US sitcom featuring the cops of New York City's 12th Precinct.
168 episodes of 26 minute duration. 1975 - 82
One of the few police-oriented comedies to succeed on American television, Barney Miller followed the lives and habits of New York City's 12th Precinct in the Greenwich Village-home to some unusual suspects and cases.
Unlike other cop shows, there were no car chases, no dramatic arrests and no shootouts. Virtually all of the action revolved inside the rundown offices of the 12th Precinct, usually involving two or three cases in each episode. Television producer Danny Arnold and writer Theodore Flicker, who came up with the idea of an ethnically diverse cop show, created it.
Barney Miller (Hal Linden) was the only stable person in an office filled with off-the-wall characters. They included the aging, always complaining senior detective Phil Fish (Abe Vigoda); innocent fellow detective Stan Wojohowicz ("Wojo" for short, played by Max Gail); cocky and literate African-American Detective Ron Harris; and Asian Detective Nick Yemana (Jack Soo), who came up with some of the best punchlines and made the worst coffee anyone ever brewed.
During the 1975-76 season, producers added Detective Sergeant Chano Amenguale (Gregory Sierra) and Detective Janice Wentworth (Linda Lavin). Both left after one season-Sierra for the short-lived comedy AES Hudson Street; Lavin for a far more successful gig as the title character on the sitcom Alice. Replacing them in the squad was sarcastic Detective Arthur Dietrich (Steve Landsberg). Also appearing on a regular basis was Inspector Frank Luger (James Gregory), whose visits seemed to annoy rather than help Barney and the squad; and Officer Carl Levitt (Ron Carey), who wanted to get off the police beat and become a detective at the 12th Precinct.
But Barney Miller had major hurdles to overcome before it would even get on the air. ABC executives felt the show was too "Jewish" and thought Linden, the accomplished Broadway actor who played Barney, was "dull". (Arnold argued Barney was supposed to be dull; he was the anchor of a crazy squad.) The show's original pilot did air on a 1974 ABC summer show called Just For Laughs-though network executives agreed to order at least four episodes as a midseason replacement, after Arnold refused to fire Linden.
Fortunately for Barney Miller, ABC's then-status as the third-place network was reinforced when every one of the network's new fall 1974 series tanked. Following a shakeup in the network's entertainment division, programmers turned to Barney Miller and slotted the show on Thursday night, against the family-friendly drama The Waltons on CBS.
Few observers thought Barney Miller would succeed against the top-ten series. As feared, initial ratings were not good. But the fifth episode drew notice after ABC censors refused to air it. The show centered on Wojo falling in love with a prostitute. ABC argued it was not the network of hookers; the episode went on the air after Arnold threatened to shut down production. The ratings jumped for that episode and more viewers began tuning in. Though there would be grumbling from the censors in future years, ABC renewed the show for a second season.
Major cast changes came as Barney Miller rolled on. Abe Vigoda, who gained fame earlier as Mafia leader Tessio in the film "The Godfather", battled over credits and salary (at one point, he wanted the show's name changed to "Fish and Barney". Eventually, he received his own spin-off series Fish, after Vigoda's character retired from the 12th Precinct. But Fish was not a success; Vigoda wanted back on Barney Miller. Arnold refused, because the actor wanted too much money.
But the loss that probably hurt the cast and crew most was the death of Jack Soo. The durable actor who played Yemana died of cancer in January 1979; a tribute episode aired soon after. Soo wasn't replaced.
But time waits for few series, and after falling to 54th place, Danny Arnold decided the 1981-82 season would be the show's last. In a three-part episode, the 12th Precinct learns its long-time home had been sold to a real estate developer, after the building was deemed to be an historic monument. (Seems Theodore Roosevelt used the building as his presidential campaign headquarters.) Barney and the gang were given 30 days to pack up and move to another building. The final episode (which aired May 27th, 1982) was filled with final goodbyes and remembrances as the precinct members pack up their belongings and leave the old 12th precinct behind.
The final season ended on a high (and well-deserved note): After years of being nominated, Barney Miller finally won an Emmy award for Best Comedy Series. It was a fitting climax for a show that bucked the odds to become a part of American popular culture. So much so that Barney Miller's badge (#233451) is now on display in the Smithsonian Museum. And in 1981, a producer named Steven Bochco presented his own tribute to Barney Miller in the groundbreaking Hill Street Blues. Although it was clearly a drama, Bochco borrowed some key elements of its format, including multiple plots per episode and ironic humor.
The old crime drama Naked City used to intone that there were "eight million stories" in New York City. Somehow, Barney Miller found the best of those eight million, to create what one writer called "the logical conclusion to a very illogical entertainment form: the TV sitcom".
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