Rerun Junkie–The Pride of the Ol’ 1-2

Since it’s Pride Month, I wanted to do a post on the gay representation on Barney Miller, just a quick overview of it because there’s really quite a bit I could pick apart and analyze and also because Marty Morrison really deserves his own character post.

Anyway.

Barney Miller was known for depicting the less dramatic, weirder side of law enforcement. It also pushed and poked at many social issues of the time. Some of them were very specific to that moment, like the budget crisis and the fallout from Vietnam, but many of the issues the show presented are still very relevant today. One striking aspect of the show is the representation of gay men in the form of recurring characters Marty Morrison (Jack DeLeon), Mr. Darryl Driscoll (Ray Stewart), and Officer Zatelli (Dino Natali). I read somewhere that show creator Danny Arnold worked with gay groups to get the portrayal of these characters right.  Instead of relying heavily on stereotypes (thought Marty is a classic catty gay man) or presenting them as unnatural or deviant, the show depicted them as humans facing societal challenges, bigotry, and discrimination due to their sexual orientation.

I love Marty Morrison and the pizzazz that Jack DeLeon brought to that character. He was out because it was impossible for him to be in. A petty criminal, he stole my heart as well as purses. In his first appearance on the show there’s a scene in which Barney tells Marty to get a real job and Marty tells him that he’s had “more jobs than you have hair on your head”. He also tells him that he tried to join the police force, but that they turned him down for being gay (“What’s wrong with a gay cop? There are gay robbers.”). Perhaps it’s just me reading into the scene, but there’s a suggestion there that part of the reason for Marty’s criminal behavior is because of his difficulty to hold a job as an out gay man in the 1970s. Or even get one. At the time, I would imagine that most jobs okay with his sexuality were few and far between and most likely limited to very specific industries.

It was through Marty that the show introduced Mr. Darryl Driscoll. The character was first somewhat effeminate, but throughout the appearances, that lessened in favor of Ray Stewart giving the character a more sophisticated personality. His first introduction to the squad room saw him being hustled by a fake cop, threatened with violence if he didn’t give the man money. His reluctance to actually go to the police to file a report echoes the real fear the gay community had (and still has) in regards to law enforcement. Later on in the series it was revealed that Mr. Driscoll had been married and had a son, something not uncommon for gay men. The resulting custody dispute on the surface seemed to be the result of the former Mrs. Driscoll’s opposition to Mr. Driscoll’s sexuality and shielding their son from that. In reality, the reason was more mundane: Mrs. Driscoll was tired of being the bad guy because Mr. Driscoll indulged his son during his visitations.

It was Officer Zatelli who got the truth from Mrs. Driscoll. A uniformed officer in a similar duty role to Ron Carey’s Officer Levitt, Officer Zatelli first showed up in the fourth season. However, it was in the 6th season that an anonymous letter claiming there was a gay police officer led to Zatelli outing himself as both the letter writer and the gay officer. Dino Natali’s portrayal of Zatelli was “straight”. He wasn’t much different from any of the other cops and that was the point. Though the detectives in the squad room knew he was gay and though he told  Mrs. Driscoll that he was gay when she was making a fuss about her son being around “those kind of people” and though Barney encouraged him to come clean to the department because policy prevented punishment for his sexuality (a policy change from the first season as indicated above), Zatelli couldn’t do it. As Barney warned, it was an accidental outing thanks to Wojo that exposed his secret. Instead of termination or forced resignation (like Lt. Scanlon wanted), Zatelli was transferred to a much cushier job, which he believed was a sign that he had a like-minded friend in high places.

Speaking of Wojo, Max Gail was presented with an interesting challenge for his character in regards to his evolution in opinion about gay men. The first season, particularly the first handful of episodes, saw Wojo as kind of a brutish caveman. His dislike of Marty came more from him being a thief rather than him being gay. However, the introduction of Mr. Driscoll, pairing the two men up the way they did, brought Wojo’s discomfort, ignorance, and prejudice into a sharper focus. In a two-part episode called “Quarantine” that saw the members of the 12th as well at Inspector Luger, Marty, Mr. Driscoll, and a sex worker named Paula Capshaw all -you guessed it- quarantined due to either smallpox or chicken pox depending on the outcome of the tests done on a sick criminal, Wojo insists that Marty and Mr. Driscoll sleep on opposite sides of the squad room. Like the two men would just bow-chicka-wow-wow right there if they were allowed to be in close proximity of each other when the lights went out. Wojo lost that argument, but it was an excellent illustration of his prejudice and misconceptions surrounding gay men. Over the course of the series, we got to see Wojo’s own learning experience and watch him as his opinions grew, matured, and evolved. In a way, he was almost a stand-in for no doubt many men in the viewing audience. (I’m singling out the men here because Wojo’s issues with homosexuality was very masculinity-based, but really, that’s another post for another time.)

Like I said, this is just a quick overview. There’s so much more I could get into and just might at some point in time. The gay representation on Barney Miller is really rather unique given the time period. It’s a reflection of the way social norms were evolving at the time as well as a bold step for both a cop show and a comedy.

The characters still resonate and the humor still plays today because the focus was always on the humanity, not stereotypes-as-punchlines.

And that’s pretty special.

