Remington Steele (1982-1987): Gone But Not Forgotten

We take a look back at the classic 80s private eye series Remington Steele, starring a young Pierce Brosnan.

Last Updated on February 21, 2024

Eighties television was a land of new ideas that hadn’t been seen before.  It was also a place where old tropes were made shiny and new with a modern sheen that intrigued audiences and would produce classics like the hospital drama St. Elsewhere and the crime drama Hill Street Blues

It would be a humdinger of a decade within the genre of mystery and detectives.  It would see the return of the iconic detective Mike Hammer in a new series and would also bring us the dramedy Moonlighting.  We’d also be treated to one of the greatest performances of Sherlock Holmes ever with the amazing Jeremy Brett.

It would also bring us a female detective who, in a world filled with male counterparts, couldn’t catch a break until she made up her own male counterpart in a boss named Remington Steele.  The rest, as they say, is history, which would actually involve not only James Bond but even Robocop.  Are you intrigued by the mystery yet?  Well, let’s investigate further as we uncover Remington Steele‘s secrets in this episode of Gone But Not Forgotten.

Remington Steele actually started out as an idea from the late 60s by Robert Butler.  Butler attempted to make a series based around a female detective, but no one thought it would play at the time because no one was ready for a female in such a role.  Even though, at the time, there had been some success with the spin-off Girl From UNCLE starring Stephanie Powers.

Butler’s idea would not be seen on screen until the early 80s.  He was inspired to return to the idea after TV showed there was an audience for a female-led series.  Eventually, the series would be asked for a pilot at NBC, with the premise adding the fact that the lead character’s fictitious boss would appear and make her life chaotic.  This idea would be tweaked slightly and become the series we know today.

The interesting premise bridged classic noir with a modern setting and sense of the times.  Remington Steele actually dealt with sexism head-on with its plot.  Laura Holt was a smart and savvy private investigator who had spent a while learning the craft.  But as a woman in a field dominated by men (both in fiction and nonfiction), she couldn’t find a client.  That was until she came up with the idea of a fake male boss with his name on the office door.  

remington steele

Laura comes up with the name Remington Steele (a combo of a typewriter company and a football team) and one with a nice ring to it.  As it were, Mr. Steele is the man behind the woman, and is never seen by his clients who are suddenly knocking down the newly painted door.  Laura interacts with the clients while her mysterious (and non-existent) boss is never seen.

Eventually, Laura has two employees, the only ones who know the secret of Mr. Steele, Murphy Michaels, a fellow investigator with a more than platonic interest in Laura.  Bernice is the agency’s secretary.

Then, one day, things become complicated.  During a job for an entrepreneur wanting to launch his own car company who is showcasing some rare jewels to help promote the opportunity to get in on the venture, The Remington Steele detective agency runs into a snag.  Their client, Gordon Hunter, wants Steele on site in person as this event is the biggest in his life.

Laura decides to make this work, much to Murphy and Bernice’s disbelief.  In a ruse, they rent a room in the hotel the showcase is taking place in and fill it with clothes and evidence that Mr. Steele is staying there.  Of course, none of the clothes or items have been used, but the appearance is what’s important.

The snag appears when jewel thieves show up on-site, three total.  Two very rough individuals named Kessler and Neff and a rather posh gentleman with dark hair named…well…he’s telling everyone his name is Ben Pearson.  Pearson (we’ll call him that) is spying on the operation and taking photos.  He eventually meets with Laura, tells her he’s trying to keep the jewels safe, and works for the South African government, the country the jewels are from.

After a number of close calls for both Pearson and Holt, the real Ben Pearson shows up, and his imposter finds himself in a bit of a pickle.  This he quickly fixes by explaining to Gordon Hunter that he’s actually Remington Steele.  On the other hand, Laura is under the impression that the real Ben Pearson is the fake Remington Steele, and while she has to keep up her charade, the newly created Mr. Steele has to keep up his.

The game of false identity and the comedy of errors keep happening after Laura discovers that her fake Pearson is, in fact, the real fake Remington Steele (does this make sense) during the unveiling of Hunter’s automobile.  And I have to tell you…the look that Stephanie Zimbalist glares at Pierce Brosnan here is some of the best barely-contained fury I’ve ever seen.

What follows is Kessler and Neff killing the real Ben Pearson and leaving him in fake Steele’s hotel room.  Fake Steele and Laura sort of join forces with Fake Steele having the dead Pearson discovered by his own killers and conveniently timed police who arrest them, all the while assuming that Fake Steele is Real Steele (apologies to Hugh Jackman.)  

But things aren’t over yet.  Laura, much to the chagrin of Murphy Michaels, lets Fake Steele go, and as he’s heading to the airport, it’s discovered the jewels are gone.  Assuming Fake Steele didn’t live up to his promise of not stealing them, Laura and Murphy head after him.  It’s then at the airport, after a shout of “Stop thief!”  that we see it’s actually a desperate Gordon Hunter who has taken the jewels after losing his life’s work and savings.  Laura and Fake Steele stop him, with Steele as the real Remington Steele (that really does sound like a brand of electric shaver), giving credit to shout of for the success as well.

Assuming that Fake Steele has left for good, Laura is shocked to discover that Remington Steele is actually in his office and ready to meet their latest client.  And so begins the series proper.

The pilot episode of Remington Steele would air on NBC on October 1st, 1982, and would be written by co-creator Michael Gleason.  Gleason’s other co-creator, Robert Butler, would direct the episode titled the very Bond-sounding License to Steele.  

Remington Steele

Laura Holt would be played by the lovely and talented Stephanie Zimbalist.  Zimbalist came from an acting family and already had a long body of work before taking on the role of Laura in both stage and screen.  Her father, actor Efrem Zimbalist Jr., also had a massive amount of work in his career, which included TV and films such as 77 Sunset Strip, Wait Until Dark, various TV guest roles and the recurring role of Alfred Pennyworth on the Batman The Animated Series as well as its off-shoot films.

Stephanie almost didn’t take the role, not certain about being on a regular series and tied to it.  But she eventually relented.  Laura Holt was classy and intelligent and could hold her own with the mysterious Mr. Steele.  She spoke with an almost regal flare and in a way that harkened back to the classic films of the 30s and 40s that would shape a lot of the Remington Steele backbone.  In fact, there are references throughout the series to many feature films, starting with the pilot and Steele’s aliases, all being characters Bogart played.

Remington Steele got a lot of ratings and fans thanks to Stephanie Zimbalist’s role of Laura and how she portrayed a strong, independent woman who actually was better at the gig than her male counterpart.  Steele was learning the craft of being a detective as he went, most of his knowledge coming from movies.  Laura took the initiative and became her own boss in a time and place that didn’t accept that as easily as it should have.  It inspired many girls and women who watched and helped boost the series to a hit.

Stephanie would even write an episode of the series during the 3rd season, Steele In The Chips.  Keeping the series a family affair, her own real-life father, Efrem, would appear in the last season as Remington Steele’s father (in a switch not playing Laura’s), who sadly dies before he can tell his son what his real name is, thus leaving Remington Steele as Remington Steele.

Pierce Brosnan wasn’t the massive star he is today when he took the role of Remington Steele.  He’d done some films and TV work, which he was more well-known for then.  These TV appearances include one episode of the Hammer House of Horror called The Carpathian Eagle and his biggest and most well-known role prior to Steele as Robert Gould Shaw in Nancy Astor.  

Brosnan’s portrayal of the suave and mysterious con man come detective would create an icon for women worldwide to swoon over.  It would also set Brosnan up to be considered a successor for Roger Moore, who was getting ready to part soon from the role of James Bond…but we’ll get to that in a moment. 

Brosnan’s movie star looks mixed well with the series’ modern noir look style.  But the casting that seemed meant to be almost didn’t happen.  As I said, Brosnan wasn’t that well known at the time, and the studio didn’t think he’d work or have enough pull for an audience.  Originally, the role was intended for British actor Anthony Andrews.  Andrews had a posh delivery and style and was as suave as possible in roles like The Scarlet Pimpernel and Ivanhoe.  He also had a massive TV repertoire, including Upstairs, Downstairs and the massive hit Brideshead Revisited.  It almost happened that Andrews got the part, but the powers that be relented, and Brosnan won the day.

The first season would include Murphy Michaels, played by James Read, and Janet DeMay as Bernice Foxe only.  These two would be written out of the show in the 2nd season.  I found it funny as a North and South fan, which starred James Read as George Hazard opposite Patrick Swayze’s Orry Mane also had Philip Casnoff, who played the true bastard villain Bent in the series as “the real Ben Pearson.”  I don’t even think they shared a scene in the episode, but it made my TV geek heart happy.

The 2nd season would see Doris Roberts added to the cast as Mildred Krebs.  Krebs was originally supposed to be a mid-30s lovely who was a possible rival for Remington Steele,, who would be the new secretary.  But Roberts made an impression and read for the role, and it was retooled for her.  Now, she was an ex-IRS agent who had originally been investigating Steele’s tax records and winds up working for him.

Beverly Garland, a classic Hollywood actress with a massive body of work, including a lot of sci-fi and TV, would be cast as Laura’s mother, Abigail.  

Keeping the series a family affair, Brosnan’s late wife, Cassandra Harris, would play two roles in the series as ladies from Remington Steel’s past.  Harris was actually a Bond Girl, having starred opposite Roger Moore in For Your Eyes Only.  This connection to the franchise brought attention to Brosnan’s role as the next Bond after Moore, the film’s maker.  But as we know, that didn’t happen until later.  And we’ll get to why in a moment.

Throughout the series every episode would somehow work the name Steele into the title.  Each episode would start with a very noir-like voice-over by Laura giving the background on her fake, now sort of real boss and the secret of Remington Steele.

Over the series, Remington Steele and Laura would work together, solving crimes and having some rather world-hopping adventures in the process.  As always with these types of stories, there was the “will they or won’t they” factor.  And to its credit, Remington Steele teased this until the very last episode, setting up they are finally going to at the end of the series.

Remington Steele did great in the ratings and eventually moved to Tuesdays after The A-Team.  The budget got bigger thanks to the success, and the series would have episodes filmed on location in places like Ireland, London, and more around the world.  This added to the slick nature of the production and the old-school Hollywood feel.

