Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Hal Linden made his Broadway debut in 1957, after he’d been singing and playing music for more than a decade. He became one of the most famous faces on the primetime landscape when he took on the title role in the long-running and critically acclaimed sitcom Barney Miller in 1975. Barney Miller came to a close after eight seasons, but Linden has yet to stop working. He’s tried his hand at a few more TV series (Blacke’s Magic, Jack’s Place) and guest-starred on many others, continued his work in the theater, and toured his nightclub act. He can currently be seen in the indie mob comedy Stevie D.
Hal Linden: When people used to approach me, having seen me, they’d always mention what they saw me in. Back in the day when most of it was Broadway—before I hit television, I had done a whole bunch of Broadway shows. And it really got to me—in a good way!—when people would say, “I saw you in…” and then mention a play that lasted, like, a week. Because the truth of the matter is, you put the same energy, the same effort, into doing the bombs that you did in doing the success. So if somebody comes up and remembers something that I worked really hard on but that I figured 11 people saw… That, to me, was always the best. So go ahead.
Stevie D (2016)—“Max Levine”
HL: First of all, when you’re playing an agent, already you’re playing the enemy. [Laughs.] But he was a guy who spent his life trying to help people and doing the best he could, and the world just changed around him. When you’re still making phone calls and everybody else is texting, you’re in trouble… and that’s unfortunately my life! Well, not actually my life. I text, I email. But there are still things I don’t know how to do.
The A.V. Club: Did you get to pick your own bow tie?
HL: [Laughs.] No, but I did pick for it to be a bow tie!
AVC: Were you able to bring any of your own experiences with agents into your performance?
HL: Well, the truth of the matter is that I’ve had very few agents in my life, considering the amount of time I’ve been in the business. I don’t want to take the time to count them now, but I can say that I could probably count on one hand the number of agents I’ve had. No, seriously! I think I’ve had more managers than I’ve had agents. Because I always figured agents are doing the best they can. What they want to do is get you the work so they can get a percentage. They have the incentive to get you the work. If you’re not salable… A lot of actors blame their agents for the fact that their careers are in the dumps, but usually it’s because your career is in the dumps. It’s not the agent’s fault! [Laughs.] So I never had an adversarial relationship with agents.
Then again, in my case, I’ve really been in two businesses: For most of my career, I’ve been not only an actor, but also a performer, doing concerts, and that’s an entirely different business from the agencies that deal with acting. So I’ve always had a manager to keep the two in line, to make the decisions and to control the two different areas of the business. I’ve gone through a series of very fine, wonderful relationships with managers—most of which, unfortunately, ended through death!—and I now have two managers: one for the concert business and one for the acting business. So I’ve never really had that much personal relationship with the agents, but I always assumed they were doing as good a job as they could.
Producers’ Showcase (1957)—chorus member
AVC: You’d obviously been working for some time on the stage before you got around to stepping in front of a camera. But based on IMDB, it looks like the first time it happened was for a musical production of Ruggles Of Red Gap that aired as an episode of Producers’ Showcase.
HL: Listen, this could be the longest interview of our lives if you start me on that. [Laughs.] I mean, let’s face it: Now you’re talking [Broadway composer] Jule Styne. Jule Styne was one of the big things in my life. I was the understudy in Bells Are Ringing, which Jule Styne wrote, and he loved my work. I ended up playing the role, and I was Jule Styne’s go-to guy! If he needed a demo record for a song he just wrote, he called me in, and I’d sing it for him—whatever he needed. It was a terrific relationship, particularly for an unemployed actor. So he had written this, and he’d cast me. The one major number we did was a barbershop-quartet number, I think.
It was interesting, though. I don’t know if you’re into musicals, but here’s a little gem for you about self-plagiarism. You probably know the famous story of Richard Rodgers and “Blue Moon.” He tried to write the song 15 times. Every time, he’d put a new lyric to the same song, but it didn’t go anywhere until he got to “Blue Moon,” and then it was a hit! [Laughs.] Well, Jule Styne did this a lot.
