There were some truly memorable police shows introduced to television in 1975, but nothing was like Barney Miller. There was Robert Blake’s Baretta, the original S.W.A.T., and the private detective series Matt Helm, while among the new comedies at this time were Phyllis (a spinoff from The Mary Tyler Moore Show), Valerie Betinelli’s One Day at a Time (also the subject of a recent remake from Netflix), the prison-set On the Rocks, and Welcome Back Kotter, the show that introduced John Travolta to the world. The only show that combined both genres was, you guessed it, Barney Miller, starring Hal Linden in the title role.

Set at New York’s 12th Precinct (located in Greenwich Village), the show focused on the ensemble of cops and the various perps that would be brought into the station. Among the former were Abe Vigoda as Fish, Max Gail as Wojciehowicz, Ron Glass as Harris, Jack Soo as Yemana, Gregory Sierra as Chano, Steve Landesberg as Dietrich, and Ron Carey as Levitt.

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Hal Linden, born Harold Lipshitz on March 20, 1931, had been a big band musician and singer in the 1950s following his service in the United States Army. From there, he moved to summer stock and off-Broadway productions, making his way to Broadway in Bells Are Ringing, and winning the 1971 Best Actor Tony Award for the musical The Rothschilds, in which he played Mayor Rothschild. It was while he was enjoying great stage success that he elected to give television — in the form of Barney Miller — a try. “It was that cavalier,” he laughs in this exclusive interview. “I had an offer to play a lead in a Broadway musical. I’d been doing very well on Broadway, and I waited until the last minute. I finally said to my manager, ‘Well, we’ve done Broadway. Let’s try television.'”

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He’d actually had a chance to try on the Barney Miller character in The Life and Times of Captain Barney Miller, which aired as part of ABC’s 1974 summer anthology series Just for Laughs (“Where failed TV pilots went to die,” reflects Hal with a smile). That version was designed to look at the home and work life of a police officer, and co-starred Abby Dalton as Barney’s wife, Liz (played in a number of episodes by Barbara Barrie in the subsequent series, until the part was written out). The show didn’t go, but when producer Danny Arnold convinced ABC to let him shoot two additional episodes — with the format being largely set at the precinct — Hal decided to give it a shot as he enjoyed the character as well as his creator.

While he didn’t know what to expect, in the end he was happy with the decision. “I have nothing but fond memories of Barney,” says the man who played him for eight seasons. “It was certainly the best television experience I ever had, and I mean that from a creative standpoint, because it was like being in a stage company. Like a repertory company that would work together; we knew each other, and we were able to contribute to each other. I have never had as creative an experience in television since.”

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An experience that could very well not have gone past the first season. “In that first year,” explains Hal, “there was a list of the shows that were on the bubble of being canceled, and we were right up there. Barney was not an easy sell. It took a long time for people to catch onto it and become fans. The reason? It wasn’t in your face. It was very subtle, basically. It was relationship, not punchlines. And everybody played it relatively realistically. All the comedy came from outside, in our reaction to the people coming in from outside, and that was not something that was expected in that time. Everything else was more straight line/punchlines. It was more sketchy than realistic. Happy Days, that’s what was expected. And there’s a lot of shows today that are quite sketchy. But Danny envisioned it very differently, and he put the limitations on our doing shtick. His limitation was, ‘Would you go to a police officer for help who behaved like that?’ There was a lid on everything. You could never go too far just to get a laugh. You had to be a police officer, a real police officer that could do his job. Actually, that lesson stood me in good stead for the rest of my television career in terms of what works, how far you can go, or how far not to go.

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“We weren’t allowed to be foolish,” he drives home the point, “so it was a very subtle brand of humor, which probably explains its longevity. That kind of humor you can watch over and over again, and still laugh. Punchline humor, once you’ve heard the punchlines, not particularly funny the second time. I suspect that’s why Barney was not Happy Days, it was much more subtle, and consequently it was not as popular. Happy Days was number one, or number two. We were number 20. But in reruns, it worked just as well as the first time around.”

What became apparent fairly quickly is that as realistic as the squad characters were, Barney was nonetheless something of a straight man to the others, who each had their own eccentric qualities. That really became apparent in the third season episode “Hash,” in which the cops inadvertently consume a box of brownies made with pot.

