Strength in Numbers: Barney Miller

Currently, we are in the series, “Crime Isn’t Funny . . . or Is It?” Today we get to learn a bit more about a show which, along with MASH and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, had one of the best roster of characters ever written. I like to describe Barney Miller as a sitcom with a flair for drama. It debuted in January of 1975 and left the airwaves in May of 1982.

Photo: pinterest.com

It was set primarily in a New York Police Department station, supposedly the 12th precinct. NYPD has not had a 12th precinct since 1910. If you were a fan of Castle, you’ll notice that the set was refurbished for that show in 2009.

Most of the action took place in the squad room and Captain Miller’s office. Typically, there were two to three subplots surrounding the suspects that were brought into the station or something one of the detectives were dealing with personally.

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Captain Barney Miller (Hal Linden) is the practical and calm one in the precinct. His sense of humor allows him to deal with his staff and the city. He gets frustrated by all the red tape the city requires but is able to maintain peace and discipline in his precinct.

Photo: imdb.com

Sergeant Philip Fish (Abe Vigoda) is the oldest member and is getting close to retirement at the beginning of the show. Fish leaves the show and gets his own spinoff for a few years before returning to the show in season 7.

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Detective “Wojo” Wojciehowicz (Max Gail) is a bit naïve but has a heart of gold. He sticks to the rules which sometimes causes conflict with his coworkers.

UNITED STATES – OCTOBER 19: BARNEY MILLER – “Non-Involvement” 11/18/76 Ron Glass (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

Detective Ron Harris (Ron Glass) is the intellectual of the office. He often seems more concerned with his private life and his appearance than his job. He is also a writer. Later in the series he produces a best seller, Blood on the Badge.

Photo: unclemikesmusings.com

Sergeant Nick Yemana (Jack Soo) is philosophical and sarcastic. During the run of the show, he often makes wry observations about life and the station as other things are going on. Soo passed away during the run of the show and was not on the last three seasons.

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During seasons 1 and 2, Sergeant Miguel Amanguale (Gregory Sierra) was part of the cast. He gets worked up easily when things don’t go well and then rants in rapid Spanish.

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Appearing first in season 2, Sergeant Arthur Dietrich (Steve Landesberg) loves to share his knowledge of pretty much everything. However, he can’t seem to decide on the perfect career.  He comes to police work after leaving both the law and medical fields.

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Inspector Frank Luger (James Gregory) is the thorn in everyone’s side. He is often rambling and old-fashioned, if not worse, in his views.

Photo: imdb.com

Officer Carl Levitt (Ron Carey) is a hard-working employee who aspires to being promoted. Levitt is brought on board in season three.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com

Originally Barney’s wife Elizabeth (Barbara Barrie) was a regular character, but after season two she is seen in infrequently, even though Barney refers to her a lot. Once Barrie realized the show was focusing on the precinct, she asked to be released from her contract.

The show was created by Danny Arnold and Theodore J. Flicker. Noam Pitlik directed the majority of the episodes. The pilot originally was unsold. It appeared in a summer anthology series, Just for Laughs, as “The Life and Times of Captain Barney Miller” and only Linden and Vigoda carried into the series. While the pilot was never shown in syndication, it is part of the Shout Factory’s DVD set and was rewritten as the episode, “Ramon.”

The theme song which had several versions during the run of the show was an instrumental jazz piece written by Jack Elliott and Allyn Ferguson.

The cast of “Barney Miller” in September 1976: Ron Glass, Max Gail, Hal Linden, Abe Vigoda, Jack Soo.

Because most scenes were shot in the precinct, the show was filmed like a play. Only about a dozen of the episodes (out of 171 total) were shot outside that set. The way the show was filmed was compared to a marathon session. Seasons one and two were taped in front of an audience and a laugh track was used for additional scenes. Arnold would often rewrite or restage scenes after the audience left to allow for quiet moments. It was not uncommon for a taping to begin in the afternoon and continue late into the night or into the early morning hours.

Emmy-winner writer Ken Levine talked with Tom Reeder, one of the writers on Barney Miller in his blog (http://kenlevine.blogspot.com/2011/10barney-miller-inside-look). Reeder described his time working on the show:

“The day a show was taped, the actors would hang around on the stage waiting for pages to be sent down. Then—sometimes at 2 a.m.—they would have to learn new scenes. Ron Carey (Officer Levitt) would get his fairly quickly: ‘Here’s your mail, Captain.’ On the other hand, poor Steve Landesberg (Dietrich) might have to memorize long speeches explaining how nuclear fission works. Employing a live audience became impractical as lengthy reshoots became commonplace.” By Season 4, only a quiet laugh track was used when necessary.

Barney Miller received praise from police officers, who appreciated the realistic dialogue and quirky characters. In 2005, The New York Times published an op-ed by New York detective Lucas Miller about his view of the show:

“Real cops are not usually fans of cop shows. […] Many police officers maintain that the most realistic police show in the history of television was the sitcom Barney Miller, […] The action was mostly off screen, the squad room the only set, and the guys were a motley bunch of character actors who were in no danger of being picked for the N.Y.P.D. pin-up calendar. But they worked hard, made jokes, got hurt and answered to their straight-man commander. For real detectives, most of the action does happen off screen, and we spend a lot of time back in the squad room writing reports about it. Like Barney Miller’s squad, we crack jokes at one another, at the cases that come in, and at the crazy suspect locked in the holding cell six feet from the new guy’s desk. Life really is more like Barney Miller than NYPD Blue, but our jokes aren’t nearly as funny.”

