Could Classic ‘Hill Street Blues’ Series Survive Today’s TV Scene? James B. Sikking Reflects

James Sikking in character as Lt. Howard Hunter in

James Sikking in character as Lt. Howard Hunter in “Hill Street Blues”

In its heyday, there was no more powerful show on television than “Hill Street Blues.” But could the series that took us into the personal lives of cops survive in today’s TV world? The 26 Emmy-winning, envelope-pushing, career-launching drama is a touchstone of the 80s for many viewers — but early on in its life it held the distinction of being the lowest-rated show ever to be renewed.

We’ll soon be able to gauge this century’s consumer appetite for “Hill Street.” All 144 episodes are being released in a 34-DVD box set complete with commemorative booklet and other goodies by Shout! Factory April 29.

“When the ratings came out, we were devastated, absolutely devastated, because we thought we had a hell of a show,” recalls James B. Sikking — a.k.a. gonzo S.W.A.T. team leader Lt. Howard Hunter. “When we got this terrible rating, like 89th place out of 100, we thought, ‘Wow. Call the agent. We’ve got to go somewhere else to work.'”

What made the challenge all the tougher was that in its first season, “Hill Street” was moved from one timeslot to another, to another. “We were on every night except Sunday,” says Sikking. “We were getting mail saying, ‘Just let us know where it’s going to be on. We’d like to see it.'”

With all that in mind, it’s no wonder that the series team was surprised when they received word of its renewal. “I kept saying, ‘How come they picked us up?'” Sikking says, “and hearing this word, ‘Demographics.'”

Statistics showed that the people who were watching “Hill Street Blues” were an affluent, well-educated crowd who in large part had left off watching television except for sports events. They were, Sikking says, what was “quite frequently called ‘the Esquire demographic.’ It was a demographic of people who read the New Yorker, who liked content. We were very high with them, exceedingly high. So NBC said, ‘We’re keeping you, and we’re going to find a spot for you and build around it.’ Because when you can get those people to watch, then you get to advertise Cadillacs, jewelry, fine wine, nice clothes. Then you get really high-paying advertisers. People forget the advertisers we had on the show.”

“Hill Street” climbed to No. 1 and helped NBC build one of its strongest schedules.

As for whether it could survive in today’s vastly different landscape, Sikking says, “It’s hard to say. ‘Breaking Bad’ did well — it was a good show. But it was such a different world 34 years ago with only three networks.”

Sikking, who was friends with “Hill Street” creator Steven Bochco for more than a decade before signing on to the show, says he and Bochco still get together. (In fact, Sikking went on to play father to Neil Patrick Harris’ precocious doctor in Bochco’s “Doogie Howser MD” series and he was among the stars of Bochco’s “Brooklyn South.”) They’re both promoting the box set although “there’s no financial advantage for either of us in this anymore. I’m proud of it; it’s a good show, and those seven years were a joyous time in my life,” he says.

The actor stays in touch with several of the other “Hill Streeters” as well.

But his main focus now is his four grandchildren. At 80, with a long and satisfying portfolio of dozens of films and TV shows, Sikking and wife Florine are enjoying their offspring’s offspring. He says, “We just came back from taking our nine-year-old granddaughter to Washington DC, to help her understand what America is — the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the archives. Then we saw how the government works. We went to the House of Representatives. We saw the Lincoln Memorial. It seems to me that somewhere in the educational process we guarantee that a citizen child of America goes to spend three days, five days, a week, in Washington, D.C..”

Somewhere, Howard Hunter is smiling.

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Tom Green Likes Being Separate From the Pack

tom greenTom Green’s enjoying the latest permutation of his eclectic career — commuting back and forth each week between Las Vegas, where he recently started a four-month engagement at the Hard Rock Hotel, and Los Angeles, where he does his weekly live talk show on Mark Cuban’s AXS TV.

“I’ve toured around the world doing stand-up the last few years. So it’s kind of cool, it’s kind of nice to be able to have a little consistency as to where I am,” notes the funny man, whose global itinerary ranged from Australia to Afghanistan, where he entertained troops. Now, “I can do my interview show here in Los Angeles on Thursday nights and then we fly down to Vegas on the weekends and do my shows there. And it’s turning out great.

“I love playing in Vegas because you’ve got people from all over the world and you’re already accepted,” he adds. “It’s kind of a great mixture of people that come out to the shows and that makes it fun.”