Ruggles Of Red Gap had to do with a Fourth Of July celebration, and one of the numbers… I think it was Peter Lawford who sang it, but it was a tune called “I’m In Pursuit Of Happiness.” And even though I think it was actually recorded—in fact, I know it was, because I remember making the record!—he still took the song three or four years later, called it “You’ll Never Get Away from Me,” and put it into Gypsy! [Laughs.]
He did that a couple of times… that I knew of! He may have done it many, many more times. He did it with a number from Funny Girl. In a show called Subways Are For Sleeping, which I was in as an understudy, it had a song with a section that went, [Singing.] “Go buy her a rose / Twelve of those / Buy her a ring / A simple thing…” And the show was a flop. It closed, and then four years later the melody was in “Don’t Rain On My Parade” in Funny Girl and was a hit for Barbra Streisand. So there you go. Next! [Laughs.]
Car 54, Where Are You? (1963)—“Asst. DA Clark” (uncredited)
Search For Tomorrow (1969)—“Larry Carter”
AVC: Had you been at all interested in transitioning into television?
HL: In 1957? Are you kidding? What was on TV that I cared about? Nothing! [Laughs.] On top of that, they weren’t doing as much TV in New York then as they were in L.A. And I was a New Yorker. I wasn’t about to go to Hollywood to try and be an actor. TV was just something I watched when I was unemployed. Of course, as I eventually got a career going and they started doing some more things in New York, I did… I think it was an episode of Car 54, Where Are You? or something like that. That was shot in New York. But I was concentrating on making a career on Broadway. Definitely. No question about it.
AVC: It looks like you finally began to ease more toward television when you did an arc on Search For Tomorrow.
HL: My lord. Not an arc. A day! [Laughs.] And not only was it only a day, but it was a flashback, so we shot it separately. It wasn’t shot with the rest of series, because everybody had to get into period costumes and makeup.
When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? (1979)—“Richard Ethridge”
HL: I got to work opposite Lee Grant. I got to have a love scene with Lee Grant! C’mon! [Laughs.] It was an interesting character, and I thought it was a terrific picture, and it lasted three weeks and went away. What can I tell you? Again, your failures are just as much a part of your career as your successes and just as much a part of your memory as your successes. I remember that it was a terrific experience working on that role, though. [Director] Milton [Katselas] was very astute vis-à-vis acting. I don’t know how he was with cameras. I won’t judge him there. But for acting, boy, he really was terrific. And it was a great experience working with Lee Grant.
I Do! I Do! (1983)—“He (Michael)”
AVC: A few years later, you worked with another Lee—Lee Remick—on I Do! I Do!
HL: A wonderful lady. And she was terrific in that. She was the best in that role that I’d ever seen… and that was played on Broadway by Mary Martin. Ethel Merman, I think, also played it for awhile. But, yeah, Lee Remick was terrific. Boy, this is great! [Laughs.]
A New Life (1988)—“Mel Arons”
HL: That was terrific. I did an audition for Alan [Alda]. You know, he wrote it. I auditioned in his manager’s office in New York. I was in New York at the time, and I think I just happened to be in the same building, and they said, “Run up and read for it!” And I read, and I did one line in a way that I guess he never anticipated, and he got hysterical laughing over it. [Laughs.] So I suspect that’s what got me the part.
That was a lot of fun, too, to play a shallow guy. Everything becomes momentary. Everything becomes, “How does it feel at this moment?” No depth to the man at all. A wonderful character. Also three weeks in the theaters and out. One of Alan’s few non-successes. Everything else he’s done turned to gold. I had worked with Alan on Broadway. We did The Apple Tree together, so I knew Alan, and we had a wonderful relationship. We still do to this day. But unfortunately I got the one that didn’t work. [Laughs.] The only Alan Alda picture that wasn’t a major success! What does that tell you about my career?
