Please don’t protest that YOU haven’t forgotten the show. This world contains 7 billion people, including 320 million Americans, most of whom are younger than you are.
I try to make my posts appropriately somber every September 11, but this year I thought of a lighter one that has some relevance to the day. The credit sequence to the ABC sit-com Barney Miller (1974-1982) is without a doubt the first place I ever saw the image of the World Trade Center. WTC had only just opened its doors to tenants in 1973 — I never even learned its name until 1979. That was on my first trip to New York City, a field trip organized by my high school teacher — very probably the single person who changed my life the most.
New York! I’ve known since I was 13 years old that I was going to move here, lured mostly by Neil Simon movies, and 70s and 80s sit-coms like The Odd Couple, Taxi, and Barney Miller. It appeared to be a gritty place, a place where irritated, world-weary, vaguely ethnic people dealt with frustration and inconvenience by making irresistible wisecracks.
Barney Miller was an especially strange one. Hard on the heels of a whole spate of neo-realistic 70s crime dramas like Serpico and The French Connection, it attempted to make merry in the same milieu, as a ragtag bunch of Lower Manhattan plainclothesmen brought in an endless parade of prostitutes, transvestites, drunks, hippies, flashers, litterbugs, peeping toms, shoplifters, vandals, and other colorful New York street types. The squad room was a smorgasbord of human types (and stereotypes): Fish, an elderly Jew (Abe Vigoda), Wojciehowicz, a dumb Polish guy (Max Gail), Yemana, a deadpan Asian (Jack Soo), Harris, a flashy, funky African American (Ron Glass), Dietrich, an intellectual (Steve Landesberg) and Levitt, a diminutive uniformed cop who aspired to make detective (Ron Carey). The first two seasons also featured Gregory Sierra as Chano, a moody, hot-headed Puerto Rican. They were all led by the patient, seemingly unflappable Captain Barney Miller, played by handsome Broadway star Hal Linden (whose real last name, we never tired of observing, was Lipschitz.)
Every episode, the detectives would bring in a parade of entertaining perps off the streets of New York, conveniently one at a time, so we could hear their snappy, funny New York conversations. There would be occasional moments of seriousness and pathos, always cleaned up neatly (if implausibly by the end of the episode). As a prime time show in the pre-cable age, it never got TOO close to truly troubling or controversial stuff. Thus as crime-ridden as it made New York seem, somehow the crooks came off as kind of lovable. Strung out junkies, knife fights, things like that got downplayed. But even those would have heightened the glamour. New York is a candle, and the millions of us who move here — are moths.
For more on show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc