David Soul burst onto television screens as Detective Ken Hutchinson in Starsky and Hutch, arguably the best-loved cop series of the 1970s. Memorable for chunky cardigans, flares and full-throttle car chases using a striped Ford Gran Torino, it brought a shaft of Californian sunshine to down-at-heel, strike-bound Britain, making homegrown police dramas look dull.
Nearly every schoolboy had a red-and-white toy car, and almost every schoolgirl had a crush on Soul or his screen partner, Paul Michael Glaser. Soul was also a guitar-playing singing star with two top 10 albums and four top 10 singles, including the hit “Don’t Give Up on Us.”
These days he lives quietly in London with his wife, Helen, 45, and no longer sings, though he still drives a convertible—a nod to the balmy climate he left behind in LA. Does he miss it?
“I have a love-hate relationship with L.A. When I first went out there from New York in 1966, God, it was gorgeous. You had the ocean, the mountains, the oranges, the wonderful sun, and the movies—a kind of mystical draw. Over the years, relations based upon who you knew, or what you did, the world of wealth and privilege—it started to really eat away. When I left, I couldn’t wait to get out of there. I still go back because one of my sons and a grandson live there. My oldest is 55. My youngest is 30; she’s here—in Whitstable. Five sons and one daughter.”
He left America in 1993, the year the bank took away his expensive L.A. home, consigning his possessions to a shipping container. Paying for the upkeep of six children from four previous marriages was a costly business, he says.
There were other reasons for his money problems, including alcohol and his involvement in unprofitable documentaries on themes such as the water table in the Midwest and Native American land rights.
The son of a Lutheran minister, Soul, 75, was brought up with a sense of civic duty and a concern for those less fortunate, he says. He didn’t want to be known only for his blond-haired, blue-eyed good looks—hence his foray into making films with a social message. “I wanted to put what I’d been given to good use.”
Money is still tight, he admits, partly because he sold his share of the rights to Starsky and Hutch years ago for a modest—by today’s standards—$100,000. Had he hung on to his 7.5% stake, he would have been made rich by the recent upsurge in Seventies nostalgia and reruns of the show around the world. A Hollywood director is working on a new version for TV, and there’s a Starsky and Hutch computer game for Xbox and PlayStation.
“You don’t cry over spilt money,” he says. “I don’t have a lot of cash on hand, but I have enough to live on. There are a lot of things I’d like to do, but, mostly, when I leave this place I want my wife to be okay. Helen is my life, and I want that our love continues to fulfill her, wherever and forever. She’s an incredible woman, a truly wonderful person. I’m a lucky guy.”
In Britain he has acted in West End plays, including the lead role in Jerry Springer: The Opera, and appeared in TV dramas including Holby City and Dalziel and Pascoe, plus an advert for the coach company National Express. As a guest competitor on BBC’s Top Gear, he might have topped the leaderboard but for the fact that he broke the Reasonably Priced Car’s gearbox—twice.
He might have topped Top Gear’s leaderboard but for the fact that he broke the Reasonably Priced Car’s gearbox—twice
On principle, he says, he turned down easy money for guest appearances on reality shows such as Big Brother and I’m a Celebrity. “These days anybody is a celebrity and, frankly, there’s nothing to celebrate,” he says. “Reality TV? I live my life in reality. I want [to watch] something special, not pretty people with little talent trying to get famous.”
He’s reflective, but not mawkish as he looks back on the old days. At the height of his fame in the Seventies, Soul’s arrival at Heathrow for a concert provoked crowd hysteria unseen since Beatlemania. These days he can wander unmolested onto the terraces of the Emirates stadium—he’s an Arsenal fan—or stroll undisturbed from his rented flat to his favorite Hampstead wine bar. He settled here in 1995 and became a British citizen in 2004.
“One thing led to another, to another, and I found myself in London. I relate to it because I lived in Berlin and Paris and I spent a lot of time in Rome. I’m as much a Europhile as I am an American.”
