PLAYBOY INTERVIEW: HILL STREET BLUES – Oct. ‘83
A candid conversation with the creator
and many of the cast of television’s
most intelligent, innovative and critically acclaimed dramatic series.
On January 15, 1981, NBC inauspiciously aired an hour-long series pilot called “Hill Street Station.” Covering a single day in the life of an inner-city police precinct located in an undersigned metropolis and featuring an oversized ensemble cast of relative unknowns, the show had a frenetic pace and a grittily realistic style. Characters walked in and out of frame, dialog was choppy and overlapping, action was sudden and gut-wrenching and individual dramas never seemed to reach resolution. Suddenly, without warning, unsuspecting viewers were thrust into the chaos of a police station: There was precinct captain Frank Furillo’s ex-wife barging into his office to demand her overdue alimony check; just outside, a scruffy undercover cop with a reputation for biting felons subdued a rowdy low-life; the beautiful and cool public defender Joyce Davenport walked by; the precinct’s elder statesman, polysyllabic Sergeant Phil Esterhaus, whispered into a telephone to his teenaged sweetheart; suave but sleazy Detective J.D. LaRue was unceremoniously doused with a cup of hot coffee while eloquent Lieutenant Howard Hunter dispensed dime store wisdom on the pervasiveness of inferior races; and, finally, there were the two blues, beat cops Andy Renko and Bobby Hill, walking innocently into a ghetto ambush in the dark recesses of a condemned building. The staccato pace and the unfamiliar style didn’t let up – not for a minute – and one thing became immediately apparent: Nothing quite like “Hill Street” had ever been seen on television.
Initial audience reaction, however, was unspectacular. Viewers accustomed to being lulled to sleep by late-night fare were roughly awakened by “Hill Street’s” wallop; they weren’t used to keeping track of 14 regular characters, countless extras and stories that didn’t have neat, sanitized endings. The Nielsen ratings for the first season ranked the show – by then retitled “Hill Street Blues” – at the death-knell mark of 66 out of 69. But if the viewing audience was slow to come around, the press wasn’t. From the outset, critics were uncharacteristically unanimous in their praise of the quirky hybrid of cop show and soap opera, in effect pressuring NBC to stick with it despite lackluster ratings. Meanwhile, desperately trying to find a suitable home for its unique and somewhat perplexing product, NBC frantically shuffled the show from time slot to time slot, making it almost impossible for “Hill Street’s” small but dedicated group of fans to tune in.
But “Hill Street” prevailed. Word of mouth, critical acclaim and the first season’s 21 Emmy nominations kept the series alive for that first crucial year. A remarkable 42 Emmy nominations, three Golden Globes, a Grammy, People’s Choice, Peabody and countless other prizes later, “Hill Street Blues” is entering its third full season as one of NBC’s only bona fide hits. According to statistics, VCR fans tape it more than any other show on TV; and certain Congressmen have reportedly been known to leave prestigious dinner parties to watch it.
Much of “Hill Street’s” success can be attributed to its casting. Creators Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll brought together 14 highly experienced but little recognized pros whose average age is now 35, somewhat older than the peach-fuzz average of many series stars. Backing them up is an unusual assortment of writers, including ex-assistant Manhattan district attorney Jeffrey Lewis and former Yale English professor David Milch.
To talk with the people who make up the show, PLAYBOY sent Contributing Editor John Blumenthal (who conducted our last cast interview, with the “Saturday Night Live” crew, in 1977) and writer Betsy Cramer to the Studio City headquarters of MTM, production parent of “Hill Street Blues,” and to the stage location of the precinct. Their report:
"What had all the potential of a Chinese fire drill turned out to be an incredibly well-organized and smooth-running operation. When we arrived, the cast was busy shooting three new episodes for the May ratings sweeps, a factor that disabused us of any notion we might have had about getting all of them together in one room. Half of the actors were occupied on stage 15, completing the interior precinct shots, while the other half were off shooting at various locations in downtown Los Angeles. (Maintaining ‘Hill Street’s’ any-city look, we learned, principally involves finding sites devoid of palm trees – no easy task in L.A.) As a result, we talked with the cast members mainly in the pairings their characters maintain on the show – Hill and Renko, Joe Coffey and Lucy Bates, Furillo and Davenport and so on – sometimes enlarging the group, sometimes breaking off to talk one on one. We had hoped to include the writers of the show – the real heroes of ‘ Hill Street’s’ success – in the final interview, but not all were available and space considerations prevailed. We did manage to speak with 19 people – five writers and producers and all 14 cast regulars.
“What soon became evident was that ‘Hill Street’ers share a sincere and deeply felt family spirit. In fact, much to our surprise, we have found the entire oversized group mostly devoid of the prima donnas one would naturally expect on a hot TV series. With their age and experience, all have been through their own Hollywood wars – as Charlie (Renko) Haid told us over beers in a neighborhood bar, ‘There isn’t a drinker or a doper in the group.’ What came across was a sense that they are mature professionals, proud of their product, performing their jobs as conscientiously as they know how – and that feeling clearly carries over into the show’s chemistry.”
Following is a brief summary of each cast member’s background, as well as Bochco’s résumé. (His co creator, Michael Kozoll, is no longer with the show.)
Bruce Weitz (Detective Mick Belker) went through Carnegie Tech with Haid, Bochco and Bosson, acted on Broadway in “The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel,” “Norman, Is That You?’ and “Death of a Salesman” with George C. Scott, and in Shakespeare in the Park. Weitz went West in 1977. To convince then-MTM president Grant Tinker that he was right for the part of Belker, he is reputed to have leaped onto a table and growled during his audition. He has been twice nominated for an Emmy for his work on “Hill Street Blues.”
Veronica Hamel (Joyce Davenport) has received two Emmy nominations for her role as the beautiful public defender on “Hill Street Blues.” Once a successful model, she began her acting career on the New York stage, then moved to Hollywood in 1975. She turned down a chance to be one of the three original Charlie’s Angels but appeared on numerous other series, including “The Rockford Files,” “Kojak,” “Dallas” and “The Bob Newhart Show.” She has also had roles in movies, including “Cannonball” and “Beyond the Poseidon Adventure.”
Daniel J. Travanti (Captain Frank Furillo) has won two Emmys and a Golden Globe for his portrayal of “Hill Street’s” forbearing leader. An alumnus of Yale Drama School, he appeared on Broadway in “Othello” and in guest roles on many TV shows. He recently completed his master’s degree in English, hosted “Saturday Night Live” and has contributed his time to speaking on behalf of the national “Don’t Be a Dope” campaign against drug abuse.
Charles Haid (Officer Andy Renko) graduated from Carnegie Tech, received a grant from the American Conservatory Theater, laid bricks and mixed drinks in New York before beginning to direct and produce plays off-Broadway. He co-starred with Michael Conrad and Judd Hirsch in “Delvecchio,” a series created by his friend Bochco; when it was canceled, he appeared in “The Execution of Private Slovik,” “The Choirboys,” “Who’ll Stop the Rain” and “Altered States.” In 1979, he coproduced the Oscar-winning “Who Are the DeBolts and Where Did They Get 19 Kids?” As Renko, he’s been twice nominated for an Emmy.
Michael Warren (Officer Bobby Hill) was a two-time all-American basketball star, graduated from UCLA with a degree in film and broke into TV doing commercials, which led to roles on “Adam-12,” “Marcus Welby, M.D.” and “Mod Squad.” He appeared in the film version of “Butterflies Are Free” and had running roles on NBC’s “Sierra” and “Paris.” His portrayal of beat cop Hill landed him an Emmy nomination last year.
James B. Sikking (Lieutenant Howard Hunter) spent some time in the military, where, in his own words, he “fought the bloody battle of Fayetteville, North Carolina.” After attending UCLA, he guest-starred on more than 200 TV shows, including “The Bob Newhart Show,” “M*A*S*H,” “Columbo” and “Charlie’s Angels.” He also had a three-year stint as Dr. Hobart on “General Hospital.” Sikking’s movie credits include “The Electric Horseman,” “The Competition” and “Ordinary People.”
Betty Thomas (Officer Lucy Bates) worked as a high school substitute teacher in Chicago before hooking up with Second City. She performed with the noted improv group (which at the time included such fledgling comics as John Belushi and Bill Murray) for more than three years, then moved to Los Angeles to start a Second City franchise in Pasadena. On the big screen, she has appeared in “TunnelVision” and “Jackson County Jail.” Her role as a Blue has gotten her two Emmy nominations.
Ed Marinaro (Officer Joe Coffey) was a three-time all-American running back at Cornell, was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings and played pro ball with them for six years, including two Super Bowls. After a stint with the New York Jets, he retired from football. Invited to Los Angeles by his friend Joe Namath, Ed landed guest-starring roles on “Eischeid” and then on “Laverne and Shirley,” which led to a regular part on the latter series. By a similar turn of fate, his guest-starring role on “Hill Street” was turned into a regular part as Lucy Bates’s partner.
Taurean Blacque (Detective Neal Washington), whose real name is Herbert Middleton Jr., started his acting career in New York with the Negro Ensemble Company and made his Broadway debut in the Tony Award-winning play “The River Niger.” Since his move to California in 1976, he has appeared on “The Bob Newhart Show,” “The Tony Randall Show,” “Paris” and “The White Shadow.” H is portrayal of Detective Washington earned him an Emmy nomination.
