James MacArthur, who played the catchphrase-enabling “Danno” on the original Hawaii Five-0, died this morning. He was 72.
MacArthur was the adopted son of The Front Page playwright Charles MacArthur and “First Lady of the American Theatre” Helen Hayes, and grew up surrounded by legendary actors, writers, and the like such as John Barrymore, John Steinbeck, Harpo Marx, and Lillian Gish, who was also his godmother. Despite these privileged beginnings, he worked his way up from the ground floor, starting with summer stock and serving as an electrician and set painter on numerous productions before getting into acting with the John Frankenheimer-directed TV play Deal A Blow, and continuing to study history at Harvard even while making his first films for Disney. Once he decided that he wanted to act full time, MacArthur left school to star in two Disney classics, Kidnapped and Swiss Family Robinson, where he played the older son Fritz.
He starred in his only Broadway production opposite Jane Fonda, in 1960’s Invitation To A March, then had small parts in a string of successful movies (many of them war films and Westerns) like The Virginian, The Bedford Incident, 12 O’Clock High, Cry Of Battle, and Battle Of The Bulge. A brief appearance as a traveling preacher in Clint Eastwood’s Hang ‘Em High introduced him to producer Leonard Freeman, who cast MacArthur as Danny “Danno” Williams in his new cop show, after test audiences didn’t like the original actor in the pilot. On Hawaii Five-0, Williams played the young partner to Jack Lord’s more experienced former naval officer, and it was Lord’s expression “Book ‘em, Danno,” directed at MacArthur, that became one of the more iconic things about it (even turning up in CBS’ recent reboot).
MacArthur remained with Hawaii Five-0 for 11 of its 12 seasons, even returning for the Stephen J. Cannell-written remake in 1996 that never made it to air, where “Danno” was now the governor of Hawaii.
In addition to his most famous role, Williams was a frequent presence on other classic TV shows like Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. And although he had a varied film and television career, and was constantly working both on stage and behind the scenes on some of the greatest dramas and comedies ever written for the theater, Williams never took issue with the fact that he was mostly famous for being “Danno,” often attending TV conventions and turning up on various talking-head shows like The 100 Greatest TV Quotes And Catch Phrases to pay tribute to the words that he knew would outlive him.
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