Street Smart Chicago

Partners and Companions: Life Spent in the Care of “Hill Street Blues”

Chicago History, Media Add comments

hill street-orig castBy Martin Northway

Pink Floyd’s “Money” was haunting the airwaves, Neil Diamond’s “Love on the Rocks” was making the soon-to-divorce lonelier still, and Barbra Streisand’s “Woman in Love” and John Lennon’s “(Just Like) Starting Over” only intensified our despair.

These remain my “divorce songs.” Hearing them instantly summons memories of the winter of my discontent, separated from my wife and two children. I am propelled back into the offices I shared with a business colleague, clandestinely bivouacked until early mornings when I broke camp like a Scout, erasing evidence of my nighttime residency accompanied by my radio sound track.

I finally rented a flat, and friends began stepping up, extending me tender mercies. One such was Lynne. We had worked together at the newspaper in our small but bustling county seat deep in Southern Indiana hill country. On the TV she had seen trailers for a promising new cop drama. She knew of my ties to Chicago during college and my early working years, and though “Hill Street Blues” was supposedly set in a generic northern city, its production links to the Windy City were not cleverly hidden.

Lynne suggested we make a convivial night of the Thursday premiere at the home she shared with her boyfriend. Settling in with our popcorn and Coca-Cola, we were hooked from the beginning, as Mike Post’s bluesy tentative-but-hopeful notes accompanied a view of a caravan of cruisers speeding down wet city streets.

Any sharp-eyed Chicagoan would have noted the “Metro” cars with Chicago colors (though CPD’s spooky blue lights had been swapped for red) were racing up Halsted toward Maxwell Street. Likewise, the establishing shot of district headquarters was of the old Maxwell Street station (seen now in the new NBC drama “Chicago P.D.”).

The episode began—like all subsequent ones—with tall, craggy duty Sergeant Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad) leading the morning roll call, lacing his report with street-smart advice, humor and overreaching malapropisms. Before sending his officers out into harm’s way, he implores, “Hey, let’s be careful out there!”

"Let's be careful out there."

“Let’s be careful out there.”

Each opening reconnects us with pairings of officers, as we are reminded that law enforcement is largely the work of partnerships, like that of coiffed but sleazy Detective John LaRue (Kiel Martin) and his capable, long-suffering better half, Neal Washington (Taurean Blacque), or tall, blonde Lucy Bates (Betty Thomas) and the sexual tension between her and Joe Coffey (former football star Ed Marinaro). But there are solo warriors too, like undercover Mick Belker (Bruce Weitz), with his penchant for biting dirtbag perpetrators.

In the very first story, random violence strikes a pair of officers, low-key Bobby Hill (Michael Warren) and bombastic Andy “Cowboy” Renko (Charles Haid). Seeking a telephone after their car has been hijacked, they are shot and left for dead by drug dealers in an abandoned building.

The report of their disappearance interrupts district Captain Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) bedding public defender Joyce Davenport (sultry Veronica Hamel), whose daytime professional relationship is frequently combative. But at night, Davenport is Furillo’s safe port from the storm that is his ex-wife, Fay (Barbara Bosson). Davenport affectionately dubs straight-arrow Furillo (“Pope Francis” to some department critics) “Pizza Man.”

Their relationship came to offer hope to me, as I suspect to others. Despite differences, and inevitable ups and downs, their mutual affection endured. Nights in the company of the “Blues” family became a valued ritual. One cold evening, it seemed shameful to fire up my big Ford F100 pickup to trek the few blocks to my friends’. The snowy walk was blissfully peaceful.

The series’ ensemble approach to TV drama was innovative. Handheld cameras gave the program a gritty, documentary feel. Each show told a story with a resonant subplot, but there were also plot-lines running across episodes and through characters’ lives. If “Hill Street” was sometimes melodramatic, its streetwise, witty scripts and sharp acting always riveted attention.

It also “ripped from the headlines,” as when Mayor Jane Byrne’s controversial residency in the Cabrini-Green project prompted an episode in which a mayoral candidate announced he likewise was moving into a project to get “in touch with the people.” During a photo op, he pushes a defective window and plummets to his death. Furillo’s harsh epitaph: “This is what comes from visiting people’s lives.”

Other successful ensemble series followed in “Hill Street”‘s footsteps, among them co-creator Steven Bochco’s “St. Elsewhere,” “L.A. Law” and “NYPD Blue.” In the latter, Detective Norman Buntz from “Hill Street,” portrayed by Chicago actor Dennis Franz, morphed into the acclaimed, iconic Andy Sipowicz. Brett Martin’s assessment in his 2013 book “Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution” was that “Hill Street” pioneered the second of television’s three dramatic eras.

But at the end of that first season, this was all still in the future. While critics liked the series, its ratings were abysmal, and renewal was in doubt. As it happens, my friends Lynne and Jim were selected as a “Nielsen family,” dutifully recording their TV viewing to help Nielsen compile its ratings. In “Comments,” Lynne wrote forcefully about how they loved “Hill Street” and of a dear friend who faithfully trudged across town in all weathers to watch the series.

It became the lowest-rated show to be renewed for a new season and then won a record eight Emmys for a single season, twenty-six over its seven seasons. And if I cannot claim to have saved “Hill Street”‘s life (though I do), it was only just that I should have tried to save its life. After all, it helped save mine.

Although the first four seasons of “Hill Street Blues” have been available free on line on Hulu, on April 29 all seven seasons are being released for the first time in a boxed DVD edition.

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