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.

Photo: pinterest.com

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.

Photo: pinterest.com

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.

Photo: pinterest.com

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.

Photo: aboatagainstthecurrent.blogspot

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.

Pinterest.com

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!

Sheldon Leonard: A True TV Pioneer

leonard4

The Depression changed the course of Sheldon Leonard’s life. He was born in Manhattan to Jewish parents. He went to Syracuse University on an athletic scholarship. While there, he was president of the dramatics club. His degree was in finance, and he landed a job at a prestigious brokerage firm. Then the Depression hit, and he was out of a job. He had to fall back on the only other skill he could think of which was acting.

In 1931 he married Frances Bober whom he was married until his death. They would have two children.

Acting was not quick money either though. It took five years until he landed his first major Broadway role in Hotel Alimony in 1934. It did not have a long run, but his next two shows were more successful: Having a Wonderful Time in 1937 and Kiss the Boys Goodbye in 1938.

leonard7

He then entered film work. He had several very small roles in a couple of movies and a couple of shorts, but in 1939 he was cast in Another Thin Man, the popular movie series with William Powell and Myrna Loy. That began his career as a heavy, often being cast as a gangster. He would appear in To Have and Have Not with Bogie and Bacall in 1944. In 1946 he was cast as the bartender in It’s a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. Because it has become a Christmas staple, it has brought Sheldon a lot of recognition. Sheldon would appear in 74 movies during his career, 69 of them by 1952.

leonard2

During this time, he also gave radio a try. He was working on both sides of the mic. He sold scripts to several shows including Broadway is My Beat. He also portrayed his stereotyped gangster role on many shows including as Grogan on The Phil Harris, Alice Faye Show. You could hear him on Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Bob Hope, Duffy’s Tavern, the Halls of Ivy, and The Judy Canova Show, among others.

sheldon6

Photo: radiospirits.com

It was only a matter of time before Sheldon took his talents to television. He appeared in four episodes of Your Jeweler’s Showcase in 1952. In addition, he was listed as producer and director for several of these episodes. He appeared in I Love Lucy in 1953 as vacuum salesman Harry Martin and several I Married Joan episodes in 1952-53. One of my favorites was his role as Johnny Velvet on Burns and Allen when he kidnaps Gracie but takes her back because she drives him crazy. In 1954 he co-starred in The Duke which lasted 13 episodes.  This show featured an artistic boxer who leaves the ring to open a nightclub. Sheldon also directed the pilot as well as some early episodes of Lassie and The Real McCoys.

leonard14

However, the show that made him a household name was his director/producer role on Make Room for Daddy, Danny Thomas’s hit sitcom. The show was in the top ten, and Sheldon even found time to appear on the show 19 times. The show continued from 1953-1964. Leonard had found his sweet spot. During his career, he would direct and produce shows such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle USMC, and I Spy.

sheldon4

Sheldon convinced Carl Reiner to step back from acting as Rob Petrie and produce The Dick Van Dyke Show. That conversation resulted in Dick Van Dyke accepting the role, leading to 158 episodes. If you watch carefully, you will notice Sheldon appearing twice on the show in minor roles. The show was nominated for 25 Emmys and won 15.

leonard12

Sheldon also is credited with creating the spinoff. One of Danny Thomas’s episodes was set in North Carolina where he gets picked up for speeding in a rural town and has a run-in with Sheriff Andy Taylor. This episode turned into the long-running The Andy Griffith Show which was on the air from 1960-1968 netting 249 episodes. The show won 6 of the 9 Emmys it was nominated for.

sheldon3

The spinoff was so successful he did it again, moving Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle from the gas station attendant on The Andy Griffith Show to his own show, Gomer Pyle USMC. That show was on the air for five years (150 episodes), and Sheldon would also make an appearance there as Norman Miles.

Thomas and Leonard as L&T Productions were also behind the The Joey Bishop Show and The Bill Dana Show. Thomas and Leonard’s shows were notable for emphasizing characters and relationships over slapstick or situation comedy. You cared about the characters even when they were a little kooky like Gomer Pyle or Barney Fife. They were committed to high-quality scripts. Many of the writers they employed went on to successful shows of their own including Danny Arnold for Barney Miller; Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson for The Odd Couple, Happy Days, and Laverne and Shirley, Mork and Mindy; and Bill Persky and Sam Denoff for That Girl and Kate and Allie. L&T Productions ended in 1965.

