MTM Enterprises developed the series on behalf of NBC, appointing Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll as series writers. The writers were allowed considerable creative freedom and created a series that brought together, for the first time, a number of emerging ideas in TV drama. Each episode features a number of intertwined storylines, some of which are resolved within the episode, with others developing over a number of episodes throughout a season. The conflicts between the work lives and private lives of the individual characters are also large elements of storylines. In the workplace there is also a strong focus on the struggle between doing "what is right" and "what works". Almost every episode begins with a pre-credit sequence (or "teaser") consisting of (mission) briefing and roll call at the beginning of the day shift (from season three it experimented with a "Previously on . . ." montage of clips of up to six previous episodes before the roll call). Many episodes are written to take place over the course of a single day, and often concluded with Capt. Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) and public defender Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel) in a domestic situation, often in bed, discussing how their respective days went. The show deals with real-life issues and employs commonly used language and slang to a greater extent than had been seen before.
In terms of production, the camera is held close in and action cuts rapidly between stories. The extensive use of overheard or off-screen dialogue gives a "documentary" feel to the action. Rather than studio (floor) cameras, handheld Arriflex cameras were used to add to the documentary feel.
Although filmed in Los Angeles (both on location and at CBS Studio Center in Studio City), the series is set in a generic unnamed inner-city location with a feel of a U.S. urban center in the Midwest or Northeast. Bochco had intended this fictional city to be a hybrid of Chicago, Buffalo and Pittsburgh. However, at the beginning of season 7, episode 17, one of the police cars is driving past a sign indicating an approach to Interstate 90 and Interstate 94. Pittsburgh is in Allegheny County while Interstate 90 only runs in Erie County, approximately 150 miles (240 km) apart. Although Interstate 90 does run to Buffalo, Interstate 94 goes no farther east than Michigan. The only major city where both Interstate 90 and Interstate 94 run is in Chicago. Also, the police cars are duplicates of the Chicago Police Dept. vehicles, except that instead of saying "Chicago Police" on the sides of the cars it says "Metro Police". Additionally, a corner tavern sporting a Heileman Old Style beer sign appears in the opening title sequence. A regional beer brewed in Wisconsin, Heileman's was a dominant product in the Chicago-Milwaukee area during the time the show was in production.
The program's focus on failure and those at the bottom of the social scale is pronounced, very much in contrast to Bochco's later project L.A. Law. Inspired by police procedural detective novels such as Ed McBain's 1956 Cop Hater, the show has been described as Barney Miller out of doors; the focus on the bitter realities of 1980s urban living was revolutionary for its time (later seasons were accused of becoming formulaic). Some trace the origins of this shift to the death of Michael Conrad (Sgt. Phil Esterhaus) midway through season four, leading to the replacement of the beloved Sgt. Esterhaus by Sgt. Stan Jablonski, played by Robert Prosky. In this respect, the series that broke the established rules of television could be said to have ultimately failed to break its own rules. Nonetheless, it is a landmark piece of television programming, the influence of which was seen in such series as NYPD Blue and ER. In 1982, St. Elsewhere was hyped as Hill Street Blues in a hospital. The quality work done by MTM led to the appointment of Grant Tinker as NBC chairman in 1982.
In season seven, producers received scripts from acclaimed writers outside of television: Bob Woodward and David Mamet.
Beverly Hills Buntz was a short-lived Dennis Franz spin-off. The dismissed Lt. Norman Buntz character (Franz) moves from the Hill to Los Angeles to become a private eye, taking along Sid "the Snitch" Thurston (Peter Jurasik) as his sidekick.
The theme song was written by Mike Post (featuring Larry Carlton on guitar), was released as a single and reached #10 on Billboard's Hot 100 in November 1981.
Pilot: Brandon Tartikoff commissioned a series from MTM Productions, which assigned Bochco and Kozoll to the project. The pilot was produced in 1980, but was held back as a mid-season replacement so as not to get lost among the other programs debuting in the fall of 1980. Barbara Bosson, who was married to Bochco, had the idea to fashion the series into four- or five-episode story "arcs". Robert Butler directed the pilot, developing a look and style inspired by the 1977 documentary The Police Tapes, in which filmmakers used handheld cameras to follow police officers in the South Bronx. Butler went on to direct the first four episodes of the series, and Bosson had hoped he would stay on permanently. However, he felt he was not being amply recognized for his contributions to the show's look and style and left to pursue other projects. He would return to direct just one further episode, "The Second Oldest Profession" in season two.
Season 1: The pilot aired on Thursday, January 15, 1981, at 10:00 pm, which would be the show's time slot for nearly its entire run. The second episode aired two nights later; the next week followed a similar pattern (episode 3 on Thursday, episode 4 on Saturday). NBC had ordered 13 episodes and the season was supposed to end on May 25 with a minor cliffhanger (the resolution of Sgt. Esterhaus' wedding). Instead, growing critical acclaim prompted NBC to order an additional four episodes to air during May sweeps. Bochco and Kozoll fashioned this into a new story arc, which aired as two two-hour episodes to close the season. One new addition with these final four episodes was Ofc. Joe Coffey (Ed Marinaro), who originally had died in the first season finale's broadcast.
In early episodes the opening theme had several clearly audible edits; this was replaced by a longer, unedited version partway through the second season. The end credits for the pilot differed from the rest of the series in that the background still shot of the station house was completely different; it was also copyrighted 1980 instead of 1981. The show became the lowest-rated program ever renewed for a second season. However, it was only renewed for ten episodes. A full order was picked up partway through the season.
Season 2: A writers strike pushed the start of the season forward to October 29, meaning that only 19 episodes were completed that year. Kozoll was now listed as a consultant, signifying his diminished role in the show. He later stated he was already feeling burnt out, and in fact was relying more on car chases and action to fill the scripts. A less muted version of the closing theme was played over the end credits.
Season 3: Kozoll left the show at the end of season two, replaced for the most part by Anthony Yerkovich (who later created Miami Vice after leaving Hill Street Blues at the end of this season) and David Milch. This was the show's most popular in terms of viewership, as it finished at @21. This was also the birth of "Must See TV", as the show was joined by Cheers, Taxi and Fame. The network promoted Thursdays as "the best night of television on television." Michael Conrad was increasingly absent from the show due to his ongoing battle with cancer.
Season 4: Following his death on November 22, 1983, Michael Conrad's final appearance was broadcast halfway through the season in February 1984 in a memorable send-off episode, "Grace Under Pressure". Det. Harry Garibaldi (Ken Olin) was introduced at the end of the season as a temporary replacement for the disgraced Det. J.D. LaRue (Kiel Martin). The show won its fourth and final Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series this season.
Season 5: The show changed drastically this season, entering a somewhat "soap opera-ish" period according to Bochco. New characters included Sgt. Stanislaus Jablonski (Robert Prosky) and Det. Patsy Mayo (Mimi Kuzyk). Det. Garibaldi was now a regular, while Mrs. Furillo (Bosson) became a full-time member of the squad room. Bochco was dismissed at season's end by then-MTM President Arthur Price. The firing was due to Bochco's cost overruns, coupled with the fact that the show had achieved the 100-episode milestone needed to successfully syndicate it.
Betty Thomas won an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress In a Drama Series this season. However, at the awards ceremony, recurring imposter Barry Bremen rushed the stage ahead of Thomas and claimed she was unable to attend. He then claimed the award and left the stage, confusing viewers and robbing Thomas of her moment in the sun, although she returned and spoke after the ad break. Presenter Peter Graves suggested that Bremen was "on his way to the cooler."
Season 6: Major changes occurred as Patsy Mayo, Det. Harry Garibaldi, Lt. Ray Calletano (René Enríquez), Fay Furillo (Barbara Bosson) and Officer Leo Schnitz (Robert Hirschfeld) were all phased out at the start of the season, and Joe Coffey left near the end. The sole addition was Lt. Norman Buntz, played by Dennis Franz, who had played a different character, Det. Sal Benedetto, in several episodes of season 3. Peter Jurasik played a new recurring character called Sid the Snitch, who was often teamed with Buntz. In a 1991 interview on Later with Bob Costas, Ken Olin explained that these characters were removed so that the new show-runners could add characters for which they would receive royalties. Barbara Bosson's departure, however, was voluntary. She left after a salary conflict with the new executive producer who, according to the actress, also wanted her character, Fay, to go back to being the "thorn in her ex-husband's side" which she no longer was by that time.
The season premiere opened with a roll call filled with officers never before seen on the show, briefly fooling viewers into thinking the entire cast had been replaced. It was then revealed that this was, in fact, the night shift. The action then cut to the day shift pursuing their after-work activities. Another unique episode from this season explained through flashbacks how Furillo and Davenport met and fell in love. This was the first season that Travanti and Hamel were not nominated for the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor/Actress in a Drama Series.
