Before Breaking Bad. Before The Wire. Before The Sopranos. Before NYPD Blue. On January 15, 1981, a cop drama called Hill Street Blues aired to low ratings on NBC. When it finally went off the air, seven seasons later, it had altered TV forever.
That's a big claim, but it's true. The show centered on a run-down police station house in an unnamed North-Eastern city. This was in the time of cutesy cop dramas like Starsky & Hutch, where the teeth of exploitation cop films had been filed down for the 45 minute format. But from the opening sequence – a rowdy briefing in the squad room, while suspects and victims filed through the desk spaces upstairs – it was clear this was different. A massive ensemble piece, grimy, gritty, with an underlying sense that the cops were putting a band-aid over the issues. They were misfits, too, just as much as anyone in the neighborhood, and the show talked about their personal lives as much as the crimes they investigated. And there were consequences: Characters got hurt, shot, killed, and didn't magically heal by the beginning of the next episode.
Today, Shout! Factory releases the complete Hill Street Blues on DVD, and we talked to four members of the cast about their experiences on the seminal show: Charles Haid, who played urban hillbilly beat cop Andy Renko: James B. Sikking, who made straight-laced Lt Howard Hunter into a satirical and tragic figure; Heisman runner up and two-time Superbowl veteran turned actor Ed Marinaro, aka Officer Joe Coffey; and Bruce Weitz, whose feral depiction of undercover cop Mike Belker made him an unlikely sex symbol.
James B. Sikking: I had been a good friend of [producer/series creator] Steven Bochco for 10, 12 years. Our children grew up together. He was writing at Universal and I was out trying to get jobs. When he could help me, I was happy to be there, and if I could do what he wanted to do, it was fine. It was a good relationship that extended into the highly competitive environment of show business. Steven said he wanted a SWAT man in this police story, and I'd been in the military a couple of times, and he said, "You could do that." I said sure. They got the name Howard Hunter, so the moniker works, and I picked out the uniform, the boots and the ribbons and the cap and all the crap that goes with the kind of semi-military operation.
Bruce Weitz: Originally, I was sent the script, and they wanted me to audition for the part of LaRue, the part that Keil Martin played. I read the script, and I called Steven, who I had gone to school with, and I told him that I would rather go for the part of Belker. He was initially a little hesitant, but then he acquiesced. The thing that struck me about Belker was the possibility this angry, hurt man exposed, and to see his softer side, so you would have a complete character. I went with my intuition. I said, if they're stupid enough to write this for seven years, it's going to be boring after the first year unless they make this character vulnerable and human. They were smart enough to do exactly that.
Hill Street was a rare show that felt fully formed, with character dynamics and location fully established from episode one. According to Weitz, that was established from day one of rehearsals.
BW: We met at a little hotel over in Studio City, a week and a half, maybe two weeks before we were starting to shoot the pilot. They rented a conference room for us, and we rehearsed. We had numerous discussions about the atmosphere and the time and the background, so we were all on the same page about what we wanted to achieve. The thing we discovered was that the whole was infinitely greater than the individual parts, and everybody bought into that.
The first episode was supposed to come with a big shock. At the end, Renko and his partner Bobby Hill (Michael Warren) were supposed to be gunned down and written out. That was the plan, but instead the pair lived to deal with the emotional consequences of their brush with death.
Charles Haid: I was in the middle of a film career, and Steven asked me if I wanted a part in it. I said, "Not if it's forever, because I'm doing all this other stuff." So we cam up with this Renko guy who was going to get shot. Then they wanted Renko to be around.
NBC had only given the show 13 episodes to prove itself, but with a four episode extension, in the same season, Bochco tried to kill another cop, bringing in Marinaro for a short arc as the partner of Lucille Bates (Betty Thomas.)
Ed Marinaro: I was a guest star and then I was going to die in the final episode. I was just happy I had a job, and it was a great working environment and I got along with everybody, and the character seemed to be working. They just decided, unbeknown to me, that they wanted to add me to the cast the next year, and started negotiating with my agent. We filmed two versions of the scene where I got shot: One where there's no doubt that I'm dead, and the next I duck and just get wounded, Steven Bochco was on the set that night, and he told me that Joe Coffey's life was in the hands of my agent.
