Rerun Junkie Character–Marty Morrison

I’ve written a bit about Marty Morrison before when I wrote about Barney Miller and The Pride of the Ol’ 1-2, but I always knew I was going to dedicate an entire post to the man because as characters go, Marty Morrison is pretty brilliant.

Portrayed by the fantastic Jack DeLeon in eight episodes, Marty Morrison makes his grand entrance in the second episode of the series having been arrested by Wojo for stealing a purse. The entire scene of Wojo booking Marty in front of his victim is nothing but a showcase of Marty’s wit.

Wojo: Okay, Marty. This is the second purse you snatched in a week. Now you’re getting bad habits.
Marty: Kleptomania is a disease, not a crime. Besides, I’ve thrown away better purses than that.

Mrs. Florsheim: I want that man in jail. And I’m not afraid of reprisal.
Marty: Oh, who would want to reprise you?

Mrs. Florsheim: You’re just lucky the police got to you before my husband did.
Marty: Same to you.

Wojo: Mrs. Florsheim, what time was the crime committed?
Mrs. Florsheim: I beg your pardon?
Marty: What he wants to know is when did you buy the purse.

Wojo: Was there anything missing from the purse?
Marty: Good taste.

At a glance Marty is a stereotypical catty, somewhat effeminate gay man. That’s how that first scene with him plays out. A catty, gay thief.

But he makes some good points. He’s had all kinds of jobs, even tried to get on the police force. But at the time, they didn’t allow openly gay men on the force. As Marty points out, “Why can’t there be gay cops? There are gay robbers.”

Later in the episode, he makes a vaguely suggestive statement to a man he’s sharing the lone 12th cell with. Naturally the guy doesn’t take it well. And naturally, Marty responds with his scathing wit.

As funny as the character is, he also does an exquisite job of highlighting the other characters’ prejudices, particularly Wojo’s. In the earlier seasons, Wojo is extremely uncomfortable with the idea of homosexuality. The ultra-masculine former Marine has a tendency to be hostile towards Marty, and Marty has a tendency to throw that hostility back at Wojo in the form of his own clever insults or suggestive comments. Of course, Wojo’s growth over the eight seasons of the show includes coming to some sort of acceptance of Marty. As a plot devices go, he’s pretty great.

But Marty is more than just a plot device for another character’s growth. He’s more than just a token queer character. Marty gets to be a person, which was definitely more than what a lot of queer characters got to be on TV during that time period. In a time in which homosexuality was still viewed as a deviant choice by most, Marty gets to rise above much of that stigma. Why? Because we like him. He’s not like the deranged murderers that show up on other cop shows at the time. He’s a petty thief that’s been known to smoke pot. No different than any of the straight crooks and pot smokers that made their way through the 12th. Marty is harmless.

And being harmless allows Marty to help highlight the injustices that queer people faced. We watch Marty flirt with a Russian pianist seeking refuge in the United States from the oppression of his home country in “Asylum”. He also stands up for the man and offers to help him get to immigration since, according to the State Dept., no one with any official status is allowed to help and by Marty’s own admission, he doesn’t have any status.

While the cruelties of Russia were easy for an audience to absorb back in the ’70s, bringing that cruelty closer to home was more effective. In the episode “Discovery”, Marty brings in his friend Darryl Driscoll to get some help from the fellas at the 12th, something that Mr. Driscoll is sure will be their undoing. Mr. Driscoll was accosted by a man claiming to be a 12th precinct detective and had to buy his way out of trouble for $50. It’s only understandable that he’d think he was walking into a lion’s den. But Marty, despite his own frequent law tangles, considers these men to be his friends, and of course, Barney and his men -even Wojo- step up to take Mr. Driscoll’s complaints seriously. Marty, who is accustomed to the insults spit at him by many of the uniformed officers, had no doubt that they’d be treated like human beings by the detectives.

He’s been in enough trouble to know the 12th precinct pretty well.

In addition to stealing handbags and possessing pot, he once shoplifted luggage. Walked right out of the store and right into the 12th’s holding cell. It turns out that Marty’s get-rich-minded scheme of marrying a much older woman couldn’t deter his sticky fingers. And in another episode, Marty asks Barney to put in a good word for him with his probation officer as he and Mr. Driscoll are hoping to move to the much more gay-friendly city of San Francisco. Lucky for all of us, though, the duo stayed put in NYC.

Marty mostly cleans up his act by the time the show hits the finale, which is also Marty’s last appearance. Fitting that the man who helped establish the quality of characters populating the mug books of the 12th precinct would stop by to say goodbye to his friends and the place he made a mark on.

In a time when gay characters were scarce and often vilified, Marty Morrison was a funny, charming, likeable character that helped ease the stigma surrounding gay men, at least a little. Even if the character isn’t a perfect representation, he helped pave the way for the depiction of authentic, messy, queer humans that are more frequently (yet not frequently enough) seen onscreen today.

Rerun Junkie Show Analysis–The Pride of the Ol’ 1-2

Since it’s Pride Month, I wanted to do a post on the gay representation on Barney Miller, just a quick overview of it because there’s really quite a bit I could pick apart and analyze and also because Marty Morrison really deserves his own character post.

