BARNEY MILLER is one of those forgotten gem sitcoms from the 70s. I guess because they were taped and now look like crap you rarely see them pop up in reruns. Set in a dectectives’ squad room in an NYPD precinct, BARNEY MILLER was a quirky character comedy revolving around the detectives and the nutcases that walked through their door (most in handcuffs).
It was created by Danny Arnold who was a true character. Brilliant, unpredictable (a nice term for bi-polar), demanding, and kind, Danny was an A-list show runner and a type-A+ personally. The man had a heart attack on the treadmill in his doctor’s office getting his heart checked. He had an oxygen tent installed on the BARNEY set so he could keep going during demanding shooting nights (which lasted routinely until 5 in the morning because of all the pick-ups he wanted). The results were fabulous but what a cost.
When David and I were starting out BARNEY MILLER was just starting to take off. It was one of the show we really wanted to write for. We had sold a couple of things and were making the freelance rounds. Our agent called with the good news that Danny had read our material and loved it. He wanted a meeting.
That meeting was one of the best EVER. We walked into his office and there was the nicest, most ebullient cigar-chomping uncle you’ve ever met. He was effusive in his praise. We couldn’t have been more excited. It was like the prettiest girl in school let you eat at her lunch table.
He invited us to come back with some story ideas and very much looked forward to working with us. A week later we were back in his office with our notions.
I noticed a bit of change right at the start. He was a little more gruff. Probably just the result of a long day. We started pitching and every idea was met with, “NO!!” “FUCK! ARE YOU KIDDING?” “JESUS, HAVE YOU EVER WATCHED OUR SHOW?” Needless to say we were shaken. After he had rejected all of them we started out and just before getting to the door he said, almost as an afterthought, “That Yamada gambling thing. I don’t think there’s anything there but if you want to develop it more you can.” Not exactly a sale.
But we went home and decided to develop it anyway. We wanted to show him that if nothing else we weren’t intimidated by him… although we sure as hell were.
We turned in an outline. He bought it. Had us in for notes and was very complimentary. We implemented his changes and turned in the revised outline.
He cut us off.
Well, we figured, so much for BARNEY MILLER. At least we got outline money.
Two weeks later I get a call from Danny’s assistant. Could we be in his office tomorrow at 8:30? Swell, I thought, he wants to chew us out again.
But we go and it’s the happy ingratiating Danny. “Boys! Come on in. You want a doughnut? How was your weekend?” He had read over our outline again and decided it was terrific. He had just a few tweaks. We were told to dash off a revised outline and then we’d go to work on the draft.
Two days later we delivered the new outline. And the following day…
He cut us off.
It just didn’t “jump off the page” for him. But he paid us for a second outline.
Elements of those outlines appeared in future shows but what the hell? He did pay us.
We never did a BARNEY MILLER assignment but a few years later when we were head writers of MASH he called and asked if we wanted to be his showrunners for the upcoming season. We chose to stay with MASH.
The guys who did take the job worked a million hours a week, learned a hell of a lot, got paid a fortune, and Danny gave them Rolls Royces… which they used to drive themselves to Cedar-Sinai hospital.
I wish some cable channel – any cable channel – would show BARNEY MILLER. If you’ve never seen it, it’s a treat.