By the summer of 1973, the Blaxploitation genre was in full swing in the movie theaters. Always ready to capitalize on a trend, the TV networks created their own sanitized versions for white bread America. Of course, sanitizing Blaxploitation for the small screen proved problematic. The same themes that made the genre so popular- gritty inner-city crime, black anti-heroes taking on corrupt white law enforcement, sex, violence, and generally sticking it to “the man” – would never pass network Broadcast Standards and Practices.
Undaunted, networks tried. On October 9, 1973, CBS launched an ambitious TV version of Shaft! with Richard Roundtree reprising his role for the small screen. Sadly, Standards watered down John Shaft’s character until his movie persona vanished and Roundtree faded into a supporting cast member in his own show. The ratings were awful. CBS canceled the show after seven episodes, and Roundtree called the series the worst decision in his career. NBC also tried with the cerebral private eye Tenafly. Other than using “fly” in the title, there was no connection to the movie Superfly. The show got the ax after four episodes.
The third-place network, ABC, having nothing to lose, tried something a little different. Taking a cue from Pam Gier’s Coffy (1973), the network started production on a TV movie and a series pilot called Get Christie Love! Unlike Shaft and Tenafly, Christie Love was an undercover cop. Like Coffy, she was an after-hours vigilante, going her own way in investigations and not taking a lot of guff.
Casting the popular actress/comedienne Theresa Graves, best known as the bikini girl on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, could not be more perfect. Her Detective Love has gorgeous and charming. Sporting a killer Afro, she was street smart and brilliant. Willowy, athletic, and effortlessly sensuous, Love was an expert in martial arts, and relentless in pursuing criminals. Possessing natural comic timing, Graves gave her character sass.
White police supervisors giving her a tough time? Christie talked back and put them in their place. If taken off a case, she’d investigate anyway. She held her own, confronted with assorted gangsters, drug dealers, and villains. Det. Love fearlessly gave car chases in her orange 1973 VW Beetle convertible. In police shootouts, she battled would-be assassins with her .38 police special. If crooks wanted to get physical, all went flying with well-placed karate chops and kung fu kicks. Detective Christie Love wrapped up everything when she snapped handcuffs on kingpins, flashed a brilliant smile, and cheerfully said, “You’re under arrest, Sugah!”
The ABC Movie of the Week pilot dropped on Tuesday, January 22, 1974. Get Christie Love! succeeded where the other two shows failed. America loved Teresa Graves as Christie and wanted more. For a Tuesday night movie, Nielsen ratings were promising. The sponsors were happy. ABC management was delighted, and the network ordered 26 episodes for the 74-75 season. Get Christie Love! was a success, a bright spot in the middle of Watergate, astronomical inflation, and the first energy crisis. All America was talking about Christie Love on Wednesday morning, including my entire high school.
The morning after, my circle of friends buzzed like a hive of bees over the TV movie. Christie Love was the embodiment of someone my age group wished existed – the Homeroom Goddess. Our fantasy Homeroom Goddess was the epitome of hip, cool, calm, together, rocked a ‘Fro and wore a cropped leather jacket – so did Detective Love. Homeroom Goddess was the imaginary friend who would tell you when some frowsy underclassman dropped your name and talked trash at 10:30 AM break in the smoking area. If you confronted the young slattern after school and wound up protecting your honor behind the shop building, Homeroom Goddess would appear to back you up. She’d dispatch the youthful offender with well-placed karate moves and not break a sweat. Homeroom Goddess was Woman Power, now incarnate as Christie Love as portrayed by Teresa Graves.
Had all gone normally, Graves’ star would skyrocket to the top, completing the Hollywood fairytale of American success. In 1973, she completed her first theatrical movie, That Man Bolt!, with Fred Williamson. After filming Get Christie Love! she was off to London. Former Laugh-In castmate Jeremy Lloyd wrote a leading role in his new horror/comedy film, Vampiria/ Old Dracula [US title], with Teresa in mind. Graves got the part, and she received top billing opposite David Niven. After the rave reviews of the TV movie, stardom seemed next.
