Q&A: Hal Linden reflects on career from ‘Barney Miller’ to Arthur Miller

The TV icon shares memories of the sitcom “Barney Miller” and dishes on his newest role in Arthur Miller’s “The Price” at Arena Stage.

WASHINGTON — He earned seven Emmy nods in the title of role of TV’s “Barney Miller.”

Now, Hal Linden stars in Arthur Miller’s “The Price” at Arena Stage from Oct. 6 to Nov. 12.

“The title is a metaphor for the price we pay for the decisions that we make,” Linden told WTOP. “As he says in the show, ‘Sometimes the biggest decisions are the ones you don’t even know you’re making’ — until the results start coming and then you’re stuck with them.”

Directed by Seema Sueko, the play follows Victor Franz, who returns home to settle his late father’s estate. Rummaging through an attic filled with furniture, Franz meets quirky appraiser Gregory Solomon (Hal Linden), who simply wants to profit off of Victor’s past. Will Franz and Solomon reach a financial deal, or will Victor reconsider the price of personal sacrifices?

“[Miller] has the ability to plumb an emotional moment and put it in a few words, interesting, not cliched words, fascinating words,” Linden said. “The work that we did plumbing those depths was worth everything that we’ll ever do; just stopping at every word and saying, ‘Why does he use that word? How do you feel about what he said?’ That kind of digging. I hope everyone who comes to see it enjoys it, but let me tell you, I already got the most out of it!”

It’s a homecoming for Linden, whose creative career was sparked at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia.

“That was the turning point in my life,” Linden said. “When I went into the army, I was stationed at Ft. Belvoir in the band playing the clarinet. I’d never set foot on a stage, I had no interest in the stage, I never even went to the theater! When I got out of the service, it coincided with the end of the big-band era. … I gave theater a shot and look what happened.”

Linden loved the rush of performing on stage for the troops, so he entered showbiz in New York, taking acting classes while playing with the Ray Charles Singers on “Perry Como Live.”

“I used my G.I. Bill and went to the American Theatre Wing and started auditioning for the summer stock,” Linden said. “I got the audition, won the job and for the next couple of years I did both. I’d do a season of summer stock, then I’d come home and play weddings and bar mitzvahs, until I finally got my shot on Broadway, got my big break and started a career.”

That big break came in Broadway’s “Bells Are Ringing” (1956) across Hollywood moviestar Judy Holliday, who had already won an Academy Award for her role in “Born Yesterday” (1950).

“That was my first step on a Broadway stage! How’s that for a high bar?” Linden said. “The standby to the leading man was leaving. … I happened to be [dating] with a girl who was in the show. … She went to the stage manager and said, ‘I know someone who’d be perfect for this.’ … I came back three or four times auditioning [and] I guess I fit. Judy said OK.”

He’ll never forget a generous lesson that Holliday taught him on stage.

“Judy Holliday was the most sharing actress I’ve ever worked with,” Linden said. “I took her in my arms and I started singing, ‘Just in time, I found you just in time.’ All of a sudden, I felt her hand on my back, twisting me. I realized she was twisting me so I was facing the audience and not singing into the wings. How do you not fall in love? Her back was to the audience!”

While Holliday won the Tony Award for her performance, Linden continued to pay his dues.

“A decade as an understudy and stand-by, the most frustrating decade of my life,” Linden said. “But an interesting decade for me because that’s when I got married, that’s when I had four children, all in that time. … So 12 years of really struggling in the vineyards, but personal growth and personal milestones, then to ‘The Rothschilds,’ which was a fascinating moment.”

His acclaim finally came in “The Rothschilds” (1971), winning him the Tony for Best Actor.

“It was the first time a song was written for me personally,” Liden said. “A team like [Sheldon] Harnick and [Jerry] Bock, they actually wrote two songs for me. The song in Detroit was ‘In My Own Lifetime,’ my signature song now, and the second song in Philly was called ‘Coins.'”

Little did he know that his Tony-winning performance would be his entry point into television.

