These days, TV’s men in blue take themselves pretty seriously. Their investigations play out like clockwork, their fine suits and haircuts don’t look like those of regular cops, and you can usually count on two age-range paradigms: either a grizzled old vets, or strapping hunks that, in terms of cop skills, still have a lot to learn. Barney Miller was a sitcom that wasn’t going for style. Captain Miller’s crew—diverse in age, ethnicity, and personality quirks—always looked a little disheveled, they never seemed to leave the grimy 12th Precinct station house, and their cases weren’t what you’d call riveting. The show prioritized laughs way before reality, but get this—legions of real-life policemen are still known to refer to it as the cop show most true-to-life. Out of the casualness, then, came unexpected realism.
But enough about comparative authenticity—let’s get to the fun stuff. Captain Barney Miller was the leader, and the straight man to his men. Some of the regulars were Nick Yemana, who was known for making horrible coffee and occasionally eating his lunch with a pencil as one of his chopsticks; Stanley “Wojo” Wojohowicz, who was jumpy and the victim of endless Pollack jokes; suave Ron Harris, ambitious and worldly; Chano Amenguale, who would get to talking so fast that his English turned into Spanish without a discernible transition point; Officer Levitt, who desperately wanted to be promoted to detective but was too diminutive in size; and the notorious Phil Fish (the longest of long faces, Abe Vigoda himself) who was as sarcastic as he was close to constant collapse—be it from too many years on the force or general world-weariness or the horrible news, in one episode, that the station house toilet was out of commission. Though their descriptions on paper paint them like caricatures, they really weren’t—these guys’ quirks didn’t feel like shtick, they felt like the stuff of regular people. And for a sitcom, that’s something pretty rare.
Besides the menagerie of detectives, a colorful troop of hookers, crazies, petty criminals, even a werewolf/mind reader also paraded through this Greenwich Village precinct. The cases that crossed the desks were handled with a combination of competence and bumble, to Captain Miller’s frequent exasperation, and the bumbling was of course the most sublime to watch…such as the day a bunch of the detectives tore through a bag of brownies that turned out to be evidence in a recent drug bust, and proceeded to have what must have been the oddest and most pleasant workday of their careers.
Abe Vigoda’s deadbeat Fish character was so popular that he starred in his own spin-off series in 1977. Fish lasted just a year, but the fact that a character as passive and defeated as Fish could support a show at all is testament to his charm. When actor Jack Soo died in 1979, there was a fondly remembered on-camera tribute in which the cast raised their coffee cups, the cups that Yemana would no longer be able to fill with his patented awful-tasting brew. There may not be desk jockeys this well-loved anywhere.
When ratings waned and the end of the show’s run was in sight, writers concocted a finale wherein an old antique gun was found in the Precinct—which was believed to have belonged to Teddy Roosevelt when he ran the Big Apple’s police board in the 1890’s. The broken-down old building (which had become practically a character in the show) was declared a historical landmark, Barney and Levitt were promoted, and the rest of the boys went to Precincts elsewhere—a fittingly quirky way to end a fittingly quirky show.
USA / ABC – Four D / 168×25 minute episodes 1×50 minute episode / Pilot: 22 Aug 1974 Broadcast 23 January 1975 – 9 September 1982
Creators: Danny Arnold, Theodore J. Flicker / Executive Producers: Danny Arnold, Roland Kibbee
Hal Linden as Captain Barney Miller
Abe Vigoda as Detective Phil Fish (1975-77)
Gregory Sierra as Detective Sergeant Chano Amenguale (1975-76)
Maxwell Gail as Detective Stanley “Wojo” Wojohowicz
Jack Soo as Detective Nick Yemana (1975-78)
Ron Glass as Detective Ron Harris
Abby Dalton as Elizabeth Miller (pilot only)
Barbara Barrie as Elizabeth Miller (1975-76)
Anne Wyndham as Rachael Miller (1975)
Michael Tessier as David Miller (1975)
Florence Stanley as Bernice Fish (1975-77)
Linda Lavin as Detective Janice Wentworth (1975-76)
James Gregory as Inspector Frank Luger
Ron Carey as Officer Carl Levitt (1976-82)
June Gable as Detective Baptista (1976-77)
Steve Landesberg as Detective Arthur Dietrich (1976-82)
George Murdock as Lieutenant Scanlon (1978-82)