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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
20th Century Fox Left to right: actor Charles Haid as Andrew ‘Andy’ Renko and actor Michael Warren as Robert ‘Bobby’ Hill

Favorite Moments, On and Off Camera

BW: Logan dying, that was – in total – my favorite episode. I had some great stuff to do in it. There was also a wonderful character called Captain Freedom that Dennis Dugan played. I really enjoyed working with him, and the storyline was great, because it showed another human side for Belker. It was just fun acting with Dennis. He was wonderful. Giving Belker that vulnerability there and in some other places during the course of the seven years made him a whole character, not a cartoon, and I appreciated it. I mean, if you're playing a cartoon, it wears thin after a while. 

EM: I remember the story when I having post-traumatic syndrome from Vietnam. Joe Coffey was supposed to be a Vietnam veteran, and when you think about that, that was before it was even a term. So that's one I remember. I had to shoot somebody, and it was something I didn't think too much about at the time, but looking back… That was a really strong opportunity for me, a good role for me to play at that time. 

CH: I liked it when my dad died and they found him in an alley. [Laughs.] "Lordy, they've stolen my daddy!" They thought he was a drunk, because he was sort of up against the wall, but he was dead! One of my other favorites was "The Rise and Fall of Paul the Wall," where Renko herniates himself on the stairs. He's chasing another man up the stairway and breaks a bunch of furniture and shit. That was funny. And I used to love scenes where we were interrogating people. 

Actor Michael Warren as Robert ‘Bobby’ Hill
Photo courtesy: Twentieth Century Fox Actor Michael Warren as Robert ‘Bobby’ Hill

Also, my other recollection is that in those days our stunt coordinator had everybody… We did our own stunts! So I just got my ass broke all the time! I was the guy who was always in fights, so I'd be in a pool hall with, like, 10 bikers with pool cues, and I'd be running through garbage and fighting real stunt men. I used to get nailed, man. I had a black eye one time, and they had to put it in for the character. I screwed up more parts of my body. I separated my shoulder one time! And the other crazy thing was, in those days, we'd also drive for our own stunts and stuff. They'd want to have the camera on us, and in those days they had great big 35mm cameras. Now they're on hood mounts and side mounts. So we'd be in downtown L.A. with a police escort, there's lights on in the window, driving like a chase scene! It was fantastic, but when I saw some of the shit that I did… I had one time the frigging wheels started coming off the car. I mean, it was great. Now everything's all pretty sewn up, but back then, as you can see by the show, it was pretty free-wheeling!

Oh, and Renko's romance with a woman played by Mimi Rogers… I mean, who wouldn't enjoy that? And if you watch that scene, I think that's the first time that anybody on network television actually touched a woman's breast. I remember that we got in there to do that, and…it was a weird scene. I put the chair up against the office door and got her up there on the desk, and…oh, man, I'll tell ya, I don't know whose idea that was. I still love that character. I really felt with Renko that he was a case of arrested development. He was a perennial adolescent. He wore his heart on his sleeve, and he kind of did whatever he wanted to do. 

JBS: I'll tell you a funny story: at one point, because he'd tried to off himself, Howard was in the hospital, which is where he met Nurse Wulfawitz. And Nurse Wulfawitz was really quite attractive, very nice to him, and they started having a relationship. And then they had a better relationship, and it was really moving towards marriage. And then they were both in bed together, and she said, "You know, I would really appreciate it, because I'm Jewish, if you could convert." And Howard looks at her and says, "Convert? Convert? You mean like that black entertainer?!?" [Laughs.] Well, then, I go to do "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson," promoting the show for NBC…and the, uh, black entertainer is on the show also…and they show that clip. And when they come back on, Sammy Davis, Jr. is on the floor, on his back with his legs in the air, laughing. He thought it was the funniest damned thing he had ever seen. 

Creative Missteps: Few and Far Between (Mostly)

BM: I can't remember one thing that they gave me to do that I ever objected to. I mean, just nothing. Nothing that I can remember, anyway.

JBS: You know, I've never been asked that question, and I'm reticent to say that there never was, because that doesn't sound natural, but…I really don't think so. I think I just had a great, great time. It was a lot of fun. I loved going there – I couldn't wait to go – and I loved going home to my family.

Joe Spano and Dennis Franz in "Hill Street Blues"
Photo courtesy: Twentieth Century Fox Joe Spano and Dennis Franz in "Hill Street Blues"

CH: Oh, I didn't like the fact that Buntz sucker-punched Renko. Denny Franz kicked my ass, and I didn't like that much at all. Because, you know, in Renko's mind, no one's gonna kick his ass like that. And then the fact that Michael had to go and tune the guy up… Nope, I didn't like that. I said to Mike, "This is real bullshit." 

EM: You know, I'm sure there was (some storyline that didn't work). I don't remember any those specifically, though. But there were certain things that… Well, you know that term "jump the shark." When you do a show for seven years, we probably did some things that were a little bit like that as they were starting to run out of story ideas, where we were, like, "What the heck is this?" [Laughs.] But, you know, writers change, and when writers change, even though you still have the basic blueprint, the show will change, no matter what. 

I think it was a great show for its whole run, but I think maybe the first four seasons of it were probably the best. Because what made the show great was the original nucleus – the original writers, the original cast – and once you start to lose some of those people, you do subtly lose the essence of the show. It changes. And it becomes a little bit of a caricature of itself. But we maintained it better than most shows, as far as keeping it good and entertaining. I felt that happened with "The Sopranos." I'm a big fan of that show, but I think as the seasons went on it became a caricature of itself. And that's gonna happen even with the best shows. 

Next: The Legacy of a Groundbreaking Television Series and Thoughts on the End

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





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