By David Kronke
For the first 70 episodes of its seven-season run, the NBC series Hill Street Blues opened each episode with a precinct morning briefing that concluded with Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad) dispatching his disheveled officers with his iconic edict: "Hey—let's be careful out there."
The drama's creators and directors never heeded Esterhaus' advice, and their recklessness managed to craft a singular series that forever changed television.
Hill Street Blues, which premiered 30 years ago, looked, sounded and felt like no series that came before it. It boasted a large ensemble cast (13 actors in the opening title sequence, along with numerous recurring characters) jostling and bumping into one another in scenes suggesting organized chaos. Shot on degraded film stock, its look was grungy. Greg Hoblit, the show's associate producer, who also directed 11 episodes, would take hammers to police cars to make them look beat up. Restless cameras roamed throughout scenes amid the bustling actors. Only Robert Altman films featured more overlapping dialogue.
Hill Street explored sensitive subjects alien to broadcast-network entertainment, such as the crumbling social infrastructure of big urban cities, class and racial strife, incest, homosexuality, and the simple pleasures inherent in an unmarried couple enjoying a leisurely bubble bath together. It was TV for grown-ups made by grown-ups in a medium that still emphasized family friendliness.
Michael Zinberg, who was NBC's vice president of development at the time and became a respected director himself (he won a DGA Award for Quantum Leap), recalls that Fred Silverman, then president of entertainment, initially had fleeting interest in the project because of the network's lack of involvement in the pilot. That changed once he saw the final product.
"I've screened 500 pilots, and it was the single most compelling screening I've ever seen," Zinberg declares. "It killed the room. As good a script as it was, it wasn't until Bob Butler put his hands on it that it became Hill Street Blues. He was an adventurous thinker and took everything that had been done before and launched it into a whole new level. Hire any other director, and you don't get that show."
Zinberg remembers that Silverman had but two questions after the screening. The first: "Will the affiliates buy this?" The response: "Absolutely, we will make this work." The other, given the show's controversial aspects: "Can we put this on the air week after week?" The answer: "We've got to."
RELATIONSHIPS: Restless cameras roamed
throughout scenes amid the bustling actors
to capture the mood of Hill Street Blues.
But being groundbreaking comes with a price: Hill Street was the lowest-testing series to make it to air, and was the lowest-rated series at the time to get picked up for a second season. But its first season dominated the 1981 Emmys (eight wins, including outstanding drama series, amid 21 nominations; it would also in the course of its run win four DGA Awards and get four more nominations). Eventually, it helped lead NBC's turnaround to become the No. 1 network.
Still, even Steven Bochco, the series' co-creator, admits, "We didn't know what the hell we were doing. We were figuring it out on the fly."
Though no one responsible for Hill Street realized it at the time, the show came about through many serendipitous coincidences. NBC's ratings were in the gutter when Silverman approached Boch- co and his then-collaborator Michael Kozoll to create a cop show for the network. They agreed only on the stipulation that NBC would not interfere with them.
Bochco brought in Hoblit, with whom he had worked in the past, and Hoblit immediately put his imprint on the series. Around the same time he read Bochco and Kozoll's pilot script, Hoblit saw the PBS documentary The Police Tapes, a gritty, despairing portrait of police work in the Bronx, directed by Oscar-winning documentarians Alan and Susan Raymond.
"I was just struck dumb" by the film, says Hoblit, who then showed it to Bochco and Butler, a veteran director who had worked on everything from television comedies (The Dick Van Dyke Show, Batman) to the original Star Trek pilot to cop shows (Columbo, The Blue Knight) and whom Grant Tinker asked to shoot the Hill Street pilot after many other directors demurred.
Beyond its messy camera work, Police Tapes clearly contributed two essential ingredients to Hill Street. The documentary began with a morning briefing reminiscent of those that defined the series, with its presiding officer ending it by saying: "Let's be careful out on the street." (No one interviewed for this story specifically remembers that influencing the show.) And it reflected Hill Street's overall sense of weariness amongst the cops—the notion that, despite their dedicated best efforts, no mean streets would ever really be cleaned up.
