About The Show
Hill Street Blues first aired in the USA in January 1981 on the NBC Network, and it was not particularly well received. When it was first shown many viewers did not quite know what to make of it. However people persevered with it, and in the end it ran for over six years, finally departing in 1987.
During that time it collected an incredible twenty five Emmy Awards, including 'Best Series' for four years in succession! There were a total of 146 Episodes, which were divided into 7 series and it was shown all over the world.
To understand its slow take off you must remember that before HSB police / crime dramas were entertaining, but slow-moving and sometimes a little bland. Examples being The Streets of San Francisco and Cannon. Although programs like "Kojak" had started to develop the police 'team' notion, most were set around the concept of a 'super hero' and more often than not the victims were close friends (or relatives) of the 'hero'.
The only real exception was author Joseph Wambaugh's Police Story, with its gritty stories and believable characters. Hill Street however completely recreated the concept of police dramas by introducing continuing storylines, that were sustained over four or five episodes. It also gave individuals star roles and had believable storylines (yes even the alligators in the subway, although many did not believe it at the time!)
The brain child of Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll it was originally to be called Hill Street Station. The program depicted 'day to day' events in a very brutal, but honest way. Like its counterpart MASH, it mixed 'Drama' with the 'Dry Humour' needed to 'get you by' The characters would often speak in 'half-sentences' and on occasions even interrupted each other.
No carefully rehearsed speeches here then! In fact it was a precisely crafted dialogue, that refused to 'underline' the obvious (as so many other programs of that time did). Instead the explanation would be spoken, just as it would be in the real chaotic police world, by any of the involved characters.
Professor Todd Gatlin in his excellent book 'Inside Prime Times' demonstrates this unusual way of 'scene setting', by quoting the episode where two teenagers take hostages during a robbery. In traditional television this important development would have been presented to the viewer, by someone rushing into the station house, or cutting away to a person phoning in to report it. Instead here the viewer learns of the event by hearing Furillo telling someone over the telephone about a possible 'hostage situation', while in the background can be heard Sgt. Esterhaus telling the Commander "We won't know that until we have interfaced with the perpetrators" (said as only he could say it!)
In addition to all the above, the production techniques was forever changed, by the use of hand-held cameras, something never really tried before on TV. This helped give the program that fast moving, gritty feel, that became its 'trademark'. You felt you were in the action, along with the cast. Lastly the characters had private lives and personalities, but not always good ones. The character was not always as perfect as on other TV shows and it made them more human.
The show was born out of a desire of NBC's Chief Fred Silverman, to air an all action cop show with a strong 'ethnic mix'. President of NBC's Entertainment Division Brandon Tartikoff suggested Bochco for the job. This was reinforced by the Vice President for Comedy Michael Zinberg who had recently come from MTM (where he had worked with Bochco). He also suggested Michael Kozoll, and for MTM to be the production company.
At the first meeting a sort of 'TV version' of the movie "Fort Apache:The Bronx" was suggested, along with a version of "Police Story", but exploring the 'combatants' personal lives more fully. Kozoll and Bochco were both strongly against the idea of being associated with 'another' cop show and certainly were not about to copy someone else's work.
However after the meeting, Bochco wondered if perhaps they were being
hasty and suggested to Kozoll, they try asking NBC if they could do a
'pilot script'. For those that don't know, this can be a very lucrative
source of income. Not only are you paid to write the pilot, if it then
becomes a series (even if you are no longer involved), you get paid
royalties and this can be thousands of dollars for each episode.
Director Producer Gregory Hoblit who was an old time friend of Stevens, was asked to look at production. In an interview he summed that time up like this: "Steven and Michael Kozoll hatched the idea of Hill Street Blues. The two of them pulled out of their 'war chest' these various characters, that they had never able to use, like Bruce Weitz's character Belker, or Michael Conrad's character Esterhaus, or James B. Sikking's character Hunter. Characters they couldn't use in the conventions of normal television, but that in the world of Hill Street were all possible".
"They wrote the script and sent it to me, to get my ideas on how I would
produce it with them, and it was everything I wanted to do. It was going
to allow an active camera, with a personality of its own, and create a
world that you could almost taste, smell and feel. We were going to break
the rules of fastidious television. You'd see sweat, wounds. You'd have
people talking in half-sentences and interrupting each other. You could do
a scene in one big shot instead of a whole bunch of little shots. Michael
and Steven painted this rich canvas in words that I was able to take and
with a director named Robert Butler, a kind of renegade himself, transform
into the film that became the Hill Street Blues pilot"
Fortunately Hoblit was able to tell him that the executives at NBC had also decided there was a future for Hill and Renko and had even discussed a 'spin off' starring them. In the end the pilot was broadcast having been modified, with Esterhaus telling Furillo that he had two officers in 'intensive care' and not one 'DOA' as originally planned.
Once the script was accepted, casting could begin and most were selected from the group of actors Steven and Michael had worked with before. One amusing story about casting was that there was considerable opposition to Bruce Weitz playing Belker. Bochco briefed him to growl his way into the casting meeting, jump up snarling onto a desk and then just leave. The question was then asked 'who wants to tell him, he has not got the part?'