Jack’s Place (1992-93)—“Jack Evans”
HL: You know, right away, it was written for me. Jack Evans was a bandleader who had kind of retired from the music business and opened a restaurant, and yet he still had a personality that dealt with people as an entertainer, if you will. So there was this big-band background, and I actually wrote a theme song for the show, one for Jack that should’ve been played by his big band. That’s what we talked about, anyway. But we never actually did it on the show. I ended up doing it in my nightclub act, though. [Laughs.] They actually wrote it into an episode, though, one with Allen Garfield guest-starring. The song was called “Meet Me At Jack’s,” and the episode was kind of a reunion—he was a piano player, and he had a story—and part of the episode involved us sitting down and writing the song, and then we recorded it. So it’s lying out there somewhere!
I’ll give you another wonderful little episode about Jack’s Place. It was actually very imaginative. When I read it originally, I said, “It’s kind of a land-bound Love Boat.” Because, you know, it’s the stories of the people who visit. And, yeah, in a sense it was. But when we shot it, the writers were wonderful. They put in all kinds of whimsy and imaginative stuff. I was really proud of it. It was really good. We originally did six episodes in the summer, and it was a big hit! It was on Tuesday night at 10 o’clock. And then they picked up an order for another half season, we went to Vancouver to shoot it, and we were hoping to get that 10-o’clock Tuesday time slot again, because it was successful there. But between the time when we started shooting and the time they had put us on the air, there was a change in command at ABC. Now, I don’t have to tell you what happens when there’s a change in command. You know, the first thing you’ve got to prove is that the guy before you was an idiot, right? [Laughs.]
So here came this decision: When are they going to put us on the air? Because they had it in the can, and we had contracts, so he had to put us on. And you know when he put us on? Opposite the last 13 weeks of Cheers. That’s when he put us on. You wonder why it only ran for 13 weeks? In fact, I don’t even think it ran 13. But that’s Hollywood. There you go.
Hal Linden With The Jack Evans Orchestra, “Meet Me At Jack’s” (1993)
Herb Jeffries, “Cow Cow Boogie” (1995)
AVC: It looks like the theme song for Jack’s Place did end up getting released on a 45. That’s what it says on Discogs.com, anyway.
HL: Oh, did it? Well, I wrote it!
AVC: And Tom Scott arranged it, apparently.
HL: Yes! That was a fascinating experience. That was the very beginning for me of arrangers arranging electronically. He put the whole thing together on a computer, and he played it for me! He didn’t even have to have musicians in to play it! [Laughs.] I’m used to the guy writing the number, you stage it for the show, then the arranger comes in, watches it, and writes an arrangement in a hotel room. It’s three guys copying it out, and then when they get musicians, that’s the first time you hear it. So that was my introduction to electronic music arranging. Very interesting.
AVC: There’s another interesting credit in your discography: You reportedly played clarinet on a version of “Cow Cow Boogie” for Herb Jeffries.
HL: Now, wait a minute. I’m trying to remember if we recorded it or not. I think “Cow Cow Boogie” came before me. But I played it with Herb many times. Herb was a dear friend, and we used to play in golf tournaments together, for instance, and they’d always ask Herb to sing something. And he’d call me up, and we’d do “Cow Cow Boogie” or whatever. I’ve done that for a lot of people, and I know I did some recording for some people, but I’ll bow to your information. I don’t remember.
AVC: Well, in this case, the information seems to have been taken straight from the liner notes of a compilation of Herb’s best stuff, so it’s relatively official info.
HL: Then that may be. But let me nonetheless warn you about believing everything you read. Somebody said to me, “You’ve got a Wikipedia page!” I said, “Oh, yeah?” And the first thing it said was that I was dead. [Laughs.] So don’t take it too seriously!
Gilmore Girls (2002)—“Chad”
AVC: You’ve done a number of one-offs, including an episode of Gilmore Girls.
HL: Yeah, where I danced!
AVC: With Emily Gilmore, no less.
HL: And we did a Lindy. I wasn’t very good, I must say. I was never a good Lindy dancer.
AVC: When you’re doing one-off episode appearances, do you usually audition, or are you being asked for specifically?
HL: Both. In that case, I don’t think I auditioned for it. I don’t remember. But I love auditioning. My agents hate it. Agents always hate it. They say, [Huffily.] “You don’t have to audition! You’re a star! They know what you can do!” Well, they don’t know what I can do. I love auditioning, because you get to play a scene your way. And if the writer doesn’t agree with it, then you don’t get the gig. [Laughs.] But that’s okay.
