In the pantheon of sitcom classics, “Barney Miller” stands head and shoulders above the rest. The often-hilarious and occasionally serious show was set in a bustling police station’s detective unit, and set the gold standard for quality writing with its stellar ensemble cast. The show ran for eight seasons (1974-1982) in prime time and endlessly in syndication ever since.
The only two remaining cast members, Hal Linden (Captain Barney Miller) and Max Gail (Detective Stan Wojciehowicz) chatted at The Hollywood Show about what made “Barney Miller” a classic and what they have been up to since.
Question: Have you done autograph shows before?
Hal Linden: I’ve never done anything like this before. I was asked to do the show, and initially I thought, “I don’t think so.” Then they told me Max was going to be here. Max has been so busy over the years, I haven’t gotten to see him that much.
This is a really great opportunity for the two of us to get together. We had dinner last week. It’s nice to spend time with him and with all the fans.
Max Gail: This is my second time doing one of these shows. I did one back in New Jersey. This time the young man who convinced me to do [the shows] suggested we reach out to Hal. That gave us a chance to get together.
Before dinner the other night, it had been a year since we had seen each other.
Q: What is the best part of doing these?
HL: Most people that come up to you in a restaurant or on the street just stick a wet napkin in front of you and ask you to sign it. You know that napkin is going to end up in the trash. It’s not really something they are going to treasure or keep.
The fans that are coming out to this show are bringing the most amazing stuff — things I’ve never seen before. They know exactly where they want you to sign. It’s something they treasure. They’re so complimentary and so [happy] to meet everyone.
MG: People have a lot of feelings about the show, and they are genuine fans. You see people on the street and they say, “Oh, I gotta have your autograph!” Just because it’s happening. It’s a just a moment they feel … this is how I need to respond to it.
When I was asked to do this, I thought, “Who wants my autograph?” I figured I would be sitting at a table all alone. And it seems odd to charge for that. But I figured I would try it.
People who come here come here because they are into it and it’s a chance to have a real exchange. If you’re going to be remembered for something you’ve done then it’s nice it’s not something you’re trying to hide.
Q: What is the best part of being an actor?
HL: The best part of acting is the rehearsal, because that is where the real discovery comes. And if you’re lucky, some of that actually makes it onto the page and some of that actually makes it onto the screen.
Q: What made “Barney Miller” such a beloved show?
HL: The writing of the show is what made it so special. It’s funny to think because all of that cast, Me, Max, Ron [Glass], Jack [Soo] and Abe [Vigoda], none of us were comedians except for Steve [Landesberg].
We were all actors. When we got there, and you had that kind of quality writing, it was very easy to turn that material into something that was real. It was funny, it was sad, it was all terrific.
MG: I agree that it was really well written and we didn’t try to do something that was dumbed down. It didn’t matter if the viewer ran a computer lab or a gas station. We came from the perspective that people are generally pretty smart, especially about life. Plus it played a lot in reruns. We live in a world where it’s still playing somewhere.
Q: Hal, do you consider yourself a “song and dance” man?
HL: I started as a musician, then I was a singer. I sang with the band.
Then I was an actor in the theater, TV, films. But I guess I am a song and dance man. It’s at the heart of everything I do.
Q: What are you each working on?
MG: I stepped out for a good while. After “Barney Miller,” I got married and had a kid. I kept out of the whole thing to raise my daughter. When I stepped back in, I did a show with Frank Zappa’s two oldest kids, but the network didn’t have any idea. They thought Dweezil [Zappa] was another Kirk Cameron and Moon [Zappa] were along for the ride. That made me think, “Why do I want to do this again?”
So I got into social and environmental justice possibilities. It started as local access places before we had computers in our pockets. I started LAP (LAP.org); it became about dialogue and getting people to work together — a dialogue is a conversation with a center instead of sides.
HL: [My] CD took me 20 years to make. We went to the studio three separate times over the years trying to make this. Those sessions were aborted for one reason or another.
Nobody wanted to put out a record. Finally I put this record together myself [called] “It’s Never Too Late.” It’s not available in stores, although I hear you can get it on Amazon. I sell it at my live shows, I sell it here, I sell it out of the trunk of my car. (Laughs)