The show took a while to become a hit. During an interview in November of 2018 with Hal Linden on CloserWeekly.com’s Classic TV & Film Podcast, Linden discussed why there was a lag time till the show found its audience. “ ‘It took a long time for people to catch onto it and become fans,’ Hal tells us during our exclusive conversation. ‘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 [series creator] Danny Arnold 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.’ ”

It also probably did not help that in its first four and a half seasons it was up against fan favorite Hawaii Five-0.

Photo: criticsatlarge.com

The show garnered a lot of awards. It was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series every year from 1976 to 1981 and won in 1982. It also won for writing in 1980 and directing in 1979 in addition to other nominations. It also won a Peabody in 1978.

The show was not cancelled by the network. Arnold ended production because he was worried about repeating storylines after eight seasons.

The blackboard is to the right. Photo: nostalgiacentral.com

After the show ended, the chalkboard which listed whether the policemen were on or off-duty, and the cell door were given to the Smithsonian Television Museum. In addition to the cast of actors in the show, the duty board listed the names of the technicians who worked on the show. The museum also has the police badges used by the actors and Yemana’s coffee mug.

In an article by Ed Gross from February 26, 2018, Hal Linden reflects on his time with the hit series:

“I have nothing but fond memories of Barney. 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.”

Photo: criticsatlarge.com

The character-driven scripts are what makes the show memorable today.  There have been technological advances in procedures and detective work, but the fact that people are still the same make the show fun to watch almost fifty years later.  In an article in Today.com by Gael Fashingbauer Cooper from October of 2011, several scenes from the show were discussed that capture the characters’ personalities.

Jack Soo’s Nick Yemana was known for his bad coffee, but in one episode he reveals to Barney that he is using rain water that’s leaking through the ceiling to make a fresh pot. ‘It’s coming through the ceiling, that moldy, termite-infested ceiling!’ protests Barney. ‘It filters out the impurities,’ Yemana insists.  Abe Vigoda, played Phil Fish. But even in the 1970s, Fish was the oldster of the precinct. In a touching scene, Barney tells him he doesn’t think of him as old, but as experienced. ‘In an emergency, you’d be the first one I’d call,’ the captain says loyally. ‘You should call me first, I need time to put my teeth in,’ Fish responds.  Steve Landesberg’s brainy Arthur Dietrich always had a little too much information. When a young black teenager called him “honky,” he’s not offended, instead he explains the word’s etymology. (Who knew it derived from the nasal tone African-Americans believed Caucasians speak with?) His explanation unnerves the kid more than a deluge of profanity ever could have. Hal Linden’s calm and cool Captain Barney Miller held the entire station together, but when he erupted, stand back. He once threatened to stuff a towel in the mouth of a loud-mouthed guy in the jail cell. When the guy blasted back that he wasn’t scared, Miller’s response was ‘You haven’t seen our towel!’ Max Gail’s Stan Wojciehowicz’s was a gentle soul, one who often seemed too kind for a police job. In one episode, Miller tries to explain racism to Harris by using a Polish joke. The gag is funny, but the scene itself is less humorous than it is sweet. ‘Well I thought (racial) differences weren’t important,’ Wojo says. ‘They’re not, but they are.’ Miller responds, only confusing the matter further.  In a classic episode, Wojo’s girlfriend made brownies for the squad, but this being the 1970s, they were hash brownies. When Miller finds out, he orders Ron Glass’ always cool and classy Nathan Harris to have them analyzed. Which he does, by tossing another one in his mouth. ‘NOT THAT WAY!’ howls Miller. He later tells Harris to ‘stay home till you feel better.’ ‘OK, Barn, I’ll stay, but I ain’t never gonna feel no better,’ a herbally happy Harris announces.”

Photo: nostalgiacentral.com

I love the pictures that each of the above snippets portrays of the cast.  I’ll end with a quote by Yemana, who may have been my favorite character on the show. In the episode “Copy Cat” from season 4, Yemana is asked if he likes cop shows:

Det. Sgt. Yemana: No, I don’t watch shows like that. I can’t enjoy them because, being a cop myself, I spot the mistakes and inaccuracies and the fantastic things that in real life never happen.
Victim: On the show they caught him!
Yemana: Good example!

4 thoughts on “Strength in Numbers: Barney Miller

  1. Hi WL. Very informative essay about my favorite sitcom, which didn’t hit me until the last few seasons. Hal Linden’s analysis of sketch versus realistic comedy, and the humor coming from the outside is very enlightening, and so true. Clever writing and well-developed characters characterized this show. Even the minor characters were hilarious: Luger, Inspector Scanlon (internal affairs), Marty (the gay guy). I watch the reruns on MeTV and never tire of them. Sadly, I think Linden and Max Gail are the only actors still alive.

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    • Hi. It’s great to hear from you. Hope life is going well. It’s a good time to find some comfort in those old shows. These characters were all so great without falling into over-the-top stereotypes, most of the time anyway.

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  2. I saw Barney and was hoping this was about Barney from Mayberry! I guess he isn’t a Barney Miller though. It seems like a lot of the crime shows take place in big cities (specifically New York) which makes tons of sense. I’m not sure you could do a ton with it but I wonder if outside of The Andy Griffith Show there has been a show to try a smaller community? You would have to go more the humor route then the serious crimes I imagine. The show sounds like it had a good run! It’s nice to read about shows that go out on their own terms and know when the time is right.

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