Supernatural (2013)—“Rabbi Isaac Bass”
AVC: You also popped up in an episode of Supernatural a few years ago: You played Rabbi Isaac Bass in an episode entitled “Everybody Hates Hitler.”
HL: [Laughs.] Was it? I didn’t even remember that’s what they called it! Yeah, that was interesting. A lot of people saw that. A lot of people, considering I had never heard of the show when I did it. Which was in, like, its eighth year already by the time I did it. I don’t know how many years it ran.
AVC: It’s still on, believe it or not.
HL: It’s still on! [Laughs.] And I’d never heard of it! But I went up there to Vancouver and did it, and it was… Yeah, it was interesting. That one I get burned up in. How about that? That’s memorable!
The Drew Carey Show (1999)—“Mr. Van Zandt”
HL: A-ha! That was a tough one, because for some reason he was Dutch, and I don’t do a good Dutch accent. I do a German accent. I couldn’t do a Dutch accent. But Drew Carey had a period where he wanted to be a musical star, and he used to do musical numbers in his show, remember? And that was the point: He brought me in to play Van Zandt, and we did that song from How To Succeed In Business. [Sings.] “There is a brotherhood / Of man!” So it was a big, fully staged number with a chorus and all of them dancing on desks. And every time I see Drew, he reminds me that we did that together, which brings up an interesting function: When you do something creative with people, it’s always a part of your shared history. Even actors you don’t like, if you’ve done something creative with them, you’re kind of co-parents.
The Hal Linden Special (1979)/Hal Linden’s Big Apple (1980)—himself
AVC: In 1979, you had an honor bestowed upon you that was among the highest that any performer could receive in the ’70s: You had your very own variety special.
HL: I did two, actually. The first one was just called The Hal Linden Special, I think. Ken and Mitzie Welch wrote it and produced it. They were the writers of all the musicals that Carol Burnett used to do on her show. Remember those mini-musicals she used to do? I did one with her. Well, Ken and Mitzie wrote all of those, and they wrote that special. They wrote it all for me—all original music for an all-original musical based on my life, as it were—and it started a relationship between Ken and Mitzie and myself. I brought them in to look at my act, and they rewrote it about two or three times. And I continued to know them until Mitzie died about two years ago. They were wonderful, imaginative people. Just terrific. Terrific people. And it was a wonderful musical. But—again!—it was put in a terrible time slot, so it never did really big numbers. I did one more special, which was also terrific and was another original musical.
The first one, The Hal Linden Special, was about making it. The fact of the matter is that when I did Barney Miller, I was given the title “Newcomer Of The Year” from many of those fan magazines. [Snorts.] Considering I was in my 40s at the time, it was a strange appellation. And that was the concept of the special: It was about what it took to “make it.” And my guests were three other people who had toiled in the vineyards with me. I’d done some stock with them, I’d done chorus with them, and we all had kind of “made it.” That was Linda Lavin, Bonnie Franklin, and Skipper Damon. Cathryn Damon.
It was all about what we had to go through to make it: being in the chorus, doing industrial shows, doing commercials—whatever it took to make it in the business. And I remember the switch was, there was one number called “It’s About Time,” which was about a train leaving. We were in the chorus. I was the conductor of the train, two other people were the stars, and we were in the back, trying to get seen. And when we finally got to the end of the show, after all the things we’d been through, someone said, “So how do you really feel about it?” I said, “Well, I’ll tell you the truth: It’s about time!” And we did another version of that same number, saying, “What the hell took so long?” [Laughs.] It was unapologetic, and it was just wonderful. If you ever get a chance to see it, catch it.
And the second one was called Hal Linden’s Big Apple, and it had to do with my going back to New York to receive an award and touring New York, which was where I grew up and where I started. And I just have to say again: all original songs. Ken and Mitzie Welch really were just terrific.
The Saga Of The Dingbat (1964)—cast member
Flush Left, Stagger Right (1966)—cast member
AVC: Since you mentioned industrial shows a moment ago… On your discography, there’s also a listing for the cast recording of a musical called The Saga Of The Dingbat.
