Long after his retirement in 1971, Philadelphia Police Lt. John A. Stevenson would tell his children and grandchildren about the time he starred alongside Frank Rizzo and other Philadelphia officers in one of the first reality-based law enforcement shows on television.

"He always talked about it. It was like family lore," said Dan Stevenson, 40, Stevenson's grandson. "We were like, 'OK, Pop Pop, you were on a TV show.' "

Stevenson insisted he was on a TV show, and it was hosted by Oscar-winning actor Lee Marvin. It was just that the show never aired in Philadelphia, so nobody here ever saw it, Stevenson told his family.

"He used to say, 'I'm waiting for the calls to come in from Hollywood for me to be a movie star,' " said Stevenson's son John Jr., 69, a retired Philadelphia police officer. "So we always thought he was embellishing."

John Stevenson Sr. died in 2005 at 87, but his family never forgot his tale of the TV show. Every so often, Dan Stevenson would search online for the title, Lee Marvin Presents Lawbreaker.

After years of empty results, in 2013 Dan Stevenson got a hit: Lawbreaker was coming out on DVD. He placed an order for the four-disc set of the only season of the show, from 1963-64, and forgot about it until the package arrived on his doorstep.

Each episode of Lawbreaker was set in a different city and starred police officers playing themselves in reenactments of crimes they had investigated or situations they had de-escalated.

Dan Stevenson went through the 30-minute episodes, searching for his grandfather. When he came upon one of the two episodes set in Philadelphia and saw Rizzo, he got butterflies.

"Then, there he was standing there, my grandfather, and he talked and I went into tears. It was like seeing a ghost," he said. "Here he was, standing there in his prime, and this was the story that we heard for all those years."

He paused the DVD and called his father, John, who rushed over.

John Stevenson Jr. was overcome with emotion as he watched the show.

"To actually see my father again in his prime, seeing how brave he was - my dad died in 2005 - I'm ready to cry again now," he said.

John Stevenson Jr. said his mother, who died two years ago at 93, was mesmerized by the color footage of her husband, which was shot long before people had access to home movie cameras with color and sound.

"She would just sit and stare at it over and over again," he said.

One of John Stevenson Jr.'s other sons condensed the episode and put a clip up on YouTube.

Sgt. Eric Gripp was searching for the infamous 1980 clip of former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo calling CBS3 reporter Stan Bohrman every name in the book when he stumbled across the Lawbreaker clip this year.

Gripp, the Philadelphia Police Department's social-media sensei, didn't know what to expect when he started watching the department of 1963.

"A surly Lee Marvin hosting a show starring cops playing themselves? Be still my heart!" Gripp said of watching the clip. "That video is like Pulp Fiction - every time I watch it, I notice something new - and it's all terribly wonderful."

Marvin narrates the show from an empty, sterile control room that looks like an episode of the Twilight Zone set on the deck of the Starship Enterprise. As the camera pans over Philadelphia Police Headquarters, known as the Roundhouse, Marvin says: "The Police Department is modern. The headquarters building is new. The fight against crime is timeless."

Marvin tells the viewers the episode is about Charles Balster, "a man with a rifle who is angry at the world."

On Jan. 14, 1959, Balster, 48, committed a robbery and kidnapping and then barricaded himself, armed with a shotgun, in his apartment at 12th and Locust Streets.

Philadelphia police cars - which were red at the time - surrounded Balster's apartment, and officers and supervisors, including then-Inspector Frank Rizzo, gathered outside Balster's door in suits and classic police uniforms.

"To see the guys with the hats and Rizzo just immaculate, the way he always kept himself, it's amazing," John Stevenson Jr. said. "I think the big thing is it shows the Police Department 60-some years ago."

Rizzo, who went on to become police chief and mayor, is impeccably groomed and dead serious in the episode. Among his few lines: "If we need [tear] gas, we'll let you know."

It was John Stevenson Sr. who turned out to be the hero of the tale. In a bold move, he asked Balster to make coffee for the officers surrounding him - and Balster actually did it. When he came out with the coffee tray, Balster asked for someone unmarried and over 40 to pick it up. Stevenson, then 42 and married with children, looked to his comrades and when no one stepped forward, he did.

As Stevenson took the tray, he tackled Balster to the ground, and other officers swarmed in to arrest him.

"The police used time instead of bullets, and they won," Marvin narrates.

The incident made front-page headlines in 1959: "Midcity Gunman Disarmed in Siege" read one; "Man Who Hates Police Is Disarmed in Midcity House" read another.

For Stevenson's relatives, Lawbreaker is a window into history.

"I still watch it all the time with my children," Dan Stevenson said. "To see how the Philadelphia Police Department worked back then, and to see my grandfather in his prime - it's just fascinating. You can watch it over and over again and it doesn't get old."

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