Guest Post » Ground Breaking “Film Quality Television”: Hill Street Blues
Greetings, all and sundry!
Taking advantage of some splendidly warm weather. And having my arms and legs abused with aches and pains from places I’d forgotten existed from a murderous “first cutting” of my Zoysia heavy small front and expansive back yard. I’ve earned a respite and have decided to indulge an earlier Idea of “Film Quality” television. And expand it a bit beyond its superb cast of then, ‘nobodies”. Who worked incredibly well and created some of the best ensemble work of the 1980s.
Ground Breaking “Film Quality Television”: Hill Street Blues (1981-1987)
Whose pilot episode and its many repeats became one of most elusive of NBC’s prime time offerings. Being shuffled from one weeknight prime time slot week through week of its brief first season. With the meager aid of a next to non existent local ad campaign. Which was not really surprising. Due to the many of long-standing “rules” of prime time. That this pilot and subsequent series broke with surprising elan and justification.
Though once the series settled into its Thursday, 10pm time slot. What was once thought of as wasteful and weird became as comfortable and familiar as a broken in Lazy Boy or Eames chair.
From its loud jumbled voices and sounds of chair scraping behind a black screen and “Roll Call: 6:53 A.M.” Give or take. And the voice of the Turn Out Sergeant, Phillip Freemason Esterhaus (Michael Conrad. Always at the top of his game!) setting the day’s agenda for the assembled uniform patrolmen, Bobby Hill (Michael Warren), Andy Renko (Charles Haid) and Lucy Bates (Betty Thomas) sprinkled amongst plainclothes, J.D. La Rue (Always sweaty and slimy Kiel Martin), Neil Washington (Taurean Blacque) and Michael “Mick” Belker (Incredibly gruff, unshaven and grimy, Bruce Weitz!). While Detective Sgt. Henry Goldblume (Way too sensitive for his job slot, Joe Spano) and khaki jumpsuited, Sgt Howard Hunter (Fastidious James J. Sikking) watch from the back of the crowded basement room.
While Sgt. Esterhaus drones on about gang activity and local controllable annoyance, like prostitution. Looks, glances and quips abound. Until the mention of Item 14.”Unauthorized weapons’ via a memo from Chief Daniels. Which results in one of the funniest revelations and placements of brass knuckles, saps, koshes, nanchaku, shuriken. A sawed-off double-barreled shotgun. Gravity, flick and switchblade knives and a variety of smaller caliber “back up” pieces are given up. Pulled from inside belt and ankle holsters. Hip pockets. trench coats, jackets and from under flannel shirts. Once the weaponry is displayed. Sgt. Esterhaus turns. Moves on to the next topic and the weaponry is put back in place. Closing with a firm warming from the sergeant. “Let’s be careful out there!”
Just another day on “the Hill”.
Hill Street Station (1981)
While upstairs in his glassed in office, Captain Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti).. Who is perfect for the role. And does “phone” better than Bob Newhart; is in discussion with a school board member concerned about how the police “interface” with children. Backed up Lt. Ray Calletano (Rene Enriquez) locked in a discussion about the use of pencils over pens when filling out arrest, booking and transfer forms.
Which introduces the entrance of exquisitely dressed public defender, Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel). Angry at the precinct and system in general. Who have seemed to lost her client, an alleged flasher. All before Belker drags in a string of early morning hookers and a two-bit Chili Mac pimp. As Renko shows off his black dress, silver toed cowboy boots. Whom Officer Leo Schnitz (Robert Hirschfeld) leads to their ready and waiting accommodations, A pair of cells. With a quipped “Smoking or non smoking? All in time for:
Which picks up with a slow pan through the old and crowded, bubbling with voices bullpen. And a fight between teen gang members awaiting booking. One who is on Angel Dust manages to break away. Knock down a cop before being blitzed on all sides as Belker watches. Crushes his cigar and leaps from atop a desk to land amongst the wrestling officers. Ready to bite the restrained kid’s ankle. Only to be stopped by Captain Furillo at the last moment.
Cut to Hill and Renko patrolling along Decker Avenue in an abused and dented “new” police car. Talking about everything and nothing as Hill spots two young members of the “Diablos” gang walking out of a Brownstone with boxes of other people’s property. Light and sirens come on. The kids run down the sidewalk. And into a corner liquor store. Creating what could be a hostage situation as Hill and Renko cautiously await the next move. Which arrives in a shotgun blast that shatters glass. And sends every idle cop from the station flooding through its doors.