Kiel Martin (Detective J.D. LaRue) started as an actor and a singer following his Army discharge in 1964. In 1967, Universal signed him to a contract and placed him in such shows as “Dragnet,” “The Virginian” and “Ironside.” His later credits include the movies “The Undefeated” and “Panic in Needle Park,” as well as such TV shows as “Harry O,” “Kung Fu” and “The Bold Ones” and a stint on “The Edge of Night.”
Steven Bochco (co creator and executive producer) began writing for television between his junior year and senior years at Carnegie Tech, from which he graduated in 1966. He readily admits that his reputation as the worst actor ever to attend that school is well deserved. After sharing his first TV writing credit with Rod Serling, Bochco went on to become story editor on “Name of the Game” and, later, on “Columbo” and “McMillan and Wife.” His numerous credits include “Delvecchio,” “Silent Running” and “Paris.” With the aid of several other “Hill Street” writers, Bochco has come up with a new show about a small-town minor-league baseball team, tentatively titled “Bay City Blues.” He has received numerous Emmy nominations, a Writers Guild Award and an Edgar Allan Poe Award.
Rene Enriquez (Lieutenant Ray Calletano) attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and was a member of the original Lincoln Center Repertory Company, for which he appeared in a number of productions from Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams. After holding down a Wall Street job to support himself, he moved to California and took roles in numerous films and TV series, including “Harry and Tonto,” “Police Story,” “Quincy,” “Benson” and “Charlie’s Angels.”
Joe Spano (Lieutenant Henry Goldblume) was originally headed for a career in the priesthood but decided that theater would be just as interesting. He worked in various San Francisco improv groups, including The Committee, and appeared in small roles in such films as “American Graffiti,” “The Enforcer” and “Roadie” as well as on such TV shows as “Paris,” produced by Bochco.
Barbara Bosson (Fay Furillo) worked briefly as a Playboy Bunny in New York to afford tuition to Carnegie Tech, alma mater of several other “Hill Street” regulars. In 1967, she spent the summer performing with the improv group The Committee in San Francisco, where she met and subsequently married Bochco. Her feature-film credits include “Bullitt” and Capricorn One.” For her performance as Furillo’s feisty ex-wife, she has received two Emmy nominations.
Michael Conrad (Sergeant Phil Esterhaus) has won two Emmys for his performance as the sexy, multisyllabic Esterhaus. Following stints in the Army and later, in City College of New York, drama workshop of The New School, Conrad appeared on Broadway in “The Lark,” made his movie debut in Rod Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight” and went on to perform in such TV classics as “The Naked City,” “The Defenders,” “Rawhide” and “Wagon Train.” Before “Hill Street,” he had starred in “Delvecchio” and “Paris.”
PLAYBOY: Most of you have been acting for ten to 15 years. What does it feel like to become suddenly famous in a hit TV series?
SIKKING (Howard Hunter): I think success is all it’s cracked up to be. My wife and I get along very well now. My banker and I get along very well too.
HAID (Andy Renko): Oh, I don’t know; I’d like to be able to go to a restaurant and be able to have food dribble out of my mouth or pick my nose or scratch myself.
CONRAD (Phil Esterhaus): My greatest joy was sitting in a restaurant with these good-looking guys – Ed Marinaro, Michael Warren, Chuck Haid and Bruce Weitz – when this mature lady came up and said to me, “I just love you.”
PLAYBOY: A lot of your characters have become sex symbols, but we’re a little surprised that Belker is in that category. No offense, Bruce, but how do you feel about a grubby character like Belker’s being a turn-on for the ladies?
WEITZ (Mick Belker): Flattered, I guess, but what the hell’s wrong with the female population? Somebody once told me that women would like to take Belker home and give him a bath.
PLAYBOY: Has anybody tried?
WEITZ: No, but I’d welcome any invitations.
PLAYBOY: What about the women of the group? How has the sudden fame been for you?
THOMAS (Lucy Bates): Imagine trying to get a date! When I meet new people, especially men, it’s weird for them, because I have a lot of power and it’s tough for most men to accept.
HAMEL (Joyce Davenport): Betty and I have discussed this; we’re in a whole other ball park now. Being single, with all this fuss and fanfare, I mostly meet men who have a preconceived idea of me before I even sit down to dinner with them. I’ve got to meet someone who doesn’t watch television! I want to meet people at face value and get to talking: “Hello, this is Veronica Hamel, not Joyce Davenport….” Yes, it gets in the way.
BOSSON (Fay Furillo): I don’t get anywhere near the attention you two get publicly; Veronica, especially because of the bubble baths and the sexuality of that role – people don’t want to separate her from the role of Joyce Davenport. Since my role is that of Frank Furillo’s former wife, people do tend to disassociate me from the role -to be nice.
PLAYBOY: Mike, you were on Donahue on a panel of TV’s sexiest male stars. How was that?
WARREN (Bobby Hill): It could have been worse.
HAID: Look at him. Cute guy, isn’t he?
THOMAS: If we’re going to talk about this, let’s talk about Travanti; he’s the prince.
TRAVANTI (Frank Furillo): I’m ambivalent about it, as I’ve been about everything in my life. I was a well-known unknown for a long time, so this is certainly different. Furillo is different from nearly every role I’ve played in the past – a lot of dumb, crazed guys. I was never the leading man.
PLAYBOY: Why not?
TRAVANTI: I was just a nose. There’d be an audition, maybe for a commercial, and I would be invisible. They’d just see a nose float in and float out. Now, my God, I’m asked to appear at six functions a week. I could go out every night of the year. It’s like a sugar cube. You keep sucking on it and it disappears.
WEITZ: You just can’t take it too seriously. You have to keep the thought in the back of your mind that one day this is going to end.
PLAYBOY: Then let’s go to the beginning. How did all of you happen to come to Hill Street?
THOMAS: Ed Marinaro came in his Porsche with short shorts on.
BOSSON: Not a lot of people know this, but Ed got hired because I wanted him. I said, “Come on, Steven, let me have a nice Italian cute guy on the show.”
HAMEL: That’s the real story behind Fay’s pregnancy.
MARINARO (Joe Coffey): Originally, I had a guest-starring role and my character was supposed to get shot and killed in the last episode of the season. But they changed the ending to sort of leave things hanging. They had only two street cops at the time –Hill and Renko. The show was called Hill Street Blues, but there were only two Blues. So I didn’t die. They kept me in to validate the Lucy Bates character---
THOMAS: To get her out on the street. [Turns to Marinaro] Are all your answers going to be this long? Because I could take breaks. I could go have dinner in between.
MARINARO: And because I was taller than she was.
PLAYBOY: How about you, Kiel? How did you come to Hill Street?
MARTIN (J. D. LaRue): I was in Florida on one of my many honeymoons. I’d worked with Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll [the series’ co creators] over the years. They’d tell me every year or so, “Hang on, we’re going to have something for you soon.” Well, in this business, you hear that a lot; that’s so much tissue. But they meant it and called me, and it really amazed me.
MARTIN: It was the first time in my career I played a part where I wasn’t some terrible creep. I’d killed every goddamned thing in America, including nuns and babies. I did soap for a year and a half, and I axed five people because their contracts were up. Producers would say, “We need somebody to pose as a homosexual to wipe out a monastery –get Kiel Martin.”
PLAYBOY: Steven, you’d worked with a lot of the Hill Street cast in Paris and Delvecchio; did you write specifically for other actors besides Kiel?
BOCHCO (co creator, producer): We wrote specifically for Michael Conrad, Bruce Weitz, James Sikking and Barbara Bosson.
PLAYBOY: Since you and Barbara are married, you must have known you’d encounter static by casting her in the show.
BOCHCO: Well, I knew I’d be buying myself tons of tsooris trying to put my wife into a running role in this series. I knew the initial reaction would be, “Oh, Bochco’s trying to buy some peace at home –or to get a piece at home.”
PLAYBOY: To get laid, right? At any price.
BOCHCO: When you’re making a pilot, you’re in open warfare with networks that want to impose their tastes on what you do. You’re screaming, you’re fighting, you’re playing poker with them. I fought with NBC casting over virtually everybody. They didn’t want this one, they didn’t want that one….Anyway, there’s a lot of poker and bluffing. So I figured, if I go to NBC with my hat in my hand asking for approval for Barbara Bosson to play a running role, I’ve given them a poker chip. But to hire this actress for one day’s work in the pilot took the pressure off. I didn’t have to deal with NBC, because NBC has no approval over guest appearances--
BOSSON: So when Fred Silverman saw the pilot, he said, “And that wife, Fay, whoever she is, I hope we’re going to see more of her. She’s terrific.” So Steven said----
BOCHCO: So I said, “Well, I think I can deliver this actress.”
BOSSON: And I was signed to a series deal.
PLAYBOY: Did any of you audition for parts other than the ones you now play?
SPANO (Henry Goldblume): I originally read for the part of Renko. And about a month later, they offered me the Goldblume role.
PLAYBOY: You don’t seem the Renko type.
SPANO: I wasn’t the Goldblume type, either. I’m Goldblume now, but he could have been anything. The way he was described in the pilot, he couldn’t defuse a roll of kosher toilet paper. That was not my style. But I was always disappointed that I didn’t end up playing Renko.
