Hill Street Blues


The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation Presents

02:26

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About

Hill Street Blues, one of the most innovative and critically acclaimed series in recent television history, aired on NBC from 1981 to 1987. Although never highly rated, NBC continued to renew Hill Street for its "prestige value" as well as the demographic profile of its fiercely loyal audience. Indeed, Hill Street is perhaps the consummate example of the complex equation in U.S. network television between "quality programming" and "quality demographics." Hill Street Blues revolutionized the TV "cop show," combining with it elements from the sitcom, soap opera, and cinema verite-style documentary. In the process, it established the paradigm for the hour-long ensemble drama: intense, fast-paced, and hyper-realistic, set in a densely populated urban workplace, and distinctly "Dickensian" in terms of character and plot development.

Hill Street's key antecedents actually were sitcoms, and particularly the half-hour ensemble workplace comedies of the 1970s such as M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Barney Miller. M*A*S*H was influential not only as a medical series set in a literal "war zone" (versus the urban war zone of Hill Street), but also for the aggressive cinematic style adapted from Robert Altman's original movie version. The Mary Tyler Moore Show's influence had to do primarily with its "domesticated workplace," a function of Mary's role as nurturer as well as the focus on the personal as well as the professional lives of the principals. The influence of Barney Miller, an ensemble sitcom set in a police precinct, was more direct. In fact the genesis of Hill Street resulted from NBC's Fred Silverman suggesting that the network develop an hour-long drama blending Barney Miller and the documentary-style anthology drama, Police Story.

To develop the series, NBC turned to Grant Tinker's MTM Enterprises, which in the early 1970s had specialized in ensemble sitcoms (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Bob Newhart, and others) before turning to the hour-long ensemble drama in 1977 with Lou Grant. Hill Street was created by Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll, two veteran TV series writers with extensive experience on various crime series. The two had collaborated on the short-lived police drama Delvecchio in 1976-77 before joining MTM, and they had little interest in doing another cop show without considerable leeway to vary the form. NBC agreed, and Hill Street debuted as a mid-season replacement in January 1981.

The basic Hill Street Blues formula was simple enough. The series was set in the Hill Street station, a haven of controlled chaos in a crime-infested, racially torn ghetto within an unnamed industrial metropolis. Each episode invariably charted a "day in the life" on the Hill, from the early-morning "roll call" to a late-night rehash of the day's events.

In the hands of Bochco and Kozoll, who teamed for much of the writing in the first two seasons, this formula provided the framework for a remarkably complex and innovative series--qualities which were evident from the opening roll call. This daybreak ritual was conducted "below decks" in the precinct house by the desk sergeant--most memorably Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad from 1981 until his death in 1984), who always closed with the trademark line: "Let's be careful out there."

A deft expositional stroke, the roll call served a range of narrative functions. It initiated the day-long trajectory; it provided an inventory not only of the current precinct "case load" but also the potential plot lines for the episode; it reintroduced most of the principal characters, whose commentary on the cases reestablished their individual personalities and professional attitudes. And technically, it set Hill Street's distinctive verite tone with its hand-held camera, continual reframing instead of cutting, multi-track sound recording, and edgy, improvisational feel.

After the roll call the cops filed upstairs to begin their assignments, which set the episode's multiple crime-related plot lines in motion. Most of the series regulars who worked "out there" on the streets were partners: Hill and Renko (Michael Warren and Charles Haid), Coffee and Bates (Ed Marinaro and Betty Thomas), LaRue and Washington (Kiel Martin and Taurean Blacque). Other notable street cops were Lt. Howard Hunter (James Sikking), the precinct's SWAT team leader; Mick Belker (Bruce Weitz), a gnarling, perpetually unkempt undercover detective; and Norm Buntz (Dennis Franz), an experienced, cynical, street-wise detective prone to head-strong, rule-bending tactics.

With the episode thus set in motion, the focus shifted to Captain Frank Furillo (Daniel Travanti), the professional touchstone and indisputable patriarch of the precinct work-family, and the moral center of Hill Street's narrative universe. Furillo adroitly orchestrated his precinct's ceaseless battle with the criminal element. He also did battle with bureaucrats and self-serving superiors, principally in the character of Chief Fletcher Daniels (Jon Cypher). And on a more personal level, he battled his own demons (alcoholism, a failed marriage) and the human limitations of his officers, ever vigilant of the day-to-day toll of police work in a cesspool of urban blight whose citizenry, for the most part, was actively hostile toward the "police presence."