HL: The Saga Of The Dingbat! It was done at the Plaza Hotel. I believe Arte Johnson was in it! Or if he wasn’t in that one, he might’ve been in Stagger Left, Flush Right, which was another industrial musical. [Laughs.] But there were a whole bunch of really talented musical performers in them. I don’t think they made it, so you won’t recognize them. I think Arte’s is the only one you’d recognize. But The Saga Of The Dingbat was about the [New York] Herald Tribune. I guess “dingbat” has some meaning in a press room. I don’t know. But it was about an hour long, and it was a full-fledged original musical about the press and, I guess, what was happening at the time.
Interestingly enough, that’s what got Arte and I together, and we actually sat down and starting talking about doing a nightclub act, the two of us. Arte’s short, I’m tall. He’s a tenor, I’m a baritone. He can sing, I can sing, so we could do duets. I would play straight man to his comedy. That was the idea. In those days, there were Martin and Lewis, Allen and Rossi… It was viable. It was the early ’60s. Basically, the reason we were in a hurry to get it done and get it working was so that we could call the act Linden And Johnson. [Laughs.] That was the hook! It was during his presidency. And it was ready to go. Unfortunately, Arte changed his mind, moved out to Los Angeles, and did a little something called Laugh-In, and I was left behind. It took me another 10 years to get to California!
Blacke’s Magic (1986)—“Alexander Blacke”
HL: [Richard] Levinson and [William] Link, they had done Columbo. They had done Angela Lansbury’s Murder, She Wrote. And Levinson, I believe, was a magic freak. He loved magic. That was his concept: a magician solving crimes. Also mishandled by the network. We did it, and there was a question of the pickup [for the back half of the season], and the reason why they didn’t was because they had one other show that had a woman as the lead, so they went for that because it was politically correct to do. So you get all kinds of reasons why.
AVC: Well, it looks like you and Harry Morgan had fun, anyway.
HL: Yes! He was a terrific guy. No agenda. Easy. “Let’s do this! What’s the best way to do it?” And that was it. No ego. A terrific guy. That’s not to say that I haven’t worked with actors with egos, but… we’ll leave it at that!
Starflight: The Plane That Couldn’t Land (1983)—“Josh Gilliam”
AVC: We actually just talked to Lee Majors about this film.
HL: Lee gave me a lesson in how to act in TV movies. He did all of his scenes sitting behind the wheel of that plane, and so consequently, the camera was facing him from outside the plane, looking through the windshield. Well, he had all his lines on the instrument panel! So he’d check the instrument panel, read his lines, check the instrumental panel, read his lines. [Laughs.] And I ended up in a coffin in that one, didn’t I?
AVC: I believe you did, yes.
HL: I thought so. Boy, it’s been a terrific life! I’ve been in some wonderful things, and I’ve already been in a coffin, so I can just skip that part, right? [Laughs.]
Out To Sea (1997)—“Mac Valor”
HL: Ah! Also fascinating! Donald O’Connor and I played dancing teachers, right? Well, they actually had a dance number, with all the people dancing a cha-cha or something, and they didn’t feature Donald, they featured me! [Laughs.] Can you imagine that? There was one scene in that where we as the dance instructors were teaching the Macarena. Do you remember the Macarena in the ’90s?
AVC: Oh, yes.
HL: Donald came to me and said, “I don’t know this dance. Do you know it?” I said, “I don’t know it. But they’ll teach it to us. We’ll learn it.” He could never learn it. [Laughs.] Donald O’Connor couldn’t learn the Macarena!
Brent Spiner had a nice role in that. It was interesting. He played the cruise director, so we worked for him. He was the villain to us. [Laughs.] And as the cruise director, he used to close by singing with the band, which some cruise directors do. At the very end of the picture, he gets fired, and they give me his job. So I suggested to the director, “Well, why don’t I sing his song?” And I ended up singing his song, really badly! But it was a lot of fun. Listen, working with [Walter] Matthau and [Jack] Lemmon… What can I tell you? Just watch them.
