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'I Just Got My Ass Broke All the Time': An Oral History of 'Hill Street Blues'

By Will Harris | Indiewire May 9, 2014 at 5:15PM

"Hill Street Blues" was one of TV's most groundbreaking series, and Indiewire spoke to a quartet of cast members from the series about being a part of the phenomenon.
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Left to right: Michael Warren as Robert ‘Bobby’ Hill, Ed Marinaro as Joe Coffey and Charles Haid as Andrew ‘Andy’ Renko
20th Century Fox Left to right: Michael Warren as Robert ‘Bobby’ Hill, Ed Marinaro as Joe Coffey and Charles Haid as Andrew ‘Andy’ Renko

The cop drama has been a staple of the small-screen landscape ever since "Dragnet" made the jump from radio to television in 1951, but after 30 years of police stories (including an actual series called "Police Story"), the genre got its single greatest kick in the pants, creatively speaking, when NBC – the same network that served as home to Sgt. Joe Friday, as it happens – introduced "Hill Street Blues" to an unsuspecting viewing public. 

Created by Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll, "Hill Street Blues" earned eight Emmy Awards in its initial season alone, ultimately pulling a total of 98 nominations over the course of its seven-season, 146-episode run, but more important than the awards and acclaim is that the series helped to create a new template for the cop drama, eschewing walking clichés in favor of characters with depth and substance and delving into content theretofore unseen on prime-time television.

With Shout Factory releasing "Hill Street Blues: The Complete Series," Indiewire spoke to a quartet of cast members from the series –Charles Haid, Ed Marinaro, James B. Sikking, and Bruce Weitz – about how they first found their way into the precinct, who their characters were, what it was like to be a part of such a groundbreaking television series, and how it impacted them when it finally came to a close. 

Secret Origins of the "Hill Street" Cast

Actor Bruce Weitz as Mick Belker in Hill Street Blues
Photo courtesy: Twentieth Century Fox Actor Bruce Weitz as Mick Belker in Hill Street Blues

Bruce Weitz (Mick Belker): Steven Bochco and I went to school together, which was then Carnegie Tech but is now Carnegie Mellon. He moved out to Los Angeles way before I did, and when I moved out to Los Angeles, we saw each other socially. When he wrote "Hill Street" with Michael Kozoll, he wanted me to play LaRue (Kiel Martin's character), but I read the script, and I asked him if I could audition for Mick Belker. What interested me about Belker was the vulnerability, or at least the possibility of vulnerability. It was appealing to think that he had such a hard shell, but although he was such a fierce person on the outside… I visualized him to be vulnerable and hurt inside…and, fortunately, that was the same way the writers visualized him, too! So, yeah, that was very attractive to me. Plus, I needed the money! [Laughs.] 

Charles Haid (Andy Renko): I was doing a bunch of movies at the time, and…I already knew Steven. My relationship with Steven Bochco goes back to Carnegie Mellon. But we were hanging out, we were at somebody's birthday party or something. and he said he was doing a show. I'd already done a pilot for something else, but I didn't think it was gonna get picked up, so when he said, "Do you want to be in it?" I said, "Well, who can I play?" He said, "Well, why don't you try this guy Flannery (later renamed Furillo) who's gonna be the captain?" I said, "Yeah, okay." But then he went to the head of MTM at the time, Grant Tinker, and Grant said, "Charlie Haid's not playing the captain of anything!" [Laughs.] So Steven said, "Uh, hey, man, why don't you try this part?" And it was Renko.

James B. Sikking (Howard Hunter): Steven Bochco and I had been longtime friends, our daughters became great pals, and I had worked off and on with Steven at Universal before he went over to MTM. Our relationship goes beyond the work, although the work seems to dominate it at times. But he and a few other people in the business, you just become close. Really close.

Ed Marinaro (Joe Coffey): I had moved out to Los Angeles after my NFL career was over – it was 1978 – and I had developed a little bit of an interest in acting, and prior to my retirement for football, I had worked in an acting class in New York, so…I don't know that you'd call it a conventional route to a career in acting. [Laughs.] But when my NFL career was over, I kind of knew it was something I wanted to pursue, so I moved out to Hollywood, got an agent, and once I had one, you know, I tried to get parts. 

My first sort of big break was on "Laverne & Shirley," where I did 13 episodes of that show, and then when they didn't pick up my contract, I was a free agent again, and I auditioned for "Hill Street Blues." When I started, I was doing a guest spot – a four-episode arc – at the end of the first season. They had done 13 episodes, and they got an order for four more, and the character of Joe Coffey was in those four episodes…and was scheduled to die in the final episode. But everything sort of gelled, my character worked well with everyone else, and they decided to keep me alive!

Next: Near-Death Experiences, Script vs. Improv, and more.

This article is related to: Television, Television, Interviews, Interviews, TV Interviews







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