By contrast to Marinaro, Haid was already an experienced theater producer, and has since directed shows as diverse as another Bochco production, Doogie Howser, M.D., as well as ER, Breaking Bad and Nip/Tuck. But he never got behind the lens on the Hill Street set, and neither did any other cast member. That was Bochco's decision.
CH He had me, he had Betty Thomas (The Brady Bunch Movie, Private Parts), he had (script supervisor) Mimi Leder (The Peacemaker, Shameless), he had a bunch of potential directors on there, but they never got to go behind the camera. Too many people, too many egos. You couldn't say "this person gets to do this." It was very democratic on that show, and Steven ran that place with a beneficent iron fist. No-one was going to step over, and he didn't want to separate people from their work. He used to call us a cast of mutts. No pure-breds in there at all. Except for Ed Marinaro, maybe, or Veronica Hamel, none of us are good looking enough to be on TV today, Unless maybe you're on Sons of Anarchy.
EM: We barely wore makeup when we did that show. We wanted to look ugly.
CH: When I saw the pilot, I said, this is where I want to be. Fresh, new, a great ensemble. Everything about it. Steven Bochco just dared to do it.
EM: I always described Hill Street as a show about people who happened to be cops, and life happened. It wasn't about what we were doing as cops. It was about what we were doing while we were being cops.
But the show didn't hit with US audiences immediately. In part, it was boosted by good foreign sales, not least in the UK, where its depiction of the gritty side of American life resonated with an audience that couldn't empathize with the forced pastoralism of a Leave it to Beaver.
JBS: I did a show in the East End, and the amazing thing to me was that I never paid for a cab. Those guys would spot me and go, "Hey, hey, where're you going? I'll take you." So I always had London cabs taking me places because they wanted to know about Hill Street.
CH: We were a big deal over there. People would say, "'eh, 'eh, Renko, Renko!" The one guy I wanted to meet over there was Bennie Hill, so I gave him a thing, and we called it Bennie Hill Street Blues. The rest of the time was spent with idle rock and roll people at Tramp. Somehow I'm at Roger Daltry's house.
But the show was on the bubble from day one. It was the 1981 Emmies that saw it leap from low-rated and critically applauded footnote to a TV institution.
CH: None of us had been to the frigging Emmies. We'd been working in a vacuum on stage 17 on Radford in downtown LA in a bunch of shit. All of a sudden, we're sitting in the Shrine Auditorium this coterie of people sat all together, halfway back, and all of a sudden, they're playing that goddam theme over and over again. Everybody won something. Best actor, best actress, best supporting and score and writing and best show, we won. No-one had heard of us. We'd been on for seven episodes.
EM: We'd be hanging around, going to these award shows with these people doing, with all due respect, this cheesy stuff, and here we are, the show winning Emmy after Emmy for everything, and people were kind of in awe of what we were doing.
Part of the appeal was that so many of the cops had partners. Their tensions and bonds were the perfect vehicle for the show to explore both the personal and political issues of the day, as their scenes locked in patrol cars became miniature two-hander plays. Few relationships were as key as Renko and Hill, and Coffey and Bates
CH: Mikey and I, we had instant chemistry, despite his baldness. He's one of the most gentle, nicest, kindest, funniest guys I know. Polar opposites, personality-wise, he and I, hence Hill and Renko. But if you look at it that way, if you look at Taurean Blacque and Kiel Martin, and if you look at Coffey and Betty Thomas' character, opposites are what makes drama.
EM: [Betty] came from a comedy background, and I came from a sport's background, and here we are doing a TV series. You've got to admire the powers that be to cast people like us, who weren't classically trained actors, and end up being on this critically acclaimed show.
Meanwhile, as an undercover detective, Belker's closest relationship was with his unseen Ma, a constant nagging and needy presence at the end of the phone line.
