Why TV’s old Barney Miller still cracks us up: Timeless charm, wit & a killer theme song

Vintage Barney Miller TV show 1970s 1980s at Click Americana

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Barney Miller is a ’70s TV series that offers a unique take on police life, focusing on the detectives of a New York City police station. Led by the level-headed Detective Barney Miller, the show mixes quirky characters and real-world issues, delivering both laughs and thoughtful moments. With its compelling stories and memorable cast, it’s earned a spot as a classic in television history. Old Barney Miller TV series DVD set
Years on air: 1975 to 1982
# of seasons: 8
# of episodes: 168


  • Barney Miller (Played by Hal Linden): The level-headed captain of the 12th Precinct. Serves as the moral compass and voice of reason.
  • Phil Fish (Played by Abe Vigoda): A veteran detective nearing retirement. Often grumpy and cynical, but experienced.
  • Wojo (Stan Wojciehowicz) (Played by Max Gail): A well-meaning but naive detective. Known for his physical strength and sometimes simplistic approach to complex issues.
  • Ron Harris (Played by Ron Glass): An intellectual and stylish detective. Aspires to be a writer and is often seen working on his memoirs.
  • Chano Amengual (Played by Gregory Sierra): A passionate and emotional detective. Known for his Puerto Rican heritage and activism.
  • Nick Yemana (Played by Jack Soo): A laid-back, deadpan detective. Of Japanese descent, Yemana is often tasked with “making the coffee,” which is usually terrible.
  • Carl Levitt (Played by Ron Carey): A short-statured, ambitious officer striving to become a detective. Often overlooked but eager to prove himself.
  • Arthur Dietrich (Played by Steve Landesberg): An intellectual detective with a calm demeanor. Known for his wide-ranging knowledge on an array of topics.
  • Liz Miller (Played by Barbara Barrie): Barney Miller’s supportive but independent wife. Occasionally appears in episodes involving Barney’s personal life.
  • Frank Luger (Played by James Gregory): A senior officer who often visits the 12th Precinct. Out of touch with modern policing but a link to old-school methods.

Barney Miller graced TV screens from 1975 to 1982 — and even today, it’s worth talking about.

Forget those high-octane cop dramas; this series was all about what happens back at the station. The creators, Danny Arnold and Theodore J Flicker, gave audiences something unique: a focus on the human side of police work.

Vintage Barney Miller characters

What really drove the show? Characters. Take Detective Barney Miller, played by Hal Linden. The guy was the level-headed, sensible cop you’d want in charge.

Cast of police TV sitcom Barney Miller behind a station house desk

Around him swirled a mix of colorful personalities like Detective Stan “Wojo” Wojciehowicz, played by Max Gail, and the ever-stylish Detective Ron Harris, portrayed by Ron Glass. These weren’t just cardboard cutouts — they had layers and flaws, making them all the more relatable.

The show also didn’t shy away from the hot-button issues of the time. Think immigration, racial tensions, and even gay rights. But it wasn’t all heavy; Barney Miller had the gift of mixing the serious with the lighthearted, always finding a way to get laughs without making light of important topics.

Actor Ron Glass from the Barney Miller TV show
Actor Ron Glass from the Barney Miller TV show

Barney Miller awards

The series wasn’t just a hit with audiences; critics loved it too. With several Primetime Emmy Awards and Golden Globe nominations under its belt, Barney Miller had no shortage of accolades. What’s even better is that the series has stood the test of time — and thanks to DVD releases and reruns, new generations continue to discover its timeless appeal.

Remember the Barney Miller spin-off, Fish?

Fish, the spin-off featuring Abe Vigoda’s character of that name from Barney Miller, ran concurrently with the original series from 1977 to 1978. The show offered a glimpse into the detective’s domestic life, notably his adventures in foster parenting.

Abe Vigoda as Fish in Barney Miller 70s police sitcom

Although Fish didn’t replicate the lasting success of Barney Miller, it allowed fans to explore a different facet of a character they already enjoyed, while the parent show was still in its original run.