Over the course of the series, numerous guest stars would appear with many familiar names and faces showing up.  Geena Davis, Sharon Stone, Paul Reiser, and Delta Burke were just a few.  But my favourite would be when Tom Baker, the Doctor himself, appeared in a villainous turn and kidnapped Mildred.  He’s wonderfully unhinged at moments, and I love it.

But not everything was apparently great.  Much like Moonlighting (which was created by Remington Steele producer Glenn Gordon Caron), there were tales of issues between the two lead actors and on-set tensions that got hot.  There were reports that Brosnan and Zimbalist wouldn’t even talk to each other unless they were filming a scene.  In later years, the actors admit that it had been tense, but they truly respect and admire one another.

The series would go for four seasons and then be cancelled, with Laura and Steele marrying to keep him from being deported.  This was supposedly the last episode of the series, and as such, the actors were ready to move on.  Brosnan was finally getting ready to step into the stylish shoes of James Bond, and Zimbalist had taken the role of Officer Anne Lewis in Robocop. 

But wait, Gone But Not Forgotten, you’re saying, that didn’t happen. Nancy Allen was in Robocop, and Timothy Dalton was James Bond after Moore.  And we’d say, yep, you’re right…only with fewer curse words, we’re sure than Brosnan and Zimbalist would.

See, what happened was really similar to what went down with Tom Selleck and Magnum PI when it came to the role of Indiana Jones.  The fans wanted Remington Steele back.  The show was still doing well even when it got cancelled, so NBC said, “Okay, let’s do a 5th season.”  

The 5th and FINAL season would actually be a truncated run with 6 stories with two parts each, basically movies.  But because of this surprise return, Brosnan and Zimbalist had to return and say no to their feature film offers.   Remington Steele would end with the final 5th season, adding Jack Scalia as Tony, who is a threat to Steele.  But the finale on February 17th in 1987 would see Steele and Laura still married, only now, with a real relationship…perfect for a few days after Valentine’s Day.

Moonlighting, funnily enough, wouldn’t have happened without Remington Steele, but actor Pierce Brosnan wasn’t thrilled about it, saying in one interview the series was a rip-off, but at least it took risks.  Again, having been created by one of the producers and showrunners of Remington Steele and having that old-school Hollywood vibe, it’s easy to see their similarities.

Both series also had some great music, but I think Remington Steele beat Moonlighting when it came to its theme.  That’s because going along with that movie feel for the series, they got one of cinema’s greatest composers to pen the theme in Henry Mancini.  This is the gent who gave us Moon River, The Pink Panther, The Theme from Love Story, and who had won 20 Grammys over his career and 4 Oscars.  Mancini went for a full noir saxophone feel with the music, and it was perfect.  He’d also create Laura Holt’s theme as well.

Over the years, Remington Steele has grown in a fan base and has become a favourite of many more viewers.  This is thanks to syndication, DVD releases of the entire show, and channels like MeTV and ION showing the series.  

The show also still holds up.  This is due to great acting, writing, and a story that still sadly resonates with many women but also gives them a great role model in Laura, who decided to take things into her own hands.  While it might not be as overtly comedic and manic as its cousin Moonlighting, Remington Steele had the right perfectly shaken martini of genres and ingredients for fans.

Remington Steele

As we know, Pierce Brosnan did get to become Bond, and while he may not have gotten the best writing, he made an impact and has since become one of the most well-known actors in the world.  

Stephanie Zimbalist is also still acting, working in the theatre and even performing in a one-woman show as Katherine Hepburn, in various TV roles and films.

And here we come to the part of Gone But Not Forgotten where we ask that old question: should Remington Steele return?  At one time, Pierce Brosnan talked about doing a feature film sequel and producing it with his production company, but that will most likely not happen.  At least yet.  

Something that I’m VERY happy didn’t happen was a proposed half-hour comedy sitcom remake that NBC was considering that I hope was burned in a fire, never to be found again.  That nearly happened in 2013…and again, hopefully, burned, never to be seen.

Honestly, I don’t think we need a new Remington Steele.  The original series, as I said, still holds up and has that certain something you can’t easily replicate.  I’d love to see Pierce Brosnan’s idea happen for a sequel film starring him and Zimbalist to see how their characters are still solving mysteries and catching bad guys today or coming out of retirement to solve something only they can do.  But we don’t actually need it.   

Remington Steele is still just as shiny (pun again) and new as when it first appeared on TV screens 42 years ago (Ouch…that hurt to say.)  The secret of Remington Steele isn’t hard to figure out.  You make something timeless, and it just is.

About the Author

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Jessica was raised on a diet of Dark Shadows, Doctor Who, and a lot of things she saw way too young. She’s been writing for nearly a quarter of a century about the world of entertainment and her own fiction (and that sound you heard was her bones turning to dust.) Jessica loves being a JoBro as well as creating content for her site/channel/Podcast Fangirl Magazine/Fangirl Radio. Her favorite things are writing, movies/tv, video games, reading, and trying to summon the ghost of Vincent Price.