Johnny Depp was a relative unknown when he entered into the world of Stephen J. Cannell's teen-cop series, 21 Jump Street.
Depp had gotten his big break, just three years before, when he was cast as one of the fateful teens in the landmark Wes Craven-directed horror film A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984. He went on to have starring roles in forgettable films like Private Resort and Slow Burn. He also did his share of TV with guest spots on Hotel and Lady Blue.
It was 1987 when he landed the role of Officer Tom Hanson on 21 Jump Street, and the series became one of the staples that emerged in the slowly-growing Fox Television network. It was a cop show that teens and young people could relate to.
The series followed the exploits of a group of under-age looking cops who would infiltrate high schools looking for crimes. We aren't talking who stole Jim's pencil, but the series touched on all the valid elements that affect teens. It was an after-school special encased in cool.
The series touched on everything from drug smuggling to date rape to abuse cases. It was a landmark show because it often dared to go where a lot of network shows wouldn't in the 1980s. Johnny Depp was right in the middle of this cutting edge show. He even contributed to back-up vocals in the show's theme song, sung by fellow cast member Holly Robinson.
From the opening episode we see the world through the eyes of Depp's character Tom Hanson, and what is uncanny is that watching those early episodes we can also see what it must have been like as Johnny Depp began to evolve into the thespian he is today.
Probably the first episode that really challenged Depp as an actor on the series was the episode in the first season called "Blindsided". The episode features Depp's Hanson character meeting the beautiful Diane Nelson, the daughter of a policeman, who wants Hanson to kill her father who is sexually abusing her. The episode marks one of the strongest and possibly the best performance in the early career of emerging actress, Sherilyn Fenn. Just three years later, Fenn would land one of the lead roles in David Lynch's Twin Peaks.
Another crucial episode during his time on the show was Season 2's "Orpheus 3.3", where Hanson seeks revenge after his girlfriend Amy Pearson is killed. Why is this such a landmark episode in the series' second season? The storyline and romance between Amy and Hanson spanned over seven episodes, starting with the season's 10th episode "How Much is that Body in the Window?". The ill-fated Amy was played by Dorothy Parke, who had numerous guest starring roles in a lot of high-profile shows from 1986 to 1991.
The episode was also controversial in that it killed a key character, but it also deepened the character of Tom Hanson. I guess this episode's impact on the show was similar to how the Luke Perry character on Beverly Hills 90210 was affected when his girlfriend (Rebecca Gayheart) was killed.
When I watched the end of the current season of The O.C. and saw the death of femme fatale Marisa Cooper (Mischa Barton) in the arms of her lover Ryan Atwood (Benjamin McKenzie), I was reminded a lot of Perry in Beverly Hills 90210 and Depp in "Orpheus 3.3". I just hope that Marisa's death influences Ryan's character as much as it did for Depp and Perry.
Depp officially left 21 Jump Street after the conclusion of the fourth season, but it wasn't until the season premiere of the fifth season that fans said good-bye to Tom Hanson. On a side note, actually, three episodes from the fifth and final season of the show were filmed during the fourth season.
In the controversial and very memorable episode, "Blackout", Hanson and company are locked in a school without power with a defiant gang. This tense and unpleasant episode was one of those from the series that you will never forget, and saying that, it was an interesting swan song for Depp's tenure on the show.
The show's fashion definitely echoes the times but by the show's third season you don't really notice it much. The fashion was toned down and that was about when the show was finally finding its groove. The fashion in the first two seasons is alarming and not really that complimentary, as on shows like Miami Vice. The feeling you get when you see what they are wearing during these two start-up years kind of reminds you to pull out those old yearbooks and look at what you looked like circa 1987-1988. Trust me, you would fit right in.
The more you watch 21 Jump Street the more you can see what kind of amazing range Johnny Depp had even in his early beginnings. If you are really curious to see where Johnny Depp came from, then check out this series for its historical and cultural history.
After the conclusion of the series, Johnny Depp became a break-out star overnight with Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands in 1990. It really is a shame that it took until 2003's The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl before mainstream movie audiences would really see what an amazing thespian Johnny Depp is really is.
For those of us who have been there since the beginning, Johnny Depp's rise to infamy began with a stroll down Elm Street.
Note: All five seasons of 21 Jump Street are now available from Anchor Bay Entertainment. You can see Johnny Depp's latest performance in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, now in theatres. Also be sure to check out Depp's brilliant but barely-seen performance in The Libertine, now on DVD.