ABC’s weekly Christie Love series was a launchpad to superstardom, and a sure-fire rating hit for the network. Sadly, a perfect storm of problems erupted just as the series filming began in 1974.
Budget constraints constantly plague TV productions. This show was no different. The series had a minuscule budget compared to the TV movie, so action scenes got the ax. Cast and show structure changes abounded. All the new revisions were detrimental to the original story concept. The worst calamity to befall the show was Teresa Graves herself, though. While in London, Graves reconnected with a cousin and became involved in the Jehovah’s Witness religion. Her interest grew during the summer of 1973 and soon became devotion. A week before the TV movie aired, Graves received the rite of baptism, gave her life to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and immediately considered leaving the entertainment world. Still under contract with ABC, she reluctantly agreed to do the show.
The new weekly series bombed. Reviewers savaged the series, and news of Graves’ religious conversation soon leaked to the press. The New York Sunday News reported the reason behind the alarming change in the series version of Christie Love:
“When the series swung into production, she [Graves] refused to carry through the concepts of the swinging, slugging Christie Love character. She demanded violence be kept out of the scripts. She wouldn’t be a party to lying on the show, even though Christie Love as an undercover cop required deception to be effective. She wouldn’t raise her voice to a superior. She insisted on being modest at all times and subdued her natural sensuality.”
Sassy, foxy, karate-chopping Christie no longer existed. It was as if our Homeroom Goddess had spent part of her summer with her crazy aunt and gone to the Kingdom Hall one time too many. When fall rolled around and classes started, our cool imaginary Goddess did not return. In her place was someone dressed in a granny frock, Afro pressed into a conservative bun, flinging copies of Watchtower and Awake! to everyone she met.
Though the network tried valiantly to salvage the show, Graves demanded more and more changes to conform to the strict beliefs of her new religion. Ratings plummeted by midseason. To save the show, the studio brought in scriptwriter Glen A. Larson; producers revamped the series with new opening credits and a new supporting cast. Hoping to set a more serious tone and appease Graves’ growing religious fervor, the network jettisoned the last visage of Blaxploitation campiness. As a result, the series became yet another cop show and a dull one at that. The last straw came when Graves announced she would no longer work past 5 PM so she could attend her daily Watchtower bible studies. After 26 episodes, ABC unceremoniously canceled Get Christie Love!.
Forty-eight years on, the TV movie is still pretty good. The PG Blaxploitation campiness is thoroughly enjoyable. Graves is just divine in the original concept of Christie Love. Watching the series isn’t as satisfying, and the change in character is still a bit jarring. It’s as though an imposter wearing a Christie mask stepped into the role after five episodes.
Teresa Graves wrote about her religious conversion in the April 22, 1978, issue of Awake! magazine. Her time as Christie Love gets a courtesy mention. Retiring from acting entirely in 1983, she moved in with her mother and devoted her life to the Jehovah’s Witness religion. Unfortunately, she did not live happily ever after.
On the morning of October 10, 2002, a fire broke out in the small home in the Hyde Park section of LA she shared with her mother. Teresa was alone in her converted back porch bedroom the evening of October 9, as her mom was in the hospital. While asleep, a space heater used to warm the addition caught fire and set the house ablaze. Unable to hear the smoke alarm in her mother’s part of the house and escape, Teresa Graves succumbed to smoke inhalation and burns received in the fire. She was 54. Though neighbors fondly remembered the show, none realized she was once the star of Get Christie Love!. It’s a sad footnote in the life of a likable, talented actress and her once-promising career.
The Get Christie Love! TV movie is available to watch on Amazon Prime. Various episodes of the series are available on YouTube. I suggest the first 12, as the show becomes a former shadow of itself thereafter. I also highly recommend Episode 16 – “Murder on a High C.” Graves reunites with her former Laugh-In castmate as Christie takes on a mad bomber played by Arte Johnson. Performances are fantastic and fun!