21 Jump Street

Graphic by Joel McCarthy
Graphic by Joel McCarthy

Still jumpin’ 30 years later

By Brandon Yip, Contributor


This year marks the 30th anniversary of the TV series 21 Jump Street. It made its debut in April 1987 with a two-hour pilot episode, airing on Fox television on Sunday nights for the first three seasons, becoming one of their biggest hits in the late ’80s. The show revolved around youthful-looking undercover cops who infiltrate high schools to arrest kids who were “too cool for school,” focused on hitting the crime blotter rather than hitting the books.

Shot in Vancouver, 21 Jump Street lasted for five seasons, and helped launch Johnny Depp’s career. Before landing the role of baby-faced Officer Tom Hanson, Depp had bit parts in such films as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Private Resort and Platoon. 21 Jump Street propelled Depp to superstardom; for four seasons, he endured and loathed being called a “teen idol” by all the media and teen magazines. Depp was never comfortable being labeled “a teen idol”, stating in a 1989 interview, “That’s not my goal (being a sex symbol). I mean if it happens in the interim, that’s fine. It’s nice that people see me that way. [But] I don’t really see myself that way.”

21 Jump Street would later be made into a motion picture in 2012 starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, with Depp making a cameo appearance, along with original cast members, Peter DeLuise (as Officer Doug Penhall) and Holly Robinson (as Officer Judy Hoffs). The TV version of Jump Street featured many guest appearances by actors, who would later become prominent in Hollywood, actors such as Josh Brolin, Brad Pitt, Kelly Hu, Christina Applegate, Vince Vaughn, Jason Priestley, Jada Pinkett Smith and Rosie Perez. In addition, the series stood out for being very socially conscious for its time, with the cast filming numerous public service announcements. The series focused on sensitive issues that are just as relevant today as they were back in 1987, such as teen pregnancy, drug addiction, abuse of the disabled, bullying, gambling, homeless youth, homophobia, racism, rape, AIDS, and mental illness.

Many notable Vancouver locations were used in the series too. In the original pilot, you can clearly see Burrard Street Station as Johnny Depp is chasing the villain, Tyrell (Reginald T. Dorsey), up the stairs out on to the street near the corner of Burrard and Melville Street. Later in episode 17 of season 3, “Blinded by the Thousand Points of Light,” several scenes were filmed on Granville Street, with Johnny Depp undercover as a street hustler waiting to be picked up by a predator who has been driving around, picking up street hustlers and assaulting them.

But some of the shooting wasn’t just relegated to Vancouver. Some episodes of Jump Street ventured outside of VanCity and into the surrounding areas. Lougheed Town Center featured in episode 17 of season 2, “Champagne High.” ROCK101 afternoon host and veteran radio broadcaster, Dean Hill, had a cameo in the opening sequence in that episode, playing a DJ running a contest to give away a Porsche that is promptly stolen and driven through a large glass wall.

Hill says it was a long time ago but he has good memories about the experience. “I am at the mall doing take after take of typical yelling into the mic stuff,” Hill said in an interview with the Other Press. “My recollections of the crew were [that they were] top-notch professionals and I don’t think it took too long to get [what] they wanted. My impression is that it was a cool and fun experience.”

Another episode, “Swallowed Alive,” was filmed at Coquitlam’s Riverview Hospital in season 3. And notably, the Douglas College New Westminster campus was used as the site location for a chase scene featured in the series’ pilot. The chase scene involved the criminal bad kid, Kenny (Brandon Douglas), eluding the cops while riding a motorbike down the stairs adjacent to the Student Union Building!

David Berner, Executive Director of The Drug Prevention Network of Canada and a therapist at the Orchard Recovery Drug Treatment Centre, recalls his memories of working on 21 Jump Street. He appeared in the pilot episode as a police officer, Mike Summers, whose character briefly interacts with Depp’s character, Tom Hanson. Berner says he auditioned for the role and got it very easily.

“It was such a long time ago and I don’t remember… I can’t even remember what I did last week!” chuckled Berner. Other than his scenes with Depp, which were shot at the BCIT Marine Campus in North Vancouver, Berner did not have a chance to talk to him off camera. But Berner remembers Depp as a quiet young man who had potential to become a big star. “I just remember that he hated the series! He was only 24 years old, a young man, and he knew that the series was a stepping stone for bigger and better things.”

Berner says that as a young actor, Depp “was professional and acquitted himself very well in our scenes together.” Berner recalls a very funny story that happened on the set during filming. In the pilot, Depp’s character, while making an arrest, accidentally elbows a fellow cop named Charlie Donegan (actor Barney Martin), in the nose. Martin is later seen wearing a bandage on his nose. In between takes, director Kim Manners set up a prank orchestrated with Depp inside a police locker room with urinals in one section of the room. Pretending that the cameras were rolling, Depp walked into the police locker room, walked up to one of the urinals, pretended to take a piss, then turned his head to look back at Martin’s character to say, “Oh, Charlie, about your fuckin’ nose. I don’t give a shit!”

Amusing incidents aside, Depp seemed to be enjoying his time in Vancouver, telling The Toronto Star back in November 1987 during the filming of season two, “One of the best things about the series is the Vancouver location. We’re shooting so far from Los Angeles that we can avoid the press when we want. Vancouver isn’t the kind of city where you can party every night. LA is wide open all night.”

But eventually as the series wore on, Depp’s passion for the show faded. He let his frustrations be known during a 1989 interview on the set of the film Cry-Baby, telling a reporter, “In the first two seasons, there was a lot of good stuff going on. There were good important messages. But I think towards the third season, it started to get a little showboaty. It started to become false…I’m not in any way trying to say that it’s a bad show. [But], it’s not what it started out to be. Now, it’s a product.”

While filming Jump Street in Vancouver, Depp lived at the Sutton Place Hotel and in the 1900 block of West 4th Avenue. In March 1989, during the filming of season 3, Depp was attending a party at the Coast Plaza Hotel in Vancouver’s West End, and was later arrested for assaulting David Sulina, a 19-year-old security guard, who was responding to a noise complaint issued against the party Depp was attending. In a September 1989 court hearing, Depp later admitted that he got into a shoving match and kicked Sulina in the groin. Depp’s Vancouver lawyer, Richard Israels, stated in court, “Like many of us, Johnny resents the abuse of authority. He felt the security guard was being unreasonable and power-tripping. Johnny overreacted, which led to the minor altercation.” Depp pleaded guilty to assaulting Sulina and the judge, Kenneth Scherling, gave Depp an unconditional discharge.

After season 4, Depp left the series, along with Peter DeLuise and Dustin Nguyen (Officer Harry Truman Ioki). Holly Robinson and Steven Williams (Captain Adam Fuller) would remain on for the rest of the series. Depp would go on to have a prolific film career, including of course, making the commercially successful Pirates of the Caribbean films as pirate Captain Jack Sparrow. As we reflect on the 30th anniversary of 21 Jump Street, it seems fitting that Johnny Depp would return to Vancouver, the city that launched his career, where he’s currently filming his latest movie, Richard Says Goodbye. While 21 Jump Street made use of many Metro Vancouver locations during its five seasons on Fox television, it’s pretty cool that Douglas College’s New Westminster campus played a role, albeit a minor one, in the show’s legacy.