Saturday, October 02, 2021

Weekend Post

 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 detectives’ 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.

BARNEY MILLER is back, on some retro cable channels, DVD's, and downloading  If you’ve never seen it, it’s a treat.

49 comments :

Ray Morton said...

It's been running on FETV every night at 9 in the L.A. area and I recently rewatched the entire series from beginning to end. What a brilliantly written and wonderfully acted show. So smart, so real, so human, so humane. Undoubtedly one of the best sitcoms of all time.

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

"Barney Miller"--one of the very few sitcoms I can think of that maintained its quality through the last episode and did not overstay its welcome.

Wm. Adams said...

One of my all-time favorite comedies, filled with great characters. Each episode was like a small stage production. Plus one of the best theme songs ever.

iamr4man said...

Many years ago I read a story in which Abe Vigoda said that after he was in The Godfather he would be walking in New York and get stopped by cops who knew his face as a gangster but didn’t realize it was from the movie. He said he completely understood, but did find it to be an annoyance. After Barney Miller was on cops would see him and call out “Fish!”

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Carroll Pratt, who sweetened the live audience for BARNEY MILLER, said that it was a difficult show to work on because of producer problems; he didn't go into a lot of details when asked, but when he described working on that show, he said it was difficult to do your job and be diplomatic in a rather hostile environment.

MHSweb79 said...

The best part about Barney Miller was that each episode took place almost entirely on the squad room set. And, other than the jail the cell, it looked like an actual, real-life dingy squad room (unlike today’s procedurals). So when Wojo or Harris came back from a harrowing or comic call, you had to use your imagination as they described what happened, which only enhanced the experience. Genius

John H said...

Thank you for this post Ken. I don't use the term great very often because I feel it is overused. Barney Miller is still a great show.

Pat Reeder said...

When I was in college, one of my professors encouraged me to enter the Danny Arnold student scriptwriting competition. I'd never heard of this and it was so close to the deadline that I had only a few days to get a script written and entered. Fortunately, I knew and liked "Barney Miller," so I wrote a spec for that. I didn't win, but I did get a very nice personal note from him, telling me that he liked the premise and could see that being on the show and suggesting a couple of changes to improve other things. That was nearly as good as winning to me.

Lemuel said...

One of my favorite exchanges:
NICK Hey, us Japanese have a lot if willpower. We eat raw fish.
HARRIS But you like it!
NICK No we don't.

John in NW Ohio said...

Great ensemble cast. Jack Soo was underrated. They didn't go overboard with character development-driven drama like some long-running shows do. Just a little mixed in for interest. Barbara Barrie was underutilized, and Gregory Sierra's overacting was annoying, but all in all, a standout show. I agree that it should be mentioned in the best-of-all-time group.

Buttermilk Sky said...

My favorite exchange:
Dietrich: Do you ever miss the terraced hillsides of your homeland?
Yemana: I was born in Omaha.
Dietrich: Hey, we've got a city in Nebraska with that name!

My favorite episode: Chano has to kill two bank robbers who have taken hostages. Then he has to cope with being hailed as a hero.

A funny, humane show.

VincentS said...

Wow! I'm watching it right now. It's on almost every day on Antenna TV. You wrote a BARNEY MILLER posting before and it rejuvenated my interest in the show and I never thanked you so THANK YOU!

Jim said...

I talked a while with Hal Linden on a shooting site a couple of years ago, still performing at 85. Wish I had seen this post before that. He must have had wild stories about Danny Arnold.

Tom Reeder said...

Pitching to Danny was always a challenge. One time he multi-tasked by having me come to his office and pitch while a barber was cutting his hair. Another time, we were in Chris Hayward's office. I was earnestly pitching when Chris gestured in the direction of Danny, who was seated on a couch. I looked over; Danny was asleep. Chris indicated that we should leave the room. As we started to tiptoe out, Danny jerked awake and started berating us: "You %#*+#! were going to leave me asleep with a lit cigar in my mouth!?" After some more expletives, the pitch session was called off for the day.

Michael said...

