Before Hill Street Blues, conventional cop show wisdom dictated that there should just a handful of core characters, one or two plotlines, and everything in the way of crisis and crime should be wrapped up neatly at the close of each episode. But Hill Street Blues changed all that, and the hour-long dramas that came after it—even if they had nothing to do with men in blue—were inspired by this notorious breaker of old TV rules.
It was early 80’s president of NBC Fred Silverman who brought up the idea of a different cop show, a show that focused on the cops’ lives a bit more than the cops’ work. For the task, the network hired producers Michael Kozoll and Steven Bochco and gave them total creative control. Producer Bochco had written for several Columbo television movies, and had clear ideas about what he wanted for his new venture.
The station house would be noisy and some of its inhabitants uncouth. There wouldn’t be any typical all-perfect, all-the-time characters either—each would have his or her flaws. And though there would of course be crimes to solve, the show’s focus would be those characters. Investigations and cop goings-on were often worked out over the course of several episodes, instead of self-contained in just one episode, and sometimes, just like in real life, the cases would never be solved at all and bad guys would get off scott-free.
Plenty of hand-held cameras were used during filming, which meant a grittier, less staged, and more active feel. And Mike Post’s piano-driven theme music, which felt both happy and sadly wistful at the same time, was a perfect fit for the ‘lot of ups, lot of downs—that’s life’ tone the producers were going for.
The Hill Street station was located on the not-so-nice side of the tracks in an unnamed Eastern metropolis. Captain Frank Furillo did his job very well and carried on a secret romance with public defender Joyce Davenport while he dodged his ex-wife Fay, who was always after him for more alimony. Sgt. Phil Esterhaus was the precinct’s eloquent wordsmith sergeant, and it was his patented roll call “let’s be careful out there” adieu that began the episodes. In one of the series’ more notorious episodes, Esterhaus died of a heart attack while having sex with his, shall we say, enthusiastic girlfriend in his hospital bed.
More Classic Television | The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo
The Hill Street Station also had Henry Goldblume, who didn’t like the cruelty he bore witness to out on the streets; swaggeringly macho SWAT team leader Howard Hunter; Lt. Ray Calletano, who proud of his Columbian heritage and not afraid to talk about his people’s plight; biracial partners Bobby Hill and Andy Renko; bi-gender partners Joe Coffey and Lucy Bates; and probably the most whimsical of all, Mick Belker, a disheveled detective who was perpetually undercover as some kind of vagrant, and was known to growl at and bite the perps he brought in to book. And that’s just a few of the core players—there were plenty of others, including an impressive list of guest stars that went on to other high-profile TV and film careers.
Though TV critics were fans early on, Hill Street Blues took a while to grab the affections of regular viewers—though it did so soon enough. During its seven-year run, it was nominated for 98 Emmy nominations and won 26—which makes it the third most award-winning show in TV history, behind only Cheers and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. After it went off the air in 1987, Steven Bochco worked on a pack of well-known series, L.A. Law, Murder One, Brooklyn South, Doogie Howser, M.D., and NYPD Blue among them.
The words “gritty” and “realistic” are thrown around a lot in police drama discussions, but Hill Street was a pioneer for both. Ups and downs, bad guys jailed and bad guys walking around free on the street, cops who loved their jobs and cops that the job got to…this show began a new mythology for Hollywood men in blue—a portrayal that lay somewhere in between the truth of a real life cop’s job and the starchy, brawny near superhero treatment they frequently received on big and small screens.