A big bear of a man, he may have slowed down, but his wit is razor sharp and he still has Hutch’s unmistakable twinkling blue eyes. Does he hanker after his old life? “I’m 75 years old, for God’s sake. Of course you’re going to have good times, and you’re going to have bad times. What is life about if it’s not that?
“Those are choices in life. I never wanted to be an actor, but I ended up as an actor. That’s not what I was going for. It wasn’t [a case of] ‘I can’t wait to get on stage—I want to be a star’. No, never. It was accidental. I studied political science. I wanted to follow in my dad’s footsteps [as an academic]. I wanted to go into international relations and join the Peace Corps. I wanted to play professional baseball, and almost did.”
Recently he endured a period of illness, from which he has not fully recovered. After a general anaesthetic for a hip replacement in 2017, he lapsed into unconsciousness and was in intensive care for 10 weeks. Doctors did not expect him to live and put him in palliative care.
“I spent 72 days in intensive care, including twice being put on a ventilator and undergoing a tracheostomy [a breathing tube was inserted into his throat—hence his no longer being able to sing]. I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t do anything, I was in delirium. As a last resort I was moved to the Royal Free Hospital, where I underwent treatment that saved my life. Bless the Royal Free, I tell you. The NHS is just the best.”
He’s had a cancer removed from his left lung and faces a continuous battle with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease —a life-shortening lung condition he blames on 50 years of smoking up to three packs a day. “It took its toll and I quit about 10 years ago, [but] you can’t reverse the condition.
“One thing I can’t do now, which is my livelihood, is sing or work in the theatre. My voice has dropped considerably and I don’t have the vocal range, or the power.”
“As magical as the Cubans are at keeping classic American cars on the road, Hemingway’s 1955 Chrysler needed a bit more—it was a wreck”
He’s had both hips replaced, decompression surgery on his spine, and prosthetic discs grafted into his neck because of nerve damage that paralyzed his arm and stopped him playing the guitar. For a while he was in a wheelchair.
“I am a fighter and I did fight my way through this thing,” he says. “There is no question about it, but without Helen I never would have made it. She’s magnificent. Phew. What a strong lady. She was as much a part of my getting better as the doctors were.”
His wealth now lies in his marriage and his family. “When I’m surrounded by my six children, I feel rich,” he says.
Before he surrenders his celebrity gun and badge, there’s one more assignment he wants to complete. The Hemingway Museum in Cuba—where he’s regarded as a local hero and car aficionado—asked for his help in rebuilding Ernest Hemingway’s 1955 Chrysler New Yorker Deluxe, which was left to rust in a jungle shed on the island after the author died in 1961.
Soul, a fan of Hemingway since childhood, took up the challenge with characteristic enthusiasm, documenting the project in an as yet unreleased film called Cuban Soul. “As magical as the Cubans are at keeping classic American cars on the road, this car needed a bit more—like original parts,” he says. “When it was pulled out of the shed it was a wreck.”
Having acquired the components to fix it, he found himself up against a cast of hustlers and officials every bit as tricky as the pushers, pimps, and pickpockets of the fictional Bay City he patrolled as Hutch.
“You end up in a whirlpool, which is the Cuban bureaucracy. In order to get car parts into Cuba, first you have to get round the U.S. embargo, which allows almost nothing to be sent there without a special license. Then you have to go through the Cuban ministry of culture, ministry of commerce, ministry of … I mean, it goes on, on, on. You wait and wait and you’re tearing your hair out trying to fight a system that you can’t beat. It’s like Don Quixote [tilting at] windmills. I’m still trying to get parts into Cuba, but now it’s a question of money.”
David Richard Solberg was born in Chicago in 1943 and spent six years of his childhood in Berlin. During the airlift of food into the city by allied forces in response to the Soviet blockade, his father took in refugees fleeing East Germany to the West.