“The man who eventually wrote and produced ‘Barney Miller’ happened to see ‘Rothschilds,'” Linden said. “I never auditioned for ‘Barney Miller.’ He saw the role, he saw me and when he was putting the character together, I was the guy he had in mind. … This is a strange business, how one thing leads to another and how sometimes great things lead to nothing.”

Created by Danny Arnold and Theodore J. Flicker, “Barney Miller” followed Linden’s titular police captain trying to maintain order amid the antics of New York’s 12th Precinct. While the show has become a syndicated sitcom classic, it ironically almost never got off the ground.

“The pilot was a failure,” Liden said. “In August they put in the air as ‘ABC Comedy Theater.’ You know what that is? That’s all the dead pilots! It was a dead pilot, it was not picked up. The producer had such faith that he somehow convinced them to do a couple more episodes.”

Not only did the producer go out on a limb, Linden himself had to roll the dice.

“I also had an offer for a Broadway musical [so] what do you do? Do you take two episodes on television as opposed to three or four years of work on Broadway? It was not that easy of a decision and it was made very cavalierly. I waited until the last minute and finally I had to make a decision and I said, ‘Oh, what the hell? We tried Broadway, let’s try television!'”

It wasn’t long before he realized that acting for TV was very different than the stage.

“‘Barney Miller’ was a sitcom that was going to be done live in front of an audience, and I said to myself, ‘I know how to work in front of an audience, maybe I should stick with the audience.’ That’s why I chose to stick with ‘Barney.’ [But] I very quickly learned that the audience in television is not the 400 people sitting in the stands but the camera [and the millions] who eventually watch at home. So I chose it for the wrong reason, but it worked out.”

Thankfully, the show found its audience and lasted from 1974 to 1982.

“It was not a new formula,” Linden said. There had been ‘gang comedies’ for decades, going back to Phil Silvers and Sgt. Bilko. The year that ‘Barney Miller’ went on, there were seven gang comedies; ‘Barney’ was the only one that survived. So it wasn’t the formula, it was the execution. You had possibly the best writing staff. The show lived for eight seasons because it was one of the best written shows. There were no comedians in the original company!”

He says the key to laughter is emphasizing the “situation” in the “situation comedy.”

“It wasn’t portrayed humor, it was situational,” Linden said. “We used to take out punchlines ’cause all you had to do was cut back to a guy’s look and the audience knew what the joke was. … The writing was superb. We did not adlib. You didn’t find us coming up with funny stuff, because it was there. It turned into one of the best acting repertory companies.”

That included Max Gail as Det. Wojo, Ron Glass as Det. Harris and Abe Vigoda as Det. Fish.

“[Abe] auditioned for a different part,” Linden said. “One of the detectives had an Italian name and his agent sent him up because of his association with ‘The Godfather’ [1972]. When Danny took one look at him, he said, ‘No, I have a different idea,’ and he created Fish for Abe.”

If you look closely, the criminals were also recurring players.

“Even the people we arrested were repertory,” Linden said, laughing. “There were people who did six or seven ‘Barney Millers’ as six or seven different characters over the years because they were so good. It became like a repertory company. It was classic because of that.”

Does he have a favorite episode?

“The quintessential ‘Barney Miller’ episode — if ever I have to pick one that somebody shows — is the hash brownies episode, which was just amazing,” Linden said. “The one that I recall most is one that I directed. … It featured Steve Landesberg and a woman who came in to complain; she had her purse stolen, and the byplay between the two of them [was] a joy.”

Now, after seven decades of work, the 86-year-old Linden will receive Arena Stage’s American Artist Award, which will be presented during the opening night of “The Pajama Game” on Nov. 8.

“Lifetime Achievement Award, my god,” Linden joked. “One doesn’t think of his career as a body of work — just a bunch of jobs back to back. It’s terrific. It’s a great honor, especially for an organization as prestigious as Arena Stage. I will be as humble as I can, so I gotta study a little humility between now and then! … I knew too many magnificent performers who just never had the opportunity to publicly shine. … I was a very lucky, lucky human being.”

Click here for more on “The Price.” Listen to our full conversation with Hal Linden below:

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