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The Hill Street Blues Legacy
The Hill Street Blues Legacy
SERGEANT'S ROLL CALL : 6.57am
Television has enjoyed a cultural renaissance in recent years with more quality programmes being produced aimed at a more discerning adult audience.
Higher production values with more involved plot-lines, strong dialogue and fully developed character roles have been the result of good writers returning to the TV medium rather than the CGI emptiness of the cinema.
Police dramas especially have changed over the years and today we have the three ‘CSI’ series, ‘The Shield’, ‘NCIS’,’The Wire’ ‘Law and Order’ all enjoying commercial success and critical acclaim.
But all of these programmes owe their heritage to one programme. The multi-award winning ‘Hill Street Blues’ which first broadcast almost 30 years ago running from 1981-87.
It was the brainchild of producer and writer Steven Bochco and it marked new territory in the genre of the TV cop show. It was thanks to Mary Tyler Moore that the show enjoyed such success under the independent production of 'MTM Enterprises' which she founded in 1969 with her then husband Grant Tinker.
Hill Street Blues accumulated 98 'Emmy' nominations over 7 series and actually won 26 of these, placing it among the most successful TV shows in history. Ironically it had never enjoyed huge ratings and incredibly faced being cancelled after only one series.
The hallmark of ‘Hill Street Blues’ amongst many other attributes was that it introduced the ensemble cast into a Police series. It also dispensed with the notion of self-contained episodes where the cops beat the bad guys and had the case sewn up before the credits.
Instead plot-lines could run for several episodes and even be resumed at a later date with characters being re-introduced. This allowed the writers to fully develop their storylines.
Multi-casting was a novel approach as previously the popular shows of the 1970s had one protagonist such as super-sleuth ‘Colombo’ or the wise-cracking ‘Kojak’ the latter of which although involving strong supporting roles nevertheless served mainly as a vehicle for the talents of Telly Savalas.
Of course the ‘buddy’ style of cop show existed most popularly from ‘Dragnet’ to ‘Starsky and Hutch’ and less so with ‘Cagney and Lacey’ and ‘TJ Hooker’. In fact of all the cop shows preceding it the one most closely associated with ‘Hill Street Blues’ would be ‘Barney Miller’ a situation comedy that successfully attempted to show daily detective work as it really was.
But the influence of ‘Hill Street Blues’ was not restricted to Police drama as it also inspired new ground in hospital drama. This was first shown by the series ‘St Elsewhere’ another MTM production which unsurprisingly followed a similar formula.
Multiple characters and plotlines, authenticity and a touch of black comedy. Subsequently more hospital dramas appeared like ‘Chicago Hope’ and of course the hugely successful ‘E.R’.
A direct comparison can be made with the excellent 'Homicide: Life on the Streets' and less directly perhaps with 'The Sopranos' which still contained shades of the Hill St influence in its style.
But possibly the most striking comparison with recent TV programmes has been with ‘The West Wing’ which despite involving a completely different subject matter, is obviously a direct descendent of Hill St as it shares the strong ensemble cast with interwoven stories and quality dialogue well served by fine acting.
All of these shows have followed faithfully the benchmark set by Steven Bochco and the other talented people behind ‘Hill Street Blues’ such as Anthony Yerkovich and Michael Kozoll.
They established gritty, hard-hitting dramas inhabited with real people and real situations.
Gone are the two-dimensional heroic figures with their clichéd car chases, hip comments and black and white portrayal of good guys versus bad guys.
Hill Street Blues served up a warts and all image of police officers and the dangerous duties they performed. This was enhanced by the pioneering use of hand-held cameras and mood lighting on a TV programme that produced realistic images of 'cinema verité' not conforming to the familiar staged set-piece direction of the shows of the 1960’s and 70’s.
Alongside this adherence to reality was the effort put in to develop the characterisation of the roles played by the many wonderful actors in the show. Daniel J. Travanti memorable as the ethical and compassionate Captain Frank Furillo who, although was as tough as nails when the situation demanded, always nursed that fragility of the recovering alcoholic in a highly stressful occupation.
Veronica Hamel as the perfect beauty of the Public Defender Joyce Davenport, and Betty Thomas the unconventionally sexy Lucy Bates but both given the freedom to build up strong female roles in a male dominated environment.
In earlier episodes you would have been forgiven for regarding Bruce Weitz’s ‘Belker’ as nothing more than a comic portrayal of a psychopathic ankle-biter. Similarly with Lt Howard Hunter played by the vastly underrated James B. Sikking, who is initially seen as a clinically efficient SWAT commander with authoritarian, right-wing tendencies descending into occasional buffoonery.
However as the series progressed Sikking and Weitz, with the aid of the writers, brought a real depth and understanding of the flaws and the humanity of their characters. We later saw Hunter as much more than the officer with a touch of racism.
In the early shows his natural reaction to the ethnic diversity of America’s melting pot was to order one of his subordinates to “Check that man’s immigration status” when apprehending a black or Hispanic suspect. Belker even became a family man settling eventually into stable domesticity with a female officer Robin Tattaglia and fathering a child with her.
