Matlock creator Dean Hargrove on the secrets of his success
The producer also wrote the Perry Mason movies. Here's how.
1989 was a particularly fruitful year for writer/producer Dean Hargrove. His team had already released several successful Perry Mason television movies, recapturing the famous lawyer's audience two decades after Mason went off the air. In keeping with the legal theme, Hargrove was also responsible for revitalizing public interest in actor Andy Griffith; Matlock was the first series that Hargrove worked on in which he was listed as the series creator.
In addition to Matlock, Hargrove had also shepherded Jake and the Fatman to network broadcast. That show was a quasi-spinoff of his Andy Griffith lawyer show. According to a December Associated Press article from '89, Hargrove looked to follow up his earlier legal winners with Max Monroe: Loose Cannon, which starred Shadoe Stevens as a cop whose unorthodox tactics earned him the titular nickname. In addition to Monroe, the '89 television slate was also prepared for the arrival of another Hargrove series, Father Dowling Mysteries.
So, with a portfolio of proven TV hits, Dean Hargrove was uniquely poised to speak for what made for successful television. According to him, the formula for a great show was simple.
"Everybody has a theory about why a show is successful," said Hargrove in that same AP article. "I think the audience basically is attracted by characters, and when they have that perfect wedding of character and performer you have a success."
That's an equation that served Hargrove incredibly well in his earlier track record. Perry Mason and Ben Matlock were both rounded, well-defined characters who behaved not predictably, but consistently. There was an expected outcome to every situation they were in. Both characters are so clear that viewers could anticipate how each would react to a given obstacle. Plus, both were brought to life by accomplished actors. Perry Mason wasn't just "played" by Raymond Burr; Mason was Burr. And despite the future efforts of Paramount executives, Matlock is inseparable from Andy Griffith.
"Most successful shows are defined by a name: Lucy, Archie Bunker, Columbo, J.R. Even with shows like thirtysomething and L.A. Law. I think people tune in for the characters. Basically, I tailor shows for the stars, like Andy Griffith, Bill Conrad, and Tom Bosley."
That marriage of character and performer was what made viewers tune in in the first place. But what ingredients kept them tuning back in time and again?
"I think all successful shows have had humor. I got my start as a comedy writer and I still think of myself as a comedy writer."