25 Things You Never Knew About 'Hill Street Blues,' One of TV's Most Influential Dramas

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Kimberly Potts
·Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
HILL STREET BLUES -- Season 5 -- Pictured: (front row l-r) Ren? Enr?quez as Lt. Ray Calletano, James Sikking as Lt. Howard Hunter, Ed Marinaro as Officer Joe Coffey, Robert Hirschfeld as Officer Leo Schnitz (2nd row l-r) Taurean Blacque as Det. Neal Washington, Kiel Martin as Officer John 'J.D.' LaRue, Barbara Bosson as Fay Furillo, Mimi Kuzyk as Det. Patricia Mayo, Ken Olin as Det. Harry Garibaldi (front row l-r) Bruce Weitz as Det. Mick Belker, Robert Prosky as Sgt. Stanislaus 'Stan' Jablonski, Veronica Hamel as Joyce Davenport, Daniel J. Travanti as Capt. Frank Furillo -- (Photo by: Herb Ball/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank)
HILL STREET BLUES -- Season 5 -- Pictured: (front row l-r) Ren? Enr?quez as Lt. Ray Calletano, James Sikking as Lt. Howard Hunter, Ed Marinaro as Officer Joe Coffey, Robert Hirschfeld as Officer Leo Schnitz (2nd row l-r) Taurean Blacque as Det. Neal Washington, Kiel Martin as Officer John 'J.D.' LaRue, Barbara Bosson as Fay Furillo, Mimi Kuzyk as Det. Patricia Mayo, Ken Olin as Det. Harry Garibaldi (front row l-r) Bruce Weitz as Det. Mick Belker, Robert Prosky as Sgt. Stanislaus 'Stan' Jablonski, Veronica Hamel as Joyce Davenport, Daniel J. Travanti as Capt. Frank Furillo -- (Photo by: Herb Ball/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank)

More than two dozen Emmys, an iconic theme song, a writing staff that would go on to create many other TV hits, and innovative storytelling techniques — a large cast, overlapping dialogue, a focus on the characters' personal and work lives, an un-saccharine portrayal of those flawed characters — are among "Hill Street Blues'" TV-land legacies.

The 1981-87 NBC cop drama (which just got the Complete Series DVD treatment) not only helped turn around a last-place network, but it's no hyperbole to say the show changed television, for the better, in a way that current Golden Age of Television viewers continue to benefit from. But it wasn't always a smooth road to classic TV status. Here, 25 things you didn't know about the arresting series, including its humble ratings beginnings.

1. For its debut season in 1981, "Hill Street Blues" received 21 Emmy nominations and won eight of them, including the first of four consecutive Outstanding Drama Series statues.

"Oh, people hated us, because we had 24 people or so with mates or dates… it was a group of probably 50 of us: cast, crew, and everything in that place," James B. Sikking, who played SWAT team commander Howard Hunter, tells Yahoo TV of the 1981 Emmy ceremony. "Every time they named somebody from the show, we'd scream 'Yay!' We were thrilled, absolutely thrilled. But we also didn't want to take it too seriously, the winning of awards. You still have to do the work. The work is what you have to do to earn respect."

For its sophomore season, the show claimed all five nomination spots in the Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series category, with Michael Conrad getting the win. "Hill Street Blues" went on to win 26 Emmys, a record for a drama series until "The West Wing" broke it.

2. The series ratings for its first season were less impressive. "Hill Street Blues" finished 87th (out of 96 shows) in the Nielsen ratings. "We were the lowest-rated drama in the history of television ever to get a second season," the Emmy-nominated Sikking says. Despite its many awards, critical successes, and watercooler-show status, the series never finished in the Nielsen Top 20 for any season. Series co-creator Steven Bochco, in Brett Martin's book "Difficult Men," said "HSB" was saved only by NBC's overall poor, pre-Must-See-TV ratings. "If NBC had been flush, I don't think we would have seen the light of day."

