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By the end of its first season in May 1981, “Hill Street Blues” was already a television classic — renowned for breaking barriers and forging a new path in police procedurals that still resonates 40 years later.
The series, created by Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll, set the gold standard for its “docudrama” approach: its innovative use of handheld cameras and quick-cut editing and the way in which it portrayed the personal and professional lives of cops in an unnamed metropolitan city.
Even its two leads were unorthodox: Capt. Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti), the dapper, intense chief of Hill Street, a recovering alcoholic always dressed in a three-piece suit, and public defender Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel). They were, at first, lovers, then eventually married and ended many “Hill Street Blues” episodes in bed together, talking about their day.
“Those bed scenes were not about sex. They were about two people who really dug each other and about the tensions of their day and … the touch of flesh between two people who really crave each other and the comfort that gives,” Travanti, 81, told The Post.
“The show had satire … which is rare in television, but you didn’t have to get the satire to appreciate the stories because they were so organically correct, so psychologically and emotionally valid. It was not manipulative and mechanical.”
Travanti, who’d spent the previous 17 years appearing in dozens of TV shows — including “Perry Mason,” “The Patty Duke Show,” “Route 66,” “Gidget” and “Gunsmoke” — was 39 when he first read for the role of Furillo.
“Feb. 12, 1980. Some moments are burned into your brain,” he said. “Bochco apparently said, ‘Who was that guy? What’s he doing in there reading [the script]? He’s a star!’ Then there was thundering silence for days on end and … I got a call on Friday, March 7, my 40th birthday. We started on Monday, March 10, and I shot my first scene the next day.”
Despite its pedigree, including Bochco — who went on to develop “LA Law,” “Doogie Howser” and “NYPD Blue” — and acclaimed director Robert Butler, “Hill Street Blues” was never a Top 10 show during its seven-season run; its best showing, in terms of viewership, came during the 1982-83 season, when it finished at No. 21, sandwiched between “Knots Landing” and “That’s Incredible!”
Yet its resonant quality guaranteed it a top spot in the pantheon of network TV dramas, not only for its terrific writing, including the memorable “Let’s be careful out there!” — said after roll call by Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad) through Season 4 — but for its first-rate ensemble cast, including Joe Spano, Betty Thomas, Bruce Weitz, Dennis Franz, Michael Warren, Charles Haid, James Sikking, Taurean Blacque and Ed Marinaro.
“It was the first time I saw cops in a soap opera, so to speak, about their lives and points of view as human beings,” said Thomas, who won an Emmy in 1985 for her portrayal of Officer (later Sgt.) Lucy Bates. “They were all flawed human beings who were struggling and I don’t think that was seen before or thought about in that way. That theme was applied to hospital shows after that and became the style from then on.”
Even the show’s catchy theme music, written and performed by Mike Post, became a hit — winning a Grammy Award and charting at No. 10 in the US.
Still, it wasn’t smooth sailing for “Hill Street Blues” when it premiered in January 1981. NBC, which didn’t put much faith in the series, threw up various roadblocks, including a helter-skelter programming schedule which seemed designed to throw viewers off the scent — strange, since the network, at that time, was lagging ABC and CBS.
“NBC tried their best to get rid of us, and heaven knows why,” said Travanti. “They did their best to destroy us and only ordered 13 episodes — that’s how confident they weren’t. And when did they put us on the air? Jan. 15, 17, 22 and 24. That’s disgustingly destructive, stupid and idiotic. There aren’t words strong enough.
“You put us on the air for four episodes that are thrown away in nine days? People barely saw us. What the f – – k was that? Everyone was up in arms and screaming at NBC, and NBC was screaming at them. If they had dumped ‘Hill Street Blues’ they would’ve been called the idiots of all time. Their being in that weak position worked in our favor — but also threatened us all the time.”
The series caught on slowly but surely. It was both critically and popularly acclaimed and NBC ordered four additional Season 1 episodes, taking the maiden season of “Hill Street Blues” through the end of May. “It was rough, but we prevailed,” Travanti said. “So there. It was like, ‘F – – k ’em if they can’t take a joke.’ Then we had an [industry-wide] writers’ strike and an actors’ strike — [series co-star] Barbara Bosson was picketing her husband, Steven Bochco, outside the building.”
Thomas, who went on to a distinguished directing career on both the big and small screens, credits “Hill Street Blues” as a huge learning experience that suited her well in her later directing roles in films such as “The Brady Bunch Movie” and TV shows including “Grace and Frankie.”
“I was definitely influenced by the show,” she said. “We used to watch each other’s scenes. [Director] Bob Butler really developed the style of that show. Bochco and everybody wanted it to feel a little documentary-ish; Bob did those first four episodes and that pretty much established the style of the whole thing.”
Thomas said she still remembers how, in the “Hill Street Blues” pilot, Butler told her he’d have a camera on her for a close-up shot, even though she had no dialogue in the scene, in which Lucy Bates is sizing up Joyce Davenport. He said, ‘You don’t need lines, just show me how you feel about her.’ That was my biggest lesson in acting, ever. I did that shot and it was in the pilot and it does show what the working-girl cop thinks of the hifalutin lawyer without any words.
“It was so simple.”
When all was said and done, “Hill Street Blues” ended its run in May 1987 after 146 episodes and 26 Emmys, including four consecutive victories for Outstanding Drama Series. It broke ground through its final season, which featured Officer Kate McBride (Lindsay Crouse), the first lesbian recurring character on a network series.
“We were unique. There was nothing like us,” Travanti said. “We incorporated elements of many other things. We didn’t do anything brand new. Handheld cameras had been used forever, episodic stories had been used forever and the in-depth exploration of cops’ private lives was used here and there in movies and TV.
“But nobody had put it all together like this until ‘Hill Street Blues’ and that was fortuitous,” he said. “The planets were aligned — we had Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll and then they got Bob Butler and there was Greg Hoblit behind the scenes. How it all came together was a goddamn miracle — but that’s what happens maybe once in a lifetime or in a career.”
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