Hill Street Blues first aired in the USA in January 1981 on the NBC Network, and it was not particularly well received, even though it would eventually win 26 Emmys, it never did catch on with the public at large in terms of Nielsens' ratings. When it was first shown many viewers did not quite know what to make of it. However there were also those who knew something wonderful, fresh and completely off-centre was taking place and they spread the word. No 'Social Media' then and so it was discussed over the vending machine at work and against the bar at night, in the end it ran for over six years, finally departing in 1987. During that time it collected an incredible twenty six Emmy Awards, including 'Best Series' for four years in succession! There were a total of 146 Episodes, which were divided into 7 series and it was shown all over the world.
To understand its slow take off you must remember that before HSB police / crime dramas were entertaining, but slow-moving and sometimes a little bland. Examples being The Streets of San Francisco and Cannon. Although programs like "Kojak" had started to develop the police 'team' notion, most were set around the concept of a 'super hero' and more often than not the victims were close friends (or relatives) of the 'hero'. The only real exception was author Joseph Wambaugh's Police Story, with its gritty stories and believable characters. Hill Street however completely recreated the concept of police dramas by introducing continuing story-lines, that were sustained over four or five episodes. Actors lines that were spit out, often overlapping with each other, as in the real word. Fast moving 'hand held camera' work, often held at eye level. It also gave individuals star roles and had believable story-lines (yes even the alligators in the subway, although many did not believe it at the time!)
The brain child of Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll it was originally to be called Hill Street Station. The program depicted 'day to day' events in a very brutal, but honest way. Like its counterpart MASH, it mixed 'Drama' with the 'Dry Humour' needed to 'get you by' The characters would often speak in 'half-sentences' and on occasions even interrupted each other. No carefully rehearsed speeches here then! In fact it was a precisely crafted dialogue, that refused to 'underline' the obvious (as so many other programs of that time did). Instead the explanation would be spoken, just as it would be in the real chaotic police world, by any of the involved characters.
Professor Todd Gatlin in his excellent book 'Inside Prime Times' demonstrates this unusual way of 'scene setting', by quoting the episode where two teenagers take hostages during a robbery. In traditional television this important development would have been presented to the viewer, by someone rushing into the station house, or cutting away to a person phoning in to report it. Instead here the viewer learns of the event by hearing Furillo telling someone over the telephone about a possible 'hostage situation', while in the background can be heard Sgt. Esterhaus telling the Commander "We won't know that until we have interfaced with the perpetrators" (said as only he could say it!)
Location: The producers never allowed people to know where the actual location was meant to be, although most fans know that the Precinct House used in the series is located in Chicago (you can find more about it here in the website). Most of the filming was done in Los Angeles at CBS Studio Centre in Studio City, with many outside scene filmed on location in LA and in the early episode in Chicago.
Philadelphia does have an area know as "The Hill" and it is their City Hall that is used in the series, along with the mention of a Mercy Hospital, which once again is in that city. (Bochco was at Carnegie Institute of Technology in Philadelphia). The vehicles were clearly based on those in Chicago and the uniforms those of the New York City Police. The expression "I am going (or sometime coming) from the shore" was written in to some scripts giving the impression they are talking about New York's "Jersey Shore" beach resort, helping many people at the time to think of it as being in the less desirable parts of New Youk!
Areas around the "The Hill" were often mentioned the main ones being Jefferson Heights, Michigan Avenue, Midtown, Polk Avenue, South Ferry and Washington Heights. Also mentioned are Castle Heights, Farmingdale, Fillmore, Preston Heights, Richmond Avenue, Southfields, South Park, St. James' Park, Von Steuben Avenue and West Delavan. One writer emailed this website to say they were all streets in Buffalo, NY, where series producer and writer Tom Fontana was born and raised, can any locals confirm this?.
Guests and Performers: When you look down the list of the cast, semi regulars and even guests, it is surprising to see how well most of them have done since. With a few expectations they were largely unknowns when they joined 'The Hill', but many have since built careers in the industry, and not always in acting. Of course there are also many who are now sadly lost to us forever. There is also a surprisingly high number who have meet early and tragic ends, like the actors who played Sgt. Esterhaus, JD LaRue, Capt. Ray Calletano and Jesus Martinez. Plus one guest actress who was murdered while the show was still in production.
As well as the actors many of the brilliant of writers who breathed life into Hill Street Blues, have 'gone on' to produce some of finest television series and films, of the last forty years. Most look back fondly on their time working on 'The Hill' and you will sometimes see a reference to it, in their current work - Did you know that Miami Vice was originally conceived with Hill and Renko as its main characters and that the name 'Sonny Crockett' was first used on Hill Street Blues, or that the same character 'Buck Naked' reappeared in N.Y.P.D. Blue?
Can you help? If you have any good Pictures, Information, or Memories that need a virtual home, please share them with us. Were you involved in the series making? Were you there when Barbara Babcock opened her coat? Are you an enthusiast who has some free time to help research the series? Or perhaps you are just simply one of the many of use, who when we had to make an important decision in life, found ourselves thinking What would Frank do now? If so email me (link in the contacts page).
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