Late 1970s New York City. Mean streets, dangerous times. A dingy squad room. Underpaid detectives. A compassionate leader occasionally overwhelmed by the pressures of his job as the captain.
That is the setting for one of television’s greatest series ever, “Barney Miller.”
It all began 45 years ago with a little-known film titled “The Life and Times of Captain Barney Miller.” The movie aired as a pilot on ABC and was drastically different from what came later. For one thing, the look and feel was different, as it was shot on film rather than videotape. The film was also more about Barney’s home life with wife Liz and children.
Someone, probably creator-producer Danny Arnold, had the epiphany to make Barney the straight man to a cast of outsized characters and a television classic was born.
“Barney Miller” starred Hal Linden as the put-upon captain of the 12th Precinct with Barbara Barrie as his wife Liz. Barney was proud to be a cop. The paperwork and pressures of being in charge often gave him headaches but he had a great crew to work with in some of the best-written characters ever assembled on a TV show.
Max Gail played Stanley Wojciehowicz, better known as “Wojo,” the earnest striver of the group. Wojo, a Vietnam veteran, always tried hard and truly believed in the system but sometimes came up short.
Jack Soo played Nick Yemana, who went against every Asian stereotype by being (a) lazy and (b) sometimes dishonest. He spent most of his time at work gambling.
Ron Glass played Ron Harris, a snappily dressed aspiring author of a tell-all police book called “Blood on the Badge.” Harris, an African American, was easily annoyed with some of the trappings of police work and was always very vocal.
Arthur Dietrich, played by Steve Landesberg, was the intellectual of the bunch. Originally, he attended medical school but switched to law enforcement. The guy had an answer for everything.
Phil Fish, played by Abe Vigoda, looked like he’d seen better days but the truth is that he was a 30-year-plus veteran of the NYPD who truly loved his work. Judging from his one-sided conversations with his wife Bernice, he was probably better off at work anyway.
There was also Carl Levitt, played by Ron Carey, who was always trying to work his way up the ladder at the 12th Precinct; Inspector Luger, played by James Gregory, who longed for the good old days of the NYPD; and Chano Amenguale, played by Gregory Sierra, whose frustration with some aspects of the job caused him to start speaking Spanish frequently.
A versatile reparatory company of actors worked alongside the main cast. Week by week, strange things happened in the precinct. Some examples: in one episode, a man is arrested for refusing jury duty assigned during World War II; in another, a man is injured by a flying toilet seat; in yet another, a citizen claims the next Ice Age is here; and in still another, a woman reports her husband has been abducted and replaced by a robot.
As far-fetched as all that sounds, the writing and direction of this show was so top-notch, with an outstanding cast of seasoned actors who gave it their best, the show has aged well. Other than some of the clothing, the episodes across eight seasons don’t seem dated at all.
“Barney Miller” is one of those shows I have tried to watch in their entirety. The Sundance Channel, Antenna TV and MeTV are great companions: I have made my way through all of “MASH” several times, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” “WKRP In Cincinnati,” “All In The Family” and now “Barney Miller.”
Real police officers have said this show is the only police show that’s just like their jobs. Talk about reality television.