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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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. 

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.

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

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

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?

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