Interesting only because of its cast, this brisk TV movie about racial tensions in a Los Angeles firefighting company was intended as the pilot for a series, but most of the name-brand actors disappeared between the initial telefilm and the first weekly episode, which didn’t air until a year after the pilot movie’s debut. Richard Roundtree, still riding high on the success of Shaft (1971) and its sequels, stars as Shelly Forsythe, an African-American firefighter who is tired of facing racism at work, to say nothing of accusations from civilians of being an Uncle Tom. Before Shelly enters the picture, however, viewers are introduced to an all-white company whose senior officer, Spike Ryerson (Vince Edwards), blames the recent death of his best friend on an at-large black arsonist. Thus, when Shelly is assigned to take the dead fireman’s place, Spike and his cronies haze the new arrival terribly. Worse, when one of the firemen witnesses Shelly allowing a black suspect to leave the scene of a crime, Spike presumes that Shelly is unwilling to help capture black crooks. Meanwhile, Shelly navigates the difficulties of his marriage to Michelle (Sheila Frazier), who wants him to succeed so they can improve their standard of living.
All of this is standard stuff. Furthermore, many scenes in Firehouse look chintzy because the producers interspersed grainy newsreel footage instead of staging full-scale fire scenes. Yet despite the shallow writing and tacky production values, Firehouse is basically watchable thanks to the acting. Roundtree is excellent, proving once again that Hollywood missed a great opportunity by failing to place him in better projects; his mixture of charm and righteous indignation works well. Frazier is good, too, blending sexiness and strength. And while Edwards merely performs his role adequately, familiar actors in smaller parts add texture. Val Avery gives a salty turn as the company’s short-tempered cook, Andrew Duggan is authoritative as the company’s progressive-minded captain, Richard Jaeckel does solid work as one of Spike’s cohorts, and Michael Lerner appears fleetingly as a liberal civilian working with the fire company. (Paul Le Mat lingers on the fringes of the movie, as well.) Of these performers, only Jaeckel stayed on for the Firehouse series, which ran for a few months in 1974.