When “Hill Street Blues” launched in 1981, it was clear it was not a typical TV cop show. With its drone of background noise and outlandish characters, it did to police work what “M*A*S*H” did for doctor shows. That work can watched again with the release of the “Hill Street Blues” box set on Tuesday, April 29.
The unique nature of the NBC drama was why James Sikking went to the show’s big boss, Stephen Bochco, to ask for tips in how to play the role of Lt. Howard Hunter. Bochco told him to go for it and said he would tell Sikking when he was doing something wrong.
Bochco never had to stop the actor.
Sikking took the opening Bochco gave him to create the military-minded head of what was known as the Emergency Action Team. Howard was often the brunt of jokes, but that didn’t stop him from being gung-ho about enforcing the law. He loosely based the character on the drill instructor Sikking had during basic training at Fort Bragg.
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“The drill instructor looked like he had steel for hair and his uniform had so much starch in it, you knew it would sit in the corner when he took it off in the barracks,” says the 80-year-old actor. “So when I started to play Howard, I picked out the way he should be dressed. It had to be a very military look. He had to have those jump boots.
“When people asked me where I got the idea for his look, I told them it was the same look I had in the Army.”
Hunter’s look was the cleanest thing about the show. When the first episode was being filmed, Sikking recalls the push to make the set look dirtier and dirtier. It had to look like a typical workplace, from the low lighting to bathrooms stained by the bad aim of so many.
The series was a huge change for Sikking, who had worked on more traditional TV shows — “Ironside,” “Mission: Impossible” and “Hawaii Five-O” — and a daytime drama before signing on for duty at “Hill Street.”
It wasn’t just the look and design of the show that was so different. Sikking was accustomed to the kind of TV filming where once a character finished a scene, they would exit and not be needed. “Hill Street” offered a wide look at the police world, which meant even when he didn’t have any lines, Sikking would find himself working just as hard in the background.
Critics loved the fresh look on the familiar format. But viewers weren’t as enthusiastic. “Hill Street Blues” was at the bottom of the ratings. Yet it picked up 21 Primetime Emmy Awards nominations its first year, winning eight including Outstanding Drama Series, so NBC ordered a second season. It’s the lowest-rated series to ever get such a deal.
“When the Emmy nominations were announced, I was dumbfounded. I thought I was about to be unemployed and we ended up being the most-awarded show that year,” Sikking says. “I’ve been an actor for 50 years and when I look back at the show, I think it was the best show I was ever on.”
It was that year when Sikking began to understand the importance of viewer demographics. Audiences for “Hill Street Blues” were small, but they were the kind of educated and financially solid group that advertisers have always loved to court.
Each season gave Sikking something new and interesting to play as a way of keeping the growing audience entertained. He used those moments to pick up a 1984 Primetime Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series. His work was so good it made his brother, Art, worry.
“I remember when Howard tried to kill himself. My brother called and asked, ‘You still got a job?’ I said, “Yeah,” and he said, ‘Oh good,’ and then hung up,” Sikking says.