Furillo also battled Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel), a capable, contentious lawyer from the Public Defender's office. Their professional antagonism was countered, however, by an intimate personal relationship--the two were lovers. Their affair remained clandestine until the third season, when they went public and were wed. And through all this, Furillo also maintained a troubled but affectionate rapport with his ex-wife, Fay (Barbara Bosson).

The Furillo-Davenport relationship was Hill Street's most obvious and effective serial plot, while also giving a dramatic focus to individual episodes. As professional adversaries, they endlessly wrangled over the process of law and order; as lovers they examined these same conflicts--and their own lives--in a very different light. Most episodes ended, in fact, with the two of them together late at night, away from the precinct, mulling over the day's events. This interplay of professional and personal conflicts--and of episodic and serial plot lines--was crucial to Hill Street's basic narrative strategy. Ever aware of its "franchise" as a cop show, the series relied on a crime-solution formula to structure and dramatize individual episodes, while the long-term personal conflicts and stakes fueled the serial dimension of the series.

Hill Street's narrative complexity was reinforced by its distinctive cinematic technique. As Todd Gitlin suggests, "Hill Street's achievement was, first of all, a matter of style." Essential to that style was the "density of look and sound" as well as its interwoven ("knitted") plot lines, which created Hill Street's distinctive ambience: "Quick cuts, a furious pace, a nervous camera made for complexity and congestion, a sense of entanglement and continuous crisis that matched the actual density and convolution of city life." Hill Street's realism also extended to controversial social issues and a range of television taboos, particularly in terms of language and sexuality.

This realism was offset, however, by the idealized portrayal of the principal characters and the professional work-family. Whatever their failings and vulnerabilities, Furillo and his charges were heroic--even tragic, given their fierce commitment to a personal and professional "code" in the face of an insensitive bureaucracy, an uncaring public, and an unrelenting criminal assault on their community. But the Hill Street cops found solace in their work and in one another--which, in a sense, was all they had, since the nature of their work precluded anything resembling a "real life."

Not surprisingly, considering its narrative complexity, uncompromising realism, and relatively downbeat worldview, Hill Street fared better with critics than with mainstream viewers. In fact, it was among TV's lowest-rated series during its first season but was renewed due to its tremendous critical impact and its six Emmy awards, including Outstanding Drama Series. Hill Street went on to win four straight Emmy's in that category, while establishing a strong constituency among upscale urban viewers. It also climbed to a respectable rating, peaking in its third season at number 21; but its strength was always the demographic profile rather than the sheer size of its audience. Thus Hill Street paid off handsomely for NBC, and its long-term impact on TV programming has been equally impressive. In a 1985 TV Guide piece, novelist Joyce Carol Oates stated that the series was as "intellectually and emotionally provocative as a good book," and was positively "Dickensian in its superb character studies, its energy, its variety; above all, its audacity." Critics a decade later would be praising series like NYPD Blue, Homicide, ER, Chicago Hope, and Law and Order in precisely the same terms, heralding a "new golden age" of television drama--a golden age whose roots are planted firmly in Hill Street Blues.

-Thomas Schatz

CAST

Capt. Frank Furillo ..........................Daniel J. Travanti

Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (1981-84)............ Michael Conrad