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“Barney being the straight man to the others crept into my sensibility slowly over the years, episode to episode,” offers Hal. “The quintessential episode of Barney Miller is probably the one with the hash brownies, when everybody gets stoned. I turned to Danny and said, ‘Everybody gets to do an aria but me,’ because I was the only one who didn’t eat them. And he said — and here was another lesson in life — ‘I have to have somebody up there to compare the others to.’ There had to be somebody who didn’t eat the brownies, so you could compare the behavior. So from there on I said, ‘I’m gonna be the straight man.’ I came to terms with it very early on. Jack Benny had a terrific career as a straight man, basically, so I had no problem with it.”

The strength of the show’s ensemble of actors, he says, came from the fact that there weren’t originally any comedians in it. “Nowadays,” he points out, “they make a sitcom and the comedian is the lead. We had no comedians. They were all just actors playing real policemen. That was the point. Later on Steve Landesberg, a standup comic, joined. Ronny Carey had done some standup comedy, but in the initial group, there were no standup comics. We were just actors playing the parts, and I think that was indicative of why the show worked.”

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The actors playing the perps, he notes, could be a bit more out there and larger than life than the cops, but to draw a contrast he mentions the episode in which Harris, a black man, is shot by another cop while he’s in pursuit of a perp, simply because he was a black man with a gun. “The whole question of race was raised in the show,” reflects Hal. “Danny really delved into a lot of very interesting personal issues with all the characters.”

One of the things that had the biggest impacts on the series was the decision to lose the live studio audience, very much a mainstay of comedies of the time. In fact, several years earlier, when Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple went from the Broadway stage to the big screen and, finally (in 1970), to television, actors Jack Klugman and Tony Randall complained about the fact that the first season was shot without the benefit of a studio audience. Both felt it was insulting and took away the sense of spontaneity. Starting with season two that was changed, and the impact was obvious, allowing the show to soar creatively. For Barney Miller, the response was pretty much the opposite.

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“We started out that way, but Danny didn’t like the format, because he didn’t have control of it,” Hal points out. “Also, he was such a perfectionist script wise that by the third or fourth show at the cast reading, we only had the first act. In the fifth or sixth show, we didn’t have the end of the show, so we had to cancel the audience. You can’t do the show if you don’t have an end. The next week the network said, ‘You can’t cancel the audience. you’ve got to tell us now.’ And we never used an audience again. One of the other reasons is that the show was so real rather than theatrical. Guest stars, who just come in to play a part, knew where the laughs were and would make sure that they got laughs, which meant that they were overplaying way too much, or would be so much larger than life that it was outside the bounds of the style of the show. But when you just put a camera there, and you just play the scene real like you’re in rehearsal, and somebody’s peeking at it, that’s when it started to work for us.

“The odd thing is, the reason I did the first Barney pilot was because it had a studio audience,” he admits. “I thought, ‘Well, because I’m a stage actor, I’ll be more at home in front of a studio audience.’ Well, I was very quickly dissuaded from that version, because the cameraman would say, ‘Hey, over here. Not them. Over here. This is where your audience is.’ And until you learn that, you are way too big for the little screen. I learned that very quickly. Barney demanded subtlety, not overt playing of comedy.”

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Beyond the quality of the show itself, what was famous about Barney Miller were those legendary battles between Danny Arnold and the standards and practices division of ABC, which was terrified of anything too controversial hitting the air. One example came early on in the first season episode “The Courtesans,” in which Wojo becomes fascinated with one of the members of a ring of hookers, borderline harassing her in his genuine attempt to help her get her life straight (even though she was fine with what she was doing).