[Related: Steven Bochco on Slowing Down: 'I'm Just Old']

3. The performances spoke for how talented the "HSB" cast was, but it didn't hurt that some of them had friends in high places. Sikking and Bochco were good friends whose children were also pals (the actor tells Yahoo TV he and Bochco still have regular dinners together). Bruce Weitz, who won an Emmy for portraying Sgt. Mick Belker, was a college friend of Bochco's. And Emmy nominee Barbara Bosson, who played Fay, the ex-wife of Capt. Frank Furillo, was married to Bochco.

4. Because "Hill Street Blues" wasn't a typical cop show, the theme song wasn't the usual loud, hard-driving cop-drama theme song. Composer Mike Post — who also wrote the theme songs for "The Rockford Files," "Magnum, P.I.," "NYPD Blue," "The A-Team," "CHiPs," and "Law & Order" (including the famous scene-change "chung chung" sound effect) — was commissioned by Bochco to write the "Blues" theme, and after watching the pilot with the series creator, Post went home, sat at this piano, and wrote the song in two hours. 

The tune became a Top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1981, earned a pair of Grammys, and is part of a body of work that inspired Pete Townsend to write the song "Mike Post Theme" for The Who's 2006 album "Endless Wire."

5. "Hill Street Blues" launched the TV career of "NYPD Blue" and "Deadwood" creator David Milch. The former Yale writing teacher won an Emmy for his first "Blues" script — the Season 3 premiere, "Trial by Fury" — and went on to become an executive producer on the show, adding Writers Guild awards and a Humanitas Prize to his résumé.

6. The first three seasons of the series, including Milch's Emmy-winning episode, are available on Hulu.com.

7. Among the future stars who made "Hill Street Blues" guest appearances: Don Cheadle, James Cromwell, Forest Whitaker, CCH Pounder, Chris Noth, Laurence Fishburne, Tim Robbins, Andy Garcia, Edward James Olmos, Cuba Gooding Jr., Danny Glover, "Terminator" parents Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn, Frances McDormand, Alfre Woodard, and a pre-Kramer Michael Richards.

[Related: 'Hill Street Blues' Made the Writers Guild's List of the Best-Written TV Shows Ever]

8. Sammy Davis Jr. was a fan of the show, and wanted to make a guest appearance. "Steven put a reference to him in one of the shows. [Howard] Hunter is with Linda Wolfowitz and she says, 'I'm Jewish, and you'd have to convert if we were to marry.' And Hunter says, 'You mean like that colored entertainer?' When Steven ran into Sammy, he told him about it, and there was a moment when we both thought he wasn't going to think it was funny. But he loved it and started jumping up and down," Bosson told Playboy.

9. Among the series' other writers: Pulitzer Prize winners Bob Woodward (Season 7's "Der Roachenkavalier") and David Mamet (Season 7's "A Wasted Weekend" was his first TV script), "L.A. Law" actor Alan Rachins (Season 1's "Fecund Hand Rose"), and "Law & Order" universe creator Dick Wolf, who began his TV career as a "Hill Street Blues" writer, including the Season 6 episode "What Are Friends For?" which earned him his first Emmy nomination.

10. "Blues" was produced by MTM Enterprises, the production company created by Mary Tyler Moore and then-husband Grant Tinker to produce "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." The company's famous logo, which featured Mimsie the kitten meowing at the end of MTM shows, was tweaked for "Hill Street Blues": Mimsie sported a police hat.

11. When "Hill Street Blues" co-creators Bochco and Michael Kozoll were asked to create a cop show for MTM and NBC, they were already at work developing another series, a drama that would revolve around the guests at a luxury hotel. Aaron Spelling launched a similar series, "Hotel," in 1983.

12. Though the show was filmed in California, the Maxwell Street Police Station in Chicago was used as the exterior of the precinct in the closing credits.