Officer Bobby Hill .............................Michael Warren Officer

Andy Renko ..............................Charles Haid

Joyce Davenport.............................. Veronica Hamel

Det. Mick Belker................................... Bruce Weitz

Lt. Ray Calletano............................... Rene Enriquez

Det. Johnny (J.D.) LaRue......................... Kiel Martin

Det. Neal Washington....................... Taurean Blaque

Lt. Howard Hunter.............................. James Sikking

Sgt./Lt. Henry Goldblume......................... Joe Spano

Officer/Sgt. Lucille Bates..................... Betty Thomas

Grace Gardner (1981-85)................. Barbara Babcock

Fay Furillo (1981-86) .........................Barbara Bosson

Capt. Jerry Fuchs (1981-84)............ Vincent Lucchesi

Det./Lt. Alf Chesley (1981-82) .................Gerry Black

Officer Leo Schnitz (1981-85)......... Robert Hirschfield

Officer Joe Coffey (1981-86)................... Ed Marinaro

Chief Fletcher P. Daniels......................... Jon Cypher

Officer Robin Tataglia (1983-87)............... Lisa Sutton

Asst. D.A. Irwin Bernstein (1982-87).... George Wyner

Jesus Martinez ....................................Trinidad Silva

Judge Alan Wachtel ...........................Jeffrey Tambor

Det. Harry Garibaldi (1984-85)...................... Ken Olin

Det. Patricia Mayo (1984-85) ...................Mimi Kuzyk

Mayor Ozzie Cleveland (1982-85) ............J.A. Preston

Sgt. Stanislaus Jablonski (1984-87)..... Robert Prosky

Lt. Norman Buntz (1985-87).................. Dennis Franz

Celeste Patterson (1985-86) ................Judith Hansen

Sidney (The Snitch) Thurston (1985-87) ..Peter Jurasik

Officer Pagtrick Flaherty (1986-87)... Robert Clohessy

Officer Tina Russo (1986-87)........... Megan Gallagher

Officer Raymond (1987)....................... David Selburg

PRODUCERS

Steven Bochco, Michael Kozoll, Gregory Hoblit, David Anspaugh, Anthony Yerkovich, Scott Brazil, Jeffrey Lewis, Sascha Schneider, David Latt, David Milch, Michael Vittes, Walon Green, Penny Adams

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

NBC
January 1981   Thursday/Saturday 10:00-11:00

January 1981-April 1981   Saturday 10:00-11:00

April 1981-August 1981   Tuesday 9:00-10:00

October 1981-November 1986   Thursday 10:00-11:00

December 1986-February 1987   Tuesday 9;00-10:00

March 1987-May 1987   Tuesday 10:00-11:00

FURTHER READING

Bedell, Sally. Up the Tube: Prime-Time TV and the Silverman Years. New York: Viking, 1983.

Deming, Caren J. "Hill Street Blues as Narrative." Critical Studies in Mass Communication (Annandale, Virginia), March 1985.

Feuer, Jane, Paul Kerr, and Tise Vahimagi, editors. MTM: 'Quality Television.' London: British Film Institute, 1984.

Gitlin, Todd. Inside Prime Time. New York: Pantheon, 1983.

Marc, David. "MTM's Past and Future." Atlantic Monthly (New York), November 1984.

Newcomb, Horace, and Robert S. Alley. The Producer's Medium. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Oates, Joyce Carol. "For Its Audacity, Its Defiantly Bad Taste and Its Superb Character Studies." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania), 1 June 1985.

 

Highlights
Steven Bochco on the pilot of Hill Street Blues and how it ultimately defined the entire series in terms of violence and consequence
02:42
David Milch on favorite episodes of Hill Street Blues that he wrote
03:40
Steven Bochco on the tumultuous environment on the set of Hill Street Blues
03:35
Robert Butler on the opening sequence of Hill Street Blues
04:01
Who talked about this show

George Barris

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Custom car designer George Barris on making prop police cars street-legal
02:47

Steven Bochco

View Interview
Steven Bochco on the creation of Hill Street Blues and his initial sparring with NBC for creative control
05:52
Steven Bochco on the development, style and production of Hill Street Blues
28:39
Steven Bochco on creating key elements of Hill Street Blues , including roll call, blackouts, and multi-episode story arcs
06:03
Steven Bochco on the creation of the iconic opening sequenc and theme song of Hill Street Blues
02:29
Steven Bochco on the pilot of Hill Street Blues and how it ultimately defined the series in terms of violence and consequence
02:42
Steven Bochco on not continuing to produce Hill Street Blues after being fired at MTM [briefly]
00:59

Joshua Brand

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Joshua Brand on how St. Elsewhere came about, partially inspired by Hill Street Blues
08:43

Robert Butler

View Interview
Robert Butler on the opening sequence of Hill Street Blues
04:01
Robert Butler on the look of Hill Street Blues
01:47
Robert Butler on becoming involved in directing Hill Street Blues
03:06
Robert Butler on casting Hill Street Blues
28:52
Robert Butler on network reaction to the gritty style of Hill Street Blues and Grant Tinker protecting the show
03:16
Robert Butler on audience reaction to Hill Street Blues
00:40
Robert Butler on the ensemble nature of storytelling and shooting on Hill Street Blues
01:35
Robert Butler on his approach to directing episodes of Hill Street Blues
02:55
Robert Butler on some of the trademark elements of Hill Street Blues
01:22
Robert Butler on the theme song to Hill Street Blues
01:20
Robert Butler on the structure of the storylines on Hill Street Blues
01:05
Robert Butler on the harsh language and realism on Hill Street Blues
00:45
Robert Butler on the color scheme on Hill Street Blues
02:45
Robert Butler on not revealing the location of Hill Street Blues
01:09
Robert Butler on working with show creators Steven Bochco and Mike Kozoll on Hill Street Blues
03:34
Robert Butler on working with the cast of Hill Street Blues
05:18
Robert Butler on why he stayed as a regular director on Hill Street Blues
03:06