I second Buttermilk Sky. That may have been the all-time classic exchange. Jack Soo was a genius, and I've always thought one of the greatest episodes of any TV show ever was when they left character to do the tribute to him.

I still watch it and love it. Sometimes it pings me the wrong way--they did a lot more jokes about spousal abuse in the 1970s. But it holds up so well and is such brilliant character comedy--they are funny, but of course each of them is funny in a different way.

A couple of other things:

--I read a profile once that said Danny Arnold lived in each character. He tried to solve other people's problems. He always complained about his wife but couldn't function without her. He loved to gamble. He loved to dress well. Hm. They all sound familiar.

--There once was a survey that asked cops who were the most realistic TV cops. Half of them chose Sipowicz (a reminder of Dennis Franz's genius). A quarter said Briscoe (a reminder of Jerry Orbach's genius). Ten percent said Fish!

--A word for the brilliant James Gregory. My grandfather was in the NYPD, 1927-47. He would talk about the good old days of beating up suspects. One day I commented to my mother, his daughter, that Luger reminded me of him. She was not amused.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Danny Arnold was also showrunner for the superb first season of "Bewitched."

Baba O'Reilly said...

I feel the poor tape quality of "Barney Miller" will doom this fine show to obscurity. Previously there were reenactments of 2 old sitcoms done live. I wish they would consider an episode of Barney just to highlight the great writing of the show.

Mike Bloodworth said...

"Barney Miller" is one of my favorite sitcoms. I'll watch it whenever I know it's on.

"Hash" has got to be one of the all time funniest episodes of any sitcom.

There were times when the squad room did feel a little claustrophobic. Yet the episodes shot outside (e.g. Wojo's apartment) seemed oddly incongruous.

One of the few complaints is that they had a relatively small rep company. A guest actor would enter. You think he or she is the character they played previously, but it's a different character. While they were generally good actors they did very little to distinguish one character from another. And I can't believe that they were the only "New York types" available. At times it could be very confusing.

This is applicable to yesterday's F.Q.s. about directing actors that aren't the focus of a scene, but are still in the room. They couldn't just stop what they were doing. They must be pantomiming some action for the sake of the live audience. Ken, maybe you should revisit that question and give us a more detailed answer.

M.B.

Tommy Raiko said...

A friend's uncle was a retired New York police officer and was one of those who claimed Barney Miller as the most realistic TV show about cops.

The show was filled with so many favorite droll exchanges. But one of my all-time favorite bits was from an early episode "The Hero." Chano was called to a bank robbery and wound up shooting and killing the two robbers. He's conflicted about having killed them, even as he knows he did his job. Later, Barney visits him at home, and there's not a lot Barney can say to help Chano feel better.

Leaving, Barney says, "Did you ever wonder why the sperm whale, which is the largest mammal on the face of the earth, has a throat about that size?" Chano is taken aback by the non-sequitur, and Barney tells him "Because that's the way it is. And there ain't anything you can do about it." Barney leaves, and Chano breaks down crying,

Nope, they don't make 'em like that anymore...

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

-A word for the brilliant James Gregory. My grandfather was in the NYPD, 1927-47. He would talk about the good old days of beating up suspects. One day I commented to my mother, his daughter, that Luger reminded me of him. She was not amused.

I loved Inspector Lugar. When Harris made his porno movie-- "Thank you, Black Stallion" HARRIS! Well, Hitchcock did it!-- and Lugar's complimentary review, "You got stuff in there that would gag a maggot." Another great recurring character and actor, George Murdock as Lt Scanlon.

I think Arthur Dietrich deserves mention as one of the great late(r) additions to any sitcom. Landesberg was a hoot.

Lorimartian said...

OT: I re-watched the feature film version of "Requiem for a Heavyweight" for at least the third time and was reminded again of the simply perfect screenplay by the brilliant Rod Serling. Interactions take place that by a lazier writer would come across as manufactured coincidences, there's something in each scene that moves the story, and not a word of dialogue is wasted. There is much at stake for the central characters that gives the viewer a strong emotional rooting interest. Simply perfect, IMHO.

