Hal Linden will always be best known as the wry, decent captain of TV’s Barney Miller, but he’s a versatile actor whose career predates that classic sitcom and has outlasted it by a staggering four decades. Now 86, Linden can be seen onstage in Washington, D.C., starring in a new production of Arthur Miller’s The Price that runs through November 19 at Arena Stage. Linden plays Gregory Solomon, a brash and scheming furniture dealer with a dark secret who enters the lives of two brothers who are grief-stricken over their father’s death.
Vulture spoke to Linden about his roots as a bandleader and stage actor, his work on Barney Miller, his brief stint dubbing foreign films, his memories of a potentially great sitcom that was canceled too soon, and the evolution of his craft over six decades.
How did you end up doing The Price onstage in Washington?
I was working with Seema Sueko, the director, in California. I did The Fantasticks with her [in Los Angeles], and after one or two days of rehearsal, she said, “We’re considering doing The Price at Arena Stage next year. Would you have any interest in that?” and I jumped. I knew of it from its inception. I knew the role, but I’d never done the role.
I was much too young to play it when it first opened. But I had a strange relationship with it. The year before, I had done a musical called Ilya, Darling, based on Never on Sunday with Melina Mercouri — one of my many flops! I played Tonio, the villain, and I understudied the male lead [Titos Vandis], who was a Greek Adonis that they’d brought over. Tito was a movie star over in Greece.
My understudy was a man named Harold Gary. Harold was older than me, and he played the Bartender and various things. He was one of those guys who went from understudy part on Broadway to tiny role on the road to anything summer stock, anything he could get his hands on, and survived. He was probably in his middle 60s by then, living in a very seedy hotel on Broadway in one room, and spent his afternoons at the coffee shop in the corner, in the back, sitting around the table with his cronies telling lies. That was his life!
When Ilya, Darling closed, Harold Gary got to be understudy for David Burns in the original production of The Price, so he went right to work. And three days before opening night, David Burns had a heart attack, and so Harold Gary went on and opened the character that I’m playing right now.
Yes — “Oh wow!” Harold got all the reviews. It’s a very impressive part. And all of a sudden at age, I don’t know, 68, he had a career! That part changed his life. After living in one room in a very seedy rooming house on Broadway, he moved to a better room in the same hotel, and instead of sitting in the back of the coffee shop, he sat in the front!
But the biggest change in his life was his posture. He was a beaten-down guy with rounded shoulders, but once this role happened for him, he stood up straight. It was a whole change in his attitude. All of a sudden, he was a “thespian,” after all those years. Those of us who knew him were just bowled over by the personality change. He now spoke “dramatically,” you know, because he was now a “thespian.” It was just a wonderful, wonderful thing to see.
Anyway, that’s how I knew about the part. So when they said, “Would you like to consider playing it?” I jumped at it.
That’s one of the most dramatic “understudy getting a big break” stories I’ve heard.
Well, mine wasn’t bad, either!
Tell me about yours.
I was in summer stock. I didn’t even have an agent, I was just doing little parts. I was going with a dancer who was in Bells Are Ringing. The standby for Sydney Chaplin was leaving to open the show in London — he was going to become a chorus member, an understudy, in the second year of Bells Are Ringing. So they wanted somebody to go in the chorus and cover Sydney. This dancer I was going with convinced the stage manager to let me come in from summer stock on my day off and audition for him.
The final audition was for Judy Holliday herself. Now, at this point in my life, I was half a performer and half a musician. I was still playing the saxophone. So, my final audition was for Judy Holliday between shows on a Saturday, and I had to do a little scene with her. That Saturday, I was on The Perry Como Show. They had a vocal group called the Ray Charles Singers.
Ray Charles? Wow!
Not that Ray Charles, another one. He was a vocal coach who had a group of singers, and they were a big chorus who sang behind Perry Como. I was one of those singers. We did the show Saturday afternoon, took our dinner break, I ran to the Shubert Theater, auditioned for Judy, she OK’d me, I went back, did The Perry Como Show, told Ray, “I got this job on Broadway and I won’t be able to do the show next week,” and then after that, I got my car, drove out to Long Island, played a bar mitzvah on the saxophone, and I told that bandleader, “I can’t do all those dates you got because I’m going to be a chorus boy and an understudy in a Broadway show!”
Monday morning, I started rehearsals with the stage manager and a book, and he ran me through the show. Saturday morning was the understudy rehearsal, and we did our rehearsal of the show. In the middle of it, the stage manager came out and said, “You’d better keep rehearsing, because Sydney’s out after today.” So I made my Broadway debut in six days — in the lead of a musical comedy!
