Hill Street Blues: A Cop TV Turning Point

by Erik Arneson

Jan. 15, 1981 to May 12, 1987

  • Daniel J. Travanti as Capt. Frank Furillo
  • Michael Conrad as Sgt. Philip Freemason Esterhaus
  • Veronica Hamil as Joyce Davenport
  • Bruce Weitz as Det. Mick Belker
  • Barbara Babcock as Grace Gardner
  • Taurean Blacque as Det. Neal Washington
  • Barbara Bosson as Fay Furrillo
  • Dennis Franz as Det. Norman Buntz
  • Kiel Martin as Det. John LaRue
  • Joe Spano as Det. Henry Goldblume

It’s not much of an exaggeration to claim that without “Hill Street Blues,” there would be no “Homicide: Life on the Streets” or “NYPD Blue.” And you’re probably safe adding shows like “L.A. Law” and “The Practice” — not to mention other ensemble dramas like “St. Elsewhere,” “E.R.” and “Chicago Hope” — to that list. At the very least, all of those shows owe a debt of gratitude to executive producer Steven Bochco’s seminal police series.

Boston Phoenix reviewer Robert David Sullivan summed up the importance of “Hill Street Blues” this way: “Before it premiered, most crime dramas were slow-moving and underwritten… The ‘Hill Street’ formula produced few clunkers; if one storyline or guest star was weak, there were separate plots in the same episode to compensate. As a result, viewer loyalty was exceptionally high. Eventually, ‘Hill Street’ became a model for almost all crime dramas, and continuing storylines became the norm on prime-time shows.”

In addition to showing that ongoing plots could work in prime time, “Hill Street Blues” used hand-held cameras regularly, a technique that gave the show a unique, gritty feel; the same style has been borrowed by many series in the years since. Its mix of dark comedy and drama, while itself owing a nod toward “M*A*S*H,” was unique among hour-long shows.

The characters were no less intriguing than the plots. Capt. Frank Furillo, leader of the Hill Street precinct, was an alcoholic; Furillo’s girlfriend, Joyce Davenport, was a public defender, while his ex-wife, Fay, never shied away from making her presence known. Sgt. Phil Esterhaus, the precinct’s roll call sergeant, died while having sex with his girlfriend in an episode TV Guide and Nick at Nite rated as one of the greatest television episodes of all time.

Among the detectives, John LaRue violated department policy with alarming regularity; his partner, Neal Washington didn’t share a propensity for rule breaking, but he did play along with LaRue’s practical jokes. Det. Mick Belker became known for his less-than-impeccable appearance and revolting eating habits, as well as his practice of biting suspects.

This “new type of cop show,” as TV Guide once described it, won immediate critical praise. “Hill Street Blues” was nominated for 21 Emmy Awards in 1981; it won eight, including Outstanding Drama Series, Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series (Daniel J. Travanti) and Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series (Barbara Babcock). Over the course of seven seasons, “Hill Street” earned an amazing 98 Emmy nominations and won 26 awards, including four as Outstanding Drama Series (1981, 1982, 1983 and 1984).

For producer Stephen Bochco, “Hill Street Blues” was his breakout success. Having cut his teeth as a writer on five “Columbo” television movies in the early 1970s, Bochco learned the business from the inside out. It didn’t hurt that the first of those movies, 1971’s “Columbo: Murder by the Book,” was directed by Steven Spielberg. Bochco would return to his “Columbo” roots in 1989, when he received a writing credit for “Columbo: Uneasy Lies the Crown.”

“Hill Street Blues” and “L.A. Law” took up most of Bochco’s time in the 1980s; in the ’90s, he would go on to produce shows like “NYPD Blue,” “Murder One,” “Brooklyn South” and the short-lived “Cop Rock.” He also has dabbled in non-crime series, including “Hooperman,” “Doogie Howser, M.D.” and “The Byrds of Paradise.”

As the whiny Fay Furillo on “Hill Street,” Barbara Bosson continued a practice of working with her husband, Bochco. The two had worked together on a 1970s detective series, “Richie Brockelman, Private Eye,” and would later join forces on “Hooperman,” “Cop Rock” and “Murder One.”

Set in an anonymous inner city, “Hill Street Blues” was filmed in Los Angeles and Chicago. From the first episode, in which Capt. Furillo had to solve a hostage crisis with little help from the Emergency Action Team leader, to the final, in which a major fire gutted the station house, “Hill Street” was an innovator.

The catch phrase “let’s be careful out there” became part of everyday conversations, a sign that “Hill Street” had an effect on popular culture as a whole. But the phrase held serious meaning: the Hill Street officers were exposed to a range of dangerous situations.

In one first-season episode, several officers went undercover in drag to nab a rapist; over the course of three episodes in the fourth season, the crew tracked down a cop killer; one officer came perilously close to starting a riot at a drug lord’s funeral during the seventh season.

Given his adversity to conventional living, LaRue may have faced the most interesting situations over the course of the show’s 146 episodes. LaRue was accused of entrapping a mugger and was demoted to the motor pool after an incident related to the bust of a PCP lab. He also discovered evidence of another officer’s corruption, tried to make money by grooming a rookie comedian, moonlighted on a low-budget horror film, and watched as a criminal’s gun misfired three times in his face.

In addition to stars like Dennis Franz, who joined the show in its sixth season, “Hill Street Blues” featured dozens of notable guest stars, several of whom would later work with Bochco as series regulars. Future “NYPD Blue” star David Caruso and Jill Eikenberry of “L.A. Law” fame both made appearances, as did Danny Glover, Laurence Fishburne, Linda Hamilton, Jennifer Tilly, Yaphet Kotto, Christopher Noth and Keenen Ivory Wayans.

When it debuted in 1981, “Hill Street Blues” almost instantly made slow-paced, single storyline cop shows obsolete. Steven Bochco and his writers forever changed the face of prime-time television. For that, we can all be grateful.


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