His “Tom Green Live” was recently renewed for its third season. The show, which has a hip alternative vibe, devotes an entire hour to one subject, live and impromptu — a sort of homage to one of Green’s favorites, the late Tom Snyder.

“This show that I’m doing on AXS TV is what I’ve always wanted to do. With the long format interview I can get into really interesting conversations with my guests,” says Green. “You know what it’s like to get the opportunity to speak to really interesting people and pick their brain about things. To have time to let a guest actually speak and tell a story and get into detail is really exciting.”

Green’s talk with esteemed CBS anchor emeritus Dan Rather included shots of Wild Turkey and ranged from journalism and broadcasting topics to a demonstration of how Texans chew tobacco. “That was awesome,” says the Pembroke, Ontario, Canada-born personality, who rose to fame with his trailblazing and frequently tacky MTV “The Tom Green Show” that ran from 1999 to 2003.

Other recent guests include Dr. Drew Pinsky talking celebrity-obsessed culture — and a bunch of Green’s favorite comedian pals like Richard Belzer, Andrew Dice Clay, Seth Green, Norm MacDonald, Howie Mandel and Comedy Central’s The Workaholics.

“It’s really neat to have this interactive experience where viewers can call in on Skype and talk to the guests,” he notes.

Talking about Green’s wish list of guests for future shows — how about Mark Cuban himself?

“I’d love to interview Mark Cuban! He’s certainly a great guy to have running this network,” notes Green of the billionaire internet mogul, Dallas Mavericks owner and “Shark Tank” personality. He adds that Cuban has “really been supportive of what I’m doing. It was cool that he was able to see what it is that I’m trying to do and to step up and support me in a bigger way with this outlet.”

Green has made a habit of taking a path apart from the mainstream. He was all over the internet, doing his talk show from his living room, before many in entertainment were paying much attention to the immense possibilities of the medium. Then, when there was a mass rush to the web, Green did live stage shows for audiences around the world. Now others are going short on interviews — and he’s going long.

“I like to do things that are different,” he acknowledges. “I’ve always found success in sort of separating myself from the pack mentality things. My early show was very different. It was before reality TV and it was sort of opening a way to make a show nobody else was doing. I think it found success because it was different from what anybody else was doing. I think people are responding to this show for the same reason. We’re taking it back old school.”

Could he have done this show back in his manic twenties — or is the in-depth interview best served by 42-year-old Tom Green of today?

“Well, when I was in my twenties, interviewing was sort of secondary to the show which was more about pranks and out in the street stuff,” he responds. “Certainly being older and having a different perspective on the world, and probably being closer in age to my guests so I can relate to them more, is helpful. And just having been through more of life personally and understanding human beings a little bit more — how people think and how they want to be treated. And how to make a comfortable environment for them on my show and get the most out of people.

“Certainly being older in those regards has been helpful, and also in interviewing people. But, really, the internet show prepared me for this in so many ways,” he adds. “Having done so many shows and having had so many people coming to the house were I was doing the show. There were really no executives or television people overseeing it, so I was able to really experiment and learn a lot of things. I’ve had a lot of growth and learning in the last 10 years.”

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Tim Allen On Push for ‘Last Man Standing,’ Second Time Daddyhood, Another ‘Clause’ and More

tim headshot

photo by Ross Pelto

Tim Allen says he tries not to get caught up in focusing too much on ratings and competition for his ABC “Last Man Standing” sitcom because, he says, “I’m kind of a worrywart.” Still, he is obviously well aware of what’s going on. Though TV pundits expect the show to get a fourth season renewal, things could be better — and should be better, as far as he is concerned. He points out, “We’re winning our timeslot Friday, which is a very difficult night. So that’s what it is. ABC — I think we’re one of their best products. I think we’re very undersold. Believe me, if four million more people saw the show, it would be amazing. We’d be in the top rung. I think it’s a top-rung show. It’s so well produced, so well written.”

Indeed, as viewers know, there is a lot to enjoy about Allen’s second series. From his interplay with onscreen wife Nancy Travis and boss Hector Elizondo, to his ever-more-capable younger castmates (daughters played by Amanda Fuller, Molly Ephraim and Kaitlyn Dever, plus guys including employee Christoph Sanders).

“I adore the show!” he enthuses. “I never, in my wildest imagination, would have figured I’d have done ‘Home Improvement’ for eight years, and I loved every second of that. And the crew, and the excitement in my life. I’ve gone through some personal troubles in between there, but aside from that, my work was wonderful,” he says. “Then to have this family I love deeply — different because they’re girls — it’s just been amazing! I’m so protective of the integrity of this.

