Police TV show ‘Hill Street Blues’ turns 40

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By the end of its first season in May 1981, “Hill Street Blues” was already a television classic – renowned for breaking down barriers and forging a new course in police proceedings that still resonates 40 years later.

The series, created by Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll, set the gold standard for its ‘docudrama’ approach: its innovative use of pocket cameras and quick editing and the way it portrayed personal and professional life. cops in a metropolitan city.

Even its two leaders were unorthodox: Captain Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti), the dapper, intense leader of Hill Street, a recovering alcoholic still dressed in a three-piece suit, and public defender Joyce Davenport ( Veronica Hamel). They were, at first, in love, then eventually married and ended many episodes of “Hill Street Blues” in bed together, talking about their day.

“These bed scenes weren’t about sex. It was about two people who really got deeper and deeper into the tensions of their day and… the touch of the flesh between two people who really want each other and the comfort that it provides, ”Travanti said. , 81, at the Post.

Photo showing Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel) and Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) in bed at the end of an episode of "Hill Street Blues."
Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel) and Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) in one of their “bed scenes” which closed many episodes of “Hill Street Blues”.
NBC / Courtesy: Everett Collecti

“The show had satire… which is rare on TV, but you didn’t have to get satire to enjoy the stories because they were so organically correct, so psychologically and emotionally valid. It was neither manipulative nor mechanical.

Travanti, who had spent the past 17 years appearing on dozens of television shows – including “Perry Mason,” “The Patty Duke Show,” “Route 66,” “Gidget” and “Gunsmoke” – was 39 when ‘he first read for the role of Furillo.

“Feb. 12, 1980. Some moments are burned in your brain,” he says. “Bochco apparently said, ‘Who was that guy? What is he doing in there reading [the script]? It’s a star! Then there was a thunderous silence for days and… I got a call on Friday March 7th, my 40th birthday. We started on Monday March 10th and I shot my first scene the next day. “


Despite his pedigree, including Bochco – who went on to develop “LA Law”, “Doogie Howser” and “NYPD Blue” – and acclaimed director Robert Butler, “Hill Street Blues” has never been a top 10 during its seven seasons. ; his best performance, in terms of audience, came in the 1982-83 season, when he finished at No.21, sandwiched between “Knots Landing” and “That’s Incredible!”

Yet her resonant quality secured her a top spot in the pantheon of network TV series, not only for her formidable writing, including the memorable “Let’s Be Safe Over There!” – said after the call by Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad) until Season 4 – but for his top-notch ensemble cast, including Joe Spano, Betty Thomas, Bruce Weitz, Dennis Franz, Michael Warren, Charles Haid, James Sikking, Taurean Blacque and Ed Marinaro.

The cast of "Hill Street Blues" later in the run of the show on NBC.
The main cast of “Hill Street Blues” later in the run of the show on NBC.
NBCU / NBCUniversal Photo Bank via

“It was the first time I had seen cops in a soap opera, so to speak, talk about their lives and their perspective as human beings,” said Thomas, who won an Emmy in 1985 for his portrayal of Officer (later Sergeant) Lucy Bates. “They were all imperfect human beings struggling and I don’t think it’s been seen or thought of that way before. This theme was applied to hospital exhibits afterwards and became the style from there.

Even the show’s catchy musical theme, written and performed by Mike Post, became a hit – winning a Grammy Award and placing No. 10 in the United States.

Still, it wasn’t easy for “Hill Street Blues” when it premiered in January 1981. NBC, which didn’t trust the series much, threw up various roadblocks, including a lineup ruthless that seemed designed to throw viewers out of the scent – odd, because the network, at that point, was lagging behind ABC and CBS.

“NBC did their best to get rid of us, and God knows why,” Travanti said. “They did their best to destroy us and only ordered 13 episodes – that’s how not confident they were. And when did they put us on the air? January 15, 17, 22 and 24. It is terribly destructive, stupid and silly. There are no strong enough words.

“You put us on the air for four episodes that get cast in nine days?” People barely saw us. What was that f – – k? Everyone was hugging and yelling at NBC, and NBC yelling at them. If they had dumped “Hill Street Blues” they would have been called the idiots of all time. The fact that they are in this weak position has worked in our favor – but has also threatened us all the time.


The series spread slowly but surely. It has received both critical and public acclaim, and NBC has ordered four more episodes of Season 1, taking the first season of “Hill Street Blues” through the end of May. “It was difficult, but we triumphed,” Travanti said. “So there. It was like, ‘F – – k’ em if they can’t take a joke. ‘Then we had a [industry-wide] writers ‘strike and actors’ strike – [series co-star] Barbara Bosson stung her husband, Steven Bochco, outside the building.

Scene from "Hill Street Blues" showing Betty Thomas, Veronica Hamel and Ed Marinaro as Lucy Bates, Joyce Davenport and Joe Coffey.
Betty Thomas (left), Veronica Hamel and Ed Marinaro in a scene from “Hill Street Blues”.
NBCU / NBCUniversal Photo Bank via

Thomas, who has pursued a brilliant directorial career on big and small screens, credits “Hill Street Blues” with a huge learning experience that suited him well in his later directorial roles in films such as “The Brady Bunch. Movie ”and television. shows including “Grace and Frankie”.

“I was definitely influenced by the show,” she said. “We used to watch each other’s scenes. [Director] Bob Butler really developed the style of this show. Bochco and everyone wanted it to be a little documentary; Bob did those first four episodes and that pretty much set the style for it all.

Thomas said she still remembered how in the pilot for “Hill Street Blues” Butler told her he would have a camera on her for a close-up, even though she had no dialogue in the scene. , in which Lucy Bates measures up to Joyce Davenport. He said, ‘You don’t need lines just show me how you feel for her. It was my biggest acting lesson, ever. I took this shot and it was in the pilot and it shows what the worker cop thinks about the hifalutin lawyer without a word.

“It was so easy.”

Ultimately, “Hill Street Blues” ended its run in May 1987 after 146 episodes and 26 Emmys, including four straight wins for Outstanding Drama Series. It broke new ground in its final season, which starred Officer Kate McBride (Lindsay Crouse), the first recurring lesbian character in a network series.

“We were unique. There was nothing like us, ”Travanti said. “We incorporated elements of a lot of other things. We haven’t done anything new. Handheld cameras had always been used, episodic stories had always been used, and the in-depth exploration of cop privacy was used here and there in movies and television.

“But nobody had everything set up like this before ‘Hill Street Blues’ and it was fortuitous,” he said. “The planets were aligned – we had Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll, then they had Bob Butler and there was Greg Hoblit behind the scenes. The way it all turned out was a fucking miracle – but that’s what happens maybe once in a lifetime or in a career.

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