Question: I've been thinking of Hill Street Blues lately and it is driving me nuts that I can't remember the name of my favorite character. He was played by Bruce Weitz and I think his first name was Mick, but they always called him by his last name. He was a wonderfully eccentric policeman scruffy and tough, with a heart of gold and received frequent phone calls from his mother. Can you help me out? I know this will continue to bother me till I find out!
Answer: That would be Det. Mick Belker, who was quick with a growl, just as willing to bite a perp as book him, and, by the looks of him, not on friendly terms with showers or razors. I'd imagine Weitz would consider it a compliment that you remember his name rather than his character's, but he did memorable work on the series. During Hill Street's January 1981 to May 1987 run on NBC, Weitz was handed an Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series Emmy for his troubles, and was nominated five other times besides.
The funny thing is, Weitz nearly didn't get the part because NBC's head honcho, Grant Tinker, wasn't convinced he was right for it, but a little creative auditioning from producers hoping to sell Tinker on the actor solved that problem. "Grant just couldn't see Bruce playing Belker and we did," series creator Steven Bochco (L.A. Law, NYPD Blue), told TV Guide in 1981. "The day of the reading, we're sitting, waiting, and we hear Bruce come down the hall. Banging doors. Kicking walls. And in he walks, in the rattiest tennis sneakers, a baseball cap, a cigar and a three-day growth of beard. He jumped up on top of the desk, wiped everything off onto the floor and started to growl. Grant is staring. [Bochco partner Michael Kozoll] and I are trying not to laugh. And Bruce is going crazy, hunkering on the desk. Finally, he jumps off and starts to scream a speech from the pilot script. Then he storms out of the office and slams the door. We looked at Grant and said, 'Well?' And there was a pause and Grant said, 'I'm not gonna be the one to tell him he can't play the part.'"
Appropriately enough, it was that kind of tenaciousness that got Hill Street launched and kept it on the air despite initially poor ratings and high production costs. When the network approached Bochco and Kozoll about doing a cop show, they were already sick of the genre, having cranked out scripts for such police series as Columbo, McCloud, Delvecchio, Paris and McMillan & Wife.
The two were even more tired of battling network censors, so they insisted on free rein. "We said we couldn't do a good cop show if we were shackled by a lot of broadcast standards," said Bochco, who's since given TV more butts than a barroom ashtray. "We sort of got a promise from them to leave us alone. We had an hour-and-a-half meeting with them in which we screamed and hollered. They kept saying: How can we give you assurances about something that doesn't exist? And we kept saying: You have to give us something or we ain't gonna do it. We didn't want to spend a lot of time doing something and know that it didn't have a chance of getting made the way we conceived it. We let them know right away that we were going to be rude and feisty and antagonistic to everything they represent."
And that's what the writer-producers did, earning themselves and their series a truckload of Emmys and, one could argue, changing the face of TV drama in the process. Hill Street helped pioneer the liberal sprinkling of male and female posteriors into weekly TV viewing, but it was also the first to break from the conventional wisdom of the day in terms of what an audience might appreciate or even tolerate. (Heck, after Bochco left the series five years into its run, show runners Jeffrey Lewis and David Milch tested the audience further by bringing Dennis Franz on as the cranky Lieutenant Norman Buntz when the actor had already been killed off as evil cop Sal Benedetto two seasons earlier.) Dramatic loose ends, multiple story lines and overlapping dialogue were all part of the Hill Street formula, but many industry pundits blamed those same innovations for the show's struggles in the ratings. Viewers couldn't keep up, they claimed.
Well, those naysayers may have had a point at the time, but watch an episode of ER and you'll see all those things in play on a No. 1 show. (Except for all the rear ends, maybe. Bochco still manages to work more of those in on his cop shows than the ER guys do on a medical show, which is where the real creativity comes in, in my book. Rather cheeky of them, no? Sorry I just made an ass of myself.)