Dozens of white and blue (Think Chicago PD’s units from ‘The Blues Brothers’) converge on the narrow street as crowds grow and mill about. While across Decker, Detective Goldblume waits for technicians to wire an opened pay phone and establish communications. Out in the crowd, Washington and LaRue take a look and decide to split lest their plainclothes cover is blown. And Belker spies a tall, balding and trench coated African American (Nick Savage) dipping wallets and change purses from bystanders. Arrests are made quietly as back in the station Capt. Furillo is trying to make some sense of it all. Third hand and from Goldblume. Who relays that the two Diablos want their Jefe, Jesus Martinez (Trinidad Silva) to negotiate. While Esterhaus and Calletano sidestep or duck telephone interviews.
Tensions run high as Joyce Davenport returns, via a clever phone call from the earlier smitten LaRue. That her client has been found. Words sizzle as Sgt. Esterhaus tries to assuage Ms. Davenport. Leaving the door open for Furillo’s ex-wife, Faye (Angry, near neurotic, Barbara Bosson. Mrs. Steven Bochco) to storm in. Complaining that Frank’s child support check bounced. And that Frank Jr. is home sick with a fever, courtesy of the hockey game Frank had taken his son to the night before. Furillo bears Faye’s ire stoically (because she’s right!) as Esterhaus glides in and coaxes Faye away. To hopefully catch up on old times as Frank sets up a meeting with Mr. Martinez.
In the interim, LaRue tries to hit on Ms. Davenport, via an apology. That earns him a cup of freshly brewed coffee in his crotch. Faye, reassurance that funds have been transferred to cover the check. Its amount waiting for her at the bank. And the overblown arrival of Frank’s “11 o’clock appointment”. Jesus Martinez. His cashmere coat over gang vest and colors. And his entourage,
Take out ribs and sides arrive for lunch as Furillo, Calletano and Martinez negotiate. Explaining to Furillo that the liquor store in question is in the DMZ between Diablos and Conquisitador turfs. And for his help he’d like flack vests, a pump shotgun and an S&W .38. Furillo counters with T-shirts that the Diablos can design. The back and forth continues until Martinez suggests a police escort for his mother to receive her weekly cancer treatments in a third party’s gang territory.
Things are finally starting to look up as Sgt. Esterhaus suggests that Hill and Renko be cut loose to tend to a domestic dispute. Martinez is given permission to cut in on the line from Frank’s office. Unfortunately, Sgt. Howard Hunter is listening and succinctly destroys Detente while seeking justification for his “EATers” (Emergency Action Team) through a full frontal assault.
Furillo takes matters into his own hands. Orders Hunter to stand down and goes what we now call “Old School”. Unarmed, Jacketless. Offering himself as both hostage and negotiator. Slowly crossing Decker Avenue as the elder Diablo, Hector Ruiz (Panchito Gomez) steps out. Television news helicopters drop lower and lower to record the dramatic moment. The vibrations from their top rotor and downdraft causes bottles to tremble and rattle inside the liquor store. A bottle of something drops and breaks loudly. And one of Hunter’s EATers mistakes it for a gunshot.
All Hell breaks loose as the hostages cower under flying bullets, broken raining glass and ricochets. Furillo tackles Hector. A “Cease Fire!” is called and whatever passes for normalcy on The Hill is restored. Leaving an adrenaline ebbing Furillo to possibly heed the advice of Detective Goldblum and “Take a Valium.”
While Hill and Renko exit the shabby walk up apartment. Having quelled the possible butchering of an incestuous father and/or daughter by an irate, ignored wife. Only to discover that their police unit has been stolen! Renko starts to lose it. Loudly! Threatening to shoot up the streets as Hill vainly tries calming his partner down. Anger growing as broken pay phones loom left and right. Renko storms into another walk up. Throws open the vestibule doors. And sees a penny ante drug buy happening half in the shadows.
Buyer and seller panic. Turn. And four shots from a revolver ring out as Hill and Renko fall slowly to the floor.
I’ll leave it right here and save some surprises.
Now. What Makes This Pilot And Series Good?
The idea that three maverick producers (Steven Bochco, Michal Kozell and Gregory Hoblit) can gather their ideas and funds and pitch an idea to NBC for of all things, a cop show. Though not exclusively to uniform officers, as Adam-12. or detectives, ala M Squad or the comedic Barney Miller. But more of a “precinct show”. Encompassing all of the above. Then adding precinct management. And higher. Working from a premise inspired by Fort Apache: The Bronx.
Inner city. With not a lot of slack inside a major unnamed metropolis. Shot with then newer, smaller cameras in a crowdedCinema Verite fashion. With tons of overlapping dialogue in the crowded Roll Call Room and upstairs bullpens. As one would imagine from Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels.
Create stories for and between the precinct’s partnered officers and detectives. That would require more than a 48 minute format to bring to fruition. And have some of those fall off by the wayside. To possibly return in later seasons. Or not. In other words. Make it human. And feel as rough and real as possible.
With characters imbued with their own quirks and problems. Plus a reasonable dash of “Murphy’s Law” and unintended consequences. Add Mike Post to compose music to heighten tension, whimsy or pathos. Then pull in a writing team to pound out and polish scripts to match the talents of the cast.
What Makes This Pilot And Series Great?
The merging of superb writing, characters, locations (Mostly Universal City back lots) and lower middle class urban surroundings and mindset. Creating a hint of pressure with the near Herculean task of making a difference.
Working with a soon standardized three episode “arc” to allow guest stars to make their work unique and memorable. And the number of alums from this series is notable in the extreme. From Frances McDormand, Meg Tilly, Alfre Woodard and Lindsay Crouse. To Danny Glover, Christopher Noth. Michael Biehn, Tim Robbins, James Cromwell, Chazz Palminteri and Laurence Fishburne. Even Jonathan Frakes from Star Trek: TNG. Who’s busted mid first season by LaRue and Washington. And possibly bitten by Belker.
But it is the cast who pull the plow so well and effortlessly! Who were complete unknown when first viewed. Though given time for good and bad fortunes to make themselves known. Especially in Kiel Martin’s Detective J.D. LaRue. His never being able to hang onto money and his countless failed “get rich quick” schemes. Creating the template for later flawed cops. Like Baltimore Homicide Detective Jimmy McNulty in HBO’s The Wire.
Also Daniel J. Travanti’s recovering alcoholic Captain Frank Furillo. Veronica Hamel being the forerunner of every stiletto heeled lawyer thereafter. Charles Haid’s mediocre at best uniform cop always expecting praise for “the job”. Michael Warren’s conscience and by the book, Bobby Hill. And James Sikking’s Howard Hunter and his proclivity for large framed and barreled revolvers.
7 Responses to “Guest Post » Ground Breaking “Film Quality Television”: Hill Street Blues”
Thanks for this look back on a show that was my absolute favorite TV drama back during its original run. I agree that that the handheld camerawork added to the cinematic immediacy, as did the great cast that weaved around it. “Hill St.” does appear a bit dated nowadays, but was groundbreaking in its day. And the Mike Post theme music was the best ever.
And thanks for such a great opening comment!
‘Hill Street’ broke some rules and set some standards and techniques that are alive and flourishing today, Also, one of, if not the best written police dramas until ‘The Wire” rolled around. With ‘Barney Miller’ being the best written and executed police comedy.
Though it looks a bit dated. The series has held up and aged quite well. Mostly due to unique for their time plots, stories, hand held camera work. And exceptional scripts in the hands of a very comfortable and talented ensemble.
Mike Post’s bittersweet, kind of melancholy theme song sets the tone and fits like a tailored suit!
Hope to see you drop by and comment more often!
Will do. And I second the motion for “Barney Miller” one of my Top 5 sitcoms all-time.
Ooo…Barney Miller. Oh, yes. 🙂
Welcome, Rick. Great to have another fan of this show chime in. This show had some pivotal aspects for this genre and television. God, I love that Mike Post theme. Made the Top 10 of Billboard, too. Many thanks 🙂
Thanks so much for another splendid post, Kevin. Certainly one that highlighted a seminal cop program from the 80s. It really was a breakthrough series. One that influenced almost everything that followed it, including those of Steven Bochco, who was coming into his own as a producer.
This is a series that had me from its pilot onward. So, I wanted to get it right in regard to acting, writing, technique in the making and execution of one the best “partner” shows of the 1980s. And beyond.
Lots of coat tails, foot and fingerprints to adapt in later shows. from The Shield to The Wire . And most recently, The Chicago Code and Southland .
Mr. Bochco definitely caught lightning in a bottle with Hill Street . Hoping to see it happen again since Murder One and Over There .