Chiefs was broadcast on CBS 30 years ago and like millions of other Americans I was glued to the set each night as its sprawling, multi-generational tale of law enforcement, small town life, racism and the hunt for a clever serial killer unfolded.
The mini-series centers on three police chiefs in the town of Delano, Georgia and a fourth man who is denied the chance to be the chief and is forever embittered. The story is narrated by the town’s leading citizen: Banker, investor and politician Hugh Holmes (Charlton Heston). In 1924, Holmes persuades the town council that Delano has grown big enough to have a police station. They hire gentle farmer Will Henry Lee (Wayne Rogers) as their first chief, enraging a WWI veteran who wanted the job (Keith Carradine). The choice of Lee is also disdained by good ol’ boy county sheriff Skeeter Willis (Paul Sorvino), who sees the responsibility of police mainly as keeping poor people and Blacks in line. Meanwhile, runaway boys begin disappearing around Delano, and Chief Lee comes to suspect that he is dealing with a sexually motivated serial killer. But tragic events intrude before Lee can apprehend the murderer.
The story then moves forward to the end of WWII, when a thuggish war veteran named Sonny Butts becomes Chief (Brad Davis). He uses the power of his office to terrorize Blacks, women, and anyone else he can get his hands on, to the point that Holmes is able to begin making moves to have him fired. Butts concludes that if he can solve the decades-long murder spree, which is still underway, he can save his job. He comes close but also fails, leaving the mystery to be attacked again by a different chief in 1962, Tyler Watts (Billy Dee Williams). But Watts has more than murder with which to contend. He is under great scrutiny and indeed threat as the town’s first Black chief, and he also must be careful not to endanger the political career of William Henry Lee’s son (Stephen Collins), who is running for governor as a racial moderate. There are many other clever ties between the stories of the three episodes, but revealing them would be a crime of its own.
The narrative structure of Chiefs, based on Stuart Woods’ novel, is inspired. With each generation we get to see the changes in Delano and in the South more generally, particularly with regards to race. Yet there is also continuity in the horrible murderer and the indirect partnership of three different men who do not know each other yet collaborate across the years to track down the killer.
The series features no bad performances and many strong ones, including by an agreeably restrained Heston. Paul Sorvino is also tremendous as Skeeter. Some actors think the way to play a racist realistically is to stamp around yelling epithets and dripping hatred. But Sorvino has it right: Most racists don’t repeatedly proclaim their racism any more than air breathers make repeated attestations to their love of oxygen. For Sorvino’s Skeeter, racism is just who he is and how life as he sees it is, and that makes him much scarier than the usual ranting bigot stereotype. Brad Davis, as the second chief, also tears up the screen. The actor had a brutal, short life but maybe that’s what gave him the remarkable ability he shows here to channel darkness. His Chief Sonny Butts is the pluperfect lustful, hateful bully. Keith Carradine is also creepily effective as Foxy Funderburk, the man who was denied the job of Chief and has been nursing a grudge ever since.
Chiefs does suffer a bit from scattered flaws. At least one scene in each episode rings false, and some other dramatic moments that are ultimately effective nonetheless have contrived set-ups. Ageing a cast almost 40 years when of course not every actor is the correct chronological age when you start is a formidable challenge, and at times the makeup technicians don’t quite meet it. None of these peccadilloes are fatal to enjoyment, but collectively they keep Chiefs in the realm of excellent TV mini-series rather than letting it soar to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy-level heights.
If you want to enjoy this high-quality production beware the many chopped up versions that are floating around (e.g., the 200 minute VHS release). The full-length version of course requires a bigger investment of time, but the compensation is handsome indeed.