By the time the final episode aired on April 4, 1980, Hawaii Five-O was the longest continuously running police drama in the history of television. The show premiered in September of 1968 and retained loyal viewers for most of its 278 episodes. Producer Leonard Freeman, the main creative force behind the show, brought together the elements that made the show a hit: a well chosen cast that went virtually unchanged for ten years, dynamic music, and the lush scenery of Hawaii.
The main appeal of the show was the main character, the tough, no-nonsense Steve McGarrett, who was the head of the Five-O. McGarrett's elite special investigating unit dealt with crimes that were too big for conventional police forces, and he answered only to "the Governor and God." Freeman's original title for the series was The Man, and every criminal in the Aloha State knew that McGarrett was the man. And when the wrong element came to the Hawaiian shores from elsewhere, McGarrett was quick to let them know "you're on my rock now." In the pilot, recurring nemesis Wo Fat described McGarrett as "the proverbial character you would not want to meet in a dark alley."
Jack Lord played the role of McGarrett with intensity. Lord was a driven perfectionist and dedicated himself to the show. Lord's McGarrett was a larger-than-life character who struck fear into the hearts of the islands' criminal element and inspired fierce loyalty from the men and women he commanded. After Freeman's death in 1974, Lord became the guiding force behind the show.
McGarrett's right-hand man was Danny "Danno" Williams, played by James MacArthur. In the pilot, the part of Danno had been played by Tim O'Kelly, but when he did not get a favorable rating from a test audience in New York Freeman replaced him with MacArthur before the regular series began filming. MacArthur proved to be a crucial ingredient in the successful chemistry of the show. The best remembered and most often repeated line from Hawaii Five-O was McGarrett's clipped command of "Book 'em Danno." For eleven seasons, Danny Williams was a loyal and stolid sidekick to McGarrett. MacArthur tired of the role and left the show at the end of the 1978-79 season. The successful formula was lost, and the series could only limp along for one additional year.
While the network required that the two lead characters be played by haoles (Caucasians from the mainland), the other members of the Five-O team were played by local actors. Kam Fong Chun (credited as Kam Fong), who had served on the Honolulu Police Department for eighteen years before turning to acting, played Chin Ho Kelly for ten seasons. For the first five years of the series, local musician and stand-up comic Gilbert "Zoulou" Kauhi (credited as Zulu) played Kono Kalakaua. After Zulu's departure two new characters were introduced: Ben Kokua, played by Al Harrington, and Duke Lukela, played by Herman Wedemeyer.
In addition to dealing justice to murderers and mobsters, Hawaii Five-O was occasionally called on to save the free world from Communism. McGarrett fought his own cold war against red Chinese spy Wo Fat, played by Khigh Dhiegh. Wo Fat matched wits with McGarrett in the series pilot, "Cocoon," and in ten episodes of the series. In the final episode of the series, titled "Woe to Wo Fat," their conflict came to a resolution when McGarrett personally locked Wo Fat behind bars.
Perhaps the most memorable element of Hawaii Five-O was Morton Stevens's driving theme music. Stevens won Emmys for his scores to the episodes "Hookman" and "A Thousand Pardons, You're Dead."
The cast played out their dramas in the midst of the photogenic scenery of the Hawaiian Islands. Producer Freeman insisted that the series be filmed entirely on location in Hawaii. Some members of the Hawaiian tourism industry initially were concerned that the weekly portrayals of murder and corruption would make the islands seem too dangerous. However, the small screen visions of palm trees and blue skies enticed many viewers to take a firsthand look. As Hawaii Five-O became a hit, tourism soared.
Rhodes, Karen. Booking "Hawaii Five-O": An Episode Guide and Critical History of the 1968-1980 Television Detective Series. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland & Company, 1997.