Hal Linden: That ’70s Man
More For Our Consideration
Hal Linden was born Harold Lipshitz in New York City in 1931, but changed his last name—inspired by the town of Linden, New Jersey—when he got into show business. While I was interviewing Linden about the new Barney Miller complete series DVD box set, I asked him about this, wondering if there’d ever been a famous person named Lipshitz who didn’t change his name. “Well, there’s a sculptor,” he said. “Jacques Lipchitz. Maybe a few others. Not so well-known, I guess.” Does he think he could’ve made it as a TV star as Harold Lipshitz? “Back then, no way. Now, it might be different.”
Myself, I’m not so sure that Linden’s right about that. I wonder if Mr. Lipshitz might’ve had more of a shot than he suspects. Linden became a star onstage in the ’60s and then a household name in the ’70s, at a time when show business seemed more open to performers with unusual looks, weird names, and urban attitudes. Linden is classically handsome, with a profile that looks like it was carved out of marble, but from the bushy mustache he wore while playing Barney Miller to his willingness to look rumpled, he fit right into the era of Peter Falk, Al Pacino, and Woody Allen. He was very much the lumpy New Yorker.
Linden started out his career in the city as a musician, but transitioned to musical theater, working his way up from understudy to lead. He got his big break when he appeared on Broadway in the late ’50s in the hit show Bells Are Ringing, but Linden told me that back then he was more a natural performer than a trained actor. “It took me years to learn a technique,” he said. In the meantime, he made extra money working on the English-language dubs of foreign films, ranging from Destroy All Monsters to I Am Curious (Yellow). “It kept me from waiting tables.”
When I spoke to Linden, he had recently returned to his home in Palm Springs after being away for a while, and the house seemed to be falling apart all around him during our conversation. He had to change phones twice because of a series of weird technical glitches, and at one point his smoke alarm started beeping loudly. Linden soldiered on, but I kept picturing him as NYPD 12th Precinct Captain Barney Miller, trying to maintain an aura of dignity and an air of command in an office with no air conditioning, a busted toilet, and the smell of stale coffee wafting from the hotplate in the corner.
Linden was at first reluctant to take what would turn out to be his signature role. “I didn’t want to leave New York,” he said. He’d recently won a Tony for playing the lead in the musical The Rothschilds, and was fielding offers left and right. (“I was hot that year.”) But his agent convinced him that it wouldn’t hurt to fly out to Los Angeles and shoot the pilot for what was then called The Life And Times Of Captain Barney Miller. The pilot didn’t get picked up, but it drew some attention when ABC burned it off as part of their summertime Just For Laughs series in 1974, so the network ordered 13 episodes to run as a midseason replacement in 1975. The show went on to run for seven more full seasons, performing solidly and even producing a spinoff: the Abe Vigoda-starring Fish (the first season of which is included in Shout! Factory’s Barney Miller box).
Barney Miller sits squarely on my list of favorite TV series of all time, and there are days when I’d say it’s my favorite among favorites. (That’s why I made sure to include it in the first round of my “A Very Special Episode” columns.) When my colleagues recently asked in the “Reasonable Discussions” podcast what would be the sitcom equivalent to The Wire, Barney Miller was the first show that occurred to me, even though I knew that’s more literal an answer than the question demands. Still: Barney Miller is a lot like The Wire, in that it’s about the drudgery of law and order, not the thrills.
I proposed this analogy to Linden, and he said, “Joseph Wambaugh was once asked what was the most realistic cop show on TV, and he said it was Barney Miller. And this is a guy who had been a cop. Over the years I’ve talked to many policemen who’ve told me the same thing. I always ask them, ‘How many times on the job have you had to pull your gun.’ Nine times out of 10, the answer is, ‘Never.’ The job is more about paperwork. It’s a grind.”
I suggested that in that context, Barney himself was like an office manager, just trying to motivate his team until it was time to clock out. “Do you remember the episode ‘Hash?’” Linden said in reply. “Where everyone at the 1-2 eats those hash brownies? Everyone except Barney? In that episode, every character had an aria. Every actor had a moment to shine and do something crazy. And I asked Danny Arnold, our executive producer, ‘Where’s Barney’s aria?’ And Danny told me that we always had to keep Barney on an even keel, because Barney’s the one that we compare everyone to.”
One of the selling points of doing a sitcom for Linden was that he assumed it would be like live theater, shooting in front of a studio audience. And that’s the way that Barney Miller started out. But Danny Arnold was a notorious perfectionist, and would be re-writing scripts right up until the cameras were switched on. After a few too many nights where restless audiences had to wait an hour or more past the scheduled start, Barney Miller became one of the rare shot-on-videotape ’70s sitcoms that was performed on a closed set, sometimes going until the wee hours of the morning as Arnold tweaked scenes one line at a time.
After Barney Miller went off the air, Linden settled into the routine that many longtime TV stars do: He returned to the theater, and periodically tried to launch new series that didn’t quite reach liftoff. These days he pops up in the occasional TV movie, or does sitcom guest shots, getting comfortable in kindly grandpa roles. Linden also does concert tours—singing standards—and has recently self-released a CD that he recorded off and on over the past three decades. “I’ve always thought of myself as a musician,” he explained. “I always figured I’d get back to that.”
I worry sometimes that we don’t treasure our television heritage the way we do our cinema heritage, and that as syndicators and cable channels like TV Land keep updating their packages to more recent shows, the old classics are being forgotten. So I asked Linden whether he thought Barney Miller had ever really gotten its due. “Well, we’re in the Smithsonian,” he said. “But we were never a Top 10 show, and only even a Top 20 show for a couple of years. We did better in syndication, I think because the kind of people who would like Barney Miller weren’t sitting in front of their TV during primetime.”
“We were a big deal in New York,” he added. “We were on at 5:30 in syndication, and the bars would switch on the show and people would come in after work to watch. They called it ‘Miller Time.’ That’s true.”
I mentioned to Linden that it’s weird to think about Barney Miller being shot in Los Angeles, when it’s such a quintessentially New York show—one that really captures the “Ford To City: Drop Dead” era of the ’70s, when the city seemed to be falling apart. Linden agreed about the New York-ness of Barney Miller, but disagreed that the show presented a negative view of his hometown. “I always thought of it as loving. Yes, the city was a mess, but the show was about people pulling together.”
He’s right about that. But it says something about the era in which Barney Miller was made that a crumbling, leaky, smelly portrait of New York City could be considered relatively upbeat. It was a time when cracks were expected—even encouraged. A time when a Lipshitz could be a leading man.