YouTube video

Barney Miller might be an oldie, but it’s definitely a goodie. We’ve gathered up some articles reporting on the phenomenon of this show back when it first hit TV screens.

Below, get some insight about the show’s characters as they were received back in the mid-1970s — and make sure to listen to that incredibly catchy theme song (which, if you’re, like us, you may not have fully appreciated when you were a kid watching along with your parents or grandparents!).

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Was there ever a Barney Miller/Welcome Back Kotter crossover episode?

While there was a crossover, it wasn’t really a crossover episode. Here’s the story of the picture shown below, featuring actors playing their characters from the two TV series.

Both sitcoms debuted on ABC TV in 1975, and both were set in New York City. When the network moved Kotter to Thursday nights, bumping Barney Miller out of their slot, this humorous photo was released to the media to highlight the change.

Barney Miller and Welcome Back Kotter crossover publicity photo (1976)

Here’s the vintage publicity still’s caption from January 13, 1976:

Captain Barney Miller and Detective Fish Have Locked up “Sweathog” Students Barbarino (John Travolta), Washington (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs); Horshack (Ron Palillo), and Epstein (Robert Hegyes) — All of ABC’s “Welcome Back, Kotter” series — for stealing the “BARNEY MILLER” time period on the ABC Television Network. “Kotter,” which formerly aired on Tuesdays, moves on Jan. 22 to Thursdays (8:00-8:30), the slot previously occupied by “Barney Miller” will move to 8:30-9:00 on the same evening.

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Barney Miller theme song & opening credits

The Barney Miller theme song, crafted by Jack Elliott and Allyn Ferguson, is more than just an intro; it’s a finger-snapping mood-setter. With its catchy, jazzy bassline, the tune gets you in the right frame of mind for the blend of humor and real talk that the show delivers.

Intriguingly, this tune inspired a legend in a totally different genre: Cliff Burton, the late bassist for Metallica. Following a family tragedy, Burton was drawn to the bass guitar after hearing the show’s theme, according to his father, Ray Burton.

This unexpected influence speaks volumes about the Barney Miller theme song — it resonated even in the world of heavy metal.

YouTube video

Barney Miller snug in fall TV schedule (1975)

By Bob Garson of The Town Talk (Louisiana) May 31, 1975

There’s one clutch of home screen law officers who is holding the fort, thank you, despite the annual upheaval of shows for fall. Barney Miller and his staff are snug in their video headquarters on ABC, Thursday evenings, at 7 for the upcoming season.

Barney Miller, played by Tony Award winner Hal Linden, is captain of detectives in the 12th precinct located in New York’s Greenwich Village. Barney and his detectives see police work as routine, with occasional panic situations. There is time to be human.

Old Barney Miller TV series cast picture

Barney, as executive producer and co-creator Danny Arnold sees him, is an intelligent, sensitive, and compassionate man with a good sense of humor. “He’s a modern-day Everyman fighting a world of numbers, plastic cards, computers, and loss of human identity,” Arnold says. “As a New Yorker, he lives in the pressure cooker of a fear-oriented society.”

His workday world is the second floor of the ‘ol’ one-two.” The detective squad room is an aging replica of some long-ago concept of police facilities. There among the wooden desks, peeling paint, wire filing baskets, coffee cups, and hot plates are the trouble-oriented individuals of our society — the lawbreakers, the victims, and the protectors.

Vintage Barney Miller cast illustrations (1975)

Like all good comedy, the incidents are based on reality — sometimes grim reality. The humor is in the treatment. Barney Miller is another way of looking at things.

The officers vary widely in their looks, race and approach to police work. Fish, the 38-year veteran of the force, suffers from bad feet, old age, and boredom. He expresses all the enthusiasm of a man going to work on Monday after a long weekend drinking party.