PLAYBOY: Was Goldblume’s bow tie your idea?
SPANO: That was Kozoll’s idea. And I fought it all the way.
SPANO: I thought it was a stereotypical thing to do. But it actually turned out to be right. You don’t play into the bow tie – you fight against it. I notice people now wear bow ties.
PLAYBOY: We noticed that you always wear a toothpick, Taurean. Did that come with the role of Washington?
BLACQUE (Neal Washington): Uh-uh. I stopped smoking 12 years ago and started toothpicks. Then a New York critic described me as the kind of actor who could probably drink a can of beer with a toothpick in his mouth, so I kept it.
PLAYBOY: Are there other things that you share with your character?
BLACQUE: There’s a lot there between the two of us. He wears my clothes. I get to incorporate a lot of me into Neal Washington. He’s vulnerable and street-wise.
PLAYBOY: Are you street-wise?
BLACQUE: Am I street-wise? Am I street-wise! Born in Newark, raised in New York, lived in Harlem and you ask me if I’m street-wise? I’m not political now, but when I first came out here, I wore my hair in braids –wore beads, earrings, terrified everyone. Yeah, I’m street-wise.
PLAYBOY: Is your name political?
BLACQUE: No. My heritage is black –spelled Q-U-E- and I’m a Taurus. I decided I needed a name change I could relate to. It looks good on a marquee and never fails to get attention in casting offices.
ENRIQUEZ (Ray Calletano): As far as using our own lives in the series, Steven is very clever that way: What he sees in each of us often ends up being written into our roles.
PLAYBOY: What’s an example in your case?
ENRIQUEZ: At the beginning of the past season, I went to speak at a country club here in Los Angeles and there was not one single Hispanic there. I began the speech by asking, “Why? This city is 56 percent Mexican-American. Don’t they excel in anything? Can’t they be members of this club? The only Hispanics I see here are waiters and busboys.” And that incident became my speech on Hill Street in which I said, “Why huevos rancheros in my honor? Why do you assume we all must like Mexican food?” That’s how brilliant Steven is.
MARTIN: The writers are very perceptive reporters. They’ll take things from what they see in you, but they’re able to see beyond the bullshit. It’s the most well-intentioned exploitation imaginable.
PLAYBOY: How about you, Jim? How similar are you to Howard Hunter?
SIKKING: I’ll tell you: I wrote the character of Howard. I directed the first Howard segment. I created the costumes, even sewed them….
WEITZ: And for this, he’s tremendously underpaid.
SIKKING: I also created the lighting; I’m part inventor of the Panaflex camera; I invented the Smith & Wesson. In fact, almost everything I do on the show, I do in real life.
PLAYBOY: That’s very impressive.
SIKKING: As much as I decry this policy, Hill Street Blues is not The Howard Hunter Show. We’re trying to change that.
WEITZ: Some of us are not trying to.
PLAYBOY: But, seriously….
SIKKING: Seriously, Hunter is a long way from me. I rarely wear my flak jacket, my .357 Magnum or my combat boots when I’m not in front of a camera. The noise from a gun like that would scare the hell out of me. I’ve been married to the same woman for more than 20 years, I have two extraordinary children, a full network of warm friends –all those things Howard Hunter would like to have but can’t.
PLAYBOY: How about you, Dan? How close are you to Furillo?
TRAVANTI: Sometimes I’m like him; he’s sort of my alter ego, my friend Frank from New York. I say New York because Frank is a New Yorkophile and loves all New York things, including that madness –which I have in me and which Frank and I were talking about –that madness that many people have in their younger years, which threatened to kill me. I have that in me and this fellow Furillo is kind of the other side. Overall, though, I’m not Furillo –I’m more voluble, I gesticulate more, talk faster….
PLAYBOY: Michael, how close are you to Phil Esterhaus?
CONRAD: I love language. Michael Conrad speaks English pretty well but not nearly as well as Phil Esterhaus. Although I’ve mellowed in my old age, Phil Esterhaus is a much nicer guy. There’s a decency about him. But I like to think I’m a little more sophisticated with women than he is.
PLAYBOY: You must be referring to Phil’s fling with Grace….
CONRAD: It was great sport. And it’s funny: One reviewer said there was more sex in Grace and Phil than there is in all of Dynasty. There was one moment last season when Grace says, “Phil, I’m going to do something to you I’ve never done before.” And I say, “I think we’ve done just about everything, don’t you?” She says no and comes up to me and whispers into my ear. And I take her hand and go, “Ohhh….Oh, my God….” Then she says, “Where can we go?” And I say, “To the boiler room.”
PLAYBOY: What did you two do in there?
CONRAD: Well, there was a joke around the show where people were trying to guess what she whispered to me.
PLAYBOY: Since you don’t know, either, what’s your theory?
CONRAD: I came onto the set the next morning, after we’d shot it, and I said, “I know what Grace said to Phil. She whispered in my ear, ‘Phil, you’ve been wheedling and pleading and begging, and I’m finally going to give it to you. I’m going to give you….a little head.’”
PLAYBOY: That’s it?
CONRAD: What else could they possibly have done? How much time could they have had in the boiler room? He was dressed. She was dressed. It had to be something silly like that. But it’s not really silly, because everybody has something they don’t do. So I just thought –wouldn’t it be funny if these two oversexed people wouldn’t do that?
TRAVANTI: On that subject, do you know where the name Pizza Man came from?
PLAYBOY: Tell us.
HAMEL: It’s a local pizza chain. Their slogan is “Pizza Man –he delivers.”
PLAYBOY: Barbara, how similar to your character do you think you are?
BOSSON: I’m like Fay in some of the humorous ways. I will sometimes get so outraged at something that I’ll talk too loud in public. I have a lot of stories in which I always end up becoming victimized. It was something I grew out of, but those stories amused Steve so much that he’s used them a lot in writing Fay. Fay is an endless victim.
PLAYBOY: Where did Renko get his digestive disturbances?
HAID: From Steven.
BOCHCO: I’ve got internals like a Swiss watch.
HAID: Steven likes to work out the angst of his digestive problems through characters on the show. He’s chosen me, since he knows it bugs the hell out of me.
ENRIQUEZ: That’s like an episode we had last season called “Little Boil Blue.” That was Steven’s boil.
BOCHCO: Yeah. I got a boil on my ass when I went to London last year. It was the most painful thing I ever had, and I decided, Goddamn it, somebody’s going to have to pay for this. I thought I’d give it to Furillo; then I thought, No, he’s too stoic. He’d just live with it. So….
WARREN: So lucky old Bobby Hill got it, because he’s so straight and righteous. You couldn’t give it to Renko, because you’d expect Renko to have boils. Plus herpes or something.
BOCHCO: What power! Can you imagine having the power to give a boil to anybody in this cast?
PLAYBOY: Is the reverse true? Do you ever find yourselves taking on the character in real life?
TRAVANTI: Sure we do. Charlie comes on like Renko sometimes. Veronica goes into Davenport. She’s a little girl in a lot of ways, and sometimes she’s a mature, solid, determined woman –as herself and as Davenport. I tend to be benign. I have a temper, but it just sort of flashes and flares and the veins stick out of my neck.
PLAYBOY: Veronica, do you ever find that Joyce goes home with you?
TRAVANTI: No, Joyce goes home with me.
HAMEL: Not really; I can leave it on the set.
PLAYBOY: As long as you opened that door. Dan, there’s plenty of speculation that off-camera, the two of you---
HAMEL: That’s so ridiculous! If people want to do that, God bless them. If people would just give us credit for our work without doing a whole romance thing. It’s become a bit of a bore.
PLAYBOY: All right. How about the chemistry between Hill and Renko? Did you guys just click or was it written for you?
WARREN: We each had reservations about working with the other person. Charlie had a reputation of being someone who was going to come in and take over. He’d been a producer, a director and an actor before Hill Street. He’s even a part owner of the musical Godspell. I’d heard all these things about this monster who was going to walk in and try to tell me how to play my role.
PLAYBOY: And what were your reservations, Charlie?
HAID: Well, I knew Michael had been a jock. I thought, Athlete – what the hell does he know about acting? Then I realized that athletes are acting, too. They’re acting against their opponents and they’re as much showbiz people as anybody.
WARREN: That’s something that’s always befuddled me, that I’m still considered an “athlete turned actor.’” That’s such a silly term. I never even went into pro sports.
HAID: There’s a pursuit of excellence in sports, just as there is in acting. There’s an aggressive quality that makes a person become an all-American basketball player.
WARREN: What is he saying? He sounds like Howard Cosell.
HAID: Anyway, I think Michael and I looked at each other the first time and said, “I’m going to be paired with this person. This person had better be able to hold me up!” You really have to trust. And I recognized that in him and I recognize it in almost everyone in this cast. Cosmic cops. The first season, we actually used to sit around like a bunch of boy scouts and watch one another and say, “Oh, my God, this guy is good!” And that was half the fun.
BOSSON: The beginning of this show really was a fairy tale. We were 14 basically unknown actors who’d been in the business a long time. We knew we were cast in something very different, but none of us even knew whether or not the show would ever get on. And then, when it exploded and we won the Emmys and it became popular, that thing happened where stars began to be born and the ensemble feeling became harder and harder to maintain
PLAYBOY: But at the outset, Hill Street’s ratings were abysmally low. Why did NBC stick with you?