Back in the U.S., he turned down a contract with the Chicago White Sox baseball team when he was 19, instead traveling to Mexico, where he learnt to play the guitar. He first gained attention as a ski-mask-wearing singer called the Covered Man on American chat shows, before securing a role as a blond-haired bad cop in Magnum Force, the sequel to Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry.
“Paul Glaser is still my best friend. We can disagree on everything, or agree on everything, but he still remains a significant part of my life. I love the guy.”
He was spotted by the Midas-touch Hollywood producer Aaron Spelling and in 1975 was cast as Hutch alongside Glaser’s Starsky. The show was an instant hit on both sides of the Atlantic and spawned a host of copycat on-screen buddy pairings. Devotees in Britain aped their idols by spraying their cars in the Torino’s distinctive colors. The series was dubbed into dozens of languages and especially adored in France, though attempts by fans to paint clapped-out Citroëns à la Starsky et Hutch were less convincing.
Unusually for TV of its day, the pair were given plausible back stories and freedom to ad lib to make the screen friendship convincing. Dark-haired Starsky’s impulsiveness, appetite for junk food and flashy Ford Torino—nicknamed “the Striped Tomato”—contrasted neatly with blond Hutch’s beaten-up Ford Galaxie 500 and more balanced demeanor and diet.
The on-screen repartee that helped make Starsky and Hutch a huge ratings success was spontaneous, Soul says. “The humor was generated by us—that was the way we worked. There was never any one-upmanship—we didn’t do that. We trusted each other. That’s the fun of it: buying into each other and then turning the tables at the end.”
Over its four-year run, the show was criticized for its violence—although by modern standards it looks mild. Soul says the stories and themes were ahead of their time, which is why it still resonates. “Starsky and Hutch were much less concerned with the law than they were with justice. That has to be part of the solution for the problems we have today: understanding that about young people.”
It took a modern approach to race relations, featuring two black good guys—the jive-talking hustler Huggy Bear, and Starsky and Hutch’s hard-nosed boss, Captain Dobey, even though the latter’s lines seemed to be limited to “I’ll see you two jokers in my office” and “You two jokers—in my office.”
Despite the series’s success, and pay rises for its stars, Glaser was unhappy in the role and asked to be released from his contract, ending the show in 1979. “He wanted to stretch his wings—he really did,” Soul recalls. “He did not wear the coat of television very well. I would have gone on, but never without Paul …” The sentence trails off before he can express regret. “I think, today, the further we get away from it [Starsky & Hutch], the more value we can see it was. It was a good show. Today Paul is still my best friend. We can disagree on everything, or agree on everything, but he still remains a significant part of my life. I love the guy.”
There was talk of reviving the show with Soul and Glaser—who still lives in L.A.—but it never happened, though a feature film version was made with different actors. Glaser’s life was torn apart by tragedy when he lost both his wife and his daughter to AIDS. His wife had been given a transfusion of infected blood during the birth of their daughter in hospital.
Asked what he’s most proud of, Soul says: “I’ve had it all. I’ve been a No 1 [star] in the world for a while—not now. I’ve had No 1 records around the world—not now. I have six wonderful children. I’m married to a wonderful woman. I’m happy. I’ve explored; I’ve seen; I’ve done; I have really great friends. I’m always looking ahead; still have passion, heart. Still have energy; still want to do things. What else is there?”
David Soul: my life in cars
- 1969 Volkswagen Beetle
- 1969 Lancia Aurelia
- 1972 Porsche 356 B
- 1975 Ford Galaxie 500
- 1976 BMW 5 Series (520i)
- 1981 GMC Suburban Sierra
- 1990 Chevrolet Corvette convertible
- 2003 Suzuki Liana
- 2019 Audi A5 Cabriolet
- My dream car 1955 Chrysler New Yorker Deluxe Convertible (“I’ll be a happy man once it’s restored to original condition in Navajo Orange and Desert Sand [paint]—the way it was when Ernest Hemingway bought it.”)
This article first appeared in The Sunday Times.