Det Fish and Barney Miller - Vintage sitcoms

Contrasting his look at life is Wojehowicz, a youthful, zesty detective who sees things as ‘us and them’ with ‘us’ being always right. A bit insensitive and impatient, Wojo, nevertheless is the guy who falls in love with a young prostitute he ‘busts.’

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Chano, the Puerto Rican cop, is embarrassed by lawbreakers who happen to be Puerto Rican. Harris is the ambitious one, who sees himself as the future chief of police.

One unforgettable character of the 12th is Det. Nick Yamana, who is played by Jack Soo. Work is acceptable to Yamana as long as he can adjust to a missing chopstick by using a pencil and if his bookie is only a phone call away.

Barney Miller's Det Nick Yamana, played by Jack Soo
Barney Miller’s Det Nick Yamana, played by Jack Soo

Home life for Barney Miller is a double-deadbolt, locked-door apartment with barred windows in a rent-controlled building. There, his wife and mother of the teenage daughter and younger son, envisions a chicken ranch out West somewhere because she “likes the fur on the baby chicks.”

Danny Arnold, who created the show with Theodore Flicker, had been working on the development of the series for a couple of years. Originally conceived as a film show, the station house became the stage for the taped series, done before a studio audience at ABC Television Center in Hollywood.

Casting of the project was initially Arnold’s major effort, because he believed that the acceptance of the concept depended strongly on how real the performers could make the characters.

Hal Linden, whose Tony Award was for his role as the lead in “The Rothschilds” on Broadway, won the role of Barney when Danny Arnold saw him perform as the head of the European family in the play.

Abe Vigoda was having difficulty with typecasting after being so successful in the role of Tessio, the kindly syndicate leader in “The Godfather.” “Once you’ve done one thing well, writers, producers and directors can only see you in that role,” Vigoda says.

1975 Barney Miller newspaper photo and caption

He talked his way into a role on “The Sandy Duncan Show” that resulted in his being cast as Fish in “Barney Miller.”

Finding the proper wife for Barney became one of the most difficult tasks, and Arnold returned to New York to get Barbara Barrie to play the often flip, understanding, and loving Elizabeth.

Max Gail, who broke into acting by claiming a lead role in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” right off the street in San Francisco, created an immediate excitement as the brash, often out-of-step character of Wojo.

“Wojehowicz’s big problem is that he tries too hard but you have to like the guy as he expresses his naive approach to life,” Gail says.

Gregory Sierra, a regular on “Sanford and Son” as Julio, found the transition to Chano Amenguale an enjoyable challenge. “Chano was a Puerto Rican kid who decided that he would be somebody and, to him, being a cop is being somebody.”

Harris, the flashy cop who is bound to make good because he is convinced he can do nothing else, introduces Ron Glass in the role.

It is an unusual combination. The show is about ‘a black, a Puerto Rican, a Chinese, a slow-witted Pole, an old gaffer tottering gratefully toward his pension and a captain whose graceful toleration of foolishness never becomes syrupy,’ according to one magazine review.

Barney Miller TV series - actors on set

What makes the captain convincing is the reality that Linden brings to his part. “I spent a week with an anti-crime unit and we’d stay out till two in the morning. We used to go to the diner after and they’d tell stories that were so funny.

“You’re in a situation that’s inherently dangerous and insane. So, not to fall prey to it, you have to find the humor and laugh at it,” Linden says.

Unique characters have given the series the oomph for another season. 

Deputy Inspector Luger, Barney’s superior, remembers the good old days of the ‘ol’ one-two” when ‘we busted heads pretty good.” James Gregory created the role. As Luger, he sheds a tear remembering how it was. He is equally deft in a contrasting situation when he chews out Barney for having the worst reputation in town. “People like you!”

1977 Barney Miller newspaper photo and caption

Wentworth, “Ms. Cop,” as played by Linda Lavin, asserts her rights as an officer, whether it is typing up reports or getting “combat fever” from arrest.