The building, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996, now serves as the home station for the University of Illinois at Chicago police department. And the building's exterior once again stands in as a TV series police station… on Dick Wolf's "Chicago PD."

13. Though most viewers assumed the show took place in Chicago, producers took great pains throughout the seven-season run to avoid specifying the setting.

14. Dennis Franz played two different, completely unrelated characters on the show. In Season 3, he played corrupt cop Sal Benedetto, who was killed off after five enullpisodes. He returned in Season 6 as Lt. Norman Buntz, who he played through the end of the series, and beyond. Buntz was fired from the PD and moved to Beverly Hills to become a private eye in the short-lived "Blues" spinoff "Beverly Hills Buntz," a comedy created by David Milch and Jeffrey Lewis.

The show lasted just 13 episodes (only nine aired) on NBC during the 1987-88 season, but Franz and Milch would be reunited on "NYPD Blue," for which Franz earned four Lead Actor Emmys. Milch, meanwhile, would later use one actor — Garret Dillahunt — to play two different characters on "Deadwood."

15. "Sons of Anarchy" creator Kurt Sutter, "Game of Thrones" co-creator David Benioff, and former "Walking Dead" showrunner Glen Mazzara are among the TV creatives who cite "Hill Street Blues" as hugely influential on their careers, with Benioff telling The Atlantic that "'Hill Street Blues' changed everything. The cops were flawed; the story lines were not resolved in a single episode; characters you loved died while having sex. It showed a generation of writers how ambitious television drama could be."

16. The death-during-sex character refers to Sgt. Phil Esterhaus, played by two-time Emmy winner Michael Conrad. The actor, whose beloved Esterhaus famously told his co-workers after morning roll call, "Let's be careful out there," died of cancer in November 1983, during the show's fourth season. In the episode "Grace Under Pressure," included on TV Guide's 1997 list of the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Esterhaus had a heart attack and died while having sex with his girlfriend, Grace Gardner (Emmy winner Barbara Babcock). Conrad, who continued to work through the end of his illness, had joked to the show's writers that that's how Esterhaus should go.

17. In the Season 1 finale, "Jungle Madness," Capt. Frank Furillo (Emmy winner Daniel J. Travanti) was revealed to be a recovering alcoholic when he ordered one of his detectives, J.D. LaRue (Kiel Martin), to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. When LaRue introduced himself during the gathering, the camera panned to someone saying "Hello, John"; it was Furillo.

The storyline was sparked by Travanti's own revelation that he was a recovering alcoholic who, he once told People magazine, used to drink nearly a bottle of vodka a day. More surprisingly: Travanti made commercials for Almaden wine. "Ironic, isn't it?" he told People. "I can still smell drinks across the room. Margaritas make me salivate. But sobriety is the keystone of who I am now."

18. Actors' real lives were not the only ones mined for storyline inspiration. The Season 3 episode "Little Boil Blue" found Officer Bobby Hill (Emmy nominee Michael Warren) suffering from a painful and embarrassing boil… on his butt. But, the real boil belonged to Bochco.

"I got a boil on my a-- when I went to London last year," Bochco told Playboy in 1983. "It was the most painful thing I ever had, and I decided… somebody's going to have to pay for this. I thought I'd give it to Furillo; then I thought, 'No, he's too stoic. He'd just live with it’ … What power! Can you imagine having the power to give a boil to anybody in this cast?"

