It was a night of triumph for the underdogs.
Twenty-five years ago, Emmy voters handed out nearly a dozen awards to two groundbreaking series that were set in gritty urban workplaces and populated by lovable loser types and average Joes: NBC’s cop series “Hill Street Blues,” its drama win a much-needed bright spot after a ratings-poor first season, and ABC’s “Taxi,” nabbing its third comedy Emmy in three seasons and star getting Judd Hirsch’s first win, all while seeing its viewership decline.
“Both were incredibly endangered shows,” recalls New York Daily News critic David Bianculli of both series’ struggle to find audiences even with glowing notices. “So it was a nice move to have them both win.
“It was another step in TV’s growing up. In both ‘Taxi’ and ‘Hill Street,’ instead of good always triumphing over evil and everybody ending up with a hug and a laugh, what those characters were trying to do was just make it through the day. They just didn’t want to make things any worse.”
For “Hill Street” co-creator Steven Bochco, however, the euphoria of multiple wins — eight in all, including a writing honor for Bochco and Michael Kozoll — involved a variation on the “pinch me” effect.
“I stabbed myself in the leg with the first Emmy, gave myself a real puncture wound in the thigh,” recalls Bochco of a swinging-arm victory walk from the press room back into the Pasadena Civic Auditorium.
But there was no containing either Bochco or the cast in the audience, whose joy for their little-seen labor of love — actors Daniel J. Travanti, Barbara Babcock and Michael Conrad were all winners that night — added life to the usually staid awards show aura.
It was a metaphor of sorts for what the lively, eccentric “Hill Street” did for television in general.
“One of the producers of that Emmy show horse-collared me offstage and was livid with anger,” Bochco remembers. “He was offended by their boisterousness. It was one of those rare nights where genuinely surprising enthusiasm really shone through.”
(The other drama nominees were CBS’ “Lou Grant,” “Dallas” and “The White Shadow” while NBC also offered up “Quincy.”)
The irony was that Peacock head Fred Silverman — who ordered “Hill Street” and promised Bochco free rein to do the smart, tough, multiple-character show he wanted — had been canned by that Emmy night, so Bochco added a “wherever you are” in thanking Silverman from the podium.
Recalls Bochco, “The Emmys validated not only what we were doing, but Fred’s faith in us. I think (‘Hill Street’) was thelowest-rated show ever to get picked up at that point. It also gave me incentive to fight those broadcast standards.”
For “Taxi” exec producer James L. Brooks, winning Emmys wasn’t a new feeling — he had spent years with much revered “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” — but it helped keep a series on the air that remains a treasured memory.
“We always felt lucky we were doing it,” says Brooks, whose show beat out “MASH,” “Barney Miller,” “Soap” and “WKRP in Cincinnati.” “They were great characters to write for. You were able to address anything in life. In the mix was somebody as complicated as Judd’s character, and somebody as innocent as Andy Kaufman’s character. We could do low comedy, high comedy, romantic comedy, physical comedy. And we did.”
The only series lead honor that didn’t come from “Hill Street” or “Taxi” was Isabel Sanford for CBS sitcom stalwart “The Jeffersons,” her acceptance speech beginning memorably with the withering applause line, “At last.”
While her win reflected a long-cherished Academy trend of recognizing veteran talent, what was special, Bianculli notes, was that “she happened to be a minority performer. There was even progressivism in that award.”
To this day, Sanford — who died two years ago at age 86 — remains the only black actress to win in that category.
What 1981 also will be remembered for is that it was the height of miniseries popularity (called “limited series” at the time), and NBC’s hit 10-hour epic “Shogun” took the kudo. In the “drama special” field, the CBS Holocaust movie “Playing for Time” won big, including a lead actress nod for Vanessa Redgrave.
All in all, Bochco and Brooks both recall that era as a time when they worked for showmen, not corporations.
“The people who ran the business in those days had pride in our art,” Bochco explains. “Someone like Grant Tinker (MTM Enterprises) got that all day long. The people who worked at the networks understood stories, structures and themes.”