“We develop characters carefully, because that is what this show is all about,” Arnold said. “Not jokes. What we’re trying to say to people is that things, although they look pretty bad at times, aren’t all that tough. The idea is to learn to laugh at yourself because, if you can do that, there’s hope.

“That’s what we all need right now — hope!”

Barney Miller: Cop comedy arrests the competition (1977)

By Charles Witbeck of the Chicago Tribune (Illinois) February 20, 1977

It looked so hopeless back in January of 1975, yet ABC’s “Barney Miller” in January of ’77 was a bonafide hit.

From the beginning, critics liked the cop comedy on life in the squad room of New York City’s 12th Precinct, but the viewing public took its own sweet time in discovering and then acquiring the Thursday night habit of watching “Barney Miller” (8 p.m. on ABC-Ch. 7).

Vintage 70s Barney Miller TV sitcom series cast

The big problem was always the opposition — “The Waltons” — not show content or execution. “Barney’s” star Hal Linden remembers those dismal figures on the first show alongside the good notices.

“We were in 56th place, the basement,” he noted recently. “By the end of the spring season in ’75, we had reached the 40 level which, in most cases, is cancellation territory. With reruns, we broke 40. Last fall we got up to the 30s, and when ‘Welcome Back, Kotter‘ became our lead-in, we moved into the top 20.”

The lesson to be learned from Hal Linden’s recitation sounds reasonable. Give quality shows time to gain an audience, and never underestimate the power of a strong lead-in even if it’s a kid program. Now ABC has slotted “What’s Happening!” between “Kotter” and “Barney” in an effort to secure success for “What’s Happening!”

But it’s not that simple, adds Broadway’s Linden, a student of the business. There’s no one answer to “Barney’s” rise from oblivion to the big time. What works for some companies fails elsewhere. He can name shows that break all the rules and still succeed.

Barney Miller TV show cast photo

The cop comedy that Joe Wambaugh calls the best in TV, and fan Andy Griffith believes “is brilliant” week after week, appears to be a blend of talent, construction, and execution.

As fans know, catalyst Barney, the head man of the detective squad room, seldom gets a joke. In charge of understatement, Linden must do with a look, a nod, a muffled word. No matter how he pleads for a joke, producer-writer Danny Arnold cuts him out in favor of the others. Like Sheriff Andy in the old “Andy Griffith” series, Barney Miller is a straight man. Audiences see things through his eyes.

Abe Vigoda, the gentle, dour old-timer who has grown so popular with fans, currently is starring in his own spin-off series, “Fish” (Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. on ABC).

“This, too, is an accumulation of things,” Linden said. “Are the fans reacting to the character, or to Abe’s personality? I don’t know. The truth is that Abe is personally directed by Danny Arnold. Fish has become a unique character.”

Producer Danny Arnold turns out to be the show’s mastermind. Danny, along with Roland Kibbee, Jerry Ross, and story editor Tony Sheehan handle all the writing. Arnold has the final say on things and is upstairs writing and rewriting.

Since he mother-hens each episode, advance scripts are almost nonexistent, and that scares off some guest actors who want to know what they’re going to do on an assignment. However, compared to countless tape and film comedies, where the rewrites shower the actor at the last minute, Arnold’s scripts undergo a few last-minute revisions once they leave his desk.

Barney Miller Christmas episode with Fish (Abe Vigoda) as Santa

Asked about his Barney, a man of authority who leads by understatement, Linden explains that “you play understatement by adding to, not subtracting from, a performance. You learn that in acting school. You must use the same energy, you give everything you’ve got, only you show it differently. It’s called concentration, and you can lose it on a weekly show when an actor says ‘I’ve got it now. I am Barney, and Barney is me.'”

So far Linden hasn’t succumbed to that temptation. He’s just grateful the show is doing so well.

“I think ‘Barney Miller’ will have great longevity. We have a kind of following that won’t quit easily — people who hang on. A lot of shows to me are fads. They come up quick and they drop just as fast. Barney doesn’t fit that category. We’re late bloomers, so we ought to stick around for a while.”

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