Season 7: Officer Patrick Flaherty (played by Robert Clohessy) and Officer Tina Russo (Megan Gallagher) joined this season in an attempt to rekindle the Bates-Coffey relationship of years past. Stan Jablonski became a secondary character part way through this season, and when Travanti announced he would not return the next year, the producers decided to end the show in 1987. The program was also moved to Tuesday nights almost midway through the season after nearly six years to make way for L.A. Law on Thursdays.
This was the only season that Bruce Weitz (Det. Mick Belker) was not nominated for the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series. Only Betty Thomas was nominated, making her the only member of the cast to be nominated all seasons. This was also the only season for which the show was not nominated for Outstanding Drama Series.
The series later aired in reruns on TV Land, Bravo, AmericanLife TV, and NuvoTV. It has been running since Sep., 2015 on Heroes & Icons network. Seasons one through three can also be viewed on hulu.com. Season three can be viewed as streaming video on commercial sites and is also available in many countries from Channel 4 on YouTube.
The producers went to great lengths to avoid specifying where the series took place, even going so far as to obscure whether the call letters of local TV stations began with "W" (the Federal Communications Commission designation for stations east of the Mississippi) or "K" (signifying a station west of the Mississippi). However, a station identified in multiple episodes is WREQ, TV channel 6, indicating that the series is set east of the Mississippi River. Another indication that the series took place in the Midwest or Northeast was Ofc. Renko's (Charles Haid) statement to his partner in the season one episode "Politics As Usual": "Just drop that 'cowboy' stuff. I was born in New Jersey, [and] never been west of Chicago in my life."
Specific references in other episodes to New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, and Columbus, Ohio would exclude those locales, while the clearest indication where the program was set lies in brief and occasional glances at Interstate Highway signs, including one sign designating the junction of I-55 and I-90, which is in Chicago. The police cars resembled those of the Chicago Police Department. There was also one episode that contained a closeup of an el-train with the letters CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) visible. In addition, LaRue's brother-in-law lawyer mentions in an early episode that he has taken out "a four-page ad in the Trib," suggestive of the Chicago Tribune. Additionally, in the Season 7 episode "A Wasted Weekend", the troopers are wearing Illinois State Police insignia.
Show writer Steven Bochco attended college at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh. The run-down, shabby, drug-ridden impression of Pittsburgh's Hill District that Bochco acquired was apparently part of the inspiration for the show.
There are a number of mentions of places that suggest various cities in the northeastern U.S. as the locale (such as the "East River" and the "Lower East Side" that suggest New York City), but most of these point to Chicago as the locale. For instance, in early in season six, "In The Belly of the Bus", the character of Belker is on undercover assignment at an intercity bus terminal on "145th Street", which may be based on the 153rd Street Harvey Transportation Center near Chicago's southern border. And that same episode's title derives from the detectives being knocked unconscious and stowed in a duffle bag by the perpetrator who places it in the cargo section of a bus bound for Springfield, Illinois, as visibly marked on a parcel thrown in at a subsequent stop: as the driving distance between Chicago and Springfield is 200 miles (320 km), that would appear to be about as conclusive as many of the show's establishing shots and credits footage.
Although the series was filmed in Los Angeles, and routinely used locations in downtown Los Angeles, the credits and some stock exterior shots were filmed in Chicago, including the station house, which is the old Maxwell Street police station on Chicago's Near West Side (943 West Maxwell Street). The series frequently used establishing shots, under the credits at the beginning of the first act, showing an Interstate 80 sign, commuter trains entering and leaving the old Chicago and North Western Railway Chicago terminal (the C&NW yellow and green livery was clearly evident), and aerial views of South Side neighborhoods. Exterior views of the Cook County Criminal Courthouse at 26th Street and California Avenue were used to establish court scenes. An exterior view of Philadelphia City Hall represented the state capitol.
During the course of the various episodes, 17 precincts are named: Hill Street, Polk Avenue, Midtown, Von Steuben Avenue, North-East, St James's Park, Michigan Avenue, Washington Heights, South Ferry, West Delavan, Filmore, South Park, Preston Heights, Castle Heights, Richmond Avenue, Farmingdale and Jefferson Heights. Corruption in South Ferry was a prominent feature of the Sullivan Commission in season two, while West Delavan and South Park (infrequently named) were first specifically mentioned by Esterhaus in the opening moments of the season one episode "Freedom's Last Stand". Philmore is named in the opening scene of the episode "The Shooter". The episode "Domestic Beef" introduces Preston Heights and Richmond Avenue, while in the same episode Farmingdale is said to be an easy precinct, suitable for a less able Captain to run. Castle Heights is named only once, by Washington, in the episode "Honk if You're a Goose" while Washington and LaRue are listing officers (and their precincts) who have taken their own lives.