BOCHCO: First of all, NBC really didn’t have anything of any comparable quality to replace us with. They had nothing. Second, Fred Silverman really loved this show. It really tickled him. These beleaguered NBC executives, including Fred, would go into their offices every week and sitting on their desks would be hundreds of press clippings about how wonderful Hill Street was and how it was unlike the shit NBC was putting on the airwaves. I think Fred would rather have quit smoking than cancel us. He simply couldn’t –the pressure would have been devastating.
PLAYBOY: Did any of you suspect that Hill Street was going to be such a hit?
ENRIQUEZ: I thought the show was sensational from the very beginning.
PLAYBOY: Was that the prevailing attitude?
THOMAS: No. I certainly never thought it would be as popular as it is. I can’t imagine ever thinking that.
BLACQUE: I knew it was going to be successful just from reading the pilot. But not this big.
SPANO: I didn’t know it was going to be good from the script, because I didn’t quite understand it. I read it and I said, “Boy, it’s going to be hard to do this stuff without sounding funny, that it would end up commenting on itself, that the humor would deepen the serious impact.
PLAYBOY: You usually preview a show for an audience to get its reaction before broadcasting it. What was the reaction of the first audience to Hill Street?
BOCHCO: Boy, were they pissed off! They didn’t have a clue as to what the hell it was. Ninety-two characters racing in and out, some guy who bites felons. They didn’t know whether they were supposed to laugh or what.
PLAYBOY: Speaking of biting felons, have you ever actually bitten anyone, Bruce?
WEITZ: Yeah, I’ve bitten. We don’t have to talk about the extent of the bite or whether it was done in hostility or great gentleness.
SIKKING: And you don’t have to talk about where you’ve bitten. For the record, wouldn’t you like to change it from a bite to a nibble?
WEITZ: Yes, I would. For the record.
PLAYBOY: Glad we cleared that up. Do you share any other qualities with Belker?
WEITZ: I don’t know if I’d ever put a sardine in a milk shake, but I like sardine-and-Bermuda-onion sandwiches. I’ve also been known to eat a pig’s foot or a chicken’s foot. I’ve had a lot of Belker’s rage and hostility, so it’s easy for me to identify with him. We’re the same height. Unfortunately. I like to think I have as much compassion for people as he has.
PLAYBOY: Are we ever going to meet Belker’s mother?
PLAYBOY: Why not?
WEITZ: Because it’s infinitely more interesting if the audience creates Belker’s mother.
PLAYBOY: What about the odd clothes Belker wears? Who’s responsible for them?
WEITZ: The hat and the sawed-off gloves were my idea. But 98 percent of the character is the writers’ creation. The other two percent I collect.
HAMEL: People always ask me what Bruce Weitz is like and they’re surprised when I say he’s a coat-and-tie man. You have to be a wonderful actor to push yourself that far into a role that’s so obviously opposite to your own personality and temperament.
PLAYBOY: Hill Street has the reputation of being an actor’ showcase –14 featured regulars and an unusual number of guest parts. Have celebrities approached you to do cameos?
BOCHCO: A lot of entertainers, as well as actors, have let us know that they’d love to be on the show----
BOSSON: Sammy Davis Jr. would give anything----
BOCHCO: Sammy would give his right eye to be on the show.
BOSSON: True. Steven put a reference to him in one of the shows. Hunter is with Linda Wolfowitz and she says, “I’m Jewish, and you’d have to convert if we were to marry.” And Hunter says, “You mean like that colored entertainer?” When Steven ran into Sammy, he told him about it, and there was a moment when we both thought he wasn’t going to think it was funny. But he loved it and started jumping up and down.
PLAYBOY: Let’s talk a bit about how you researched your roles.
MARTIN: I got arrested a whole lot.
PLAYBOY: Anyone with a more academic approach?
SPANO: I read all of Wambaugh’s stuff.
WEITZ: I went on a few police night shifts.
SIKKING: You need only a couple of nights in Hollywood to get the entire experience.
WEITZ: I live in West Hollywood, and I always thought it was a relatively safe neighborhood –until I went out on patrol one night with two uniforms in that area. Scared the shit out of me. It got so I was afraid to go out at night.
PLAYBOY: René, did you research police work for the character of Calletano?
ENRIQUEZ: No, I refused to, because the show is not about police work per se. The show is about human beings. A policeman or a policewoman is just like you. You have the same emotions.
BLACQUE: I agree. You just have to bring it from a human, gut-level feeling and put yourself in the position of being a cop. Because it’s actually happened to me at parties –I’d walk into a party and if people were smoking a joint or something, they’d stop and say, “Watch out, that’s the Man.”
PLAYBOY: How has doing Hill Street affected your thinking about police?
BOCHCO: I perceive policemen as having an absolutely no-win job in this society. And I think they are not accorded either the respect or the understanding that they richly deserve. Like some of the other writers and actors on the show, I come out of Sixties generation that saw the police as the enemy. I find myself no longer thinking about cops generically; I find myself thinking about them individually, and the moment you make that turn, it becomes very difficult to make sweeping judgments about “the police.” And the truth is, if three guys in ski masks broke into your home, stole your wallet and/or raped your wife, what’s the first phone call you’d make? And when they walked through the door, the sight of that uniform would go a long way toward assuaging your rage and fear.
WARREN: I rode around with a number of policemen, and what I found was a greater insight into how policemen are perceived by the general public. A case in point: I went along to observe how they handled a drug-related homicide. It was around two o’clock in the morning, and the community came out in droves and a few people started throwing rocks and bottles. Because to them, cops were the enemy. I know there are an awful lot of bad cops, but now I give them the benefit of the doubt, because I know how difficult the job is. And it’s impossible to do it right.
HAID: It’s akin to a street sweeper’s cleaning the street to a spanking-new mirror shine and then having a herd of bison and elephants come through and crap all over the sidewalks overnight. And you walk out there the next morning and it’s knee-deep again. Well, that’s what cops feel like.
WARREN: When you go out on the street as a cop, there’s nothing to prepare you for a guy’s coming around the corner, blasting you in the face with a gun. The only thing that could prepare you would be if the public respected what you did more. The only way is by respecting the cops, respecting their intelligence.
MARINARO: And that’s why cops really appreciate what we do: We represent them as they really are.
PLAYBOY: Do represent lawyers as they really are, Veronica?
HAMEL: I don’t have a lawyer. Never had one. Since I haven’t had any in my personal life, I don’t feel responsible to lawyers –only to the character.
PLAYBOY: But what about the way lawyers are represented in the press-----
HAMEL: I don’t watch the news or read newspapers. They all depress me. I’m ignorant of current events. I still buy the Sunday New York Times, look at the magazine and the Arts and Leisure section, then burn the rest. Maybe I should be embarrassed to say that.
PLAYBOY: Then let’s stick with cops. Mike, what’s your feeling about the police you portray?
WARREN: I don’t know why anybody would want to be a cop. It’s such a stupid job. Not in the sense of protecting society but in the human sense. There are just too many crazies around. Why would anybody want to be a cop?
THOMAS: For a woman, it’s a civil-service job and you’re going to get paid the same amount as a man. And that’s great. But to go through all that, to put yourself through the academy and all the work you have to do physically….I think some women think they’ll be around these guys all day long. That might have been some of Lucy Bates’s thing, too. I still think it’s the worst job in the world.
PLAYBOY: By the way, speaking of female cops and the guys, didn’t it seem as if Lucy and Joe were going to have a romance?
MARINARO: We had this thing where I tried to get into her pants for so long, but then we just started really caring about each other as people. I suppose it could have become romantic again after that.
BOCHCO: Yes, we had Joe and Lucy having an affair. We wrote it, we actually began to shoot it; but as we looked at it, we all just became uncomfortable with it. I don’t know why, but I think it’s because in some way, we found it to be a violation of the concept of Lucy as a strong, committed female police officer. Female police officers still tend to be looked upon with less trust and respect than male officers and are treated more as sex objects in their departments. Consequently, we have always had Lucy show a very strong feeling that she had to be better, tougher, stronger in those arenas than anybody else to maintain her credibility as a police officer. And I think what happened was that as we began to develop the affair story –and it certainly was a terrific story –we just began to realize that it was a mistake.
PLAYBOY: Going back to how each of you researched your role, Howard Hunter is a strong advocate of SWAT-team tactics. Jim, you’ve pointed out the differences between yourself and your character, but according to your bio, you did have an illustrious military career----
SIKKING: It depended on your point of view. My commanding officer didn’t say that when I was in the Service. But I was very lucky. I spent a lot of time in the military, keeping the world safe for democracy. Sure, there’s an advantage in knowing about certain military techniques. Unfortunately –or fortunately –I wasn’t involved in those kinds of tactics in the Army. I was an area-study analyst in psychological warfare.
HAID: Well, I first met Andy Renko in the submarine service. He was standing at the foot of my bunk at 6:30 in the morning, looking down at me, saying, “Git up, boy! Git your ass out of there, you sorry son of a bitch!” And I said, “Yes, sir!” Renko was born in watching those yahoos carry on.
PLAYBOY: Is Renko a yahoo?
