Barney Miller

1975 | United States

One of the few police-oriented comedies to succeed on American television, Barney Miller followed the lives and habits of New York City's 12th Precinct in the Greenwich Village-home to some unusual suspects and cases. 

Unlike other cop shows, there were no car chases, no dramatic arrests and no shootouts. Virtually all of the action revolved inside the rundown offices of the 12th Precinct, usually involving two or three cases in each episode. Barney Miller (Hal Linden) was the only stable person in an office filled with off-the-wall characters. They included the aging, always complaining senior detective Phil Fish (Abe Vigoda); innocent fellow detective Stan Wojohowicz ("Wojo" for short, played by Max Gail); cocky and literate African-American Detective Ron Harris; and Asian Detective Nick Yemana (Jack Soo), who came up with some of the best punchlines and made the worst coffee anyone ever brewed. 

During the 1975-76 season, producers added Detective Sergeant Chano Amenguale (Gregory Sierra) and Detective Janice Wentworth (Linda Lavin). Both left after one season-Sierra for the short-lived comedy AES Hudson Street; Lavin for a far more successful gig as the title character on the sitcom Alice. Replacing them in the squad was sarcastic Detective Arthur Dietrich (Steve Landsberg). Also appearing on a regular basis was Inspector Frank Luger (James Gregory), whose visits seemed to annoy rather than help Barney and the squad; and Officer Carl Levitt (Ron Carey), who wanted to get off the police beat and become a detective at the 12th Precinct.

But Barney Miller had major hurdles to overcome before it would even get on the air. ABC executives felt the show was too "Jewish" and thought Linden, the accomplished Broadway actor who played Barney, was "dull". (Arnold argued Barney was supposed to be dull; he was the anchor of a crazy squad.) The show's original pilot did air on a 1974 ABC summer show called Just For Laughs-though network executives agreed to order at least four episodes as a midseason replacement, after Arnold refused to fire Linden. As feared, initial ratings were not good. But the fifth episode drew notice after ABC censors refused to air it. The show centred on Wojo falling in love with a prostitute. ABC argued it was not the network of hookers; the episode went on the air after Arnold threatened to shut down production. The ratings jumped for that episode and more viewers began tuning in. Major cast changes came as Barney Miller rolled on. But the loss that probably hurt the cast and crew most was the death of Jack Soo. The durable actor who played Yemana died of cancer in January 1979; a tribute episode aired soon after. Soo wasn't replaced. But time waits for few series, and after falling to 54th place, it was decided that the 1981-82 season would be the show's last. 

The final season ended on a high (and well-deserved note): After years of being nominated, Barney Miller finally won an Emmy award for Best Comedy Series. And in 1981, a producer named Steven Bochco presented his own tribute to Barney Miller in the groundbreaking Hill Street Blues. Although it was clearly a drama, Bochco borrowed some key elements of its format, including multiple plots per episode and ironic humour. 

Published on November 28th, 2018. Written by Mike Spadoni for Television Heaven.

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