But all of the cast of ‘Hill Street Blues’ were fine actors and actresses and blended perfectly with each other from Michael Conrad as Sergeant Esterhaus with his trademark catchphrase “Let’s be careful out there” at roll call downstairs to Robert Hirschfield as Leo upstairs among the chaos on the front desk.
In between there were superb performances from Charles Haid, Michael Warren, Keil Martin, Dennis Franz, Joe Spano, Rene Enrique, Robert Prosky, Ken Olin, Jon Cypher, Ed Marinaro and Taurean Blaque. And who could forget Trinidad Silva as the cooly hip Jesus Martinez, head of a Latino Gang who would partially redeem himself by eventually trying to come good.
Another fine actress was Barbara Bosson who was the real-life wife of Steven Bochco. She played Fay Furillo, the captain's vulnerable ex-wife who faced a nervous breakdown on a daily basis.
Unfortunately her character was the only one I could have done without as her regular hysterics and floods of tears in the station became a real source of irritation. Therefore it was something of a relief when the fragile Mrs Furillo did not appear in the last series.
The programme obviously dealt with harrowing and traumatic issues as the characters tried to keep a lid on the murderous ‘Hill’ where drugs deals, racial tensions and gang warfare were daily occurrences.
However the darker side was often enlivened by uproarious black comedy reminiscent of Joseph Wambaugh’s ‘The Choirboys’ with fake shooting pranks at the expense of rookies, grossly eccentric characters and untimely, sometimes bizarre deaths commonplace among the denizens of the Hill.
Many actors and actresses appeared on the series before they were famous.
Therefore it is an interesting curiosity to see many well-known celebrities, who were then unknown, pop up in various episodes or even appear as regulars on the show.
Actors like Danny Glover, Forest Whittaker, Jonathan Frakes, Linda Hamilton, Tim Robbins, Andy Garcia, Joaquin Phoenix, Cuba Gooding Jnr and Ally Sheedy all had small parts.
Surprisingly it was Jeffrey Tambor who rose from the side part of eccentric lawyer turned judge Alan ‘Give ‘em Hell’ Wachtel to become well known as Garry Shandling’s sidekick Hank on the brilliant ‘Larry Sanders Show’.
But probably the most successful of them all is David Caruso who went on to carve reasonable success in the movies but more especially in Bochco’s ‘NYPD Blue’ with Dennis Franz starring alongside and more recently as Horatio Caine in ‘CSI Miami’ which has a huge following.
And of course Frances McDormand, who played a cocaine-addicted lawyer in Hill St, went on to Oscar success for her role in 'Fargo' playing a female cop in the Cohen Brothers quirky thriller.
Strangely however, most of the main cast members never went on to greater things which is highly ironic considering the overall quality of the cast. Despite the potential star quality on offer of the likes of Veronica Hamel and Ed Marinaro the vast majority of the cast have never scaled the heights since the series ended.
The best that most have attained is appearing in minor roles and guest appearances on popular shows and films. Others have ended up on obscure cable shows and little known movies. In fact Daniel J. Travanti has explicitly distanced himself from the show believing that it held back his career through being typecast. He much prefers to tread the boards of the theatre nowadays.
However, behind the cameras Charles Haid and Betty Thomas have carved themselves a niche in direction with a certain degree of success. Charles Haid has been behind the camera on many TV shows most notable on several episodes of 'E.R.', 'Nip and Tuck' and most recently on 'Criminal Minds'.
Betty Thomas has had even more success in cinema directing the popular 'Doctor Doolittle' starring Eddie Murphy and also behind the helm of Howard Stern's outrageous 'Private Parts' movie.
Ken Olin has also become a director of such shows as 'The West Wing' after playing a lead part in front of the camera in 'Thirtysomething' from 1987-91. The talented Anthony Yerkovich unfortunately stopped writing for 'Hill Street Blues' after three series.
Subsequently he had immediate success with 'Miami Vice' in 1984 when he teamed up with Michael Mann. Steven Bochco himself was fired from the show and went on to create L.A. Law, a successful show about Los Angeles attorneys.
Certainly when you watch episodes of 'Hill Street Blues' now, over 20 years later it will have dated a little around the edges. It is amusing to realise that there are no mobile phones on screen as anxious cops look around the streets for a call-box or Furillo responds to a disruptive pager while enjoying a meal in a restaurant.
But all shows will age to some extent and even today 'Hill Street Blues' is still strong due to its high production values, authentic scenes, fine acting and ultimately intelligent storylines and sparkling dialogue.
It enjoys a high repeat value to me personally as in this modern age of disposable culture and fast-food entertainment I know I can return to it time and time again. With every viewing I can find something new and surprising to discover. Such is the richness, depth and texture of this rough-hewn diamond which will offer a timeless appeal to all generations.
And in conclusion just to finish off this briefing let's end with Mike Post's classic theme tune from the show.
- HILL STREET BLUES (Hill Street Blues Fan-Page) | MySpace
MySpace profile for Hill Street Blues Fan-Page. With videos and photos of the cast and scenes from the series.
.........and remember................. LET'S BE CAREFUL OUT THERE!