The show revolved around former San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) Chief of Detectives Robert T. Ironside (Raymond Burr), a veteran of more than 20 years of police service who was forced to retire from the department after a sniper's bullet, to the spine, paralyzed him from the waist down, resulting in him having to use a wheelchair. In the pilot episode, a TV movie, Ironside shows his strength of character and gets himself appointed a "special department consultant" by his good friend, Police Commissioner Dennis Randall. He does this by calling a press conference and then tricking Commissioner Randall into meeting his terms. In the pilot, Ironside eventually solves the mystery of the ambush. He requests Ed Brown and Eve Whitfield be assigned to him.
Ironside uses a fourth-floor room (for living and office space) in the Old San Francisco Hall Of Justice building, which housed the city's police headquarters. He uses a specially equipped, former fleet-modified 1940 1½ ton Ford police paddy wagon van. This is replaced in the episode entitled "Poole's Paradise" after the van is destroyed by Sergeant Brown as part of a way to trick a corrupt sheriff. At the end of the episode the paddy wagon is replaced by a one-off fully custom modified 1969 1 ton Ford Econoline Window Van. He later recruits the angst-filled black ex-con Mark Sanger to be his personal assistant after Sanger is brought in as a suspect who wanted to kill Ironside. The show became a success as Ironside depended on brains and initiative in handling cases. Although Ironside was good-hearted and honest, he maintained a gruff persona.
Supporting characters on Ironside included Det. Sgt. Edward "Ed" Brown (Don Galloway) and a young socialite-turned-plainclothes officer, Eve Whitfield (Barbara Anderson). In addition there was delinquent-turned-bodyguard/assistant Mark Sanger (Don Mitchell), who also opted to become a police officer, and subsequently graduated from law school (night classes were mentioned from early on), then even married late in the run of the series. Commissioner Randall was played by Gene Lyons.
After the program's fourth season, Anderson left for personal reasons, and her character was then replaced by another young policewoman, Fran Belding (Elizabeth Baur), who filled much the same role for four more years.
The series enjoyed a seven and a half-season run on NBC, drawing respectable, if not always high, ratings. As the shortened eighth and final season began (only 16 of 19 episodes produced were aired by NBC), Universal released a syndicated rerun package of episodes from earlier seasons under the title The Raymond Burr Show, reflecting the practice of that time to differentiate original network episodes from syndicated reruns whenever possible. After NBC's mid-season cancellation, however, the syndicated episodes reverted to the Ironside title.Raymond Burr as Chief Robert T. Ironside
Don Galloway as Detective Sergeant Ed Brown
Barbara Anderson as Officer Eve Whitfield
Don Mitchell as Mark Sanger
Elizabeth Baur as Fran Belding
The opening theme music was written by Quincy Jones and was the first synthesizer-based television theme song, though in 1971, Jones recorded a fuller four-minute band version for the album Smackwater Jack. This recording was then edited and used for the opening credits of the fifth through eighth seasons (1971–75). (The entire album track can be heard in the fifth-season episode "Unreasonable Facsimile" as Ironside and team track a suspect on the streets of San Francisco.) The iconic theme music has since been sampled in numerous recordings and soundtracks to recent television commercials and shows.
In addition to the opening theme music, Quincy Jones composed the entire score for the first eight episodes. Oliver Nelson took over those duties up to the end of the winter to spring 1972 episodes. Nelson was then replaced by Marty Paich for all the episodes from the beginning of the fall of that year up until the last episode that was produced in late 1974. The song "Even When You Cry" with music by Quincy Jones and lyrics by Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman was performed by James Farentino in the episode 'Something for Nothing' while Marcia Strassman had already sung it off-screen in the earlier episode 'The Man Who Believed' both during season 1.
At the start of its sixth season, Ironside did a two-part crossover episode with The Bold Ones: The New Doctors titled "Five Days in the Death of Sergeant Brown" where Ed is critically injured by a sniper and is treated by Dr. David Craig and his medical staff. Part 1 was broadcast on Ironside and part 2 on The New Doctors. Part 2 is now shown in reruns as an episode of Ironside. E. G. Marshall and David Hartman (stars of The New Doctors) received starring credit in the opening credits of both episodes. Part 2 features a longer edited version of Quincy Jones' Ironside theme as heard on his 1971 album Smackwater Jack.
NBC's 1971 fall TV season opened with a two-hour crossover between Ironside and a new series, Sarge starring George Kennedy as a cop-turned-priest. Kennedy's San Diego–based Father Samuel Cavanaugh came to San Francisco because of the death of a friend and fellow priest, and his investigation got him embroiled with Ironside and his staff. The special consolidated the two shows' consecutive time slots, and has been subsequently seen as a TV movie, The Priest Killer.
Jessica Walter guest starred in a spin-off episode for the series Amy Prentiss which aired as part of the NBC Mystery Movie 1974–1975. She played a relatively young investigator who becomes Chief of Detectives for the San Francisco Police Department. Helen Hunt, in an early role, played Prentiss' pre-teen daughter, Jill. Three two-hour episodes were aired.
Burr and the main cast reunited for a made-for-TV movie in 1993, The Return of Ironside, which aired on May 4, 1993 on NBC, not long before Burr's death. At the time, Burr was starring in a series of telefilms for NBC playing his most famous character, Perry Mason. In the intervening years between the end of Ironside in 1975 and the first Perry Mason movie in 1985, Burr's appearance had undergone some changes. His hair was grayer, he had gained a significant amount of weight, and after years of playing clean shaven characters he grew a beard.
