Hill Street Blues was created by Steven Bochco in 1981. It ran for seven seasons and won over 20 Emmy Awards. But with success came scrutiny, and Hill Street Blues received its fair share. Choosing to be more realistic than competing shows left it in the dark early on.
Once fans discovered the gritty reality of Hill Street Blues, they were hooked. For everything that happened on camera, there were plenty more interesting stories behind it. Here is the true story of Hill Street Blues. You’ll call the cops when you learn which successful director got her start acting here!
Hill Street Blues’ First Season Was A Ratings Disaster
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Premiering in 1981, Hill Street Blues struggled to find an audience. NBC, unsure of how to sell a realistic cop show in primetime, threw it around the schedule. During its first season, Hill Street Blues aired on four different nights, eventually settling in on Thursdays.
Boosted by critical praise and numerous awards (which we’ll get to later) Hill Street Blues stayed on the night shift for its second season. Sirens blaring, the show became a huge success, finishing the year as a top-30 rated program.
The Creators Didn’t Want To Make Another Cop Show
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Created by Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll, Hill Street Blues almost never got made. When NBC approached the veteran television writers with the idea, they didn’t want to do it. Having worked on multiple on cop shows prior, Kozoll and Bochco weren’t interested in a new one.
Then NBC pitched the actual idea. Hill Street Blues was a show about the personal lives of cops, not only their existence on the street. Bochco and Kozoll liked the idea and agreed to do the show if NBC gave them full freedom. NBC approved, and now it’s regarded as one of the most influential shows of all time.
Joe Spano Wanted To Play Renko
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Cast as Lieutenant Henry Goldblume, actor Joe Spano always wished he had played Officer Andrew Renko. He auditioned for the part of Renko, but the precinct had different plans for him.
Spano’s least favorite part of Goldbume was wearing bowties. Speaking with Playboy in 1983, he said he fought Michael Kozoll “all the way” on his character’s fashion preference. Losing the battle turned out to help his performance Spano turned his hate into one of his Goldblume’s traits. Then again, things could have ended quickly if Spano had been Renko.
Renko Originally Died In The Pilot
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Had Joe Spano been cast as Andrew Renko, his time on the series might not have lasted very long. In the original pilot, Renko died. With Charles Haid cast, the character tested exceptionally well. NBC refused to let Bochco and Kozoll kill off what they felt would be one of the most popular characters.
The funny thing is, Haid only agreed to take the role because Renko was supposed to die. He had other projects lined up, including a different TV show that he thought was going to get picked up. When it didn’t, and Hill Street Blues did, Haid had his choice made for him.
Steven Bochco Fought The Censors
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Preferring to push the boundaries, Steven Bochco constantly found himself in a war with the network censors. One of his ways to fight them was with episode titles. One episode, in particular, is worthy of mention. In season three Bochco chose the episode title, “Moon Over Uranus.”
The censors said no. Bochco fought and got his way. To stick it to them further, Bochco named the next two episodes, “Moon Over Uranus: The Sequel,” and “Moon Over Uranus: The Final Legacy.” After the show, Betty Thomas crafted an incrediblelegacy directing!
Betty Thomas Went From Actress To Director
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Betty Thomas is known these days for directing Dr. Doolittle, Private Parts, and the Netflix series Grace and Frankie. Her first directorial credit was for Hooperman in 1989. Her last acting credit was also in 1989 for the movie Troop Beverly Hills.
From 1981 until 1987 she played Lucille Bates on Hill Street Blues. In 1985 she won the Emmy for “Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series.” She was nominated for the same award every year the show ran. As a director her Emmy nomination streak continued, garnering multiple “Best Directing” nominations!
Laurence Fishburne Got His Start On Hill Street Blues
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In 1986 Laurence Fishburne was cast as pimp Maurice Haynes in an episode of Hill Street Blues. Haynes, on parole, gets busted in the aptly titled, “Look Homeward, Ninja.” His character survived but never made a second appearance.
Things worked out fine for Laurence Fishburne, though. In 1998 he starred alongside Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. Today he can be seen on Black-ish playing Anthony Anderson’s father, Pops. Dennis Franz had a fine career too, after surviving this disastrous spin-off.
There Was A Half Hour Comedy Spin-Off
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Based on the success of Hill Street Blues, NBC ordered the spin-off series Beverly Hills Buntz in 1987. The show followed Lieutenant Norman Buntz after he quit the precinct and moved to Los Angeles to become a private investigator.
Conceived as a half-hour dramedy, Buntz was a stark contrast from its source material. Audiences did not respond well, turning the show into a ratings joke. Only nine episodes aired. The rest are best forgotten.
Hill Street Blues Won Eight Emmy Awards Its First Season
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Hill Street Blues might have been a ratings disaster its first season, but it was also an awards darling. After the first season wrapped, the show arrested 21 Emmy nominations. It won eight, a freshmen series record. Its most prominent win was for “Outstanding Drama Series.”
The awards didn’t stop with the first season. The second season saw the show take up all five slots in the “Best Supporting Actor” category. Michael Conrad was the lucky winner. Over its seven-season run, Hill Street Blues won a total of 26 Emmys, a record that was broken by The West Wing over a decade later.
