Saturday, October 19, 2019

Did 'Hill Street Blues' Rip Off Ed McBain's 87th Precinct Series? A Tragicomic Tale Of Stolen Set-Ups, Threatened Lawsuits, Bruised Egos, Stalled Adaptations, And Besieged Productions

I began to read and enjoy Ed McBain's 87th Precinct crime novels when I was a teenager in the 1960s. I also read and enjoyed his other crime novels, such as A Matter of Conviction. Ed McBain's  novel about New York street gangs was made into one of my favorite films from the 1960s, The Young Savages, which starred Burt Lancaster and Telly Salvalas. 

(Ed McBain is seen in the above photo).

I also read his literary novels, such as The Blackboard Jungle, written under his name Evan Hunter, which he legally changed from his name at birth, Salvatore Lombino. He died in 2005.

Paul Abbott at offers a piece on Ed McBain’s belief that the TV series Hill Street Blues ripped off his 87th Precinct series.    

Nothing, as they say, comes from nothing; largely authors and creators are quick to acknowledge, if not the direct influences on their work, then at least the traditions from which their output has emerged. Evan Hunter was proud of his work, boastful about it on occasion, but as Ed McBain he was happy to acknowledge the debt the 87th Precinct series paid to such things as the radio version of Dragnet, for example. 

The 87th Precinct books, and in particular the stories from the first two decades of the near fifty-year lifespan of the series, helped to shape the notion of what a police procedural series could be. What McBain did most successfully was demonstrate that much of policing was based on luck as well as and that all the tedious day-to-day matters that the job entailed couldn’t be avoided. In fact, he reveled in them, reproducing forms, reports, autopsy findings and laws as photostats in the books. Had this detailed quasi-fictional procedural nature been the only unique feature of the books, then they may not have become as successful as they did, but McBain’s coup de grace was to portray his cops as interesting and unique individuals struggling with not only their lives and relationships at work, but often at home as well. It is ironic that even with this winning formula, the 87th Precinct series was never effectively adapted for the screen, or at least not to McBain’s liking. Even worse, when police procedural shows really hit big in the early eighties, it was with a television show set in an unnamed city, starring an Italian-American cop as lead character, and focused on day-to-day procedure balanced against the relationships and lives of the cops in the squadroom. This was Hill Street Blues, still one of the best thought-of and most loved of all police television shows. Evan Hunter was livid.

“No of course they didn’t consult me,” the author told The Guardian newspaper in 1990, “if you come in to steal my jewels, you don’t say ‘May I come in tonight through the window please?’” Hunter’s first response to the appearance of this new show was to put a call in to his lawyer. He was told he had a case, but it would probably cost at least $500,000 dollars to fight it. He couldn’t afford to take the legal risk and instead took the opportunity to make his feelings known in interviews, and even out of the mouths of his characters in the 87th Precinct stories themselves. 

In his contemporaneous novel from 1984, Lightning, McBain dedicates three pages to venting his spleen. Everyone’s favorite bigot, Fat Ollie Weeks, is livid that an episode of Hill Street Blues has featured a character called Charlie Weeks, himself an out-an-out racist. Ollie goes on to outline all the similarities between the 87th Squad and Hill Street Blues and explains that he considered suing the TV company but that it’d, “prolly cost me a fortune.” It’s a fascinating insight into the author’s mindset as characters in a book, based in a fictional city, discuss fictional portrayals of cops in a fictional city. The layers of reality become quite blurry.

Hunter’s first response to the appearance of this new show was to put a call in to his lawyer. He was told he had a case, but it would probably cost at least $500,000 dollars to fight it.

Evan Hunter’s fury at Furillo and his Hill Street Friends might have been more tempered had he not himself been engaged in writing a new 87th Precinct television pilot himself at the time. “I knew we were dead in the water,” he told Bill Slocum in the New York Times. Furthermore, had any of the other attempts to bring the 87th Precinct to screens, large or small, been successful, then maybe Hunter would have looked the other way. As it was, even by 1981 there had been a string of attempts at rendering the 87th Precinct tales on screen but none of them had satisfied their creator.

You can read the rest of the piece via the below link:  

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