"We conveyed that sense of being powerless—as cops, you were garbage collectors in a sense," Bochco says. "You might have kept the lid on things, but it never got better. Furillo (Daniel Travanti) had tons of responsibility and very little authority and the cumulative impact thematically was a kind of despair, alleviated by outrageous gallows humor."
Butler, who won a DGA Award and an Emmy for his work on the pilot, loved the documentary and was more than happy to adhere to Hoblit's aesthetic ideas. "I was tired of clean speeches, where people waited until others stopped talking, tired of clean shots—I didn't fucking want it," he says. "In my mind, the show came from the congestion of the material, the congestion of the characters. I remember the camera operator cleaning up shots, in the classic Hollywood style that I had begun to hate, and I had to brainwash him to let it be a mess. I wanted it messy. The trick was to make it look seemingly real, live, raunchy, congested. We jammed the streets with derelict cars and graffiti. We suggested Eastern-city crunch very well."
Butler continues, "The multiple stories added to the congestion, so I ran with it. There's a pair of people arguing here, something developing over there. My idea was that we were putting on binoculars and panning around at the people, keeping it fluid, rather than cutting. That really worked well for that series."
Butler would strap cameramen onto dolly carts and wheel them around the room during takes, and rest cameras on sandbags rather than locking them down, so the shot would wobble. He wanted to shoot the whole series with handheld cameras, but Bochco resisted. Otherwise, Bochco rarely interfered with the show's visual style. "I have never fancied myself a director," Bochco insists. "I always said I hear things in my head much more than I see them. One thing I learned early on was, if you're going to have genuine ensemble work, let directors do what they're supposed to do."
Camera lenses rarely used in television—say, 75 mm when 40 mm was the norm—helped collapse images even further, adding to the claustrophobic feel, explains Butler. "Scenes were mostly colorless, which was very appropriate. You'd take out all the primary colors. We treated the film, which takes away some of the contrast. We'd underexpose and overdevelop the film, which brings the graininess and sootiness we were looking for."
The show also deviated from conventional wisdom in that it eschewed the standard practice of shooting master shots of each scene and then adding coverage and close-ups.
"I began to look at masters as exposition, and I hated exposition," Hoblit says, "so we essentially just tossed the master because it was expository. The genius of what Bob did [with the pilot] was he made it simpler. We couldn't have shot that show if we'd done a standard master and coverage. It never would've been done in seven days.
"We never shot masters in any traditional sense," adds Hoblit. "Bob's sense was if you shot a scene with five people talking, you didn't have to shoot everyone at once—by the time you bounced the cameras around to everybody, you've seen the room, you've seen everything. And after a while, you knew what that precinct looked like, so why show it to everybody again?"
David Anspaugh, who parlayed his associate-producer gig in season one to landing directing jobs in season two, admits to making that mistake once. "I shot a master, and it was so perfect, the simple choreography seemed to say everything," he recalls. "I wanted to use it as a single master; I shot two pieces of coverage, but almost didn't have them printed. Steven saw the dailies and said, 'That's great, but where's the coverage?' I said, 'I didn't shoot any.' He went ballistic. That was almost my last day of work."
Instead, directors used what Thomas Carter called "moving masters" with their roving cameras. "One scene flowed into another in terms of the camerawork," Carter explains. "There was more of a seamless flow in the show, which works well on ensemble shows.
"My job was to beat the page—the script was good, I wanted to make it better than anyone expected," Carter continues. "That was the spirit we were working on. There was a healthy competition between the directors. We appreciated each other's stuff and wanted to get to that level."
Anspaugh agrees. "We all wanted to outdo the next guy with how complicated a shot we could get," he says. "It was fun; it kept our game up. Someone would come up with one amazing shot, the next guy would try something a little better. We were pushing each other."
But given the visual aesthetic, no one tried anything tricky with the lighting. "It was almost ambient light, we almost didn't do anything, which was another way we could do it quick," Hoblit recalls. "Even with someone as beautiful as Veronica [Hamel]—and God bless her, she was game for it—we didn't do anything special. We didn't put a 'Veronica light' on her. You made the most of her attributes, but didn't try to make her look like Farrah Fawcett.