Jim S said...

Interesting thing about the show. If I recall correctly, Arnold financed the whole thing himself, no finance from a studio. It had to be a hit or he was up the financial creek. But it was a success and had a strong syndication run 40 years ago. All that syndication money was his. He bet big and won big.

To this day, Thursdays at 9 p.m. is Barney Miller time. (Also the time for all the shows advertised on SCTV.)

Peter said...

Funny, I just never enjoyed "Barney Miller." It was one of those "almosts," along with "Wings" and "Night Court." To me, the characters were fairly flat, and the show was (and I haven't seen it for decades, so pardon me if I am off), one of those with the setup, character walks on, delivers one-liner and walks off. "Taxi" is one of those that I think worked consistently well--sometimes brilliantly.

I much prefer the shows you were so associated with: "MASH," "Cheers," and "Frasier."

Just my opinion--I wanted to like all of those shows, and sometimes I found them quite entertaining, but I didn't really connect.

Ere I Saw Elba said...

I was called in for jury duty a few years ago (fortunately didn't get selected for the trial) and was not surprised to see how much the everyday legal system resembles BARNEY MILLER and NIGHT COURT.

I think I learned as much about the law from these shows as I have learned about medicine from MASH.

Randy @ WCG Comics said...

Have great memories watching Barney Miller, especially as I was born and raised in NYC, and was in my teens when the show aired, though by the end of the decade my family moved to California.

In the mid-199os, my now wife and I vacationed in NY. Upon arrival, my wife left her purse--along with her ID and about $200 cash--in the cab. The one silver lining of this was when we visited a police station in the middle of the city to report it, the police station looked like a time capsule, straight out of Barney Miller! We never did get her wallet back, but fortunately it did not really impact our vacation or fun. Fortunately, this was before 9/11, though and we've wondered how she could have taken the return flight home without an ID post-9/11. (But it did teach me to separately pack photocopies of our IDs and extra credit cards in case of such a loss or theft when we go on vadcation!)

RichRocker said...

Barney Miller was one of my favorite sitcoms growing up in the 1970s. I watched it every week and thought it was just brilliant. Then when I went to film school in the mid-80s, our screenwriting instructor turned out to be a writer from Barney Miller's final season. He taught me all the fundamentals and foundations of screenwriting that I use today. What sucks is that I don't remember his name. But I owe that man a lot.

Tracy Carman said...

Barney Miller was a take-it or leave-it show in my opinion. You either loved it or hated it. To me, the funniest scene in an episode was where a couple were robbed and at the precinct filing a report. The wife's talking about how on television all they see is singing and dancing about the hotels and the city (referencing "The Lullaby of Broadway" commercials for the now-defunct Milford Plaza). Paraphrased, she talks about how wonderful it all looks but that they don't mention the robberies and so on. Abe Vigoda's "Fish" character deadpan responds "they only have sixty seconds." Comic genius!

Jason Gracey said...

That bassline was always a must for aspiring musicians to learn. It makes no sense but works like nothing else.

stephen catron said...

After they realized no one cared about Barney's home life and focused the show on the cops the show became brilliant. So funny.

Mike Doran said...

A while back on General Hospital, 'Mike Corbin', a character suffering from Alzheimer's, was given a gift of a DVD set of his favorite TV show: Barney Miller!
'Mike Corbin' was played by Max Gail, who was on his way to his second Daytime Emmy Award for playing this role.
The character has since passed on (although GH characters often have on-camera afterlives), but Max Gail's career continues apace, as does his avocation as an activist and producer.
Alongside Hal Linden, Max Gail is one of the Last Ones Standing from Barney Miller.
Just so you know ...

Kendall Rivers said...

