Wednesday, 27 January 2021

The Likeable Denizens of the 12th Precinct

The death of Gregory Sierra a number of days ago got me thinking about what made the TV series Barney Miller so popular. It boils down to the strong personalities on the show.

Some of the characters were comic, others not so much. But they were well-defined. Whenever new secondary players were added to the show along the way—Inspector Luger, Dietrich, Officer Levitt—all of them were well-defined with very different personalities.

Of course, writing and acting play a major role.

Here are a couple of different newspaper pieces. The first one, from May 24, 1975, is a critique of the show.

Barney Miller crew roles all likeable, well played

Gannett News Service
WASHINGTON—"What happens when you a police story with a situation comedy and then throw in a little bit of family life?” asks an ABC press release on “Barney Miller.”
A mess is what TV impresarios usually get when they throw together a chunk of this, a piece of that, and a borrowing from the other. But "Barney Miller” is good.
Barney Miller is a New York City police captain, an intelligent, good-humored, compassionate man who runs the 12th Precinct with as light a hand as possible. His wife is a comparatively unflappable woman with a wry outlook on life a wry outlook being a handy thing for a woman in her position to have; after all, the hazards of her husband’s trade are exceptional and potentially lethal.
Mrs. Miller doesn’t really play a dominant part in the proceedings, since it’s at the office where the action is. But whenever she turns up, she’s welcome: Barbara Barrie plays her and has a nice way with a rueful line.
The men of the 12th Precinct include a cop named Fish, an oldtimer who's afraid he can’t keep up anymore and ought to retire; Chano, the precinct’s undercover man, a Puerto Rican who keeps getting emotionally involved with the suspects; Wojehowicz, a puritanical youngster who can be made to realize his moral focus may be a bit too narrow; Harris, a black who works at being crisply sophisticated; and Yemana, an Oriental who tends to be philosophical in a simplistic Blue Plate Special way.
The most notable thing about the Barney Miller crew is that they are all likeably, they’re fun to be with. And, curiously enough for a police series, the show has charm. It reminds me a bit of — of all things — "The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
If the central characters are almost invariably affable, there is a sufficency of acid and abrasiveness in "Barney Miller” provided by the folks who drift in and out of headquarters: a haughty escape artist who has broken out of prison five times, an arsonist who moonlights as a flamenco dancer, an effete purse snatcher who sneeringly tells his victim her taste in accessories is atrocious, etc, etc.
On "Barney Miller” they get with away confrontations that come dangerously close to crossing the line and falling into the saccharine sea, as when the gaudiest of pimps agrees to strike therapeutic terror into the heart of an 8-year-old black culprit by telling him what it’s like to find yourself hauled up before the notorious “Judge Meanie.” Of course, they have promised the pimp they’ll try to go easy on him if he’s successful in his missionary work; there’s usually a common-sensical base to the more heart-warming flights in “Barney Miller.
The criminals Barney Miller and his associates deal with are no doubt considerably less brutal than some of the specimens real-life New York detectives meet up with, but the other night the series considered a situation of extreme violence. Chano returns to the precinct with a bad case of nerves; he has shot and killed a couple of bank robbers. He goes to the movies to "get his mind off”; the picture is "Dirty Harry.”
The other men talk about how many guys get killed in cop shows. Barney Miller drops in at Chano’s place to say a consoling word. He can’t think of any. The men shrug helplessly; that’s the way it is.
Moving and effective, this brief episode, meatier than a lot of more grandiose television productions, is beautifully acted by Hal Linden as Miller and Gregory Sierra as Chano.
All the roles on “Barney Miller" are well-played: Abe Vigoda is the aging Detective Fish. Max Gail is Wojehowicz, Ron Glass is Harris, Jack Soo is Yemana.

Back when the show was still new running new episodes, a number of papers ran stories where cops were interviewed about cop shows. Barney Miller came up in this story in the Yonkers Herald Statesman, June 18, 1978.

The badge goes to Barney Miller

Staff Writer
If the Yonkers Police Department were to present its own Emmy Awards this year, police shows would not rate highly on the list.
But if you narrowed the field down to the police shows most favored by Yonkers' finest, "Barney Miller" is a sure-fire win, with "Police Story" running a close second.
In an informal survey of Yonkers police, none of the officers were too enthusiastic about lauding television's offerings of police shows but many acknowledged that some of the shows were "interesting" and "close to the truth."
Such shows as "Baretta," "Starsky and Hutch," "Police Woman" and "Charlie's Angels" were cited as "ridiculous" and distortions of a police officer's work, though some officers secretly admitted that they enjoyed watching them. Most laughed at the shows and criticized them for their overdramatization and violence. "Baretta rides the hood of a car every week." said Keith O'Brien, an oificer in the South Command.
"Every show they shoot somebody," said Sgt. Thomas Reese. "They add more action to it than there is in reality."
"Any detective that goes around with a parakeet on his neck, you tell me if he's playing with a full deck," said Anti-Crime Officer Robert Rofrano, referring to "Baretta."
Instead, the officers said they preferred watching what they called "realistic" shows. "Barney Miller," a TV-comedy, about a detective squad in New York City, rated highly upon the list of most officers, especially those in Yonkers' own detectives division.
"Barney Miller is more true as a police story than any other," Detective Thomas Powrie said. Many of Yonkers' detectives said they enjoyed "Barney Miller" because it reminded them of a squad room closer to home.
Many officers on patrol said they enjoy "Police Story," a chronicle of true-to-life police tales that was also described as "realistic."
"That's about the closest story (to the truth) there is," Officer Timothy McGrath said.
But most officers said they avoid watching police shows on television, hoping for a change of pace after eight hours on the job.
Many said they felt the shows seriously damage the public's view of police officers and raise the public's expectations about the duties of cops.
"For the people in the street, they don't understand we can't do all that," Officer McGrath said.
"People want everything done in 60 minutes," Detectives Powrie said. "Meanwhile, the cops on television break the law more than the criminals they're going after. If we ever did the things they do, we'd be in jail."
The show lasted eight seasons and is still in reruns today. Barner Miller may have shut off the lights for the final time in 1982 but, to fans, the 12th Precinct has never closed.


  1. Between "Bewitched" and "Barney Miller", Danny Arnold did two of the best jobs effort of surrounding the stars of his shows with memorable supporting characters (Gladys Kravits would have made a great visitor to the 12th Precinct to file a police complaint). It was also interesting a couple of weeks ago to see the show's original pilot posted on YouTube (and quickly taken down), with only Hal Linden and Abe Vigoda in their regular roles. The episode would be reworked for Season 1, but the absence of Sierra, Max Gail and Jack Soo does take a lot away from the original version (even though Gail's substitute, Charles Haid, would later find success as a police officer in a slightly dysfunctional precinct on "Hill Street Blues").

    1. JL, I never thought of that. Alice Pearce was good. Actually, having her and George Tobias there would have been very funny.

  2. I had completely missed Sierra's passing. We are losing performers so quickly, it's hard to keep count. " Barney Miller " was a great ride with a wonderful ensemble cast and smart writing. Hal Linden had said in an interview that " Barney Miller " like " The Mary Tyler Moore Show " and a few others, stopped while they were ahead. That's always a wise path.

  3. When I was in high school in 1976, a policeman was invited to visit our social studies class. He did a Q&A at the end of his visit, and someone asked him what he thought was the most realistic cop show on TV. We expected him to say "Adam-12" or "The Rookies" and were completely floored when he answered, "Barney Miller." (I was floored, too, and I liked the show.)