Viewers had never seen anything like it.
And it wasn’t one of those spruced-up squad rooms people were used to watching. This one was dingy, dirty and messy.
And as actor James B. Sikking said, Robert Butler, who directed the first four episodes of Hill Street Blues, set the tone for the entire series by insisting that the squad room be messed up. “He wanted it dirtier, darker, grittier,” Sikking said.
Sikking, who played Lt. Howard Hunter, Bruce Weitz, who played detective Mick Belker, Ed Marinaro, who played Officer Joe Coffey, and Charles Haid, who played Officer Andy Renko, recently shared their memories of the series as it nears its April 29 debut on DVD in a complete series box set.
Among the themes that the four had in common was their respect for the show’s writers and directors as well as the quality of the work done on the series.
The key, Haid said, was how the writers developed the characters as the series progressed. Plus, the writers incorporated “what the actors were bringing to the table.”
“Occasionally, I took something to a scene and they (the writers) would expand on it,” Weitz said.
The actors described what they called the core of their characters. Renko, Haid said, was a “perennial adolescent,” thus “giving myself permission to behave that way.”
Sikking said down deep Hunter “was lonely. He was very offensive and was always one step out of step.”
Weitz’s Belker was a hard-nosed cop with a “vulnerability on which they (the writers) expanded” over the years.
Marinaro, a former Minnesota Vikings running back who joined the cast at the end of the first season, stayed with the series for five years before his character was killed.
He said Coffey’s humanity appealed to him. “He was very childlike.”
Marinaro said he requested that his character die because he felt there was nothing more he could do with Coffey and “I wanted to move on, maybe get my own series.”
Today, “Hill Street Blues” is considered one of television’s finest and most influential series, creating a template followed by such shows as ER, The West Wing, L.A. Lawand NYPD Blue.
But in 1981, the show barely was a blip on the radar. It remained on the air becauseFred Silverman, then the head of NBC, liked it.
Plus, the studio kept moving the show around to different nights to test out audience reaction before it finally settled into its 10 p.m. Thursday slot.
The Emmy nominations are what sealed the fate of the show, Weitz believes. He saidHill Street received more than 20 nominations and won eight awards, forcing the network to keep it on the air despite its low ratings.
Once settled into its permanent timeslot, and because of the Emmys, the show began getting noticed.
Sikking said that the first time he heard the term “demographics” in conjunction with a TV series was during Hill Street‘s run.
“TV was awful before then,” he said. “Hill Street Blues was a thoughtful show. The demographics showed that … moderate, well-educated and higher-income people were watching. … They wanted to be challenged by what was going on.”
Since Hill Street Blues went off the air in 1987, the four actors have kept busy.
Haid concentrates on directing TV shows and movies. He utilizes many of the techniques he saw being created on Hill Street Blues.
Sikking has been active in theater, movies and television, most notably as Neil Patrick Harris’ father in Doogie Howser, M.D.
Weitz has been in movies and television, performing for five years on the soap operaGeneral Hospital.
Marinaro had a recurring role in the TV series Blue Mountain State as well as guest star stints on other shows.
For all, though, Hill Street Blues has been the benchmark against which everything else is measured.
“It was pretty phenomenal what we did,” Marinaro said.
“It was such a joy to have the experience … the camaraderie,” Sikking said.
“It was a joy. You can’t believe how lucky you feel to have words like that to say. To be fortunate to work with other cast members who were so tremendously talented,” Weitz said.
The actors all praised Steven Bochco, the show’s creator. They said he worked with them, protected them and fought for them.
“Steven was able to see the actor and the character at the same time,” Haid said.
Sikking said he was excited to see the series released on DVD. “Older people will want to go back and look at the good times,” he said, invoking the word “demographics” again. And “we will find out if young people will pay for the DVD. We will see how it will do on DVD.”
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