Anyway.

Barney Miller was known for depicting the less dramatic, weirder side of law enforcement. It also pushed and poked at many social issues of the time. Some of them were very specific to that moment, like the budget crisis and the fallout from Vietnam, but many of the issues the show presented are still very relevant today. One striking aspect of the show is the representation of gay men in the form of recurring characters Marty Morrison (Jack DeLeon), Mr. Darryl Driscoll (Ray Stewart), and Officer Zatelli (Dino Natali). I read somewhere that show creator Danny Arnold worked with gay groups to get the portrayal of these characters right.  Instead of relying heavily on stereotypes (thought Marty is a classic catty gay man) or presenting them as unnatural or deviant, the show depicted them as humans facing societal challenges, bigotry, and discrimination due to their sexual orientation.

I love Marty Morrison and the pizzazz that Jack DeLeon brought to that character. He was out because it was impossible for him to be in. A petty criminal, he stole my heart as well as purses. In his first appearance on the show there’s a scene in which Barney tells Marty to get a real job and Marty tells him that he’s had “more jobs than you have hair on your head”. He also tells him that he tried to join the police force, but that they turned him down for being gay (“What’s wrong with a gay cop? There are gay robbers.”). Perhaps it’s just me reading into the scene, but there’s a suggestion there that part of the reason for Marty’s criminal behavior is because of his difficulty to hold a job as an out gay man in the 1970s. Or even get one. At the time, I would imagine that most jobs okay with his sexuality were few and far between and most likely limited to very specific industries.

It was through Marty that the show introduced Mr. Darryl Driscoll. The character was first somewhat effeminate, but throughout the appearances, that lessened in favor of Ray Stewart giving the character a more sophisticated personality. His first introduction to the squad room saw him being hustled by a fake cop, threatened with violence if he didn’t give the man money. His reluctance to actually go to the police to file a report echoes the real fear the gay community had (and still has) in regards to law enforcement. Later on in the series it was revealed that Mr. Driscoll had been married and had a son, something not uncommon for gay men. The resulting custody dispute on the surface seemed to be the result of the former Mrs. Driscoll’s opposition to Mr. Driscoll’s sexuality and shielding their son from that. In reality, the reason was more mundane: Mrs. Driscoll was tired of being the bad guy because Mr. Driscoll indulged his son during his visitations.

It was Officer Zatelli who got the truth from Mrs. Driscoll. A uniformed officer in a similar duty role to Ron Carey’s Officer Levitt, Officer Zatelli first showed up in the fourth season. However, it was in the 6th season that an anonymous letter claiming there was a gay police officer led to Zatelli outing himself as both the letter writer and the gay officer. Dino Natali’s portrayal of Zatelli was “straight”. He wasn’t much different from any of the other cops and that was the point. Though the detectives in the squad room knew he was gay and though he told  Mrs. Driscoll that he was gay when she was making a fuss about her son being around “those kind of people” and though Barney encouraged him to come clean to the department because policy prevented punishment for his sexuality (a policy change from the first season as indicated above), Zatelli couldn’t do it. As Barney warned, it was an accidental outing thanks to Wojo that exposed his secret. Instead of termination or forced resignation (like Lt. Scanlon wanted), Zatelli was transferred to a much cushier job, which he believed was a sign that he had a like-minded friend in high places.

Speaking of Wojo, Max Gail was presented with an interesting challenge for his character in regards to his evolution in opinion about gay men. The first season, particularly the first handful of episodes, saw Wojo as kind of a brutish caveman. His dislike of Marty came more from him being a thief rather than him being gay. However, the introduction of Mr. Driscoll, pairing the two men up the way they did, brought Wojo’s discomfort, ignorance, and prejudice into a sharper focus. In a two-part episode called “Quarantine” that saw the members of the 12th as well at Inspector Luger, Marty, Mr. Driscoll, and a sex worker named Paula Capshaw all -you guessed it- quarantined due to either smallpox or chicken pox depending on the outcome of the tests done on a sick criminal, Wojo insists that Marty and Mr. Driscoll sleep on opposite sides of the squad room. Like the two men would just bow-chicka-wow-wow right there if they were allowed to be in close proximity of each other when the lights went out. Wojo lost that argument, but it was an excellent illustration of his prejudice and misconceptions surrounding gay men. Over the course of the series, we got to see Wojo’s own learning experience and watch him as his opinions grew, matured, and evolved. In a way, he was almost a stand-in for no doubt many men in the viewing audience. (I’m singling out the men here because Wojo’s issues with homosexuality was very masculinity-based, but really, that’s another post for another time.)

Like I said, this is just a quick overview. There’s so much more I could get into and just might at some point in time. The gay representation on Barney Miller is really rather unique given the time period. It’s a reflection of the way social norms were evolving at the time as well as a bold step for both a cop show and a comedy.

The characters still resonate and the humor still plays today because the focus was always on the humanity, not stereotypes-as-punchlines.

And that’s pretty special.