Says Hal, “We’d have all these hookers around, we’d have to write them up, and then let them go, but he kept bringing them in. And finally, at one point, he sat down and asked her, ‘Maybe we can have a date?’ And she said, ‘Sure, like everybody else: 50 bucks.’ And he was mortified. Anyway, just before the last scene in the show. I’m getting ready to go home, or he is, and he tells me about how devastated he was by this whole thing, and I give him that fatherly advice, ‘You can’t control other people’s behavior. You can only control your own.’ He’s about to leave, and he turns back to me, and he says, ‘Barney, can you lend me 50 bucks until payday?’ Now, the entire show is predicated, is built up so that line pays off, right? Network comes down and says, ‘You can’t say that.’ And Danny says, ‘Why not?’ And he says, ‘Because that means he’s gonna go with the hooker.’ And Danny says, ‘Very good, you got the point. I’m glad you understood.’ The network said, ‘You can’t say that.’

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“So, now, again, we’re shooting the show down on the set, he’s up in the office arguing with the network,” he adds. “We get to the last scene, and we haven’t heard anything yet. And finally, we’re about to shoot the scene, the director calls him up and says, ‘Danny, we’re about to shoot the last scene. What do we do?’ And he was still … This was midnight. He’s arguing with the guy from the network about he can’t say that. And Danny said, ‘Shoot the show the way I wrote it.’ Hangs up the phone, and he tells the network, ‘I’m shooting the show the way I wrote it. If you don’t want to put it on, don’t put it on. But if you don’t put it on, I’m not gonna make anymore.’ And this, again, wasn’t a top ten show. He wasn’t exactly in a position to make demands.

“Anyway, we shot the show and they put it on the air with a major advisory. Of course, it made all the papers, and that just pushed the ratings way the hell up. That got us an audience that said, ‘What’s that about?’ Just out of curiosity people watched our show, and, quite honestly, it was a very funny and good show. As a result, a lot of them stayed with us, and that — the stupidity of the network — was the beginning of what gave us longevity. And it proved what an amazing man Danny was. Very down to Earth, not an intellectual. He just instinctively knew humor. He just knew what was funny and not to over do it, and how to play it properly. Probably one of the few geniuses I’ve worked with in my career, and it’s a long career.”

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And Barney Miller had a fairly long run on television, spanning eight seasons. It could have probably gone several more, except for the fact that Danny Arnold himself told ABC he was canceling the show (despite its strong ratings), because he felt that, creatively, it couldn’t measure up to what they had already done, and would make the storytelling more repetitive. It wasn’t a decision he had come to lightly, turning to every writer he knew for ideas. When that didn’t result in solid concepts, he came up with the idea of soliciting scripts from “anybody” in America, hitting every English and film department in colleges around the country in search of talented writers.

“For about a month, we didn’t see him,” Hal states. “He was just reading spec scripts. I remember when he finally came down, he said, ‘Guys, listen to me. Every script I get is just a boiled over version of what we already did. The only reason this show should have a life is if it’s as good as it can be, and I don’t want to do anything less by just kind of repeating ourselves.’ Everybody was writing the monologues that Dietrich did, or the coffee jokes, you know? They were just rewrites of the same material basically. And Danny said, ‘We’ve had a good run. Time for you guys to go onto something else.’ And he retired the show at the end of that year. They didn’t cancel it. We could have gone on as long as M.A.S.H., I suspect.

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“I had no choice in the matter,” he elaborates, “so I was certainly fine with it ending. And, quite honestly, at that point in my life I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ll do some movies, maybe I’ll go back to Broadway,’ which is what I did do. I also went into another series, so I wasn’t hurting, but I would have stayed and done another couple of years if he wanted me to. Again, no other set was like that one. It was like a repertory company where everybody respects everybody, and everybody’s input was there, and yet, we never ad libbed. We never came in with funny lines. It was only executing the script as Danny would send it down.”

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In recent years, Hal, who is now 87, has performed a concert act, part of which includes a montage of clips from Barney Miller, which leads to his coming on stage and beginning his performance, singing and reflecting on his career. To come up with that montage, he went back and rewatched every single episode of the TV series to find just the right clips. What he also found was just how well what they had created all those years ago actually holds up.

“I was absolutely amazed,” he enthuses. “I mean, it would be, like, three in the morning and I’d be saying, ‘One more… Okay, I’ll watch one more… Just one more.’ I can tell you this: I don’t remember ever walking away from shooting an episode of Barney Miller and anybody saying, ‘We’ll do better next week.'”

Barney Miller: The Complete Series is available on DVD. Episodes are also currently being shown on the Sundance channel.