By David Weiner
“Let’s be careful out there…” Those five words were a staple of HILL STREET BLUES, the classic ’80s cop series that changed the way dramatic television was filmed and set the bar for small-screen characterization and episodic storytelling.
Despite having burned out on “cop shows” early on in the days following T.J. HOOKER, I watched every episode of HILL STREET BLUES when it first aired on TV. It was a consistent staple of my week, tuning in every Thursday night at 10 p.m. to watch the “roll call” and listen to Mike Post’s oddly comforting piano-based theme song.
As I was in my early teens, HILL STREET BLUES represented the first “grown-up” show that I truly appreciated and became immersed with. It also engaged me as the first non-episodic series I watched that contained an extended throughline with its characters, a writing style that is mostly taken for granted today.
Back in my ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT days, when the complete series debuted on DVD, Shout! Factory connected me with two of the show’s stars — Charles Haid and James B. Sikking – to talk about the series and the fan in me couldn’t be more thrilled. They were happy to reminisce about their time on the program and its cultural impact.
“We changed television — the way it was done, the way the camera was moved, the way it was gritty,” explained Sikking, who played pretentious, uptight S.W.A.T. leader Lt. Howard Hunter. “It was a show about not just policemen, but that the police experience was a human experience.”
“The show had universal themes,” added Haid, who played the contentious, loyal, often-complaining street cop Renko. “It was a miracle at the time, just the synergy of the right people at the right time at the right place, it created and started a whole [movement] in [the television] business, so it has its place in history and I’m proud to be a part of it.”
Created by Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll, the Emmy-winning HILL STREET BLUES ran on NBC for seven seasons between 1981-1987 and featured a large ensemble cast of characters inhabiting a Chicago police station in the worst part of town. From the street gangs, junkies and prostitutes to the beat cops, undercover detectives and administrators of Hill Street Station, the show’s myriad storylines deftly balanced the crime, power-struggles and politics of the setting with the very human emotions that were affected by the ebb and flow of circumstance.
“If you look at the style of that show – play it forward to NYPD BLUE, play it forward to ER – it came from director Robert Altman, it came from Marty Scorsese, all of those guys. … it was about pace, form, making choices, breaking rules,” recalled Haid, who went on to become an established director himself. “We had great love and affection for one another, we were very creative, it was often bedlam, and it was more serious than a heart attack, which was great.”
Asked if he had fond memories from the set, Sikking replied with a laugh, “A truckload. I mean, it was so much fun. It changed my life, once the audience found it. … I think it represents a major part of my career. It changed my position in show business. I’m happy that it was as joyous and as much fun and well-received, because I know people who have a career based on something that they thought was terrible, and have tried to live down, and that’s not my case; I wish every actor had the joy I had by having a HILL STREET in their life.”
Watch the HILL STREET BLUES 1981 pilot episode intro and theme song:
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