in the blaxploitation movies Hammer (1972), featuring the football-player-turned-action-star Fred Williamson, Scream Blacula Scream (1973), with William Marshall and Pam Grier, and Bucktown (1975), with Williamson and Grier.
The authority that Hamilton brought to the role of Capt Dobey reflected his own outlook as a self-made African-American. If something in a script didn't sound right to him, he didn't hesitate to ask real police officers for advice. He also managed to remain good-natured on set, even when, on one occasion, he was shoved into a swimming pool and emerged dripping wet with his watch ruined.
While Hamilton had managed to avoid typecasting prior to Starsky & Hutch, the few TV appearances he made subsequently – in episodes of The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo, Battlestar Galactica and The Love Boat – were mostly of the "police-chief" variety. He gave up acting and embraced a musical career, producing r'n'b and gospel records for his own Chocolate Snowman label, and he even made an album entitled Capt Dobey Sings the Blues. In the Eighties, Hamilton created a children's doll called the Chocolate Snowman.
Fred Williamson, who played Capt Dobey in the 2004 film version of Starsky & Hutch (starring Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson), said that Hamilton was "an extraordinary actor. He was very versatile and never really got the recognition he deserved for his work."
Bernard Hamilton, actor and singer: born Los Angeles 12 June 1928; married (one son, one daughter); died Los Angeles 30 December 2008.