It is said NBC executives wanted the part of the Public Defender Joyce Davenport to be played by a "blue eyed blond with big tits". However when they met Veronica Hamel everyone agreed she was perfect. Her naked scenes 'in the tub' with Furillo, did however cause problems with 'Broadcast Standards'. When Steven and Michael were told it must be cut, they both offered to quit, unless they got 'their bathtub scene'. In the end a slightly muted version was approved (you have to wonder if the original footage still survives!).
Along with Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll, there were many, many other people that had a hand in making Hill Street the unique and unforgettable program it was. It would clearly not be right if we did not acknowledge here, the special contributions of Director Robert Butler, Co Producer Gregory Hoblit and of course the memorable 'theme music' legend Mike Post.
Capt. Frank Furillo (Pizza Man) was the undisputed boss of the Hill Street precinct and was always 'up to the job'. I suspect like me over the years, many other fans have (when faced with a problem) thought 'what would Furillo do in this situation?' His ability to always do the right thing masked the fact he was a recovering alcoholic. When you first meet his wife Fay, you began to understand why!
Another secret he had at the start of the series, was his affair with Joyce Davenport, a lawyer from the public defenders office. Their day to day professional antagonism, was countered by hot steamy nights in bed together. The last scene of many great episodes would end with them in the bedroom together, analyzing the day's traumas (clip here). It broke Fay's heart when they finally married and she told Frank, affectionately that "she had always believed that somehow they would get back together".
Frank and Joyce's relationship was just one of the many clever pairings. Why clever? Because this technique was subtly used throughout the series to add tension, or humour. Examples being: 'slightly' racist action man Hunter with 'pacifist' Goldblum. 'Alcoholic' LaRue and pain suppressant drug user Washington. Soft spoken 'trying to be feminine' Lucy Bates, with 'macho action man' Coffey and most famously gorgeous nymphomaniac Grace Gardner with 'romantic innocent' Sgt. Phil Esterhaus.
Another great pairing was Southern 'Red Neck' Renko and 'proud to be black' Hill. As mentioned above, in the pilot episode they are shot and appear to die. However someone at NBC saw that there was the potential of these two characters and by the time the series was released, they had both survived the shooting and went on to survive the whole series.
Most characters were strong in their own right, one of the most memorable was Mick (Would you like to sit down or would you prefer internal injuries) Belker. When a large white German Shepard threatens him, Belker takes it on and wins. He is of course less friendly to humans, apart from Mum who he must phone daily. You may also recall his 'suspect' eating habits.
For many people the most lovable character was Sgt. Phil lets be careful out there Esterhaus. His calm demeanour, would always get 'his troops' through the day. During his all too few years in the series, the big man Michael Conrad made the character, one of the most memorable of all time. When in real life he died of cancer, it was decided not to try and replace the character and he was allowed to pass away 'in the act' and the arms, of the inexhaustible Grace Gardner.
Detectives Washington and LaRue were the practical jokers, causing the aptly named Hunter, to kill a dummy crocodile. Although later 'JD' unintentionally saves a suicidal Hunter, by loading blanks in his gun. John frequently violated department policy, often to the despair of his partner, he also harboured a drink problem. This set up a classic moment in the first series, when Furillo furiously tells him "To get his drink problem sorted, or get out the force". LaRue eventually attends an AA meeting only to find a smiling Furillo. This is how we learn Frank is also in recovery.
Later arrivals that create some wonderful scenes were Sid the Snitch (I am a snitch, it's what I do) and hard but honest (well sort of), LT. Norman Buntz. They are pictured below in one of there many love, hate scenes.
Hill Street Blues was meant to be set in an 'anonymous' inner city on the east side of the USA, The police precincts were Decker Avenue, Hill Street, Jefferson Heights. Midtown, Polk Avenue and South Ferry. Many people mistakenly thought it was set in New York and the writers did seem to tease people, by mixing different filmed locations and making reference to different areas in different episodes.
In fact it was filmed mainly in Los Angeles and Chicago. The opening sequences featured (in the main), aerial shoots of Chicago's railways. The police patrol cars were almost identical to the Chicago ones of the time, apart from the words 'Chicago Police', being replaced with 'Metro Police'.
Again Gregory Hoblit explains "People in Baltimore, Detroit, Boston, Philly, all thought it was their city. We purposely did not designate a city: We wanted it to be any big city where there was weather, where you got rain and snow and a sense of urban decay. The Hill itself was named after an area in Pittsburgh: a tough area called the Hill and the precinct there. Bochco had gone to college in Pittsburgh, at Carnegie Mellon".
The Precinct House used for link shots and in the closing sequences, was in fact, a real police station. Built in 1889 the Maxwell Street Police Station at Maxwell and Morgan, finally closed it's doors in 1997. It was however renovated and is now the home of the University of Illinois Campus Police. You can see it today by clicking here
In the last episode of Hill Street Blues, the precinct house is gutted by a major fire and we are left never knowing, if it will be rebuilt. It was left this way to allow for a later resurrection of the series, but sadly for the fans this never happened.
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