HILL STREET BLUES -- Pictured: (l-r) Ed Marinaro as Officer Joe Coffey, Michael Warren as Officer Robert 'Bobby' Hill, Charles Haid as Officer Andrew Renko, Betty Thomas as Sgt. Lucy Bates (seated) -- (Photo by: Gary Null/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank)
HILL STREET BLUES -- Pictured: (l-r) Ed Marinaro as Officer Joe Coffey, Michael Warren as Officer Robert 'Bobby' Hill, Charles Haid as Officer Andrew Renko, Betty Thomas as Sgt. Lucy Bates (seated) -- (Photo by: Gary Null/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank)

19. Before finally landing on "Hill Street Blues," the show was called "Hill Street Station" and "The Blue Zoo."

20. The only "Hill Street Blues" star nominated for an Emmy in each of the series' seven seasons: Betty Thomas, who played the squad's only female officer, Lucy Bates. Thomas, who won an Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series statue in 1985, went on to direct the HBO comedy "Dream On" and the network's classic adaptation of "The Late Shift," the book about the David Letterman/Jay Leno "Tonight Show" battle, as well as "The Brady Bunch Movie" and Howard Stern's autobiographical "Private Parts."

21. Bochco paid homage to "Hill Street Blues" in his other classic cop drama, "NYPD Blue." Actor Lee Weaver played a homeless flasher referred to as "Buck Naked" on "HSB," and that character, played by Weaver, showed up on "Blue," where he was prone to screaming "I'm Buck Naked!" and displaying his wares, just as he'd done on "Hill Street Blues."

22. Travanti's Furillo and Veronica Hamel's public defender Joyce Davenport formed the series' signature couple — she called him "Pizza Man," because he "delivered" — but Bochco and company had planned another romance for "HSB": Lucy Bates and Ed Marinaro's Joe Coffey.

"We had Joe and Lucy having an affair," Bochco told Playboy in 1983. "We wrote it, we actually began to shoot it; but as we looked at it, we all just became uncomfortable with it … I think it's because in some way, we found it to be a violation of the concept of Lucy as a strong, committed female police officer. Female police officers still tend to be looked upon with less trust and respect than male officers and are treated more as sex objects in their departments. Consequently, we have always had Lucy show a very strong feeling that she had to be better, tougher, stronger in those arenas than anybody else to maintain her credibility as a police officer. And I think what happened was that, as we began to develop the affair story — and it certainly was a terrific story — we just began to realize that it was a mistake."

[Related: The 'Deadwood' Cast Chats for a 10th Anniversary Oral History of the HBO Drama]

Ed Marinaro as Officer Joe Coffey (Herb Ball/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank)
Ed Marinaro as Officer Joe Coffey (Herb Ball/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank)

23.

Marinaro, a former NFL player-turned-actor, was originally killed off in the Season 1 finale, but when the show was granted a second season, Joe Coffey miraculously survived what had appeared to be a fatal gunshot wound. "Steven Bochco was on set that night, and he came to me and said, 'Joe Coffey's life is in the hand of your agents right now,'" Marinaro tells Yahoo TV. "They were negotiating a deal. So I became a regular."

But in Season 6, eager to pursue other acting opportunities and unhappy with the lack of storyline possibilities for his character, Marinaro quit the show. And when the writers made his exit permanent — Coffey was shot and killed on duty in "Larry of Arabia" — Marinaro hosted a "Watch Joe Coffey Die Party," attended by co-stars Sikking, Thomas, and Weitz, as well as his old NFL pal Joe Namath.

24. Another athlete-turned-actor on "Hill Street Blues": Michael Warren, a standout player on UCLA's 1967 and 1968 national champion basketball teams. His most famous teammate: Lew Alcindor, aka Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

25. Marinaro says the enduring influence of "Hill Street Blues" can be summed up as the way the series portrayed its characters in a realistic light. "We were anything but heroes. We were a ragtag group of characters, and that's what made the show unique and popular. It was just so different. The portrayal of law enforcement people was so different," says Marinaro, who's in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a movie sequel to his Spike TV comedy "Blue Mountain State."

"Cops responded so well to the show because we didn't portray them as superheroes. We portrayed them as real people. We could put a human face on these people. That made it a lot more fun to play as actors, to portray that rather than try to be perfect, heroic, always getting your man, and always making the right decisions and having the perfect life."

"Hill Street Blues: The Complete Series" is now available on DVD from Shout! Factory.