The Love Boat (1976)—“Andrew Canaan”
AVC: This seems like a nice segue into discussing your role in the first Love Boat TV movie.
HL: Yeah, it was the pilot! It’s funny what you remember. You know what I remember from that one? The difference between television and films. There was a scene in which I seduced Karen Valentine. That was the point of the scene: I got her to my room, and I was trying to seduce her. Well, the set designer had designed portholes for the room, and outside the portholes you could see a railing. A lot of ships have that. You have a porthole, but they’re not on the outside of the boat. They’re situated so that people can walk past them. So I said, “Excuse me, but if I’m going to seduce the lady, can’t we close the porthole so that people can’t look in?” But the set designer was so in love with the portholes that they wouldn’t do it!
AVC: That’s bizarre.
HL: Of course it’s bizarre! [Laughs.] I said, “Either that, or take out the railing so it looks like it’s the side of the ship, looking out to sea, where nobody can look in, but come on, I can’t…” But they wouldn’t do it. They did the scene with the railing.
Animals, Animals, Animals (1976-80)—host
AVC: How did you come to host Animals, Animals, Animals?
HL: You know, it wasn’t my idea. [Laughs.] Somebody came up with the concept and looked around for a host, and they asked me to do it. And it was a lovely experience for the many years that we shot that, because I shot the whole season all in a week or so. Because I was never in any of the parts of it. I just introduced the parts. So we would go down to San Diego and shoot my segments at the zoo, in the wild-animal park there, and either I would hold the animal or stand in the cage of the animal we were talking about. In that series, I was scratched, bitten, peed on, mauled, attacked by all kinds of animals. I remember running from a swan! Don’t fool with swans. They’re not friendly. [Laughs.]
I once held up a jar with a tarantula in it, and I did the dialogue, and while I was doing the dialogue, the tarantula crawled out of the jar and up my arm. And one time I was holding a monkey, and the monkey all of a sudden got mad at something and bit into my arm! Yeah, that was quite an experience, that one. But it was fun. Every June we’d go away for a week or two and shoot the whole season.
Barney Miller (1975-82)—“Capt. Barney Miller”
AVC: The story goes that [series creator] Danny Arnold wanted you for the role because he unexpectedly ended up going to see The Rothchilds on Broadway, saw your performance, and remembered you.
HL: And he offered me the part! But at the time, I had a musical in one hand and a TV series in the other hand, and I very cavalierly said, “Well, we’ve done Broadway. Let’s try television.” A cavalier decision, but look how it impacted my life. Can you imagine if I’d made the other decision? The show folded in three weeks!
AVC: What was the musical?
HL: It was called Doctor Jazz. I don’t even know anything about it. I just know they had me in it because the lead was a New Orleans jazz musician, so I was going to play the clarinet and everything. But I never got that close. [Laughs.] I just decided, “Let’s try television.”
AVC: Barney was obviously the straight man far more often than not…
HL: Far more often? Always! [Laughs.] I didn’t have much funny to say in the whole run!
AVC: Did you grow resigned to it at a certain point?
HL: Well, in the beginning, you didn’t know. It was just a script. It was about you, you executed it, and you didn’t know what was next. Or I didn’t know, anyway. But then we got to the hash brownies episode, which is probably the quintessential Barney Miller episode. And if you notice in that, everybody’s got an aria. Everybody’s got a moment to react stoned. Jack Soo sings. Abe Vigoda leaped from building to building. Max [Gail] started to cry. Ron Glass giggled. Everybody had their own little reaction to it… except me. Because I said, “I’m putting on too much weight. I don’t want any brownies.” And at some point, either while we were shooting it or afterwards, I said to Danny, “Everybody gets an aria but me.” And he said—and this is the wisdom, so think about it—“I have to have somebody to compare them to.”
AVC: There you go.
HL: There you go. Structure. It’s been my mantra ever since. If the play’s got structure, you can do almost anything you want in it. But you’ve got to have a legitimate structure that people will accept. And from there on, I said, “That’s my structure. My place is to be the straight person that everybody who’s doing crazy things can be compared to.” So I came to terms with it. That was, what, second or third year? That’s when it was codified. [Laughs.] Up ’til then, I was just playing it piece by piece. I’d get a script and figure out what my function was and how to best accomplish it. But that’s when it was codified for me: “You’re the straight man.” And I thought I was a pretty good straight man.
