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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 Legacy of a Groundbreaking Television Series

BW: I think everyone felt "Hill Street Blues" was outside-the-box right off the bat. It was so unusual to read a script with all those things going on with the characters, and also with the atmosphere. It was just…unique for that time. And I'm positive that we all felt the responsibility to serve that script well, right from the first rehearsal. I remember talking about that with a number of people in the cast, about the responsibility they felt toward the script and toward Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll.

JBS: We were always tackling topics that hadn't been tackled before. That's why we began to call ourselves the Equal Opportunity Offender: we were always finding somebody to stick it to….and quite frequently we'd stick it to television itself! [Laughs.] But it was what it was. And we got to the point where it was done, it was over, but it was so much fun. With "Hill Street Blues," we had a sense of audience that you very seldom get. It was a series that improved television. It really did. 

EM: We tackled some stuff that had never really been done. We did one episode where my girlfriend, who was played by Linda Hamilton, got raped, and I was having trouble dealing with it…and I think I was having trouble dealing with it because it turned me on! [Laughs.] Which was very weird. So, you know, there were some very provocative topics, very atypical to what was being covered on TV at the time. But it was impossible to sense at that point that it was going to become this international hit, this critically acclaimed show. Television was always looked upon as the ugly stepsister of movies.

CH: We knew we were given permission to do things outside of the box by the actual scenes that were going on, and also certainly by the style in which it was being done by Robert Butler. Robert Butler is absolutely… He directed the pilot and did the first four after that, and he's responsible for the look of "Hill Street Blues." He just told everybody, "Let run with this. Let's keep the camera running, let's talk over each other, let's interrupt… Let's shoot it this way, and let's see what happens." He really created that style. And then I was also part of the next great revolution, which was "E.R.", if you look at it. I went to "E.R." and worked with Rod Holcomb, who did the pilot, and that was a direct result of "Hill Street Blues." Or at least my work on "E.R." was. I was serving Robert Butler. My style came from him, and it kept coming from that. My stuff in "Murder One," "High Incident," "Big Apple"… I learned from those shows, too, but it all came from Robert Butler and "Hill Street Blues." 

The End is Nigh

The cast of "Hill Street Blues"
Photo courtesy: Twentieth Century Fox The cast of "Hill Street Blues"

JBS: You know, it's mixed emotions when a series like "Hill Street Blues" ends. You're sad because it was something that is, in my mind, a really wonderful, joyous experience which you would wish on anybody in any profession: that they've had a wonderful time and that they've done good work and that people have enjoyed it and approved of it. That's always a little melancholy. But I had already contracted to do a play in London, so I didn't even go to the wrap party, because I had to be on a plane to get to a rehearsal in London. You just go on to the next thing. But there's no question that there was melancholy about that. But people had been leaving, you know. Steven left a few years earlier, and other people and actors had left, and we were getting down to, if we couldn't do it as well as we'd done it before, then let's not do it. Sometimes it's hard to know when that time is. 

EM: I actually asked to be written out of the show. And after some negotiations, they asked me if I'd stick around for most of the sixth season, which I did. I think I got shot in the 19th episode, or something like that. So, yeah, it was an amicable parting – I've stayed in touch with these guys to this day – but it was just time for me. After doing the show for almost five full seasons, there was no other reason to do it except for money. And I wanted to do something more. I wanted a bigger role, maybe to be in my own series, or to be one of one or two leads in a series. But, you know, Joe Coffey was gonna check out sooner or later, you could tell that. [Laughs.] Most cops never even fire their gun in their career. He gets shot three times!

CH: When the series ended, it wasn't about (Daniel J. Travanti deciding to leave), and it's interesting that that story got out there, in my estimation. We sort of took a vote. We voted. We – all of us – decided mutually that it was seven and out. And we knew it was seven and out about year five. And I think, if I may say so… You can read anything you want into this, but, you know, the fact that Mr. Travanti is not participating in the interviews (to promote the complete-series set) says as much as you might want to know about that. I find it to be curious. I think that when you have a show that has done so much for you… Boy, in my case, I just feel nothing but gratitude. I don't give a shit if I'm 70 years old now. I've had an enormously long career, and much of it is a result of my relationship with Bochco and that family. 

BW: I would've liked to have done another 30 years! [Laughs.] But that's not the way things work. I think, creatively, they could've gone one or two more years. But I don't worry about decisions that I have nothing to do with. So if it happens, then that's what happens. Somebody wanted it to be over. Which is fine. I mean, what are you gonna do?

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






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