Hill Street Blues refers to the blue uniforms worn by many police officers in the US, and is perhaps an intentional pun on the musical style "blues," which is depressing in its tone ("Hill Street" is the name of the precinct). The phrase is uttered only once within the series, by Detective Emil Schneider (Dolph Sweet) in the first-season episode Gatorbait. Schneider says it in a slightly mocking tone, in reference to officers Hill and Renko, who he feels are out of their league at a particular crime scene. It should be noted, however, that the precinct bowling team is the "Hill Street Blue Ballers."
Officers are listed by the rank they held at first appearance on the program; some officers later held higher ranks.Capt. Francis Xavier "Frank" Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti, 1981–87)Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel, 1981–87)Sgt. Phil Freemason Esterhaus (Michael Conrad, 1981–84)Det. Mick Belker (Bruce Weitz, 1981–87)Sgt. (later Lt.) Henry Goldblume (Joe Spano, 1981–87)Ofc. Bobby Hill (Michael Warren, 1981–87)Ofc. Andy Renko (Charles Haid, 1981–87)Sgt. (later Lt./Sgt./Lt.) Howard Hunter (James B. Sikking, 1981–87)Ofc. (later Sgt.) Lucille Bates (Betty Thomas, 1981–87)Det. J.D. LaRue (Kiel Martin, 1981–87)Det. Neal Washington (Taurean Blacque, 1981–87)Lt. Ray Calletano (later Capt.) (Rene Enriquez, 1981–86)Ofc. Joe Coffey (Ed Marinaro, 1981–86)Fay Furillo (Barbara Bosson, 1981–86)Sgt. Stan Jablonski (Robert Prosky, 1984–87)Det. Harry Garibaldi (Ken Olin, 1984–85)Det. Patricia "Patsy" Mayo (Mimi Kuzyk, 1984–85)Lt. Norman "Guido" Buntz (Dennis Franz, 1985–87)Ofc. Patrick Flaherty (Robert Clohessy, 1986–87)Ofc. Tina Russo (Megan Gallagher, 1986–87)Doris Robson (Alfre Woodard)Chief Fletcher Daniels (Jon Cypher, 1981–87)Ofc. Leo Schnitz (Robert Hirschfeld, 1981–85)Grace Gardner (Barbara Babcock, 1981–85)Jesus Martinez (Trinidad Silva, 1981–87)Capt. Jerry Fuchs (Vincent Lucchesi, 1981–84)Alan Wachtel (Jeffrey Tambor, 1982–87)Captain Freedom (Dennis Dugan, 1982)Assistant D.A. Irwin Bernstein (George Wyner, 1982–87)Ofc. Robin Tattaglia Belker (Lisa Sutton, 1982–87)Det. Sal Benedetto (Dennis Franz, 1983)Gina Srignoli (Jennifer Tilly, 1984–85)Det. Manny Rodriguez (Del Zamora, 1985)Celeste Patterson (Judith Hansen, 1985–86)Sid "The Snitch" Thurston (Peter Jurasik, 1985–87)Hector Ruiz (Panchito Gomez, 1981–85)Judge Lee Oberman (Larry D. Mann, 1983–85)"Buck Naked" flasher (Lee Weaver, 1981–87)Daryl Ann Renko (Deborah Richter, sometimes billed as Debi Richter, 1983–87)Chief Coroner Wally Nydorf (Pat Corley, 1981–1987)
Hill Street Blues received rave reviews from critics initially in general alongside dismal Nielsen ratings. Early schedule switching did not help; the show was broadcast once weekly on four different nights during its first season alone but gradually settled into a Thursday night slot. The NBC Broadcast Standards Unit deemed it too violent, too sexy, too grim. The producers described the show as an hour drama with 13 continuing characters living through a Gordian knot of personal and professional relationships. John J. O'Connor in a May 1981 review charted its growing popularity and called it "a comfortable balance between comedy and drama". The groundbreaking choice to include African-Americans as mainstays in the core ensemble cast and to feature several inter-racial and inter-ethnic cop partnerships drew notice and praise, as did the overlapping plots and examinations of moral conundrums such as police corruption, racism, alcoholism, and both interpersonal and institutional forgiveness.