leonard9dga.org

Photo: dga.com

In the mid-1960s Sheldon produced I Spy. He cast Bill Cosby and Robert Culp as secret agents.  This was the first series to star a black actor in a lead role. In a March 7, 2016 Modern Times article, David Fantle and Tom Johnson discussed Sheldon Leonard and I Spy. Leonard said he knew what he was doing. “Race was very much an issue at that time,” he said. “I was intellectually conscious of it, but emotionally unaware of it. When I say emotionally unaware, I mean I was free to think of Cosby as the man to fill the slot I needed. Intellectually I knew the problems I’d have to face to get him on the air.” I Spy was a humorous suspense show and was known for its exotic locations, filming in countries such as Hong Kong, England, Morocco, France, and Greece among others. The critics rewarded Leonard. The show was nominated for Outstanding Dramatic Series Emmy every year of its three-year run and earned Leonard an Emmy nomination for directing in 1965.

sheldon7

Sheldon was also the producer behind Accidental Family and Good Morning World, both shows debuting in 1967 and ending in 1968 and My World and Welcome to It in 1969. Accidental Family was about a widower who is a stand-up comedian. He buys a California farm which is managed by Sue Kramer who is also his son’s governess and his love interest. Good Morning World was about morning disc jockeys in LA. One is happily married, and one is a ladies’ man. Goldie Hawn was the next-door neighbor and Billy De Wolfe was their boss. On My World and Welcome To It, John Monroe is a married man with a daughter. He frequently daydreams and fantasizes about life. This show was unusual in that it included some animation along with the live action.

sheldon9

In the Fantle and Johnson article referenced above, Leonard also talked about his favorite sitcom. He said his favorite might be the one that needed the most attention. “My favorite show was cancelled after the first year. My World and Welcome to It, based on the writings of James Thurber and starring William Windom. It won every award, and they cancelled . . . It was satire and above their (the network bosses’) heads. That show and I Spy are my favorites.”

In the early 1970s Sheldon would produce From a Bird’s Eye View and Shirley’s World. From a Bird’s Eye View was a sitcom about two stewardesses, Millie from England and Maggie from America. Millie was always getting into mischief and Maggie bailed her out. Shirley’s World starred Shirley MacLaine as a photographer who travels the world for her London-based magazine. The locales were similar to I Spy.

leonard3bigeddie

In 1975 Sheldon starred in a new sitcom, Big Eddy which only lasted for ten episodes. He was Eddie Smith was the owner of the Big E Sports Arena in New York. He was an ex-gambler fighting the impulse to get back into it. He has a bunch of eccentric people in his life including his ex-stripper wife Honey and their granddaughter Ginger.

In the 1980s, Sheldon would continue to show up on various television shows, appearing in Sanford and Son, The Cosby Show, Matlock, Murder She Wrote, and Cheers.

Along with author Mickey Spillane, Leonard was one of the first two people to become a Miller Lite spokesman. In his New York accent, he tells the audience, “I was at first reluctant to try Miller Lite, but then I was persuaded to do so by my friend, Large Louis.”

Sheldon Leonard passed away at the age of 89 in 1997. His wife Frances passed away in 1999.

leonard1

Sheldon Leonard is undoubtedly one of the greatest television producers. Most of his shows were consistently in the top ten. They are classic shows still on the air today.  Sheldon required scripts that brought characters to life. He created spinoffs when he believed in the characters. He was not afraid to take risks. Besides casting Bill Cosby, he cast Lois Nettleton as divorced Sue Kramer on Accidental Family. This was in the mid-1960s and yet when Mary Tyler Moore’s show aired in 1970, the network refused to allow her to be a divorced character.

In the Mercurie Blogspot from November 10, 2013, Carl Reiner discussed Leonard: “Sheldon has mentored more people in our business than anyone else I know. He knew how to teach what he knew, and what he knew was situation comedy with the three-camera technique. Sheldon was a producing genius who understood comedy. He had four or five shows going, but he would walk in and give his intelligence and his time to every script that was being read for the week. And we always came away with a better script because we would discuss and argue and come to a better situation.”

sheldon5

Garry Marshall was also quoted in this same article: “Sheldon was a sort of man’s man, yet he had all the creative sensitivity of the artist. No matter what story you were working on, he could help you fix it. He would never put down your idea. If I had to describe Sheldon in one word, it would be gentleman. He was a Renaissance man with a New York accent—and possibly a gun!”

The Herb Garden Germination

Photo: americanprofile.com

As a salute to Leonard, the writers of The Big Bang Theory, named their main characters Sheldon and Leonard in honor of Sheldon Leonard.

sheldon1

Sheldon himself seems to explain his success best. After working on his memoir in 1995, And the Show Goes On: Broadway and Holiday Adventures, he said “I was driven by an urge to survive and being very self-indulgent. I never did anything for very long that I didn’t like or enjoy. I would survive only on my own terms. I had to enjoy what I was doing, and I would have done what I did even if nobody paid me. That’s the secret of success in any business: do it well and enjoy doing it.”

leonard11

He did it all well, and we all enjoyed it.