That was what year?
When you were younger, you didn’t want to be an actor, did you? You wanted to be a bandleader.
I was a bandleader!
Tell me about your bandleader years.
To start from scratch, I was a classically trained clarinet player and if I’d had the slightest discipline, I would’ve been a clarinet player in a symphony orchestra. All the people I went to high school with did just that. I was that good!
At puberty, I discovered that more girls went to jazz clubs than classical-music concerts, so I switched to saxophone.
I knew you were a clarinet player because I saw you play on TV. It blew my mind, because I was a kid and I had no idea that somebody who was the star of a TV sitcom could be just as good at some other thing.
The symphonies lost a big talent. But I survived.
So I played with bands and was a saxophone player. I wasn’t quite the boy singer — I was the personality kid who got upfront, you know? I didn’t sit on the little chair in front of the piano. I was a sax player. But I’d sing, too. Whenever there’d be a request, they’d point to me, and I’d come up and sing it.
Then I had my own band for a while. Originally, that was going to be my life. When I went in the Army, that was still the time of Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Billy May, Duke Ellington, Count Basie — you name it, this was the height of the big-band era. When I left, they were all disbanded. It was all about Bill Haley and the Comets. So my career as a big-band leader was nil.
Well, fortunately, you had the stage. You were in the revival of Anything Goes, weren’t you?
Yes, I was. Oh yeah. That was the revival that revived the show.
What was that like?
I’d been in a few Broadway shows that all closed before they ever got to Broadway, so I had plenty of flops behind me. This was an off-Broadway revival, and it was very different from the original, so it was like a new show. It was my first experience almost creating a character, so it was very, very essential to my career. Of course, I took a cut in pay from unemployment insurance to do it because it was off-Broadway! I think we made like $45.00 a week or something like that.
Is it true that you did some dubbing for foreign films in the ’60s?
I made a living in the ’60s doing anything you could do attached to show business. I never waited on tables, I never drove a cab, I raised four children from 1960 to 1967, and all I did was go from flop to flop Broadway show. I had a nice career doing demonstration records, doing backer’s auditions, doing whatever it took to make a living.
What are demonstration records?
If a guy writes a song and he wants to send it to a singer, you don’t give him a piece of sheet music. Most singers wouldn’t know a good song from a bad one just by reading it, so you made a record! You went to a recording studio and got 25 or 50 bucks, whatever you were getting in those days. I’d sing the song, they’d present it to either a publisher or the singer, so they had a version of the song. In those days, there was still vinyl, so you had to be able to sing the entire song. You couldn’t just cut it together, so they hired people who could do that. I did that.
And I did what they called looping for foreign pictures! In those days, there were only three major TV networks in this country, so the independent channels had very little programming. One of the things they did was, somebody would buy B-foreign pictures from France, Sweden, Germany, Japan, and someone would sit down and write an American script for it based on the lip movements in the original language. It took a good eye and a good ear to be able to put American words to the lip movements of the foreign actors. German was relatively easy because it has the same rhythmic patterns as English. Swedish was not hard. But when you got to Italian, they were twice as fast!
Did you ever dub a Japanese film?
Yeah, oh yeah! I dubbed Godzilla Meets Mothra!
You dubbed that? I love that movie!
Oh yeah! I did some good ones! I also dubbed the version of War and Peace that won the Academy Award! I did Z! I was Jean-Louis Trintignant in that!
You were great in that!
Let’s see, what else did I do? I did I Am Curious — Yellow! Remember that? The porn picture?
I saw it! I mean, purely for archival purposes, of course.
Well, if you saw it in English, you heard me!
I read an interview with Leonard Nimoy where he said he knew Star Trek was dubbed overseas, but he’d never seen it. So he was in a hotel room in Italy or Spain, and he saw his own face on TV and heard someone else’s voice coming out of it, and he thought, “I should meet the guy who did that.” From that point on, he made it a point to try to meet every actor who dubbed Spock in another language. There was, for a while, an international brotherhood of Spocks out there.
Well, I’ll tell you my story about that. Barney Miller was never shown in Israel. The original was never shown there, but it was shown in Jordan, and I happened to be in Israel during that time on a mission or whatever. At the big dinner in the garden of the King David Hotel, where the guest of honor was Menachem Begin, there was a little preceding line behind the dais where we’d meet him. When I got to Begin, he had his aide standing next to him. He leaned over to Mr. Begin, and he said, “This is Mr. Hal Linden, American movie star,” and Begin’s wife, who was even shorter than he was — he was like five-three, she was like four-nine — she popped up and said, “Don’t tell anybody, I watch him on Jordanian television!”
