There's a daily parade of lawbreakers in New York City's Twelfth Precinct, where the detectives are as nutty as the perps.
With its distinctive bass-note theme song played over the skyline of New York City, the long-running hit Barney Miller was one of the most "street" sitcoms of the 1970s: gritty and often morbidly dark in its comedy. Resurrected from an unsold pilot created by Danny Arnold called The Life and Times of Captain Barney Miller, the show was revived by legendary director John Rich, who had been given a development deal with ABC after he directed the first few seasons of All in the Family
. Rich saw the unsold pilot and requested that the show be picked up as part of his deal, but friction between Rich and Arnold forced Rich out after two episodes. Arnold viewed Barney Miller as his baby and exerted a great deal of control over every aspect of the production. The tapings became legendary, often lasting until three o'clock in the morning. (Arnold was notorious for doing massive rewrites after the first taping, stretching tape day to the point that it became unworkable to use a studio audience after the third season.)
The only actors retained from the original pilot were Hal Linden, straight from a long career on the Broadway stage, and the hang-dog Abe Vigoda
as the lugubrious Detective Phil Fish. Like those of Mary Tyler Moore
, The Bob Newhart Show, Taxi
, and WKRP in Cincinnati
, Barney Miller's expert ensemble signaled the demise of the character actor in modern situation comedies. In addition to Linden and Vigoda, the original cast included Max Gail as the hotheaded Detective Wojohowicz; Ron Glass as the suave Detective Harris; Gregory Sierra as the street-smart Detective Amenguale; and the hilariously deadpan Jack Soo as Detective Nick Yemana.
The squad room was a veritable melting pot of race and class, fueled by the most toxic coffee outside of Chernobyl. Often dropping in was the windbag Chief Inspector Luger, played by James Gregory, who possessed a borderline-sick obsession with the blood and guts of his own salad days pounding a beat. Rounding out the cast and providing the home-life facet of Captain Miller's life was the sensational Barbara Barrie as his wife, another New York stage transplant. Unfortunately for Barrie, the domestic side of things proved less colorful than life at the station house, and her character (along with the two Miller children) was phased out of the series; however her name remained in the credits until the end of the season.
Functioning almost as a character in itself was the precinct room, perhaps the most atmospheric set of any sitcom. The detail in the set decoration was extraordinary, light years more believable than the sprawling apartments of Friends
or Will & Grace
or the state-of-the-art workplaces of Suddenly Susan or Just Shoot Me. As the show evolved, it became more and more like a Broadway play, rarely straying from the precinct room and Miller's adjoining office. The cast of guest stars added a lot of flavor to the show, as neighborhood "regulars" getting booked and interviewed by the detectives. These included a gay couple, Marty Morrison and Darryl Driscoll; local liquor store owner Mr. Kotterman; Sidney, the local bookie; and ambulance-chasing attorney Arnold Ripner, in addition to a steady stream of pickpockets, hookers, and other assorted undesirables.
The show went through a series of cast changes, but, perhaps because it took place in a workplace, like M*A*S*H
, other shows that centered around a group of people brought together by circumstance as opposed to a family unit, Barney Miller held up well under the shifts. Actress Linda Lavin briefly joined the cast as the only female detective on the squad, and Steve Landesberg and Ron Carey came on board in the third season, as the pseudo-intellectual Detective Dietrich and the pipsqueak Officer Levitt, respectively. The show lost two of its most beloved characters, first when Abe Vigoda
was spun off into his own short-lived series called Fish, and later when Jack Soo died. So popular was Soo with the cast and audiences that the producers put together an unscripted tribute show where the cast reminisced about their favorite episodes featuring Soo.
And speaking of favorite episodes, one of the most memorable shows of Barney Miller's nine seasons featured a plot line that might not survive the gauntlet of today's network censors. In the third season, "Wojo" brought in brownies baked by his girlfriend. As it was the mid-1970s, the treats were, of course, laced with hashish, and each detective who sampled the magical baked goods had his own hilarious reaction. The episode was a triumph of comic character writing and acting.