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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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Actor Charles Haid as Andrew ‘Andy’ Renko and actor Michael Warren as Robert ‘Bobby’ Hill
Photo courtesy: Twentieth Century Fox Left to right: Actor Charles Haid as Andrew ‘Andy’ Renko and actor Michael Warren as Robert ‘Bobby’ Hill

Near-Death Experiences

CH: The deal about Renko – which was good for me at the time, because I was having a pretty good career – was that he got killed in the pilot. But then it tested pretty well, I guess, or something, and so they came back and said, "Do you want to be in it?" And I looked at the pilot and it was fantastic, and then I looked in my wallet, and then I nodded my head. [Laughs.] But I really did think it was fantastic. I thought, "Shit, I gotta be in this!" So I did it, and, you know, we did okay. 

EM: I was supposed to die, and I had no idea that I wasn't going to die until that last episode. They wrote two endings: one where I did die, and one where I lived. It was during that time when they were negotiating with my agent to be a regular the next year…and if my demands were too great, then Joe Coffey was dead! [Laughs.] But, you know, they were able to do that because it was a show that was kind of operating under the radar at that point. It wasn't a major hit. But the critics had embraced it because it was very unique for TV at that time: it was gritty, real, dirty, the writing was kind of unconventional… It was just a very innovative sort of television show. 

Creating the Character (Script vs. Improv)

BW: (The character of Belker) was all on the page, if not in the pilot script, then in subsequent scripts. I only executed what they wrote, basically. I mean, every once in a while I would throw some little something in that they would capitalize on – "they" being the writers – a few weeks after that, using those little things in a script. But the major things were all from the writers in the first place…specifically Steven Bochco, after Michael Kozoll left the show.

HILL_STREET_BLUES-_The_Complete_Series_box_art_(beauty_spread)
Photo courtesy: Twentieth Century Fox

CH: Renko was just kind of bullshitting around at first – they had some pretty good scenes with him, because they wanted to make people like the guy and all that – but in the pilot they gave us license to improvise, so (Michael Warren and I) did some improvisation, and certain things came out of that. All that stuff in the street before Bobby and Renko get shot, when we're walking and complaining about stuff, that was all improvised. So there were little things here and there. And Steve would be so great and generous, because he would say, "Get the lines. If you want to say something before the lines or after the lines, okay, but we'd just appreciate it if you'd get the right lines in there." [Laughs.] And when I was a kid, they probably would've given me Ritalin every morning anyway. So I could improvise, let me just put it that way. 

JBS: Steven didn't give me much direction on how to play Howard, but it was all written. I mean, Howard is military. Howard is a closed shop, but within the closed shop of his heart and mind is a lonely guy. So that gives you a lot to work against. He really wants people to like him. He really wants to be warm and charming. But he just can't be. Because he's military. You have to be prepared, right? [Laughs.] He's a Boy Scout gone wacko!

EM: The character of Joe Coffey wasn't originally written for me, but it just happened to be a perfect role for me. Of all the stuff I've done...well, that was obviously just a role that I was sort of born to play, if you will. I mean, it wasn't a real stretch for me. It was a pretty basic guy, child-like, sort of simple. Not that I'm simple… [Laughs.]  But, anyway, it was interesting. I've always felt that, with most actors, the first role they get, they're just gonna be perfect for. The more experience you have, the more credits you have, the more demand you have, and that's when your range begins to grow: because they want to use you. But the first few roles an actor gets, they're gonna have to be dead on-the-nose for the role. And as it happened, I was.

Character Quirks and Castmate Chemistry

BW: (Figuring out Belker) happened from the outside in. I was planning my audition, I had about 10 days to work on it, and I was thinking about what he would wear. And when I finally got together a costume, which was pretty much what he looked like on the show week to week, I started to get a feeling for what he was. 

CH: The chemistry between me and Mike was kind of instant. He's just such a nice guy, and he's smooth, man. You know what I mean? He's an All-American basketball player. He's all the things I wanted to be. I always wanted to be an African-American bass player, but it didn't happen. [Laughs.] But the next best thing was hanging out with Mike Warren, because he and I are lifelong friends now. We see each other and everything, and he's just so kind and generous, and…we kind of had the chemistry right away, and I used the stuff for the character. 

We got into the racial issues together and just laughed and laughed and had a great time. In those days, interracial couples – our bromance, or whatever you want to call what we and I had – that was a whole deal that wasn't happening a whole lot. We hit that subject a couple of time in the show. So that was breaking a little bit of ground. I mean, they did a spinoff of us: "Miami Vice"! [Laughs.] They said, "Let's put Hill and Renko in Florida in suits!" I swear! That was the logline. That was the thing. And they got Donny (Johnson) and that other guy…and notice how it's always "Donny and that other guy." 

[The other guy, of course, was Philip Michael Thomas. – Ed.]

JBS: The guy who I set him up to look like and be like was my drill instructor in the Army, who was a pain in the ass, but he loved being in the Army, and he thought that was wonderful and the end of it all right there. And that's not what life's all about. You know, you've gotta have your friends, and you've got to be a fool, to be silly once in awhile, to get through it. 

Howard, though, he always walked around with egg on his face, and he just didn't know why. But the spoon missed his mouth. He's just that kind of a guy, and everybody always had fun with that. Of course, the writers had more fun with him than anyone else, because they used him as counterpoint all the time. 

Next: Favorite moments, creative missteps, what it was like to say goodbye to the show, and more.

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





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