HAID: Well, the mirror I’m trying to hold up with the character Renko is that of a very confused, blue-collar mentality that seems to pervade a great many men in our society. It’s that scrabbling, tough macho cowboy. You all see those guys driving around in pickups in the middle of the San Fernando Valley; there isn’t a horse within 50 miles of those buggers. But the spirit of the cowboy Andy Renko pervades a great number of people in society.
PLAYBOY: While Furillo seems to play to the white-collar mentality?
BOCHCO: Yeah, he’s a classic middle-management guy.
TRAVANTI: There are a lot of men like that in the military and in corporations who have figured out that they have reached their most effective level, the level at which they feel most comfortable and can accomplish maybe not everything they with to accomplish but the most, considering the nature of the entire corporate machinery. They would rather be in that position than make more money with more responsibility but have to pay more, too –spiritually and emotionally. Furillo feels that he’s found his position and he’s clear about it, unlike many of the other characters, who constantly want to improve. Renko’s forever talking about improving his situation.
PLAYBOY: Aside from making the police more real in the eyes of the public, Hill Street also describes criminals with what seems to be more realism. Sometimes it’s tough to tell the difference between the cops and the robbers.
THOMAS: That’s one of the things I’ve always liked about Hill Street: Nothing is black and white. What we deal with are all the various shades of gray. Well, that’s more the way life is.
HAID: There’s an almost strange kind of brotherhood that goes on between criminals and cops, because they’re all out there on the streets fighting a sort of skirmish war that goes on constantly on the fringes of what we like to call a decent society. But they’re always in the trenches. The line is like a little piece of thread that people are constantly breaking, and you realize how close to chaos it all is. It’s something that the civilian sitting out there in his suburban home rarely realizes.
PLAYBOY: Mike Warren said earlier that there are some bad cops out there. Why aren’t there any bad ones in the Hill Street precinct?
BOCHCO: I don’t think that by any stretch of the imagination you could call LaRue a good cop. He is deficient in judgment very often, if not most of the time; he is a chronic violator of civil rights; he jeopardized the well-being of fellow officers through his alcoholism earlier in the series; and though he’s sober now, he’s no good cop. He’s always hanging by a thread. I also don’t think Renko is a good cop. I think he behaves heroically at times----
PLAYBOY: Wait a second. Kiel, do you think LaRue is a bad cop?
MARTIN: Uh-uh. Top-notch cop. Excellent police officer. Good detective. When he’s thinking straight, he’s a really good, dead-on cop. He may not be as good a man as he could be. But he’s as good a cop as any of them, or better. So there. [Sticks his tongue out] Nah, nah, nah, nah. I spit my milk at them!
PLAYBOY: What do you think, Taurean? You’re LaRue’s partner.
BLACQUE: Nothing bad about him. I wouldn’t be with a bad cop. Could I say, “This schmuck has my life in his hands”? No, no, no. He has his vices –alcohol, womanizing; doesn’t know how to handle money. But that’s true of a lot of people.
THOMAS: To me, LaRue’s not good. He’s not a trustworthy human being. He doesn’t have confidence in himself or in life. He doesn’t trust other human beings. The only great part of him is his relationship with Washington. More than anything, partnering is what the show is about. And that’s what police work is about –partnering.
PLAYBOY: Kiel, do you feel LaRue violates people’s civil rights?
MARTIN: Name one real arrest procedure that doesn’t go down without some are of civil rights invaded, however slightly. The reality is, cops just don’t have the time to do all that shit. That’s not to say that killing someone in your charge is good behavior. We all know how tragic and wrong that is, but you want to deal with reality. That’s like saying Army sergeants no longer swear. Right. Uh-huh.
PLAYBOY: Dan, speaking for Furillo, do you think there are any bad cops at the Hill Street station?
TRAVANTI: They wouldn’t last in the Hill Street precinct. They wouldn’t last with Furillo. He’d get them out of there. What happens on Hill Street is that if you don’t find an answer to the problem within you and a solution to the conflict in your professional life, you crack.
WEITZ: I think there are other cops with negative aspects on the Hill. There are some definite negative aspects about Belker, about Calletano, Renko, Hunter….
PLAYBOY: But despite their bad traits, Hunter and all the others are sympathetic characters. None of them are perceived as bad cops, as some of you say LaRue is.
BOCHCO: Howard Hunter is in many ways a buffoon.
TRAVANTI: He’s a jerk. He’s our Archie Bunker. He’s also a coward; he doesn’t want to be touched or hurt or hit by anybody. He likes the power, likes the game, likes the uniform; he likes playing dress-up. God help him if he ever got any real power. He might be dangerous.
PLAYBOY: Is Howard Hunter a bigot?
SIKKING: I don’t think Howard thinks he’s a bigot. He just has simple answers for complex problems, that’s all. Which makes him interesting, because there’s a little of Howard in everybody.
PLAYBOY: Is Renko a racist?
HAID: What I’m trying to show with Renko is the hidden racism that’s planted all over. Renko has a mean streak born out of insecurity. It’s always lying there within him –a deadliness that is a subtle form of racism.
WARREN: No, I don’t see Renko as being a racist. Hunter’s a racist, but I don’t think Hill would be able to work with Renko day in and day out if he really felt he was a racist. I think Hill sees Renko as a guy who doesn’t want to work too hard. He doesn’t want any trouble from anybody –white, Hispanic or black. Also, he’s got an ego problem: He’s so macho, he doesn’t want to s how his vulnerable side.
PLAYBOY: But you don’t go too far along certain lines; for instance, you’ve portrayed the black cops –Hill and Washington –as more positive characters than their white partners.
MARTIN: Well, it’s about time that the cerebral member of the partnership wasn’t the Irish boy. Let’s face it, you look at Taurean and me, who’s the asshole? J.D. is obviously a quart or two low. There are people everywhere who are exactly like that.
BOCHCO: If we tend toward painting our minority cops in a somewhat more positive light, I don’t apologize for that. I think that’s an appropriate balancing act that we instinctively do.
WARREN: I think it is important that America is aware that we’re not all like the Jeffersons, that for black people, there is another kind of life that’s just as rich, as funny and as serious as it’s portrayed on those shows.
ENRIQUEZ: Just as it’s important to show that all Latins are not the same. There are 15,000,000 Latin people in America, from different countries.
PLAYBOY: Have any of you had problems with the lines written for the black or the Hispanic characters?
WARREN: The first season, there was a scene in which Hill and Renko steal a side of beef. The writers had Hill coming in with a case of barbecue sauce. How, I realize the intent was not “Oh, there’s the black guy; he loves watermelon and barbecue and red soda water.” The intent was to s how the closeness of two guys who were almost killed together –just that. But the problem in the Eighties is that society hasn’t progressed to that point. I mean, people see it and they say, “There’s that black guy. Boy, niggers sure love barbecue” –not thinking that white people like barbecue, too. But people in the midlands don’t put it together like that. They’re not sophisticated enough, not exposed enough. So another stereotype is continued.
HAID: We’re trying to show that people can work together in harmony. Mike Warren always says that if Hill and Renko were one person, you’d have one very whole, light-brown man. The black moods of Renko and the clear-white thought of Hill come together and become one.
BOCHCO: You get values from a Bobby Hill that are unique and very special. And I don’t think it’s an accident that he’s one of the most popular characters. There’s a decency and a morality in that character that are not functions of his being black. They’re functions of a character we designed that way.
WARREN: We’ve now show the public that black people are not going to jump out and choke every white person they see. But now I think it’s time to draw back a little and give Bobby Hill some flaws. But the problem in dealing with our characters is that the industry is so sensitive, and rightfully so, about how blacks are portrayed. And our writers consciously think about how certain things are going to be perceived by the community.
BLACQUE: I hate to get into an issue like that, of minorities, of Latinos and blacks. Because we’re all given a chance here.
WARREN: It’s strange when you talk about the black experience with people in this business who aren’t black, because they think there’s this mystery about the black experience –that it’s so mysterious, it’s hard to write. I personally feel that there is no mystery. Life is what it is. The black experience is no different from the white experience.
BOCHCO: The thing I try to point out to people is that while it’s true that the crime we portray in certain episodes is heinous, at one time or another we have had white rapists, black rapists, Hispanic rapists, just as we have had black and brown doctors, teachers, lawyers, judges, good guys and cops. We are an equal-opportunity offender. What usually gets me is the raging mail, mail that’s a kind of assault. You realize you’re a passive victim of somebody’s real need to punish. It also astonishes me that television in general, and our show in particular, seems to play such a massively important part in a great many people’s lives. I wonder occasionally at the bankruptcy of some of those lives, that what we do in any given hour of Hill Street is viewed with concern –either positive or negative –that’s so terrifically out of proportion.
PLAYBOY: Has there been any response to, or criticism of, the violence on Hill Street?
BOCHCO: Las year, the Jerry Falwell camp mentioned us as being one of the ten most violent shows. We’ve never paid much attention to that stuff; and, frankly, I feel that those people don’t represent any substantial segment of society.
PLAYBOY: How does NBC feel about it?