Barney Miller is just one of those gems that never goes out of style. It's still so timeless and hilariously funny as well as poignant 40 some years later which is more than we can say for most shows from any decade. I personally think had Barney Miller come out today with the exact same actors, writing, storytelling, pace etc. It'd put all these other sitcoms or cop shows to shame, that's how perfect it was. It's also one of the very few shows that never jumped the shark and got better with every season, which is probably because the show got really good in season 3 then just kept improving, especially because of the brilliant additions of Dietrich, Luger and Leavitt. The only other shows that I can think of that only got better and never jumped the shark are Everybody Loves Raymond, The Middle, WKRP in Cincinatti and The Steve Harvey Show. Here's a Friday question for ya BM related: If they did a live show for Barney Miller like they did with the Norman Lear shows back in 2019, who would you cast in the roles? Or is there any group of actors today even half as brilliant and talented as the ensemble they had on that show?

Jeff Boice said...

Barney Miller was a favorite of ours. I didn't know it at the time, but it correctly showed how in so many jobs workers spend a good deal of time updating paperwork-all on typewriters. If anything, computers have made the situation worse.

Ken, I noticed that in March 1978, CBS did a week long series of specials commemorating the network's 50th anniversary. The Tuesday Night special was hosted by Alan Alda, Garry Moore, and Phil Silvers. The shows have never been released, although the Paley Center has everything. What do you remember about CBS: On the Air?

Greg Ehrbar said...

Our family loved "Barney Miller" and quoted it constantly. Great writing and impeccable ensemble acting. Hal Linden in particular is not recognized enough for stepping back and not playing "Mister Star," allowing everyone an equal chance to shine.

HARRIS: By the way that I feel --
YEMANA (singing): "And by the way that I feel..." (from Brigadoon)

HARRIS: "I've got something you don't have. Credit. I can sign my name... with dignity."

My mom punctuated a comment with "Big deal. Cookies."

@Jeff Boice: This was my favorite segment of the CBS weeklong special, when Dick Van Dyke danced with animated Peanuts characters. Sure the week was CBS congratulating itself, but we loved the shows along with them. Sure beats the current trend of dissecting classic "content," putting it on slides and looking at it like helpless creatures in sterile laboratories.

I will now leave the room and close the door, Loretta Young-style, like Ron Carey as Levitt.

Greg Ehrbar said...

The Dick Van Dyke / Peanuts segment:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JWYXJQEw9n8

Michael said...

If I remember it correctly, Luger once was lamenting what happened to Foster, Kleiner, and Brownie, and referred to Brownie as "in that nursing home, laying there like a carrot." It was so incongruous that I got hysterical.

Before he played Scanlon, George Murdock was an army recruiting officer whose office got a bomb threat and had just a bit of an issue with having to deal with a Japanese detective, and said detective got fed up with him. He asks, what could motivate someone to blow up a United States military installation and Jack Soo leaned forward and with great innocence said, "Nostalgia?"

Cute: In the final episode, when Barney makes deputy inspector, it's Scanlon who tells him, and his last line is lamenting that he was the one to tell him.

Wayne said...

Is it true that Danny Arnold was once a writer for Martin and Lewis and with them on a golf course, when Jerry wanted to pull a stunt to prove he was a better golfer than Dean and asked Danny Arnold to lie down on the ground and put a golf ball on his lips. Jerry issued a challenge to Dean. Which one is us can smack the ball the furthest. Dino wouldn't bite. So Jerry said I'll take the forfeit. But then says wait. Forfeit is the worst way to win. And he proceeds to swing and smack Danny Arnold in the head. If that story is true, might it not explain Danny's erratic behavior?

memocartoonist said...

Max Gail as Mike Corbin was really a stunning piece of acting - he acted the hell out of a redemption arc of deadbeat dad while in the twilight of his life and battling Alzheimers.

I have had someone in my life who is very important to me and she's been going through it since 2013 so I could really relate to much of the story.

Anyway, when I first heard Max Gail was going to play this character, I thought, "Max Gail..the guy from Barney Miller??" but after seeing him do what he did, I happily admit that I was wrong to dismiss him. Now, whenever I hear his name, it's "wow!! Max Gail!" :)

Peter said...

I posted above, saying I thought Barney Miller was marred by flat characters and formulaic scripting. But I also read every comment. So, I went and screened an episode on Crackle. The rest of you were right, and I was dead wrong, I am happy to report. I will be adding Barney Miller to my must-see list. I apologize to the great writers, cast, and everyone associated with the show.