Glenn Gordon Caron

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Glenn Gordon Caron on working with director Robert Butler on Hill Street Blues and what he learned from him
00:48
Glenn Gordon Caron on Steven Bochco wanting him to write for Hill Street Blues
00:17

Thomas Carter

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Thomas Carter on directing Hill Street Blues
06:35
Thomas Carter on working with Steven Bochco on Hill Street Blues
02:18
Thomas Carter on directing the cast of Hill Street Blues
02:44
Thomas Carter on what he brought to Hill Street Blues as a director
03:30
Thomas Carter on what he learned from directing Hill Street Blues
01:13
Thomas Carter on working at MTM Productions
02:07
Thomas Carter on the legacy of Hill Street Blues
00:42

Dennis Franz

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Dennis Franz on working on Hill Street Blues as "Sal Bennedetto" and "Norman Buntz"
28:47
Dennis Franz on working on Hill Street Blues
14:47

Walon Green

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Walon Green on meeting David Milch and going to write for Hill Street Blues
01:43
Walon Green on learning to write for Hill Street Blues, and on Dick Wolf becoming story editor
02:24
Walon Green on the process of putting together a script for Hill Street Blues along with Jeffrey Lewis and David Milch
01:51
Walon Green on Steven Bochco having left Hill Street Blues when Green joined, and how it impacted Green's rapport with the cast
01:01
Walon Green on contretemps with ABC Standards and Practices during his time on Hill Street Blues, and on working for MTM
01:52
Walon Green on introducing the character "Lt. Norman Buntz" played by Dennis Franz on Hill Street Blues
02:59
Walon Green on Bruce Weitz as "Sgt. Mick Belker" on Hill Street Blues and other characters
01:32
Walon Green on using his background experience to write for Hill Street Blues, and on what he learned about writing for television from the show
03:30
Walon Green on the legacy of Hill Street Blues and Steven Bochco
01:40

Eddie Foy III

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Eddie Foy III on casting Hill Street Blues
01:59

Warren Littlefield

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Warren Littlefield on the state of NBC when he started at the network
05:48
Warren Littlefield on Hill Street Blues starting out as "an hour-long Barney Miller"
01:40

David Milch

View Interview
David Milch on favorite episodes of Hill Street Blues that he wrote
03:40
David Milch on how he came to write for Hill Street Blues
04:04
David Milch on "leading a double life" while writing for Hill Street Blues and his duties as Story Editor
02:39
David Milch on the process of writing for Hill Street Blues
02:20
David Milch on being promoted though the ranks on Hill Street Blues to Executive Producer
02:51
David Milch on working with Steven Bochco on Hill Street Blues
02:51
David Milch on what he learned about television writing from Hill Street Blues and its success 
04:45

Garrett Morris

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Garrett Morris on his dramatic work including appearances on ER and Hill Street Blues and Hunter
00:47

Horace Newcomb

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Horace Newcomb on how Hill Street Blues changed the television industry
06:33

Bernie Oseransky

View Interview
Bernie Oseransky on Steven Bochco's departure from Hill Street Blues; on revising the entire budget for the show
02:58
Bernie Oseransky on working with Steven Bochco on Hill Street Blues; 
01:12
Bernie Oseransky on Hill Street Blues; how he worked with the script as the Executive in charge of Production
00:40
Bernie Oseransky on the documentary feel of Hill Street Blues; on the production challenges
01:58

Mike Post

View Interview
Mike Post on working on Hill Street Blues with writer/producer Steven Bochco
03:48

Ted Rich

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Ted Rich on editing Hill Street Blues and the new editing style it brought about
04:42

Fred Silverman

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Fred Silverman on the birth of Hill Street Blues
02:12

Abby Singer

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Abby Singer on being production manager for Hill Street Blues and Bay City Blues
06:09

Jeffrey Tambor

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Jeffrey Tambor on his recurring role on Hill Street Blues
03:12

Grant Tinker

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Grant Tinker on Hill Street Blues
03:57

Daniel J. Travanti

View Interview
Daniel J. Travanti on starting his role as Frank Furillo on Hill Street Blues
Daniel J. Travanti on the ensemble cast of Hill Street Blues; on its final episode
19:11
Daniel J. Travanti on the path that took him to becoming cast on Hill Street Blues
Daniel J. Travanti on how he was cast on Hill Street Blues as Capt. Furillo; on the premise of the series; on his character
18:13
Daniel J. Travanti on Hill Street Blues' Emmy wins
01:32
Daniel J. Travanti on Hill Street Blues' production; on working with his co-stars Veronica Hamel and Michael Conrad (and his death during the run of the series)

Dick Wolf

View Interview
Dick Wolf details his first job in television as a writer on Hill Street Blues

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