BOCHCO: I’ve got to say that NBC has never, ever come to us and said, “Gee, we’re nervous; you’ve got to tone your show down.” It’s never been an issue. I simply can’t imagine anything you can’t address on television. But they kill you in other ways. Because in the more controversial areas, they demand balance. The moment they demand balance, you’re dead in the water, because it takes away from your opportunity to say anything. So they give with one hand and wind up taking away with the other. You’re never going to get a balance in terms of demographic equality. Our feeling is that over the long haul, it all balances out. You are going to see many sides of every question in the process. I will simply cut off any conversation that even comes from Broadcast Standards [the network censors] having to do with the issue of balance.
PLAYBOY: But violence on TV is an issue that a lot of people feel very strongly about, and the violence on Hill Street is pretty nasty sometimes. How do the rest of you feel about it?
THOMAS: There’s a lot in there that I’m not so sure about. I’ve had people say to me that Hill Street is too violent and they won’t watch it.
WARREN: I would be real particular about which of our shows my kids could or could not see. There’s an awful lot of violence on our show at times, but it’s not gratuitous. In fact, that’s one of the strong points of the show –that we don’t do violence for violence’s sake. When someone gets shot in the street, he doesn’t get up and walk away like it didn’t happen. When a car crashes, people don’t get out of it and say, “Whew! That was tough!” They get hurt. But my daughter is six, my son is four, and they just don’t understand it.
HAID: I think we also use violence to show the redemption of the human spirit. The reality of the situation is that most crime is committed by people who are hungry, by people who have not had a fair shake, by the poor. In the middle of all that grit, we show people who are able to redeem themselves. If Hill Street is doing anything, it’s holding up a realistic mirror to the social situation that’s a terrible tragedy for all of us. As James Sikking once said, “In the Aztec days, they had human sacrifice. Today, we have television.”
BOCHCO: The entire issue of violence in film and TV is almost a nonissue, because I think you have to look at the contributing environmental factors. I grew up going to John Wayne Westerns in which every time you turned around, 600 members of the Sioux nation were being wiped out. The point is, it is not the fault of television or movies if a viewer has a bankrupt life. People who are capable of aberrant behavior on the basis of stimulation will be stimulated by the six-o’clock news, which in many ways is far more irresponsible in the depiction of violence.
PLAYBOY: Is there one show you’ve done that stands out as being more controversial than the others?
BOCHCO: The one that generated the most response was the episode about the rape-murder of an elderly nun by two young black men. We got some very angry mail from blacks who felt that we had done a terrible disservice to the black community in perpetuating some deeply entrenched fears that exist or are perceived to exist in the white community. And they raised a very legitimate issue. Our response, right or wrong, is that the episode was based on a true incident, though I don’t feel we need to defend doing it. And second, though we may have stepped on a few toes with that story, the alternative is a kind of self-censorship that I think is dangerous. I would rather tell a story that angers people and maybe offends some than be so concerned about stepping on people’s toes.
PLAYBOY: This seems like appropriate time to bring up the subject of censorship. Steve, what is your present understanding with Broadcast Standards?
BOCHCO: I don’t understand them and I don’t think they understand me.
PLAYBOY: Could you flesh that out a bit?
BOCHCO: The one thing you discover in working with Broadcast Standards is, there is no standard. That’s not a joke. The standard is whatever you can bully them into. You write something, they read it, they say no. And you say yes. And they say, “No, really, no.” And you say, “Excuse me, but fuck you, yes.” And then you say, “We’re going to shoot it the way we want to shoot it, and you look at it in the context of this entire hour and then tell me whether or not it’s acceptable.”
But they have an awesome power. Ultimately, they can simply edit your show. Often, people who work in Broadcast Standards behave like the worst kind of civil-service bureaucrat. They are there to make you behave. There is a bit of the truant-officer mentality about their job. And the degree to which you accept it is the degree to which you accept a childlike role in the process of making television shows. I won’t. I’m not a kid.
PLAYBOY: Hill Street’s sex scenes are certainly not kid stuff. How do you get away with them?
BOCHCO: We do bathtub scenes with two grownups in a bathtub. You cannot imagine the lather –no pun intended –we got into over those scenes. We shot them, we put them on the air, nobody said boo. We did it, the sky didn’t fall. The FCC didn’t come over and disband the network. So, suddenly, NBC says, “OK.” Now we can do bathtub scenes, so we don’t have to fight anymore. Little by little, we’ve chipped away at that kind of stuff.
TRAVANTI: And those so-called sex scenes are usually not about sex. It’s always there, boy, but those are logically passionate moments when the truth comes out and we’re communicating something.
PLAYBOY: Do you and Veronica ad-lib the bedroom scenes?
TRAVANTI: Good! You have that impression, right?
PLAYBOY: Well, it seems awfully spontaneous sometimes.
HAMEL: It’s a playpen. We play in a spontaneous way. There are real giggles and, we hope, some charming moments. But the so-called bed scenes are very brief. Whatever you have to get said has to be done quickly, clearly and believably, so those scenes are very exhilarating to do.
TRAVANTI: The words are all there in the scripts. We just make up the giggles, the laughs, the breaking up, that sort of thing.
BOCHCO: I think one of the reasons the standard for us is somewhat different is that we’re not prurient or salacious on Hill Street in general. There are times when we are but always in the context of trying to illuminate the character, to make a point about something.
Having said that, I maintain that I am a much stricter and more appropriate taste arbiter on Hill Street Blues than Broadcast Standards is. I’m tougher, too. I have taken a lot of things out of the show that they approved, because they offended me once I saw them on the screen.
PLAYBOY: Let’s get back to the Furillo-Davenport relationship. Some critics have called it the most sophisticated affair to come across the tube. Do you think last season’s marriage of Joyce and Frank will make it dull and safe?
HAMEL: That remains to be seen. A really exciting marriage has never worked on television before.
PLAYBOY: Did either of you have any misgivings about getting married?
TRAVANTI: My only misgiving was that we might dissolve into a domestic drama. And as quickly as I thought that, the feeling was dispelled, because I remembered that our writers are too hip to let that happen. Veronica is concerned about its somehow losing impact. But I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen from week to week. I’m glad I don’t know. I don’t want to know. Every marriage is a risk, and this one should be, too.
HAMEL: I was very apprehensive about it. I felt it wasn’t necessary, that there were still many things to explore. But I trust Steven. I thought that it was very well done, that we didn’t’ make a big affair out of it and then they were back to business as usual.
PLAYBOY: A lot of viewers were surprised not only by the matter-of-fact manner in which you wed but that you married at all.
CONRAD: I guess they had to marry. They’d done about everything else. How many fights can you have? How many problems can you have?
ENRIQUEZ: I wish they hadn’t gotten married. It was more exciting. But it’s not a good policy to educate the rest of the country by saying, “Don’t get married, just live together.” It’s not a positive forum. I mean, the entire country loves them both. He’s the epitome of Mr. Cool, who always knows exactly what to do at the right time. And then there’s Joyce Davenport –Miss Efficiency, Miss Extraordinarily Beautiful. I think that character has given a great deal of dignity to women, because women are not very well portrayed on television.
BOSSON: As the only married woman in this group, my personal feeling is that the best potential for growth and exploration in a relationship is in marriage.
THOMAS: I think the best potential for personal growth is through bestiality.
BOSSON: Now that you bring it up, I agree. I hadn’t thought about it that way. You are still living with the giraffe?
THOMAS: Nope. The skylight situation was getting crazy.
PLAYBOY: By the way, with Frank and Joyce married, which of the two is going to be the major money earner? How much does a police captain make?
TRAVANTI: About $35,000.
HAMEL: I’m divorcing you! Who needs this?
PLAYBOY: Speaking of divorces, why had Frank and Fay split up?
BOCHCO: Oversimplified, because he was a drunk.
TRAVANTI: And when you get sober, you definitely change; and unless the other person changes with you, the relationship is bound to terminate. That’s almost always inevitable.
PLAYBOY: You sound as if you’re talking from experience.
TRAVANTI: That was another case of the writers’ taking a characteristic of the actor that fit their needs. Steve asked me beforehand about using it in the show, and I said, “Fine, as long as it’s realistic.” The fact that I am an alcoholic is an essential fact of my existence, but that’s my business. I don’t like to go on about my alcoholism, because enough has been said about it. But, of course, some of my experience was incorporated into the character.
PLAYBOY: Barbara, as Steven’s wife, do you find your position awkward at times?
BOSSON: At home, we have an equal relationship. However, at work, we cannot have an equal relationship. I work for him. We’re very separate here –he’s management. I’m labor.
BOCHCO: I ask of Barbara a very difficult thing –I ask her to be a little schizophrenic. I go home with problems I need to share with my wife but that I cannot share with an actor on the show. So I ask her to arbitrarily suspend being an actress in favor of simply being a wife and a confidante. It’s very hard, because a lot of what I go home to discuss will have direct implications on her activity as an actress. Occasionally, I have been naive in assuming I could take something home and not get that response that any good actress will give to a boss –“Wait a minute, whoa, hold the phone here” –but by and large, she has done wonderfully.
PLAYBOY: Are there any other in-house romances?
BOSSON: Yes. Charlie Haid and Michael Warren.
ENRIQUEZ: Barbara! You shouldn’t say those things!
THOMAS: Well, I don’t know what it is, but they’re awfully close.
PLAYBOY: Do you guys want to respond to that?
HAID: We do a couple of things together. But we’re just a couple of silly old farts. We actually put our dressing rooms together.
WARREN: I do like to see him change clothes.
