Obituary: Jack Lord
Friday 23 January 1998
The actor Jack Lord will forever be associated with the role he played for 12 straight years on television, Steve McGarrett, head of a fictitious Hawaiian State Police Force, in Hawaii Five-O, one of television's most successful series, still being shown all over the world.
Though he had been an actor on stage, screen and television for several years, stardom had eluded him and would probably have continued to do so. As an actor on the big screen, the intense, taciturn Lord excelled in villainous roles but as a hero was somewhat bland - in Dr No (1962) he had a prominent role as Felix Leighter, the CIA man who helps Bond discover the identity of the scoundrel who is plotting to take over the world, but his character paled beside that of Sean Connery as Bond. Hawaii Five-O made Lord a household name (and a millionaire). At its peak, the series was seen in 80 countries with an audience estimated at more than 300 million.
Born John Joseph Patrick Ryan in Brooklyn, New York, in 1920, he was the son of a steamship executive and during high school summers would work as a seaman. He studied at New York University on a football scholarship and majored in art - his paintings are hung in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other galleries. "I'd rather paint than eat," he once said. "I'm using acting as a way of getting my name before the public. Then my pictures will have a name value." In fact the Metropolitan purchased a lithograph when Lord was plain J.J. Ryan and only 18 years old.
He was running an art school in Greenwich Village when he decided to take up acting, and for three years he studied at the Neighbourhood Playhouse while working days as a car salesman. He also studied at the Actors' Studio along with Marlon Brando and Paul Newman, and was given roles in two Broadway plays, The Travelling Lady (1953, for which he won a Theatre World Award) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1954), but in 1955 he went to Hollywood to concentrate on film and television.
He had made his screen debut (billed as John Ryan) in R.G. Springsteen's The Red Menace (1949), an anti- Communist propaganda thriller that now seems risible and has achieved enough cult status to be issued on laser disc. Lord's movie career never quite took off - he tested for the leading role of a naive cowboy in Bus Stop (1956) and was told by director Joshua Logan, "You can't play a virgin, your face looks lived in" - but he had a good year in 1958 with roles in two impressive films directed by Anthony Mann.
In God's Little Acre, adapted from Erskine Caldwell's racy bestseller about Georgia farmers in the Depression, a quirky tale resembling Tennessee Williams crossed with Al Capp, Lord was one of Robert Ryan's sons, Buck, violently jealous of his wife's attraction to her brother-in-law (Aldo Ray). In Man of the West, he was a particularly sadistic henchman of outlaw Lee J. Cobb, suspicious (rightly) of the hero Gary Coop-er's motives in rejoining the gang, and in one powerful scene holding a knife to Cooper's throat and forcing Julie London, as a saloon singer, to strip.
Television, though, was offering Lord more consistently rewarding work, in such series as The Untouchables, Route 66 and Bonanza, and in 1962 he was given a western series, Stoney Burke, though it ran for only one season. "A star like Jack is money in the bank," said one television producer. "He's always on time, no bags under his eyes and he always knows his lines." After many guest roles in such series as The Man from UNCLE, Have Gun Will Travel, The Fugitive and Ironside, Lord was offered the lead in Hawaii Five-O in 1968.
The show initially met local opposition because of its portrayal of crime in the state, but that melted when its depiction of Hawaii's beauty proved a potent tourist attraction. As the gruff chief who ended each episode capturing the criminals and invariably telling his sidekick (James McArthur), "Book 'em, Danno", Lord became a top television star. The show ran for 12 years (284 episodes), ending in 1980 with McGarrett finally capturing his long- standing enemy, the crime boss Wo Fat.
Lord had made his home in Hawaii, producing the show and sometimes directing it. When the series finished, he and his wife remained in Hawaii, living in a beachfront condominium in Kahala, and Lord returned to his first love, painting.
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