“If I think about being competitive, well, I don’t get much help by their moving us, you know? First they put us against ‘NCIS,’ which is a fabulous show. It’s a very different vibe, but it’s kind of the same audience as ours. But we still did great numbers, and then right as we’re climbing, they move us to Friday to anchor their Friday night” — the worst night of the week for television, historically speaking.

“I’m a veteran, so we do what we need to do,” he says. Besides, “It’s a different landscape from the past. People watch what they want to watch; people TiVo it and make their own night out of it.”

Allen comes off as relaxed and open in an afternoon’s talk that ranges from his push to garner more attention for “Last Man Standing” to the future of Buzz Lightyear and Santa Claus, to the joys of being a later-in-life dad.

He is not only in a second-time-around situation at work, but at home as well. Married since 2006 to actress Jane Hajduk, he’s doing daddy duty once again. Does he bring any comedy fodder from home?

“No. I often say I wish I lived in a sitcom world, where things are resolved. Things aren’t resolved like that in real life. My five-year-old — it’s more intimidating because it’s real,” he says of his little Elizabeth. “She’s a bright one. My older one is calm and quiet,” he continues, referring to 24-year-old daughter Katherine, from his former marriage.

“But this one is very opinionated for a five-year-old. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s not. I adore being around her.”

How does she feel about daddy being Buzz Lightyear?

“She doesn’t quite get it,” he replies. “Right now she’s a ‘Frozen’ freak. She loves it. But it’s funny — we have a couple down the block who were over Friday for dinner. They think it’s fun to watch ‘Last Man Standing’ with me in the room. The baby’s right there. In a very funny way, in about five minutes she goes, ‘Can we watch something else?'” He laughs.

Speaking of Buzz, what’s the outlook for another “Toy Story” film or television special?

“As far as specials, I’m sure they’ll have another one because they’re so successful. But it’s very hard on these guys to come up with the stuff. It’s very difficult for them,” he stresses. “I believe there’ll be more specials, but I’m not the one to ask. They’re very private about what things are going on. And I respect it. They’re very cautious about making promises they can’t keep. But they love doing this.”

And so does Allen. “I just so like that I’m part of America’s history with this stuff. It’s such a part of the zeitgeist,” he notes. “I very rarely get to be around my buddy Hanks, so I like working with him, but we don’t do it that much.”

When Allen finished making “Santa Clause 3” in 2006, he said he’d had it with the grueling demands of long days filming in prosthetics and swore he was hanging up the red suit for good. But ho ho ho. “Enough time has gone by, I’d do another ‘Santa Clause’ now,” he tells us. The bad memories have worn off enough.

His memories of the beloved “Home Improvement” live on, however — and he has former castmates Richard Karn and Jonathan Taylor Thomas in recurring “Last Man Standing” roles. Thomas has directed a couple of “Last Man Standing” episodes, in addition to popping up on the show as John Baker, daughter Kristin’s (Fuller) hot boss at the swanky restaurant where she works.

Baker was introduced at the end of last season. Allen says he loves working with his former series son. “It’s always nice to have him around. It’s been seamless again. It took awhile for the girls to settle down though — they’re big fans of his,” he says.

Last year’s season-ender was a noteworthy episode in terms of opening up new story arenas in addition to introducing Thomas. This year’s, coming up April 25, will be every bit as memorable, to hear Allen tell it.

“This cliffhanger is kind of fun. I don’t know that I’m supposed to give it away. In the atmosphere of the show, it’s pretty odd. It’s pretty uncommon, what’s going to happen. Somebody’s getting married,” he reveals.

“During rehearsal, my reaction as Mike Baxter was kind of a shock to me, because I felt like a parent. It’s a peculiar thing, being a TV parent, first with those boys all those years. It is, of course, structurally different from being a real parent, but you spend so much time with the damn kids, you take on some parental point of view. So I was like, ‘This couple, they’ve got to work some s#@! out. It’s not my decision.’ It’s kind of funny. I went ‘What?!’ And the look on my face — it’s a pretty funny line that they’ve given me.”

“Home Improvement” lasted eight years. Allen would like “Last Man Standing” to go that long as well. Or longer.

“I’d love to see these girls get married,” he says. “I’d love to see them have children, I’d love to see them go through that. Yes, I’d love that.”

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