PLAYBOY: Going back to what we were talking about before –romances on and off the screen –now that Frank and Joyce are married, will some of the other characters be given a chance to develop full romantic relationships?
WEITZ: I think almost everybody on the show would like to have a relationship with a woman----
SIKKING: Or a man, depending on the sex.
WEITZ: Or any kind of relationship. We look forward to that kind of thing, because it deepens the characters. It takes them away from their work and shows another side of them, which creates a freshness.
SIKKING: If I can’t get married, I’d sure like to fool around a little bit on the show. But it’s hard for Howard to fool around.
SIKKING: Because he has difficulty expressing himself.
PLAYBOY: What about Goldblume’s love life?
SPANO: What about Goldblume’s love life? Yes. Hear, hear! Let’s have more of it.
WARREN: I would like them to develop some kind of love interest for Hill, so that you see a black with another black showing affection and sensitivity, something you haven’t seen much of on television.
PLAYBOY: What about you, René; where would you like to see your character go?
ENRIQUEZ: I would like them to show more of Calletano’s family background to have more of a positive image with the Hispanics. You know, Hispanics are one of the most family-oriented people in the world. Perhaps it is in their blood that they are family-oriented –they don’t believe in birth control.
THOMAS: There’s nothing I feel my character cannot do or get away with, including getting married, getting pregnant, quitting the force, having a lesbian affair. Who knows? Falling in love with a young kid; falling in love with a criminal. . . .I’d like to see some reality to the fact that Lucy is an attractive enough human being to have a boyfriend. It’s ridiculous –she’s always supposed to have a hard time getting a date. They keep making jokes about the dates they give her. It’s bullshit.
MARINARO: What am I, chopped chicken liver?
THOMAS: You’re a cop. You’re something, yes, but I want somebody outside of Copsville.
PLAYBOY: What about you, Ed; what kind of involvements would you like to see?
MARINARO: I’d like Joe Coffey to get engaged to a Playboy Bunny.
THOMAS: Are we talking real life, honey, or are we talking the show?
PLAYBOY: How about you, Kiel?
MARTIN: I’d like LaRue to get through one show without having to smear himself with grease, go down in the sewer and ball an alligator.
PLAYBOY: Anybody else on development of character?
WARREN: I’m not quite sure at this point if I see Bobby Hill wanting to stay a cop. Because cops don’t legislate change. I see him going into law, being like Joyce Davenport.
HAMEL: And I’d like to see the writers explore the humorous aspects of my character a little more. Betty and Barbara have had a chance to play with the comedy side. I haven’t.
BOSSON: Well, I’m in a bind with Fay, because I know that what makes her unique and funny is also keeping her damaged, without growth. I would love for her to become a whole person. I also understand that the minute she’s whole and terrific, they’ll no longer want her in the series.
I worried about Frank’s marriage for obvious reasons. I thought there would be no need for me ever to go back into that squad room. But Steven said there would be all sorts of things to explore with Fay, such as custody of her child.
PLAYBOY: As far as issues are concerned, are there any particular ones you would like to see Hill Street deal with?
BLACQUE: I think we’re already dealing with everything that’s happening. You turn around and Hill Street is doing it. One of my story lines, as a matter of fact, was taken from a real event.
PLAYBOY: Which one was that?
BLACQUE: On one episode, Washington shot an innocent person by mistake, the proprietor of a store. He pointed his gun at Washington and Neal thought he was one of the holdup men. That really happened when we were working downtown on location. I had just left. I’d just given my gun to the prop guy and a guy came up to a pawnshop with a gun and an off-duty undercover cop was just coming out and shot him dead. That was turned into the story line in which Neal does the same thing and then agonizes over it.
ENRIQUEZ: I’d like to see the show deal with the problems of illegal aliens, immigration, the IRS. . . . There are so many illegal aliens here, and many of them are afraid even to go to hospitals, because they’re afraid they’ll be turned in. It could be a beautiful, tragic, poignant story that would fit the context of Hill Street Blues.
WARREN: I’d like to see a character emerge in the community who has a sense of righteousness, who has lived there for a while and is loved by the community. So far, we have a community that is taken care of by the police. Hogwash. In any urban area, the police are the enemy. They don’t take care of the community. The community takes care of itself. I’m talking about a hero who would be from the people of the Hill, someone who was a beneficial character and politically powerful.
THOMAS: People are just waiting to have an idol like that. What if we created one and he became a role model in reality?
WEITZ: Yeah, but we’re not a political platform. We’re dealing with human beings and talking about human beings.
THOMAS: Another thing that would be interesting for us to tackle is this whole psychological-rape thing that’s happening now. Not the physical act of rape but this clamping on that men seem to be doing, where they follow you around----
HAMEL: Like a shadow following you around; a lethal shadow----
THOMAS: And from what I’ve read, you go insane. Or leave town, change your name, lose your job. What if it happened to one of us? Another thing that would be interesting –and this would be a great story line for Davenport –is P.M.T., premenstrual tension. Davenport would have to defend a woman who did something under P.M.T. Doctors are saying it exists and that some women are totally affected by it. And, of course, feminists don’t want to talk about it, because it’s a biological imperative. And that’s what they’ve been fighting against. I mean, some idiots say a woman can’t be President because she might go crazy and kill the Vice-President.
HAMEL: I’m sorry you brought all this up.
PLAYBOY: Do you people ever bounce off one another like this on the set?
THOMAS: Roll call is a riot, because there are usually six or seven of us there, plus the extras, who are like family.
CONRAD: I look out there and I see a bunch of actors looking for shtick.
PLAYBOY: Do they ever find any shtick?
MARINARO: Last year, there a People magazine cover with Dan, Veronica and Michael Conrad. Veronica had her blouse open wide, and inside, they had a picture of Dan in his briefs----
TRAVANTI: Those were swimming trunks, I’ll have you know.
MARINARO: So the next day, we were all sitting around at roll call, and when we stood up, all the men had their pants off and Betty had her police shirt open down the front.
TRAVANTI: We’re a kissy-huggy-grabby group at Hill Street. And I love the writers. I kiss them right on the mouth.
SIKKING: There’s a lot of good humor on the set. One time, we were shooting a line-up of suspected felons. All the guys in the line were our writers, incredibly scrungy.
BOCHCO: A dangerous-looking group of fellows if ever there was one.
MARINARO: Then there was the Christmas show----
THOMAS: My mother’s going to read this!
MARINARO: Betty was Mrs. Santa Claus and I was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Betty stood up in front and said----
THOMAS: I said, “Ho, ho, ho, merry Christmas –this is all for you little guys out there----“
MARINARO: And she pulled up her dress, and underneath, she’s wearing black garters and little red panties.
THOMAS: But I had on my men’s cop shoes with black socks!
PLAYBOY: Is it true that Fred Silverman wanted to call the show Hill Street Zoo?
BOCHCO: When we first wrote the script, we titled it Hill Street Station. Fred wanted something jazzier. So we started to get lists of alternate titles, one of them being The Blue Zoo, which, as my 13-year-old would say, barfed us out.
PLAYBOY: Where did the idea for Hill Street Blues originate?
BOCHCO: Silverman had a notion for a pilot he wanted Kozoll and me to do. It was to be a series set in an inner-city precinct with a large cast of characters. We reacted in varying degrees of lukewarm. Michael was very lukewarm; I was medium lukewarm. I was a bit more enthusiastic, because the emphasis on the personal lives tickled something in me.
PLAYBOY: Why were you both so lukewarm about it?
BOCHCO: Because we went into this sure that we didn’t want to do another cop show. Between the two of us, we had worked that street to death.
PLAYBOY: What changed your minds?
BOCHCO: We decided we’d do it if a couple of conditions were met. One, that we would have virtual creative autonomy. We could write anything we wanted with no interference, have far more leeway with Broadcast Standards than was normally accorded any series. And, to our surprise, NBC said fine.
PLAYBOY: Has NBC lived up to its agreement?
BOCHCO: Yes, they’ve honored their creative-autonomy commitment. They have no story approval.
PLAYBOY: Why did NBC play hide-and-seek with the show at the beginning?
BOCHCO: I think Silverman was desperately trying to find a time slot where this thing would work. With the best of intentions, he kept screwing us deeper and deeper into the ground.
PLAYBOY: If, say, NBC had canceled the show, do you think another network might have picked it up?
HAID: If NBC had canceled this show, another network would have picked it up so fast your head would spin. CBS would have been in there like a bunch of bandits.
BOCHCO: My experience is that very, very rarely does one network buy another network’s failed product. And when that happens, it’s usually unsuccessful. I don’t think there’s a lot of historical validation for doing it.
HAID: One of the first indications we had that it was going to be a real hit was not from an article in the trades but from a business report saying that the Hill Street Blues advertising time had been sold at X amount of dollars per half minute. When Mercedes-Benz decided to buy ad time on Hill Street, we thought something right was going on.
BOCHCO: Even though the ratings were low, demographically we were very strong. We were always one of t he top-rated shows in terms of upscale viewers, even though overall we were down at the bottom. I believe to this day that the media kept us on the air.
PLAYBOY: Most reviews have been favorable, but one critic said Hill Street had become predictable in its unpredictability----
WEITZ: That was a complaint?