Mark said...

Someone above mentioned that Danny Arnold was the showrunner of the first, superior season of “Bewitched”. That season is really a well-done romantic comedy with some witchcraft, as opposed to the gimmicky and formulaic show it would become. And they got rid of him, presumably because of behind-the-scenes issues. It certainly couldn’t have been due to quality, or ratings, because it was the best and highest rated season of the entire series.

Brian Phillips said...

Journalist Dan Savage said that his Father, an ex-policeman, thought that Barney Miller was the most realistic cop show on TV. No constant life-threatening situations, just a bunch of folks trying to get through another day of fairly mundane work.

By the way, two of the recurring roles were taken by Linda Lavin, who went on to "Alice", numerous guest appearances and stage work and June Gable, who played a Latina on the show, but ended up as Joey Tribbiani's seen-it-all agent Estelle on Friends as well as a nurse for one episode.

NO arguments about the quality of the show and also, I appreciated the fact that the cast reflected some of the diversity of New York City in the show. Jack Soo said that he had to turn down a lot of stereotypical roles, but Yemana was a great role for him and a wonderful coda to his career.

Jeff Boice said...

Greg Ehrbar:

Thanks for pointing out the clip.

McTom said...

Future FQ? Barney Miller told great stories while being 99% anchored to the primary squad room set, Barney's office included. The Honeymooners is the prime example, but what other great sitcoms made do with such limited settings?

Mark said...

Peter (commenter from 10/3): you win the internet. Thanks for being willing & able to reconsider a previous position based on input. Don’t see that in comment threads very often.... :-)

Jon said...

A quote from Danny Arnold I found online, concerning his decision to do BARNEY MILLER on tape rather than film: "We're putting it on tape rather than film because tape forces you to focus on the characters and on the script."

Make of that what you will. I know the networks loved tape back then because it was cheaper than film.

I never saw BARNEY MILLER until it turned up in reruns after its network run. In prime-time it was on opposite (first) THE WALTONS and (later) HAWAII FIVE O, and there was no way my folks were going to miss either of those.

All I remember about that week of CBS 50 Anniversary specials back in 1978 is that it gave ny mother seven days to do something she loved to do with aging personalities, which was to sit there and comment, over and over and over, "Oh, doesn't he/she look so OLD!"

John Schrank said...

Hal Linden told what I think should go in the Show Business Anecdotes Hall of Fame when he appeared with Gilbert Gottfried and Frank Santopadre on their podcast. Gilbert and Frank wanted to know a little bit about how real-life police officers reacted to the series. Hal told about a time he was in New York to appear at a charity event, and had trouble getting a cab. He was standing out in front of his hotel in a tuxedo, when a squad car pulled up. "Captain!" said the officers. "What can we do for you?" "I'm supposed to be at the St. James Theatre in five minutes," said Linden. "Get in," said the cops, and with the sirens blaring, they took him where he needed to go

Brother Herbert said...

There's interviews with cast members available on YouTube, in particular ones produced by the Archive of American Television. In fact just yesterday I watched one where Hal Linden explained how and why BM over time stopped taping in front of live audiences. Also saw one with lighting director George Spiro Dibie on how he lit BM differently from other contemporary comedies and the ingenious way he got around network and affiliate resistance.

I believe Dennis Farina, who was a cop before establishing himself as an actor, agreed that BM was the most realistic cop show on TV.

Tom Quigley said...

My favorite exchange between Barney and Yamada over the man in the holding cell who thinks he's turning into a werewolf (played brilliantly by Kenneth Tigar):

YAMADA: I think he just sprouted some hair on his face.

BARNEY: It's called a beard. haven't you ever seen one before?

YAMADA: Not in my family.

scottmc said...

The DECADES channel just aired an episode of THE MILLIONAIRE that was written by Danny Arnold. It appears that he wrote two episodes in the series.

Kendall Rivers said...

@McTom I'd say WKRP, The Jeffersons and Everybody Loves Raymond were all definitely one set shows 90 percent of the time.