That opening baseline. That opening shot of the New York skyline. That eclectic bunch filling a rundown squad room. Do you know what I’m talking about? Even if you don’t, you’ll be humming it soon enough.
Barney Miller is a 70’s classic, running from 1974 to 1982, that took place in the detective’s squad room of the 12th precinct in New York City. Cops cite the show as one of the most realistic cop shows to be on TV. It showed the funny, ridiculous side of crime. While other cop shows dealt with the more serious crime like murders and drug rings, Barney Miller and company dealt with blind shoplifters, philosophical bums, and purse snatching stockbrokers. And they did it all while dealing with staff shortages, budget cuts, and a poorly working toilet.
Though they occasionally tackled heavier subjects (racism, homicide, rape), the show mostly centered on the detectives getting by and dealing with a host of criminals and victims just as varied and interesting as they were.
The original cast consisted of Barney Miller (Hal Linden), Stan “Wojo” Wojciehowicz (Max Gail), Phil Fish (Abe Vigoda), and Chano Amaguale (Gregory Sierra). Ron Harris (Ron Glass) and Nick Yemana (Jack Soo) were officially added as regulars by the second season. In the beginning, Barney’s wife Liz (Barbara Barrie) played a bigger role, but by the second season had diminished.
The cast changed over the seasons. Gregory Sierra and Abe Vigoda both left for other series, which led to Steve Landesburg as Arthur Dietrich and Ron Carey as the long suffering Officer Carl Levitt joining the show. James Gregory also joined as Inspector Frank Luger. Jack Soo passed away in 1979 and was never replaced.
The integration of the new characters was pretty smooth. It felt like what would happen at a real precinct. People get transferred or retire and new people move in. Personalities didn’t have to be replaced. This kind of show called for individuality. And it allowed for growth.
Barney was the wise leader, gifted with compassion and a desire to do the right thing. Wojo started off as kind of a thick-skulled muscle head, but over the seasons revealed a big heart and actually showed some growth. Harris was a styled intellectual with a gift for writing and a love for the stock market. Dietrich was also an intellectual, but he was more of a walking encyclopedia with a wit so dry it could be used for kindling. Chano was a street smart guy that never failed to go out on a limb to get his job done. Nick hated filing, made terrible coffee, and had a love for gambling. Fish may have acted like life was the pits, but he dreaded enforced retirement and even kidney stones couldn’t keep him off the job. Inspector Luger was always going on about the good ol’ days, but he always had his detectives’ backs. Officer Levitt longed to be a detective and was enthusiastic about his job, but was often overlooked (he felt because he was short).
The great part about the show was that the guest stars were as much fun as the detectives and many of the actors were on several times as different characters. Peggy Pope, Oliver Clark, Don Calfa, Florence Halop, Sal Viscuso, Doris Roberts, Michael Tucci, A. Martinez, Phil Leeds, and Christopher Lloyd were all on multiple times.
They also had some great recurring characters. Jack DeLeon and Ray Stewart as Marty and Mr. Driscoll are two of my favorites (and two of the few gay characters on at the time). They also had Florence Stanley as Fish’s wife Bernice, Stanley Brock as Bruno Bender, George Murdock as Lt. Ben Scanlon, and Jack Somack as the often robbed Mr. Cotterman.
So many of the episodes are fan favorites, such as “Hash” in which Wojo brings in brownies made by his girlfriend and the detectives eat them not knowing that they’re laced with pot, and “Werewolf” in which Kenneth Tigar brilliantly plays Stefan Kopeckne who believes he’s, well, a werewolf (he comes back in an episode in a later season as the same character, this time believing he’s possessed by a demon). All of the episodes are quotable. My personal favorites (that I watch over and over again online) are “Smog Alert”, “Rain”, “Hair”, “Group Home”, and “Bus Stop”. And of course, “Jack Soo, a Retrospective” is a touching, out of character episode reflecting on Jack Soo and the character of Nick Yemana after Jack Soo passed away from cancer. When they raise their coffee mugs to him in the end, it’s a guaranteed tear jerker.
Also, the last scene of the series is probably one of the best done in television. No gimmicks, no tricks, just turning off the light and closing the door.
The female cops were few and far between (Linda Lavin, June Gable, and Mari Gorman all did time at the 12th), but that never bothered me much. I’d rather have an all male cast than a woman shoehorned in just because they think they have to have a woman in there. Those cases never end well. (For the record, I didn’t care much for Linda Lavin’s Detective Janice Wentworth, but I did like June Gable’s Detective Maria Battista and Mari Gorman’s Officer Rosslyn Licori.) And not all of the serious material was handled well (“Rape” is an incredibly awkward and uncomfortable episode, even more so now because of just how differently things are handled and viewed now as opposed to how they were then).
But the shortcomings are easily overlooked (particularly if you just skip “Rape” all together, which hurts me to say it since Joyce Jameson is in it and I love her). Despite the 70’s suits and references, there’s a timeless quality to the stories and the jokes. Granted, you probably couldn’t take a bomb into a New York police department so easily today (it happened at least four times during the show that I can remember off of the top of my head), but we can relate to the budget cuts and the layoffs and trying to do right even if it is against the rules.
Not to mention the desire for a cup of coffee and a decent toilet.