"You light for the scene—if you light for each individual shot, you're done, you've lost a lot of time," he notes. "If you light for the scene, you don't detract from the story."
Directors also undertook the daunting challenge of dealing with a sprawling, disparate group of actors. Conrad, who played the sage yet sexually avaricious Esterhaus, could make life hell for a director, several who worked with the show recalled. "There was a rumor that he had killed someone," Hoblit remembers.
Anspaugh recalls, "Whenever we would rehearse the morning briefing scenes, initially it would be the director, Michael, and the DP and nobody else. We'd rehearse it first, then bring in the rest of the cops. He didn't like any improvisation," which, given how improvised those scenes seem, is a real testament to the show's directors. "It was major surgery, those scenes. If you weren't on your game or violated his modus operandi, you were toast."
"Notwithstanding his awesome physical stature"—Conrad stood 6-foot-4½—"he was a fragile person," Bochco says. And his special needs with regards to blocking scenes didn't endear him to the rest of the cast. As Bochco recalls, "Those guys baited him mercilessly. He was a very fastidious actor. Everything had to be just so. These guys would torment him. They'd ad-lib, do everything they could to throw him off-rhythm. There was a hostility to it."
But in Hill Street's first season, the show had even bigger battles facing it—its ratings. "We were in the toilet," Hoblit admits. And NBC, despite the no-notes agreement, was still challenging many of the show's creative decisions, especially from the network's Standards and Practices division. Still, the series' creators seemed to do all they could to push back, including an early episode featuring Furillo and Davenport (Hamel) sharing a bath.
"The attitude was, if they want us to reshoot it, they'll give us the money to reshoot it; in the meantime, that's what we're doing," Hoblit says. "I don't deny a certain arrogance was building up as we proved we were doing something worthwhile. I'm sure there was a certain feeling we were protected, and we were sort of a wild child."
"They were just so unaccustomed to anything we were putting on the page," Bochco adds. "They were unaccustomed to dealing with someone like me, who was belligerent. I'd walk out of meetings, threatening to quit. We'd fight tooth and nail, but to their credit, they basically folded 99 percent of time."
Bochco also recalled an incident in which real cops and his fantasy cops collided, at a downtown L.A. location known as "Shitters Alley," for reasons best left to the imagination. "We were shooting a scene and our cops are hiding behind cars, weapons drawn," he remembers. "Inadvertently, we came upon a robbery at a liquor store in progress. It quickly turned into a Chinese fire drill—the perps fleeing, the owner of the liquor store running out of the store with a shotgun, the real cops coming, and our guys with their fake guns. It's a miracle no one got hurt."
Hill Street also initiated a couple of other innovations that linger to this day. Hoblit started having tone meetings, in which producers met with directors and explained the intent of each scene and the motivations of every character, which helped maintain the series' texture from episode to episode and director to director.
And the show did away with the use of insert cars, no towing vehicles that actors were ostensibly driving. "You didn't get the feeling they're really driving," explains Christian Nyby II, who directed a dozen episodes of the series, including one that earned him a DGA Award nomination. "So they'd slap the side-mount camera on a door mount. As the director, you'd crawl into the back seat, you'd have the slate in your lap; you couldn't see what was going on, so you'd hope it was right, but it gave it that reality. They had a $100,000 camera hanging out the door, so you hoped the actor driving the car kept a wide berth from everything around them."
With the show's success, many directors who were brought in went on to impressive careers. Hoblit directed a few episodes late in season one mainly because everyone expected the show to be canceled and he wanted to create a reel so that he could get directing work in the future. He later directed the pilots of both Bochco's L.A. Law and NYPD Blue as well as features such as Primal Fear (1996) and Frequency (2000).
As the show continued, Hoblit had its show's template so wet-wired into his system that directing episodes came second nature, but Anspaugh spent far more time designing his shots.
"During my first episode, I was so worried that I spent most every night sleeping in my office long after we wrapped," he admits. "I was sitting in a living room set until two in the morning, trying to figure out how to shoot a scene." His first directorial effort was nominated for a DGA Award; his second, about a basketball game involving the cops, won.