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Rerun Junkie–Barney Miller

That opening baseline. That opening shot of the New York skyline. That eclectic bunch filling a rundown squad room. Do you know what I’m talking about? Even if you don’t, you’ll be humming it soon enough.

Barney Miller is a 70’s classic, running from 1974 to 1982, that took place in the detective’s squad room of the 12th precinct in New York City. Cops cite the show as one of the most realistic cop shows to be on TV. It showed the funny, ridiculous side of crime. While other cop shows dealt with the more serious crime like murders and drug rings, Barney Miller and company dealt with blind shoplifters, philosophical bums, and purse snatching stockbrokers. And they did it all while dealing with staff shortages, budget cuts, and a poorly working toilet.

Though they occasionally tackled heavier subjects (racism, homicide, rape), the show mostly centered on the detectives getting by and dealing with a host of criminals and victims just as varied and interesting as they were.

The original cast consisted of Barney Miller (Hal Linden), Stan “Wojo” Wojciehowicz (Max Gail), Phil Fish (Abe Vigoda), and Chano Amaguale (Gregory Sierra). Ron Harris (Ron Glass) and Nick Yemana (Jack Soo) were officially added as regulars by the second season. In the beginning, Barney’s wife Liz (Barbara Barrie) played a bigger role, but by the second season had diminished.

In the beginning…

The cast changed over the seasons. Gregory Sierra and Abe Vigoda both left for other series, which led to Steve Landesburg as Arthur Dietrich and Ron Carey as the long suffering Officer Carl Levitt joining the show. James Gregory also joined as Inspector Frank Luger. Jack Soo passed away in 1979 and was never replaced.

…at the end.

The integration of the new characters was pretty smooth. It felt like what would happen at a real precinct. People get transferred or retire and new people move in. Personalities didn’t have to be replaced. This kind of show called for individuality. And it allowed for growth.

Barney was the wise leader, gifted with compassion and a desire to do the right thing. Wojo started off as kind of a thick-skulled muscle head, but over the seasons revealed a big heart and actually showed some growth. Harris was a styled intellectual with a gift for writing and a love for the stock market. Dietrich was also an intellectual, but he was more of a walking encyclopedia with a wit so dry it could be used for kindling. Chano was a street smart guy that never failed to go out on a limb to get his job done. Nick hated filing, made terrible coffee, and had a love for gambling. Fish may have acted like life was the pits, but he dreaded enforced retirement and even kidney stones couldn’t keep him off the job. Inspector Luger was always going on about the good ol’ days, but he always had his detectives’ backs. Officer Levitt longed to be a detective and was enthusiastic about his job, but was often overlooked (he felt because he was short).

The great part about the show was that the guest stars were as much fun as the detectives and many of the actors were on several times as different characters. Peggy Pope, Oliver Clark, Don Calfa, Florence Halop, Sal Viscuso, Doris Roberts, Michael Tucci, A. Martinez, Phil Leeds, and Christopher Lloyd were all on multiple times.

They also had some great recurring characters. Jack DeLeon and Ray Stewart as Marty and Mr. Driscoll are two of my favorites (and two of the few gay characters on at the time). They also had Florence Stanley as Fish’s wife Bernice, Stanley Brock as Bruno Bender, George Murdock as Lt. Ben Scanlon, and Jack Somack as the often robbed Mr. Cotterman.

So many of the episodes are fan favorites, such as “Hash” in which Wojo brings in brownies made by his girlfriend and the detectives eat them not knowing that they’re laced with pot, and “Werewolf” in which Kenneth Tigar brilliantly plays Stefan Kopeckne who believes he’s, well, a werewolf (he comes back in an episode in a later season as the same character, this time believing he’s possessed by a demon). All of the episodes are quotable. My personal favorites (that I watch over and over again online) are “Smog Alert”, “Rain”, “Hair”, “Group Home”, and “Bus Stop”. And of course, “Jack Soo, a Retrospective” is a touching, out of character episode reflecting on Jack Soo and the character of Nick Yemana after Jack Soo passed away from cancer. When they raise their coffee mugs to him in the end, it’s a guaranteed tear jerker.

Also, the last scene of the series is probably one of the best done in television. No gimmicks, no tricks, just turning off the light and closing the door.

The female cops were few and far between (Linda Lavin, June Gable, and Mari Gorman all did time at the 12th), but that never bothered me much. I’d rather have an all male cast than a woman shoehorned in just because they think they have to have a woman in there. Those cases never end well. (For the record, I didn’t care much for Linda Lavin’s Detective Janice Wentworth, but I did like June Gable’s Detective Maria Battista and Mari Gorman’s Officer Rosslyn Licori.) And not all of the serious material was handled well (“Rape” is an incredibly awkward and uncomfortable episode, even more so now because of just how differently things are handled and viewed now as opposed to how they were then).

But the shortcomings are easily overlooked (particularly if you just skip “Rape” all together, which hurts me to say it since Joyce Jameson is in it and I love her). Despite the 70’s suits and references, there’s a timeless quality to the stories and the jokes. Granted, you probably couldn’t take a bomb into a New York police department so easily today (it happened at least four times during the show that I can remember off of the top of my head), but we can relate to the budget cuts and the layoffs and trying to do right even if it is against the rules.

Not to mention the desire for a cup of coffee and a decent toilet.

 

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