Saturday, January 24, 2015

TV Quote of the Day (‘Barney Miller,’ As Dietrich Explains the Source of His ‘Outlook’)

Detective Arthur Dietrich (played by Steve Landesberg): "By my mid-teens the writings of Schopenhauer and Kant had begun to dominate my epistomological outlook."

Inspector Frank Luger (played by James Gregory): "I asked you if you had any pets!"

Dietrich: "Ant farm!"— Barney Miller, Season 7, Episode 20, “The Vests,” original air date May 7, 1981, teleplay by Nat Mauldin, directed by Noam Pitlik

Although the pilot for Barney Miller aired in August 1974, the first regular episode did not broadcast until 40 years ago yesterday, when beloved series regulars Jack Soo (Nick Yemana), Max Gail (Wojo), Gregory Sierra (Chano), and Ron Glass (Harris) appeared for the first time.

The showrunner was Danny Arnold, but it could just have been easily created by MTM Enterprises, which brought the urban-workplace series to a zenith in the ‘70s and ’80s with the likes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, WKRP in Cincinnati, Lou Grant and Hill Street Blues. Whether wry sitcom or gritty crime drama, these invariably involved steady middle managers handling eccentric co-workers as much as an outside world ready to go mad.

The calm center of Barney Miller was the title character, a captain of a Greenwich Village precinct blessed with experience, good humor and humane instincts. That helped him interface between his often wisecracking detectives and precinct visitors who, whether criminals or victims, turned out, more often than not, to be querulous or screwballs.

Miller’s sanity held the station house together, just as Hal Linden played straight man to some of the most accomplished supporting members of an ensemble in sitcom history, including Abe Vigoda, Glass, Gregory, Ron Carey, Soo, and Landesberg. 

In certain ways, despite its durability, Barney Miller has been neglected, coming as it did between groundbreaking social comedies of the early Seventies such as All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show and the overwhelmingly popular mid-Eighties mainstay The Cosby Show. It need not take a back seat to these other shows, however. Together with Taxi and WKRP, it provided some of the most consistently hilarious and intelligent programming of the late Seventies and early Eighties.

I didn’t learn until researching this post that Steve Landesberg, my favorite actor in the series, didn’t show up at all until the second season (his first appearance: a criminal masquerading as a priest), and it wasn’t till the fourth that his character began to be seriously developed. He turned out to be a gold mine.  

Landesberg was one of only three cast members (the others being Soo and Carey) who were primarily comic actors. He came by his timing in New York City comedy clubs, where he worked with the likes of Jimmie Walker and Freddie Prinze.

Imagine some sort of happy medium between the sometimes surreal Steven Wright and the often manic early Woody Allen and you’ll have the infinitely dry, deadpan delivery that Landesberg perfected as the infuriatingly intellectual Sgt. Arthur Dietrich. He had me at his first station-house exchange with a sleazy criminal defense attorney, who demands that the detective tell him "everything" he knows--meaning about his client. Dietrich’s response, one of the great understatements in TV history: “How much time you got?”

In a sense, the creation of Dietrich was part of the series’ instinct (not always successful) to get beyond stereotypes about the police. He was intellectual at a time when college students, still used to the rhetoric of counterculture clashes, regarded cops as far below their brain levels. At the same time, he was a favorite of many officers who, while they might not have understood Dietrich’s fascination with “Schopenhauer and Kant,” were glad to encounter a character who, in his disinclination to shoot his gun, mirrored an aspect of their lives that few outsiders understood. 

(For an excellent summary of why the show, in breaking with stereotypes, "deserves to be recognized as one of the standout series of the 1970s," please see this insightful interview with Fordham University professor Leonard Strate.)

Over the years, Landesberg made a number of guest appearances on The Tonight Show when Johnny Carson was host, and he continued to appear sporadically on TV and film. But the highlights of his career are still his more than 120 appearances over seven seasons on Barney Miller, which netted him three Emmy nominations. Sadly, he died in 2010 at age 74, having prepared, through Arthur Dietrich, sitcom viewers for a more intense (if narrow) intellectual: Dr. Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory.

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