According to Hoblit, Anspaugh's second episode featured "one of the greatest shots ever. David had put a camera on the backboard shooting straight down—now a convention of every NBA game on TV. Mike Warren, a former UCLA player who joined the cast, shot the ball and—you couldn't duplicate this if you tried—the ball hit the rim and kept spinning on it, around and around and around. We were just flabbergasted; it looked like it would never stop. It must've made 10 revolutions before it went in."
Anspaugh, who would later direct the beloved sports films Hoosiers (1986) and Rudy (1993), says, "If I hadn't cut my teeth on that kind of TV, I never would've been able to do Hoosiers. No textbook can teach you the stuff I learned on my feet. I'd come to work every day with a detailed game plan, but never executed it—everything went to hell in a hand basket in two hours. It was a crash-course in learning how to think on the fly."
Carter, on the other hand, absorbed Hill Street's gritty sensibility while acting (and occasionally directing) on a series from the same production house on the lot, The White Shadow. He would spend as much time as he could hanging out on the Hill Street set and when asked to direct some episodes, "I felt totally at home. I couldn't wait to get my fingers in that soil. I was anxious to employ those stylistic techniques in the show. It wasn't like I had to readjust; it was more like, 'Oh my God, I've been liberated to do the things I've always wanted to do.'" Carter subsequently directed the feature films Swing Kids (1993), Metro (1997), and Coach Carter (2005).
"What I learned on Hill Street I brought to [the pilots of] St. Elsewhere, and even Miami Vice, in the sense of its real filmic style," says Carter, who directed eight episodes of Hill Street and won a DGA Award for his work on the series. "There were great shows before it, but they were rather static. We greatly influenced television with our kinetic energy. It was exciting—Hill Street had given me permission to make movies on television."
Even Betty Thomas, who played Officer Lucy Bates, directorially benefited from the experience. She didn't act much after Hill Street, and never directed an episode, but used what she learned on the set in a successful directing career (The Brady Bunch Movie , Private Parts , and 28 Days , among others).
"It was a tough show to direct," she recalls. "The actors' joke was, we taught them all how to direct. Bochco found out I wanted to direct, and let me into the editing room. That was huge." Thomas adds that while the concept of walk-and-talk and foreground crossing, two big Hill Street stylistic gambits, is generally considered anathema in comedies, she frequently employs them in her work anyway.
"Bob Butler was a big influence," she continues. "He had techniques that were so simple but I was never aware of it until he did it to me. He'd say, 'I have what I need, this [next take] is for you. I was thrilled the first time he did it. More often than not, they didn't use those takes, but it didn't matter. From my point of view as an actor, I was having my creative input. I still use that technique."
But Nyby, who directed the most episodes of Hill Street, insists that his lasting contribution to the show is suggesting to the producers they cast Dennis Franz. Nyby had worked with Franz before, and the actor was eventually cast in later seasons as Lt. Norman Buntz and subsequently became a huge star in the Bochco universe on NYPD Blue.
Nyby, however, provides an anecdote that proves just how huge Hill Street Blues had become, and how unique it was. He was approached by the producers of the police drama T.J. Hooker to direct an episode, having been told, "We want T.J. Hooker to look like Hill Street." Nyby thought, "Are you serious? You've got all those people and all that hair."
Nyby continues, "They tried to adapt. They had a gritty story. I started shooting, long lenses, everything compressed. But there was a scene where people were talking like in real life and I had extras walk between them, just like a regular scene in Hill Street, and they said, 'That would never happen.' I thought, 'Go to your office, and it's probably happening right now.'" It was the only T.J. Hooker episode he directed.
So while Hill Street Blues may not have wound up changing T.J. Hooker much, it was a game changer in the history of TV drama, inspiring every gritty ensemble show that followed in its wake. St. Elsewhere, which premiered the following season, was the first to embrace its aesthetic; since then, its DNA can be found in everything from Bochco and Hoblit's own NYPD Blue and ER, to Homicide: Life on the Street, The Wire, The Shield, and, most recently, The Killing.
Butler, with typical self-effacement, says simply, "My foes tell me I did an OK job and my friends tell me I changed things."