Sammy Davis Jr. Wanted To Be A Guest Star
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Music legend Sammy Davis Jr. loved Hill Street Blues. He loved the show so much he wanted to be a guest star. The dream never came to fruition. An appearance by Davis Jr. would have hurt the shows push for realism. That doesn’t mean the show’s writers didn’t ignore him, though.
Steven Bochco did manage to refer to Davis Jr. In the episode, Laura Wolfowitz makes an offhanded comment to Howard Hunter about an entertainer who converted to Judaism. When Sammy Davis Jr. was told about the joke, he thought it was hilarious. What’s not hilarious is the mystery surrounding the location of Hill Street.
The Precinct’s Location Was Never Revealed
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During its broadcast history, fans loved to debate where Hill Street was. The show filmed in Los Angeles, but establishing exteriors were shot in Chicago. The building used as the Hill Street Precinct in Illinois was placed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks in 1996!
Still, no one knows where Hill Street was located. The writers of the show went to painstaking lengths to never say. It’s debatable whether they even knew for sure. For those wondering, Steven Bochco says he intended for Hill Street to feel like a hybrid of Buffalo, Chicago, and Pittsburgh.
It Took Its Influence From A Documentary
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In 1977 the documentary The Police Tapes was released and became a massive influence on the direction Hill Street Blues took. The documentary followed a South Bronx police precinct in one of New York’s most violent neighborhoods.
Looking to be more realistic than other cop shows, Steven Bochco was inspired to shoot his new show with more handheld cameras. The new take on an old standard tested miserably with audiences, and NBC almost never picked it up.
The Pilot Tested Horribly With Audiences
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When NBC tested the pilot with audiences in 1981, it was received horribly. Some of the problems early viewers had were the shows flawed characters. They said it wasn’t believable that they could maintain order in a police station. Hill Street also didn’t feel like a real police station.
The biggest criticism ended up being the show’s key to success. Audiences found the ending disappointing. There were too many loose ends. Hill Street Blues ended up leading the charge for more serialized storytelling. Character “arcs” would sometimes take six episodes or more to be finished.
Mary Tyler Moore Owned The Show
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Mary Tyler Moores production company, MTM Enterprises owned Hill Street Blues. Known more for her starring roles in comedies, MTM had a hand in producing a number major hit shows in the 1980’s.
St. Elsewhere, Remington Steele, and WKRP in Cincinnati were produced by MTM too. No show made by the company was more influential than Hill Street Blues. Even the show’s theme song was top 10 hit!
The Theme Song Was A Top 10 Hit
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Mike Post wrote the theme song for Hill Street Blues in two hours. After the show aired, the song became a huge hit. It peaked at number 10 on the Billboard “Hot 100” chart. It also won the veteran songwriter two Grammy Awards.
Post was no newbie to television songwriting when he was approached for the show. Before Hill Street Blues he wrote the themes for The Rockford Files and Magnum P.I. After Blues, he stayed in business with Bochco and wrote the theme song for NYPD Blue.
It Was The First Million Dollar Show
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Hill Street Blues was such an elaborate show, and costs added up quickly. With a vast regular cast and even larger recurring one, one episode of the show ended up costing NBC one million dollars.
That’s not a surprising number today. The pilot for LOST cost ABC $12 million. One season of Game of Thrones costs HBO over $100 million. In the 1980s no show ever dreamed of getting a budget so big. With 26 Emmys to its name, there was no show more worthy at the time to break the barrier!
Steven Bochco Created NYPD Blue In 1993
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After Hill Street Blues, Steven Bochco created NYPD Blue. The show aired on ABC and starred Dennis Franz. At the time Bochco wanted to create a show that could compete with subscription services like HBO. ABC was hesitant but agreed to give Bochco a 10 pm timeslot.
NYPD Blue was a hit right away. It averaged 14 million viewers its first season. For the next decade, it never ranked lower than 30. By the end of its historic run, the show won four Golden Globes and caught over 40 Emmy nominations.
Bruce Weitz Attacked the Producer During His Audition
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Auditioning for the role of Mick Belker, Bruce Weitz had an unusual tactic to get the producer’s attention. He showed up dressed how he thought Melker would, then jumped on Grant Tinker’s desk and attacked him. Unorthodox for sure, but surprisingly effective.
Speaking with CNN, Weitz says that after he left the room, he heard Tinker say, “There’s no way I can’t offer him the job!” It doesn’t hurt that he was friends with Steven Bochco.
Multiple Cast Member Were Close With Bochco Before Being Cast
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Bruce Weitz won an Emmy as Sergeant Mick Belker in 1984. He also got two Golden Globe nominations. Not to be outdone, James Sikking was close friends with Bocho before capturing the role of Lieutenant Howard Hunter.
Barbara Bosson was married to Steven Bochco before being cast as Fay. In the show, however, her marriage was anything but happy. For her portrayal of the ex-wife of Captain Frank Furillo, Bosson earned five Emmy nominations. She never won. David Milch, one of the show’s first-time writers did.
David Milch Got His Start On Hill Street
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Multiple Emmy winning writer David Milch got his big break working on Hill Street Blues. His episode, “Trial by Fury” earned the former Yale professor an Emmy. The Writer’s Guild awarded him their top honors that same year. The show awarded him with a promotion to executive producer.
After Hill Street Blues ended, David Milch created Beverly Hills Buntz. His star would shine again in 2004 when he created Deadwood. Currently, he is writing season three of True Detective for HBO.