Beacon Journal popular culture writer
Charles Haid remembers the night that Hill Street Blues ticked off most of the television industry.
It was September 1981 and the Emmys for the previous TV season were being handed out. Hill Street had just finished its first season. Viewership had been appallingly low; Haid, who played officer Andy Renko, said even though NBC had ordered a second season, Hill Street was the network’s lowest rated show to be renewed — and even people working in television were not watching it.
Yet, on that night it was named best drama.
Daniel J. Travanti, who played Capt. Frank Furillo on the show, won for best actor in a drama.
Michael Conrad, as Sgt. Phil Esterhaus, won best supporting actor in a drama.
Also in the drama category, Barbara Babcock, as Grace Gardner, won best actress. Robert Butler won as best director for his work on the series premiere. Michael Kozoll and Steven Bochco won for writing the premiere.
“Here we were, this little group, the cast and our significant others in the Shrine auditorium, and all of a sudden they kept playing the Hill Street Blues theme over and over,” Haid said in a recent telephone interview. “You could see the people around us got tired of it. We would be cheering, but no one else in the Shrine auditorium was cheering because they hadn’t seen us.”
But those of us who had discovered the show were thrilled. In 1981 I bought my first videocassette recorder — a leviathan of a Betamax — so I could tape Hill Street while working a night shift. And those Emmys were no fluke. The series would win more awards in the years ahead, including three more Emmys as best drama. It is a TV landmark. A list of series that would not have happened without Hill Street is too long to manage here.
The series is still marvelous to watch in Hill Street Blues: The Complete Series, a 34-disc, 144-episode collection of the program’s seven seasons (Shout! Factory, $199.99). The box includes extras like a booklet with an essay by TV critic Tom Shales and an extensive making-of documentary. But I was glued to episode after episode. Even after decades of other shows copying its style, and expanding on its grittier side, Hill Street still demands attention.
Haid said the people making the show had no idea at first that greatness loomed. In fact, Renko was meant to die in the premiere — he and partner Bobby Hill (Michael Warren) gunned down when they stumbled into a drug buy. But audience testing for Renko went through the roof, so Renko survived the shooting (and Haid, having quietly heard about the tests, was able to negotiate special billing in the credits.)
Work on the show was stalled by an actors’ strike in 1980; though work resumed later that summer, Hill Street did not premiere until January 1981, so production steamed along in a vacuum, Haid said. The show took shape “in downtown alleys and soundstages here in Los Angeles. And working in a vacuum for the first bunch of episodes, we were sort of like a little repertory company in rehearsal …
“And then the Emmys happened,” Haid said.
Audiences finally came around, and found a show where the diverse characters were complicated — often heroic in their chosen profession, but flawed in the way they went about their work and personal lives. Alcoholism, divorce, sexism, race, corruption — all came into play early on. So did simple personality flaws; Renko, Haid recalled, was an overgrown boy when the show began. The city around Hill Street was in decay — unnamed, but reminiscent of Pittsburgh, old stomping grounds for Bochco (and Haid). And that city was violent and unpredictable. Seemingly simple law-enforcement decisions bumped up against urban politics. Stories were not contained by an hour; they sprawled across episodes, and their eventual resolution could prove grim.
Hill Street’s ensemble of troubled characters was set in a documentary-like, messy look (credited to Butler). Dialogue overlapped and a single episode could have numerous storylines bumping against each other,
Haid — now mainly a director — said Hill Street was hugely influential on that craft, because Butler and his successors were determined to find the right look and style instead of settling for a one-size-fits-all approach common with some companies. Hill Street also changed the rules for writer-producers as mastermind Bochco proved what a show could accomplish when a network and studio stayed out of the way,
At the same time, though, the cast — which also included Bruce Weitz, Betty Thomas, Kiel Martin, Taurean Blacque, Rene Enriquez, Joe Spano and Veronica Hamel — brought great skill to bear, and even small parts were filled by actors who would later get very big; David Caruso was a bit player, for instance.
Yes, some of it has not aged well. The police procedures are occasionally outdated, and the acting in intense moments can veer into the melodramatic. There are spoken slurs that were acceptable at the time, but are no longer. And viewers who have grown used to widescreen images have to readjust to Hill Street’s old, standard-TV-frame format.
Even though the series ran seven seasons, Haid said it should really be defined and judged on the first three or four, and that’s evident as well. The third season is certainly a peak. David Milch, later famous for NYPD Blue and Deadwood, joined the writing staff that season and promptly won an Emmy. Another part of the NYPD Blue team, Dennis Franz, broke through as an actor by playing a rogue detective on Hill Street. Though that role ended, Franz would return to the series later as a different character. (He once told me he was willing to do anything to get back on Hill Street — it was that great a gig for actors.)
The third season was the last complete one for Conrad, who died of cancer during the fourth season; his character, Esterhaus, died of a heart attack in the fourth season and the series never really figured out how to replace him. (Rewatching the episode where the squad is told of Esterhaus’s death, I misted up again.) I could keep talking about cast changes, many of which were unsuccessful, or the battles off-camera. But in the end, there was still a show that had created new, remarkable possibilities for television. We all owe Hill Street a thank-you for that.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com. including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or email@example.com.