BW: That dichotomy between being angry and fierce, and that softness as soon as his mother called, was attractive to men because they could recognize it and understand it within themselves, and attractive to women because they thought, "This is a man that could be tamed."
In all of those station house partnerships, Hunter was the odd man out. Instead of a close friendship, he was often in conflict with his peers, the wise lieutenant Ray Calletano (Rene Enriquez) and the house's liberal conscience Lt. Henry Goldblume (Joe Spano).
JBS: I'm standing on the set in my cap and pressed pants and pipe, and it's obvious that he's totally different from anybody else there. But what you want the audience to know is that he would like to be liked. He would like to be a part of it. He's just not that character.
Over seven seasons, every actor had the chance to jump from comedy to drama, and each had their own favorite plotline.
BW: There's two that stand out in my mind. One is getting married with Robin. That was wonderful for the character and Lisa Sutton, the actress, she was a joy to work with. The other was the whole continuing story line with a criminal by the name of Logan, who I arrested time after time, who finally died in my arms in a shoot-out, and subsequently having to call his mother.
EM: There was an episode where I dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder from Vietnam, which was before there was even a term for it. I had to shoot a fellow Vietnam veteran, and looking back on it, it was a subject that hadn't been broached at that point. It was only 10, 15 years after Vietnam, so it was a fresh memory.
JBS: I loved when Howard fell in love with Wolfowitz (Kathleen Lloyd) and he's almost silly in love. She was his nurse when he was in hospital and she was so kind, and he let out his humanity to her, and they got into bed, and things were happening, and it was wonderful, and then she said, "I would be very happy if you would convert to Judaism." His line was, "Like that black entertainer, Sammy Davis Junior?" It was one of those moments of, 'oh, Howard, give it up.'
CH: The death of my father. When he dies and they find him in an alley, and Renko says, 'Oh, lordy, what have they done with my daddy?" Then consequently, the scenes after that, about him confessing to the love he had for his father, and what his father meant to him. It was the maturing of Renko.
Part of the show's appeal was balancing black comedy with genuine tragedy. Sometimes that was how the cast dealt with real life, such as the death in 1984 of Michael Conrad, the actor who gave the show so much heart and soul as the paternal Sgt. Phil Esterhaus.
JBS: They decided to do was take his ashes into the toughest section of Hill Street, where the police work had to be done. They went down at night, they all took a little bit of the ashes, spread it in the street and said a few words about how they appreciated him and loved him and how he was a great turnout sergeant. It was very sad and emotional and moving. They stood up and got in the cars and left, and just as they're leaving, you hear Wrak-wrak! wrak-wrak! and here comes the street sweeper and cleans the street. That's perfect Hill Street.
Over three decades since the first episode, the show is still having an impact on television.
CH: They wouldn't dare to make this show today, because it's about a bunch of different people. It's all, she's blonde, she's nude, she's dead, who killed her, let's go find them. The closest thing would be Downton Abbey or Game of Thrones.
BW: A big part of it was the overall pervasive feeling of futility, which always contributes to any great tragedy.
JBS: You have to tell the truth, or the audience won't have faith in you. You can't just sugar the sour bits of life.
CH: Robert Altman stared it, Scorsese kept it going, Robert Butler did it in Hill Street Blues. Giving permission to deal with life on life's terms.
The complete Hill Street Blues is out on DVD now from Shout! Factory. Also out this week:
Escape From Tomorrow (Cinedigm) The bizarre, subversive drama shot in Disney World, without Disney's approval. You'll never look at the Magic Kingdom the same way again (read our review and our interview with director Randy Moore.
Sophie's Choice (Shout! Factory) A well-deserved Blu-ray release for Meryl Streep's haunting holocaust drama, with commentary by director Alan J. Pakula.
Devil's Due (20th Century Fox) Internet horror collective Radio Silence make their feature debut with a supernatural pregnancy.
The Rise and Fall of The Clash (Shout! Factory) The ugly demise of the biggest punk band.
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