Since nearly twenty years had passed since Ironside left the air, and since he had been playing Perry Mason on television for the previous eight years, Burr felt that he was more associated with Perry Mason and that in order to play Ironside properly and not confuse the viewers, he would need to undergo a small makeover to distinguish the Ironside character from the more identifiable Perry Mason. Burr thus had his hair colored, which he did not need to do because he had already been gray-haired when Ironside was originally on television, and cut his beard down to a goatee. One thing he did not need to do, however, was pretend to be disabled. At the time the Ironside reunion went into production, Burr had been suffering from kidney cancer that had metastasized to his liver and the disease robbed him of the ability to stand or walk without assistance. Thus, like Ironside, Burr was forced to use a wheelchair to get around.
Unlike the original series, which took place in San Francisco, California, the reunion was set and filmed in Denver, Colorado, with the justification that the character Ed Brown had become the city's deputy chief of police. (Denver was also where most of Burr's Perry Mason TV movies were produced.) Galloway, Mitchell, Anderson, and Baur re-created their roles for the movie even though Anderson and Baur had not worked together at the same time on the original series.
In 2013, a short-lived remake with the same name aired on NBC. Actor Blair Underwood took on the title role (with none of the other characters from the original series being used), while the action was relocated from San Francisco to New York City. This version of the character was more in the tough cop mold, often at odds with his superiors over his unrelenting, even violent approach to police work. The series was lambasted by critics and ignored by viewers, and was canceled and pulled after the airing of just four episodes (out of nine produced).
An episode of Get Smart which aired in March, 1969 was titled "Leadside" and featured a wheelchair-using master criminal by that name (and his assistants). Leadside could not walk; however he was able to run. Another episode was called "Ironhand" which had a KAOS operative with a hand encased in metal.
The December 1970 issue of Mad magazine included a parody of Ironside titled "Ironride".
On The Benny Hill Show, Benny Hill played Ironside in a few sketches, most notably in a sketch called "Murder on the Oregon Express" which parodied several TV detective characters.
Impressionist Billy Howard included Ironside as one of the detectives parodied in his novelty hit record "King of the Cops".
The 1980 television movie Murder Can Hurt You spoofs numerous TV detectives from the 1970s and 80s and includes Victor Buono playing the wheelchair-using detective "Ironbottom."
American Dad has an episode of "Wheels and Legman" that loosely parodies Ironside, where Roger and Steve have a fictional detective agency.
Tom T. Hall's country music classic "Old Dogs and Children and Watermelon Wine," about a nostalgic conversation in an almost deserted barroom, mentions the bartender passing the time by watching Ironside on television, although the song refers to it as "Ironsides," incorrectly pluralizing the show's title.
In British sitcom Phoenix Nights, Alan Johnson (one half of the resident musicians at the club) has wheelchair-bound club owner Brian Potter saved into his mobile phone as 'Ironside'. This is made clear in the 1st episode of the 1st series which shows a close-up of Alan's phone ringing as well as the 2nd series, with Max and Paddy seeing they've had several 'missed calls off Ironside'.
In the Jamie Foxx Show episode "I've Fallen and I Won't Get Up", Helen King (Ella English) refers to Kelly Coffield Park's lawyer, who is suing Jamie and The Kings Towers, as quote "She sounds more like Ironside."
In the CSI: Crime Scene Investigation season 2 episode "Stalker", Nick Stokes is thrown out a window during an investigation. At the hospital, he is in a wheelchair and co-worker Warrick Brown refers to him as "Ironsides".
A fifteen-second clip of the Quincy Jones theme tune is played in the Kill Bill movies whenever Uma Thurman's character sees an enemy.
In House, the lead character is called Ironside by Dr. Wilson while attempting to prove that wheelchair users are better off than cane users.
In Supernatural, season 5 episode "The Curious Case of Dean Winchester", Dean tells Bobby "Let's go, Ironsides," after encouraging him to keep hunting paranormal activity, even if wheelchair-bound.
In the fourth season of the series Breaking Bad, the character Hank suffers from a spinal bullet wound that prevents him from walking. When asked to go back on the case he was working on before he was shot, he replies, "What am I, Ironside?"
In Jonathan Creek episode The Clue of the Savant's Thumb, DI Gideon Pryke (Rik Mayall) is a detective who suffered a spinal injury from a sniper's bullet and is bound to a wheelchair.
The popular 1960's television series Get Smart parodied Ironside in its fourth season with an episode featuring a wheelchair-bound KAOS agent named "Leadside."
In "Operation: Lou," the 13th episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show's third season, Mary's boss, Lou Grant, goes into the hospital to have a piece of WW2 shrapnel removed. Later, as he is leaving the hospital after being released, seated in a wheelchair per regulations, he says, "Why do I suddenly feel like solving a crime?"
The synthesizer based theme to Ironside is played before the opening kickoff in Washington Redskins home games.
On a fifth-season episode of Cheers, Woody, the bartender, offers to show a visitor around Boston. She asks to see Old Ironsides. Woody replies, "I don't know if Raymond Burr lives in Boston."
Shout! Factory has released the first four seasons of Ironside on DVD in Region 1.
On May 9, 2017, Shout! Factory will re-release season 3 as a general retail release.
In Region 2, Anchor Bay Entertainment released the first season on DVD in the UK on August 25, 2008.
In Region 4, Madman Entertainment has released all eight seasons on DVD. The eighth and final season, which included the 1993 TV reunion movie The Return of Ironside, was released on October 19, 2011.
Season 5 includes the two-part crossover episode "The Priest Killer", a crossover with the series Sarge.