Baretta was half a spin-off from another detective show. Robert Blake had originally been scheduled to take over the lead role in Toma after Tony Musante left that series. But Toma had not been a big hit, and rather than risk being tied to an unsuccessful series the title was changed and alterations were made in the locale and other details. In essence, Toma became Baretta, moved to California.
Tony Baretta was, like Toma, an unconventional cop. He was streetwise, single, with a decidedly funky lifestyle: he holed up in a run-down old hotel when he wasn't on the job, which was seldom. He was usually seen in T-shirt and jeans, with his trademark cap pulled down over his forehead. The orphaned son of poor Italian immigrants, Tony knew the city inside out. He was a master of disguise, and because of his rough appearance was able to infiltrate such groups as motorcycle gangs and even "the Mob." Needless to say, he refused to have a partner and always worked alone. Inspector Shiller was his original boss, later succeeded by Lt. Brubaker. Billy Truman was a retired cop who was a combined manager and house detective at the hotel where Baretta lived.
There was plenty of hard action in this series, despite Blake's public protestations that he opposed wanton violence on TV. The show had a "with-it" light sense of humor; comic relief was provided by Tony's fancy-dude informant-friend Rooster and by Fred, Tony's pet cockatoo. Blake's real-life wife Sondra Blake was an occasional guest star.
After personal conflictions with the star Robert Blake on the set, co-star Dana Elcar was replaced by Edward Grover when the series returned for its second season.
The theme song, "Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow", was written by Dave Grusin and Morgan Ames; initially an instrumental, lyrics were added in later seasons that were sung by Sammy Davis, Jr. Every episode of Baretta began with the song, which contained the motto, "Don't do the crime if you can't do the time." The song was released as a single in Europe in 1976, reaching number one in the Dutch Top 40 as "Baretta's Theme".
Baretta’s pet cockatoo’s name was “Fred”.
Baretta: And you can take that to the bank!
Baretta: Don't do the crime if you can't do the time.