The show was very influential, with many others imitating its use of handheld cameras, ensemble cast, and multiple overlapping story arcs lasting for several episodes, set in urban decay. Alan Sepinwall wrote in 2014 that it "is on the short list of the most influential TV shows ever made. Whether through shared actors, writers, directors or through stylistic and thematic complexity, its DNA can be found in nearly every great drama produced in the 30-plus years since it debuted". He compared Hill Street Blues to Casablanca, which was so influential on other films that "if you come to see it for the first time after a lifetime of watching the copies, it could be at risk of playing like a bundle of clichés—even though it invented those clichés".
In 1993, TV Guide named the series The All-Time Best Cop Show in its issue celebrating 40 years of television. In 1997, the episode "Grace Under Pressure" was ranked number 49 on TV Guide's 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time. When the list was revised in 2009, "Freedom's Last Stand" was ranked number 57. In 2002, Hill Street Blues was ranked number 14 on TV Guide's 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time, and in 2013 TV Guide ranked it #1 in its list of The 60 Greatest Dramas of All Time and #23 of the 60 Best Series.Shares the record for Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series wins (4, 1981–84) with Mad Men (2008–11), L.A. Law (1987, 1989–91), and The West Wing (2000–03).It has been nominated for the most Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series (16) and Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series (13).The series shares the Emmy Award record for most acting nominations by regular cast members (excluding the guest performer category) for a single series in one year. (Both L.A. Law and The West Wing also hold that record). At the 34th Primetime Emmy Awards, for the 1981–82 season nine cast members were nominated for Emmys. Daniel J. Travanti and Michael Conrad were the only ones to win (for Lead Actor and Supporting Actor respectively). The others nominated were Veronica Hamel (for Lead Actress), Taurean Blacque, Michael Warren, Bruce Weitz, and Charles Haid (for Supporting Actor), and Barbara Bosson and Betty Thomas (for Supporting Actress).At the 34th Primetime Emmy Awards, for the only time in Emmy Award history all five nominees in an acting category (in this case, Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series) were from a single series.The pilot episode, "Hill Street Station" was awarded an Edgar for Best Teleplay from a Series."Hill Street Station" is the only episode in television history to have won the two major best director (Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series and Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing – Drama Series) and the two major best writer awards (Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series and Writers Guild of America Award for Television: Episodic Drama).Over its seven seasons, the show earned 98 Emmy Award nominations, an average of 14 nominations per year.Betty Thomas was the only one in the cast to be nominated in all seasons, also the only one to be nominated in the last season. In 1997, the episode "Grace Under Pressure" was ranked number 49 on TV Guide's 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time. When the list was revised in 2009, "Freedom's Last Stand" was ranked number 57.In 2007, Channel 4 (UK) ranked Hill Street Blues No. 19 on their list of the "50 Greatest TV Dramas."
20th Century Fox released the first two seasons of Hill Street Blues on DVD in Region 1 in 2006. Both releases contain special features including gag reel, deleted scenes, commentary tracks, and featurettes.
On December 5, 2013, it was announced that Shout! Factory had acquired the rights to the series in Region 1. They subsequently released Hill Street Blues: The Complete Series on DVD on April 29, 2014.
In late 2014, they began releasing season sets; they have subsequently released seasons 3–7.
In Region 2, Channel 4 DVD released the first two seasons on DVD in the UK in 2006.
In Region 4, Shock Records released the first three seasons on DVD in Australia on December 4, 2013, and the remaining four seasons on April 30, 2014. On December 4, 2013, Shock Records also released a complete series set.
Hill Street Blues has inspired parodies, storylines, characters, and cultural references in numerous media vehicles.
In 1991, Krisalis Software (developed by Simeon Pashley and Rob Hill) released the computer game, Hill Street Blues, based on the TV show. The game runs on the Amiga, Atari ST, and DOS platforms and places the player in charge of Hill Street Station and its surrounding neighborhood, with the aim of promptly dispatching officers to reported crimes, apprehending criminals, and making them testify at court. If certain areas have less serious crimes unresolved, such as bag-snatching, they soon escalate to more serious ones, such as murder in broad daylight. The game, which now falls into the category abandonware, is still available for download at computer game sites and outlets, and has received mixed reviews.