AVC: It may not surprise you that clips of Harris from the “Hash” episode went viral in the wake of Ron Glass’ death.
HL: [Quietly.] Oh, yeah, sure. Well, I’ll tell you something about Ron Glass, and about the whole casting of the show. Now, eliminate the later casting of Dietrich and Ronny Carey, but the original cast were actors, not comedians. All actors. Max Gail, Ron Glass… We didn’t have any stand-up comics doing their bit or their shtick, which is the way all sitcoms are done: You pick a good comic, and you write a story about them. But they were all actors.
Ron Glass wasn’t just “the black guy playing the black guy.” He came from Guthrie, in Minneapolis. He was a member of that theater company. He was a classically trained actor. So all of the stuff in Barney Miller by all of the actors was approached not as a piece of comedic material but as a piece of acting that had to be accomplished. And quite honestly, I think that’s why the piece stands up today. You can sit down and watch Barney Miller episodes today, and they’re still hysterical. People have seen them a dozen times. Because the construction of the piece was never jokes. There are very few jokes in the show. There’s a lot of situation humor that had to do with character, situation, action… All the stuff of acting, not “straight line, punch line.”
AVC: Do you have a particular favorite Abe Vigoda moment?
HL: [Long pause.] The clip that I have in my last version of my concert act… I’ll probably still use it, but I started with a Barney Miller clip reel, and the clip that I used was one where a guy had been writing filthy things on ladies’ room walls. We had a female cop, and she wanted to go find the guy and arrest him. And I let her go do it, but she says, “Here. I copied this from the wall!” She had a big hunk of paper where she’d scrawled out what was on the wall. And it’s real filthy. [Laughs.]
We don’t read it aloud, but everybody who reads it rolls their eyes. And she puts it on Fish (Vigoda)’s desk, so when he comes in, somebody says, “By the way, Bernice called.” “What did she want?” “I don’t know. There’s probably a message on your desk.” And he picks up this piece of paper, and he reads it quietly to himself. And the looks on his face when he thinks this is a message from Bernice… [Laughs.] He could’ve just sat there and done another take, and another take, and another take… It was vintage Vigoda. And it was hysterical.
Donny And Marie (1976)—himself
AVC: There can’t be many scenes that sum up ’70s variety shows more than you, dressed in a spangled white shirt and white jeans, shaking it for all you’re worth.
HL: I don’t remember that scene! We did a dance number?
AVC: It’s actually just you, singing and disco dancing.
HL: [Bursts out laughing.] I don’t even remember that! What did I sing?
AVC: I can’t remember. The visual memory may be blocking out the audio memory.
HL: And in a disco outfit! Well, look, I’ll tell you the one memory I do have of shooting that show. They knew I played the clarinet and wanted to give me a clarinet number, so they had a cutout of the big band. I’m the band leader, Donny and Marie are the boy and girl singers, and they sing, “Marie / The dawn is breaking…” And I’m conducting the band, and I play jazz for about 16 bars, and then we finish the song.
Well, technically you had to prerecord all that. It wasn’t done live. It was prerecorded, and we lip-synched it… and that means I have to finger-synch the clarinet. I don’t remember what I played. It was jazz! [Laughs.] And if the fingers don’t go with what’s playing, then you lose the whole point of it, which is that I was actually playing it. Anybody could’ve picked up a clarinet, held it, moved their fingers around, and pretended to play. Ninety-eight percent of the audience wouldn’t have known and wouldn’t have been aware of it. But 2 percent would. And that 2 percent… I mean, I thought, “The whole point is that I’m actually playing!”
So I took the track home, and I transcribed my solo onto sheet music. And then in the morning, I got in, and I made cue cards—enormous cue cards—of just music. The 16-bar jazz solo I played, written out, so that when I picked up the clarinet, I actually read what I had played, so the fingers matched the clarinet playing. Now, is that attention to detail or what? [Laughs.]