Gritty police TV show ‘Hill Street Blues’ turns 40

By the top of its first season in May 1981, “Hill Street Blues” was already a tv traditional — famend for breaking obstacles and forging a brand new path in police procedurals that also resonates 40 years later.

The collection, created by Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll, set the gold commonplace for its “docudrama” method: its modern use of handheld cameras and quick-cut enhancing and the best way during which it portrayed the private {and professional} lives of cops in an unnamed metropolitan metropolis.

Even its two leads had been unorthodox: Capt. Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti), the dapper, intense chief of Hill Street, a recovering alcoholic at all times wearing a three-piece swimsuit, and public defender Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel). They had been, at first, lovers, then finally married and ended many “Hill Street Blues” episodes in mattress collectively, speaking about their day.

“Those bed scenes were not about sex. They were about two people who really dug each other and about the tensions of their day and … the touch of flesh between two people who really crave each other and the comfort that gives,” Travanti, 81, instructed 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 in all their “bed scenes” that closed many episodes of “Hill Street Blues.
NBC / Courtesy: Everett Collecti

“The show had satire … which is rare in television, but you didn’t have to get the satire to appreciate the stories because they were so organically correct, so psychologically and emotionally valid. It was not manipulative and mechanical.”

Travanti, who’d spent the earlier 17 years showing in dozens of TV exhibits — together with “Perry Mason,” “The Patty Duke Show,” “Route 66,” “Gidget” and “Gunsmoke” — was 39 when he first learn for the function of Furillo.

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

Despite its pedigree, together with Bochco — who went on to develop “LA Law,” “Doogie Howser” and “NYPD Blue” — and acclaimed director Robert Butler, “Hill Street Blues” was by no means a Top 10 show throughout its seven-season run; its greatest displaying, by way of viewership, got here throughout the 1982-83 season, when it completed at No. 21, sandwiched between “Knots Landing” and “That’s Incredible!”

Yet its resonant high quality assured it a high spot within the pantheon of community TV dramas, not just for its terrific writing, together with the memorable “Let’s be careful out there!” — stated after roll name by Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad) via Season 4 — however for its first-rate ensemble solid, together with 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 show's run on NBC.
The most important solid of “Hill Street Blues” later within the show’s run on NBC.
NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal by way of

“It was the first time I saw cops in a soap opera, so to speak, about their lives and points of view as human beings,” stated Thomas, who received an Emmy in 1985 for her portrayal of Officer (later Sgt.) Lucy Bates. “They were all flawed human beings who were struggling and I don’t think that was seen before or thought about in that way. That theme was applied to hospital shows after that and became the style from then on.”

Even the show’s catchy theme music, written and carried out by Mike Post, grew to become a success — successful a Grammy Award and charting at No. 10 within the US.

Still, it wasn’t easy crusing for “Hill Street Blues” when it premiered in January 1981. NBC, which didn’t put a lot religion within the collection, threw up varied roadblocks, together with a helter-skelter programming schedule which appeared designed to throw viewers off the scent — unusual, because the community, at the moment, was lagging ABC and CBS.

“NBC tried their best to get rid of us, and heaven knows why,” stated Travanti. “They did their greatest to destroy us and solely ordered 13 episodes — that’s how assured they weren’t. And when did they put us on the air? Jan. 15, 17, 22 and 24. That’s disgustingly damaging, silly and idiotic. There aren’t phrases sturdy sufficient.

“You put us on the air for four episodes that are thrown away in nine days? People barely saw us. What the f – – k was that? Everyone was up in arms and screaming at NBC, and NBC was screaming at them. If they had dumped ‘Hill Street Blues’ they would’ve been called the idiots of all time. Their being in that weak position worked in our favor — but also threatened us all the time.”

The collection caught on slowly however certainly. It was each critically and popularly acclaimed and NBC ordered 4 further Season 1 episodes, taking the maiden season of “Hill Street Blues” via the top of May. “It was rough, but we prevailed,” Travanti stated. “So there. It was like, ‘F – – k ’em if they can’t take a joke.’ Then we had an [industry-wide] writers’ strike and an actors’ strike — [series co-star] Barbara Bosson was picketing 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 Photo Bank/NBCUniversal by way of

Thomas, who went on to a distinguished directing profession on each the massive and small screens, credit “Hill Street Blues” as an enormous studying expertise that suited her effectively in her later directing roles in movies equivalent to “The Brady Bunch Movie” and TV exhibits together with “Grace and Frankie.”

“I was definitely influenced by the show,” she stated. “We used to watch each other’s scenes. [Director] Bob Butler really developed the style of that show. Bochco and everybody wanted it to feel a little documentary-ish; Bob did those first four episodes and that pretty much established the style of the whole thing.”

Thomas stated she nonetheless remembers how, within the “Hill Street Blues” pilot, Butler instructed her he’d have a digital camera on her for a close-up shot, though she had no dialogue within the scene, during which Lucy Bates is sizing up Joyce Davenport. He stated, ‘You don’t want traces, simply show me how you are feeling about her.’ That was my greatest lesson in performing, ever. I did that shot and it was within the pilot and it does show what the working-girl cop thinks of the hifalutin lawyer with none phrases.


When all was stated and accomplished, “Hill Street Blues” ended its run in May 1987 after 146 episodes and 26 Emmys, together with 4 consecutive victories for Outstanding Drama Series. It broke floor via its closing season, which featured Officer Kate McBride (Lindsay Crouse), the primary lesbian recurring character on a community collection.

“We were unique. There was nothing like us,” Travanti stated. “We included parts of many different issues. We didn’t do something model new. Handheld cameras had been used eternally, episodic tales had been used eternally and the in-depth exploration of cops’ personal lives was used right here and there in films and TV.

“But nobody had put it all together like this until ‘Hill Street Blues’ and that was fortuitous,” he stated. “The planets were aligned — we had Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll and then they got Bob Butler and there was Greg Hoblit behind the scenes. How it all came together was a goddamn miracle — but that’s what happens maybe once in a lifetime or in a career.”

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