Did you ever see an episode of the Israeli Barney Miller?
No, I never saw it. I did see the American version in Greece, where it had been dubbed into Greek. I caught it on TV in Athens once.
How did it feel, watching somebody else’s voice come out of your mouth?
It was very odd.
We should talk about Barney Miller. This is probably not the first time you’ve heard this, but my late uncle was a cop in Dallas for 25 years, and I asked him what the best cop show on TV was, and he said, “Barney Miller, because it’s the only one that captures how 95 percent of the time, you’re just sitting around talking.”
And shuffling papers!
No, your uncle was not the only one who said that. The cop who wrote cop books, Joseph Wambaugh, said exactly the same thing. He said the closest thing to reality was Barney Miller, because most of the time you’re on the phone, filing papers, filling out reports, gathering or disseminating information.
I once asked a police officer — I think he was a detective — “How many times have you fired your weapon in anger?” I asked a lot of cops that. I think the highest number I ever had was two. Most of them said they’d never fired their weapons, so all the pictures of Telly Savalas or other TV cops firing off rounds on Kojak and so forth, were ridiculous. That’s why real police never identified with Kojak. It wasn’t police work. Police work is grunt work.
It’s also community relations.
It is now. It wasn’t in those days! I must say, Barney did a lot to begin that. That show added to the idea that community relations are a major part of police work. And now, obviously, in today’s world, people understand that.
There was a really interesting style to Barney Miller. It was so much more quiet than most situation comedies, and so much more about reactions and pauses than a lot of sitcoms at the time, including the really good ones like All in the Family. I hesitate to use the word minimalist, but I wonder if it fits.
It does fit, because we used to cut lines from the script. There’d be a punchline and we’d do the scene, and you’d find out that all you had to do was cut back to a physical reaction. They were just as funny as the words. We’d cut punchlines all the time. Yes, I think minimalist is a good description of the writing. There’s very few “jokes” in Barney Miller. It was all relationship humor.
You were in another show I wanted to ask about, Jack’s Place, where you played a retired jazz musician who runs a restaurant. It only ran a year, but I watched and liked it. I come from a family of jazz musicians, so there was a lot in that show that was familiar to me. Why didn’t it run longer?
The story is about corporate leadership and the politics that go with it. That show was a summer replacement — just six episodes that ran during the summer and it was a big hit. Audiences loved it. In that initial run, we were on the air Tuesdays at 10:00. The show was such a big hit, they decided to go back into production and put it back on the air as a midseason replacement in January.
So while we were shooting, there was a change in command at ABC. A new programmer took over. Well, one of the politics of programming is, not only do you want to do better shows than your predecessor, to show how much better you are, but it also helps if your predecessor’s shows go in the toilet, to prove how bad they were! I’ll never forget it — the new guy, I have no memory who he was, called me up to tell me he had good news and bad news. His good news was, Jack’s Place was going to go on, I think, Thursdays at 9:00, which was opposite the final 13 weeks of Cheers on NBC. [Laughs.] That was his good news!
What was the bad news?
The bad news was we didn’t even know if we’d do all 13 episodes! It was a very interesting show, though. It started off as a land-bound Love Boat, but they turned the writers loose after that. There were some fascinating stories that we did.
I liked it. It had a nice tone to it. It also drew on your other performing talent as a musician.
Yes. I had written a song that I thought would be the theme song, but they didn’t use it. We actually put it into a show where there was a reunion band, so I wrote a song for the piano player and we recorded it. I don’t even know if it made the air.
I’ll tell you, we were killed by the final 13 weeks of Cheers.
Over the years, do you feel that you’ve changed as an actor?
I find that the longer I go, the more I know what I don’t know. I’m much more open to ideas, thoughts, concepts, than I was when I started.
When I first started, I hadn’t studied acting. I was just doing what I had seen other people do. It wasn’t until I was doing a lead on Broadway that I said, “I’d better figure out what the hell I’m doing here!” So I went to acting class to learn a technique to approach a role. I never had a classical background doing theater. I never went to college for acting or theater, so I had to pick it up along the way. What I did do was watch a lot of fine actors to see what they did. I also studied with Paul Mann and Lloyd Richards, so I had a really good foundation from them. I came to my own technique from all of that.
I’ve always said, acting is an executive art form. You configure other people’s creativity — the writer’s, the director’s, maybe the lighting director’s, the costume director’s. And you execute it.