BOCHCO: I felt that was a cheap shot. By definition, once you are a known quantity, you don’t surprise. I suppose I could surprise people if I started killing off my regulars week by week, but then I’d be killing off Hill Street Blues in increments. Nevertheless, the reality of network television is that you can’t surprise. The truth is, we never started out to surprise people. We simply were, I guess, surprising. But it’s never been a motivation.
WEITZ: If there are certain critics in the country who think that we’re becoming predictable, I would like to talk to them on a one-to-one level and show them exactly where huge changes have taken place in every character. I think that what they say is bullshit! It’s a bunch of media-hype crap to get their readers to read their newspapers! And if they want to go point by point with me, I issue the challenge. I get incensed when I hear that!
SIKKING: Let’s not skirt the issue, Bruce.
WEITZ: Well, it’s something that bothers me. I issue the challenge. Feel free to call.
SIKKING: The element of surprise gave us a 66 out of 69 in the Nielsen ratings, so it isn’t a real advantage. I think we have to pay attention to what the critics say about us, but we also have to understand that they’re trying to fill space, too. If you look at anything else on television, it’s very interesting boredom.
BOCHCO: Yeah, that’s probably 95 percent of all television, the kind that turns millions of Americans into narcoleptics. I’m not saying that’s bad, but it’s not what we’re doing. I have a complete understanding of somebody who says, “I’m sorry, I don’t want to watch a show at ten o’clock at night that leaves me angry or challenged. I just want to watch something that’s going to leave me in a very pleasant state of semi consciousness, because I’m going to bed.”
TRAVANTI: It would be tedious if ten years from now we were still doing it. But I’m surprised by almost every script. I want to continue to be surprised.
HAID: Washington Post critic Tom Shales said after our first season that if Hill Street Blues had the courage to continue doing what it had already done, it would have the courage to take the entire thing apart and put it back together several more times. I feel that’s absolutely necessary.
SPANO: I agree. I think that at some point, somebody should come in and say, “Let’s change the whole thing. Let’s kill off a regular.”
PLAYBOY: Are you volunteering?
SPANO: Sure. If it gave me an interesting way to go and if it gave impetus to the show. I’d say yes.
BOCHCO: One of the things that make doing this show so harrowing is that we sometimes don’t know what’s going to be on next week. When we made Fay pregnant, we never stopped to think about whether or not she was actually going to have this baby. We just said, “Oh, that’s a good situation” –bang! –and suddenly, there it is and you begin to deal with its consequences.
HAMEL: I think we all feel that way. Let’s face it –it’s a matter of numbers. There are 14 regulars, and we give an awful lot of very special parts to guest stars.
THOMAS: Forget all those guest stars. Get rid of them!
HAMEL: And knock off a few regulars, too!
SIKKING: Fire all the actors and start over!
PLAYBOY: There may be a little facetious talk going on here, but the fact remains that this is an ensemble group of 14 actors. Is there much competition for lines?
BOSSON: What you get a lot with 14 people is that a particular character will have a period of time when he’s not doing much. A Joe Spano story or a Charlie Haid story will come along and then for three weeks, he’ll be very prominent, and then he’ll drop down again, because there’s just no way you can do 14 stories about 14 people every week. When you’re in one of those periods, everybody gets nuts; everybody says, “What happened? I’m out of the show. Get Bochco on the phone.” Actors do get frustrated when they perceive that there are four or five shows in which they’re kind of light. It frightens them. I think they suddenly forget that they may have some wonderful stuff in the prior six shows, and now it’s somebody else’s turn. But that’s all understandable.
TRAVANTI: My reaction most of the time is just to be thankful that I’m finally doing work that’s worthy of me. That’s the single biggest emotion I felt when all this started: Relief. Whew! At last!
MARTIN: I agree. To wake up every day and not be ashamed of your work is a rare treasure for an actor. And, boy, do I love being the class fuck-up, no matter how often I appear or how short my scenes!
HAMEL: Each actor gets a little gem, a pearl, then we string this necklace together.
PLAYBOY: Individually, what are some of the reactions you have been getting? What kind of mail do you get?
HAID: The man who get the most mail on Hill Street is Mike Warren. He’s a bona fide black star. To the kids, especially.
PLAYBOY: What about your own mail?
HAID: I get mail mostly from females in Middle America who are familiar with the kind of character Renko is, saying, “You remind me of my brother, my husband, so-and-so.” I also get people who like Renko for the wrong reasons.
PLAYBOY: For instance?
HAID: I was in England recently and I was walking down King’s Road, and all of a sudden, up came these skinheads, about nine of them, and they talked like this [does a very accurate Cockney accent]: “ ‘Ey, come ‘ere. Look at it –it’s cool, fab Renko! Come ‘ere, bloke. I like the way you ‘andle those woggies. I like the way you ‘andle those blacks. Take ‘em, fling ‘em all against the care like that and beat their ‘eads in. We’re going to get you a pair of Dr. Martins. You can just kick ‘em a few times right in the leg and make ‘em be quiet, ‘ey?”
Well, they got it all wrong. Completely. They thought some of Renko’s more intolerant scenes were the greatest thing in the world. Another time, I was down in Texas and people came up to me and said [does an accurate Texas accent], “Charlie, gol darn, boy, you’re one of us, you know? Doggone, you sure know what’s goin’ on.” And I just wanted to say, “You didn’t get it. Watch it again and you’ll get it.”
WARREN: Ironically, I’ve gotten letters from black people saying, “Why do you treat Renko so mean? You ought to be nice. He’s a nice man.”
PLAYBOY: How about you, Betty?
THOMAS: I get a lot of letters from women cops and from wives of cops who love my character. For a while, everyone was saying that wives of cops were so uptight about women on the force because their husbands were going to be in cars with them all day long, and sooner or later they’d be having a relationship. And the wives would be dumped. The mail responds to the fact that I’m not having a relationship with my partner. And that’s a good symbol for those women.
ENRIQUEZ: A lot of people in the Latin community look to me as a sort of symbol. I mean, there are only four Hispanics in featured roles on TV, and Ricardo Montalban and Erik Estrada don’t even play Latinos.
BOSSON: I get tons of mail from people who identify with me. I get a lot of mail from men who say “I hate you,” and it’s obvious that they think I’m their ex-wife, but most of my mail is from people who say, “Thank God, I’m seeing some of my problems on television. I didn’t think I existed.”
PLAYBOY: How have the police reacted to the show?
WARREN: Favorably. I’ve never had a cop come up to me and say anything but “Thank you.”
HAID: They feel we are portraying them as human beings, so they open up and they let us see their human side.
SIKKING: I’ve talked with chiefs of police all over and they love the show, but they always ask, “What city is it in?” And I say, “It’s a nondesignated city.” And they say, “Come on, tell us.” So I say, “What if we had it in your city? Would you let us tell a story about an alcoholic officer? Would you let us tell a story about brutality in the police department? Extramarital affairs?”
PLAYBOY: How accurate do policemen find the characters?
WEITZ: I have yet to be in a police precinct where policemen have not told me they’ve worked with or heard stories about someone like Belker. Except they always say that the person they knew was taller.
TRAVANTI: I’ve received this comment many times: “The only criticism I have against your character is I wish my boss were more like you.”
CONRAD: Same with Esterhaus –they all wish they had a sergeant like him. They feel he represents dignity, something people can look up to. And we certainly need that in police departments.
PLAYBOY: Have any of you had any run-ins with the police since you’ve been doing the show?
WEITZ: I had an incident on the freeway one night. I have a Porsche, and I was trying to blow the engine out. A cop stopped me and said, “Are you? Are you?” And I said, “Yes.” And he said “Good night.” He just turned around and got on his motorcycle.
BLACQUE: I made a right turn on red one night, and this cop came over and said, “You went through the red light.” I said, “I’m sorry, officer, but I didn’t go through red.” He said, “You son of a bitch, don’t tell me you didn’t go through the red light.” And then he got a look at me, saw my Hill Street parking pass and said, “Who are you? Who do you play?” I told him, and his whole attitude changed. His closing remark was, “You tell that public defender we sure love her.” If it had happened to an ordinary citizen, he’d have gotten whipped upside the head for talking back.
MARTIN: I don’t believe in the power of recognizability to keep me out of traffic tickets, so I try not to get them.
MARINARO: I got stopped twice in a two-week period and got a ticket both times.
PLAYBOY: Didn’t the cops recognize you?
MARINARO: I said, “Hey, do you watch Hill Street Blues?” The cop said, “Great show. Sign this, please.”
SIKKING: Yeah, but didn’t he also say, “Be careful out there”?
This Footnote was published a few weeks later (October 20, 1983) in the Pittsburgh Press
Playboy magazine was on the set to do a story about the show and they wanted Michael (Conrad) there. He sat in for the interview and then he was asked to go over to the locker to get his jacket for a picture.
When he stood up, he was so weak he stumbled and would have fallen if Kiel Martin hadn’t jumped in and grabbed him. Kiel, whose personality probably most closely matches the character he plays, fumbled a bit and joked about Conrad being clumsy, so the Playboy interviewer never realized what had happened.
This article is copyright Playboy Enterprises, Inc. of
Chicago, Illinois 60611. All copyright claim is fully retained by the authors,
publishers, and owners of the original work.
This Website would like to thank Tracy Rotkiewicz for all her hard work transcribing it, for reproduction here.