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Now more than ever: "HEY! Let's Be Careful Out There!" - Blather. Rants. Repeat.
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captainsblog
captainsblog
Now more than ever: "HEY! Let's Be Careful Out There!"

On January 15, 1981, five days before Ronald Reagan's inauguration- an event I viewed at the time with almost as much trepidation as what lies ahead this week- a weekly drama premiered on the then low-rated NBC network. I didn't begin watching until probably later in 1981, but Hill Street Blues changed the hourlong cop show, and eventually the entire concept of televised drama. There was no named Star: no Rockford, no Ironside, no Cannon or Mannix. For the first time, it was an ensemble, of mostly unknown actors; I'd only heard of one, Ed Marinaro, and that only because he'd been a football star at Cornell a few years before my time there. The show put women and people of color into strong, equal roles.

The creator, Steven Bochco, was New York born but had been in LA for years, writing for many of those Star Cop/Detective shows for Universal in the 70s.   But he connected with the gritty, Rust Belt atmosphere of the unnamed Everycity the show was set in. Just as improbably, it was a pair better known for comedy- Mary Tyler Moore's studio, and her former husband Grant Tinker who was then rescuing NBC from late 70s disasters like Supertrain- who gave this concept a place to film and a home to be seen.  Despite early low ratings, the network stuck with it, and it was a staple of my first years in Buffalo, watching it for its finer police-procedural points, but also because several of the writers and producers had Western New York backgrounds and would work in distinctly B-lo street and place names into the episodes- "Hertel," "Ferry," "Memorial Auditorium" and even bars like Cole's and Mulligan's got name-checked.

The cast stayed remarkably coherent for most of its run- with one sad exception. Michael Conrad, second-billed and probably the best-known actor in the ensemble from years of supporting roles, died during the filming of the show's fourth (third full) season.  He was replaced for the rest of the run by Robert Prosky- just as tough and just as Polish in character, but never the same kind heart in the squad room.  Phil's tagline at the end of every roll call- "Hey! Let's be careful out there!"- yielded to Stan's somewhat scary-in-hindsight "Let's do it to them before they do it to us!"

Few of the lead actors moved on to film or even bigger shows after their seven years on the Street, but several wound up on the other side of the camera- Betty Thomas, who played Sergeant Bates, has directed numerous films, and Charles "Renko" Haid is a regular tv director including of many more recent police procedurals.  Of the recurring characters, probably the most famous was Jeffrey Tambor's rise from a sleazy lawyer/judge to Arrested Development and Transparent.  But the one who's likely made the most millions is the one I have always loved and associated with the show more than anybody probably ever does.

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My favorite recurring character who I doubt anybody else remembers was played by Dennis Dugan, an underrated character actor who did a few M*A*S*H episodes but on Hill Street played a somewhat psychotic "superhero" (in his own mind) named Captain Freedom. He'd introduce himself with his own ta-duh-duh-DAA! entrance: "Captain Freedom! The earth quakes, and bad men wet their pants!"

Before that, he'd also done a few guests on Rockford Files, and even got to star in a short-lived spinoff of that show called Richie Brockelman, Private Eye. Bochco and crew also put him in a later PI series of theirs called Hooperman. He's since gone to the other side of the camera, partnering with Adam Sandler for some movies that are probably funny if you're not an old geezer like me.

His closing scene as the Captain is included on this Variety piece and might, or might not, embed below:




(Thanks to fellow EMHS alum and Facebook friend Howie Weinstein for marking today's anniversary and reminding me of this:)

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