When “Hill Street Blues” launched in 1981, it was clear it was not a typical TV cop show. With its drone of background noise and outlandish characters, it did to police work what “M*A*S*H” did for doctor shows. That work can watched again with the release of the “Hill Street Blues” box set on April 29.
The unique nature of the NBC drama was why James B. Sikking went to the show’s big boss, Stephen Bochco, to ask for tips in how to play the role of Lt. Howard Hunter. Bochco told him to go for it and said he would tell Sikking when he was doing something wrong.
Bochco never had to stop the actor.
Sikking took the opening Bochco gave him to create the military-minded head of what was known as the Emergency Action Team. Howard was often the brunt of jokes, but that didn’t stop him from being gung-ho about enforcing the law. He loosely based the character on the drill instructor Sikking had during basic training at Fort Bragg.
“The drill instructor looked like he had steel for hair and his uniform had so much starch in it, you knew it would sit in the corner when he took it off in the barracks,” says the 80-year-old actor. “So when I started to play Howard, I picked out the way he should be dressed. It had to be a very military look. He had to have those jump boots.
“When people asked me where I got the idea for his look, I told them it was the same look I had in the Army.”
Hunter’s look was the cleanest thing about the show. When the first episode was being filmed, Sikking recalls the push to make the set look dirtier and dirtier. It had to look like a typical workplace, from the low lighting to bathrooms stained by the bad aim of so many.