Book Review: "Jack Lord: An Acting Life" Provides Objective Look at a TV Icon.
Copyright 2019 by Michael W. Rickard
Before his rise to superstardom portraying Detective Steve McGarrett on the long-running police drama Hawaii Five-O, Jack Lord was already a dedicated and versatile actor on Broadway, in film and on television. His range of roles included a Virginia gentleman planter in Colonial Williamsburg (The Story of a Patriot), CIA agent Felix Leiter in the first James Bond movie (Dr. No) and the title character in the cult classic rodeo TV series Stoney Burke. Lord's career culminated in twelve seasons on Hawaii Five-O, where his creative control of the series left an indelible mark on every aspect of its production. This book, the first to draw on Lord's massive personal archive, gives a behind-the-scenes look into the life and work of a TV legend. -Promotional Blurb
Recently I had the pleasure of obtaining a review copy of the new book, Jack Lord: An Acting Life. The book couldn’t have come at a better time as 2018 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the premiere of Hawaii Five-O, the police procedural that made Jack Lord into a household name. Lord’s role as police detective Steve McGarrett would last twelve seasons, a record at the time and the role he is best known for. However, as Lynch’s book makes clear, the road to the top was long and arduous.
Born John Joseph Patrick Ryan, Jack Lord’s parents instilled a fierce work ethic into him that helped him succeed in life at whatever he applied himself. Lord wanted to be an actor, but he would struggle for decades until he became a bonafide television star. Lord learned from his mistakes and his successes, and lived according to his principles. Rare was the moment when he settled for anything less than what he thought would be the best for him and his wife. This led to lasting success always eluding him, with Lord’s acting career seeming to mirror that of Sisyphus. Ultimately, his persistence paid off and he achieved superstardom, becoming a television fixture during the late 1960’s and 1970’s as the star of the police drama, Hawaii Five-O
I’ve been a fan of Hawaii Five-O ever since coming across the series on Netflix. It was a terrific police procedural with a number of excellent guest stars and of course, the on location filming the show began famous for. Jack Lord is a fascinating person but sadly, there haven’t been any good biographies of one of Hollywood’s most fascinating actors. Thankfully, that has changed thanks to Sylvia D. Lynch and her meticulous research into the life and acting career of Jack Lord.
Lynch sets the book’s structure from the beginning, letting readers know this is a biography of Jack Lord’s (for purposes of this review, I am using his stage name) entire life, not an overview of Hawaii Five-O (she refers her readers to several good sources for this, including the book Booking Hawaii Five-O). This is refreshing as some biographies gloss over a person’s life to concentrate on particular area, but don’t let the reader know this until they’ve opened the book up.
Lynch sets the pace well and her academic background is evident from the start: Although this is not a biography in the traditional sense, it is still very much about Jack Lord the man. His deliberate and methodical preparation as an actor, his insistence that he maintain privacy in a business that demands a public persona, and his tenacious commitment to maintain control over his work substantiate the fact that it is his work that truly defines him. That is the focus of this study.” (2) Like any good scholar, she sets up her thesis and embarks on supporting it with documented evidence. This continues until the book’s end, making it an outstanding book.
“This is not a biography in the traditional sense” is true in that it is not your typical fluff Hollywood piece. This is a meticulously researched book that explores Lord’s life and his long, difficult road to success. Just check the footnotes for each chapter and you’ll realize Lynch has investigated her subject thoroughly including her access to a wealth of archives concerning Jack Lord’s life and career. However, while Lynch researched this book using her skills as a scholar, the book is no dry academic piece. It is an exhaustive, but equally engaging account of Lord’s fascinating life, a long struggle to reach stardom on his own terms.
While it’s clear that the author is a Jack Lord fan, the book is an objective work which highlights both his strengths and weaknesses. As Lynch unravels Lord’s life, you realize what a complex man he was and the tireless resolve he demonstrated through decades of work. All but the most cynical of readers will find themselves admiring his drive. Lord was dedicated to succeeding in Hollywood, but on his terms. He wasn’t going to be typecast as the heavy he played so easily, and although TV and film stars’ private lives were typically fodder for the press, Lord guarded his privacy fiercely, something which drew the ire of some journalists who felt slighted at the idea of an actor wanting a modicum of privacy. As Lynch explains, Lord was burnt by journalists, who misquoted and even manufactured quotes, further estranging Lord from the fourth estate.
Jack Lord also knew what he wanted from a starring vehicle—control and partial ownership. Jack Lord’s commitment to his goals led to him losing some roles, but that wasn’t the case in every instance. Sadly, the lack of biographies on Lord and the recycling of what little news on him exists (some of it unreliable) has led to fables concerning his career. For example, his impressive supporting role as CIA agent Felix Leiter in the first James Bond film adaptation, Dr. No. Lord received favorable press for the highly successful film which launched Sean Connery’s career, and it seemed as if Lord’s quest for Hollywood stardom had finally been fulfilled. Lord was reportedly signed to a two-picture deal but he did not appear in the sequel, Goldfinger. Conventional wisdom has it that Lord’s demanded equal billing with Sean Connery as well as an increased salary, which led to him being replaced. However, Lynch notes that several sources suggest Lord was too suave and sophisticated and there was some concern he might overshadow Connery.
However, Lord also developed a business acumen that served him well in his lean years. Undoubtedly the biggest example was his starring role in the rodeo-themed drama, Stoney Burke. Although the show lasted one season, Lord parlayed it into a successful financial venture as he made personal appearances at rodeos for several years, bringing in income that kept him afloat until he was signed to Hawaii Five-O.
Lynch presents an evenhanded treatment of Lord’s life, both the good and the bad. Through the years, Lord has been accused of being aloof and arrogant (Lynch even discusses how his surname “Lord” was used as evidence of his perceived inflated ego). Was he? That’s a question the author leaves to the reader to decide, giving accounts from the men and women who knew Jack Lord throughout his life. Another foible discussed is Jack Lord’s temper. At times, Lord could be a violent man and Lynch discusses how his wife helped him become a better person, gaining control of his temper and focusing his energies in a positive manner.
Jack Lord: an Acting Life is a good read for anyone who enjoys biographies or books about Hollywood. It is an objective biography that presents the facts and allows the reader to make up their mind about Jack Lord the individual. It also provides a look at the hardscrabble life of actors and how the road to success can often be long. In a world where perseverance is sometimes ridiculed and people complain the game is rigged, it’s refreshing to read about someone who defied the odds, stuck to their convictions, and made the most out of their hard-earned success.