ancient tv history: a gay cop on barney miller

Watching my comedy-before-bed daily dose of Barney Miller last night, I was surprised and pleased to see an episode about a gay cop. This reminded me of this post -- turns out it was 10 years ago! -- about a gay character on Dallas. Both episodes aired in 1979.

Officer Zatelli, played by Dino Natali
At the time I blogged about the Dallas episode, I thought this might have been pretty cutting-edge. Now that I see a similar theme on a show from the same year, I wonder if it might have been more mainstream than I realize?

In the Barney Miller ep, Lieutenant Scanlon -- a sleazeball from Internal Affairs* -- receives an anonymous letter from an officer saying he is gay, and no one on the force knows, demonstrating that being gay is not incompatible with being a good cop. The letter writer identifies himself as being assigned to the 12th Precinct.

The detectives are all surprised, but shrug it off as not their business. Wojo, who earlier in the series was the most homophobic of the group, is the most uncomfortable, but in the end declares that it wouldn't matter to him if he learned that anyone on the team is gay. Wojciehowicz, played by Max Gail, is the character who grows and changes the most in the course of the show, starting out as a lughead ex-Marine, and ending up just south of Hawkeye Pierce.

Captain Barney Miller himself insists that a cop's sexual preference -- as it was called then -- is nobody's business, and his contempt for Scanlon grows even deeper, which is saying something.

Recurring gay character Marty,
played by Jack DeLeon (centre). 
The gay cop makes himself known to Miller: it's Zatelli, a "uniform" who has an occasional walk-on part, taking over mail delivery when the diminutive Levitt (Ron Carey) finally gets promoted to plainclothes.

Barney's principal reaction to Zatelli is one of burden: now the Captain is obligated to let his superiors know, and Zatelli will be made to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. Barney challenges Zatelli to come out, but acknowledges that is untenable. In the end, Miller respects Zatelli's privacy, and tells Scanlon to go to hell.

This may have been a very good lesson for the 1979 sitcom audience, but I'm sure the widespread acceptance of a gay colleague in the NYPD is a tad unrealistic. According to "Brooklyn 9-9" backstory, Captain Holt -- most awesome gay sitcom character ever -- became the first openly gay police officer on the NYPD in 1987.

As I mentioned in a previous post about Barney Miller, there is a gay character on the early seasons of the show. He was played quite mincing and flouncy -- although out and proud. Officer Zatelli is closeted, of course, and does not "act gay".

* * * *

Repeat offender -- the actor, not the character.
Another funny observation about this show. The minor characters, who are usually either the victim of a crime, someone who committed a crime, or lawyers, are played by actors that make multiple appearances -- as different characters! So the same actor appears, but he's not a repeat offender. His character has a new name and has committed an entirely different crime. Because I'm watching one or two episodes every night, I remember the bit parts more than real-time audiences might have. But I wonder if audiences found this strange at the time?

The earliest sitcoms, like "The Honeymooners" and "The Burns & Allen Show"** always used a stable of actors to play a rotation of bit parts. But I would have thought that by the late 1970s, this was no longer done. Talk about breaking the fourth wall. Imagine if dentist Tim Whatley, Steve from Long Island, and the Lucy-obsessed TV Guide guy had all been played by the same actor!

* Internal Affairs is portrayed as devious, dishonest, and out to bust decent, hardworking cops.

** A pioneer of television comedy, and one of my all-time favourite shows. It's the godfather of Seinfeld.


allan said...

I think I remember seeing this episode - probably a rerun a few years after it aired - but I don't recall thinking anything about it.

Looking at the show's Wiki page, I see this about actor Mari Gorman: "Gorman made a guest appearance (season 4, episode 3) as an amateur prostitute housewife, and then, after a three-episode run as [Officer Roslyn] Licori in season 4, she played another recurring role during season 8, as Mrs. Binder, wife of frequent precinct visitor Bruno Binder."

So she played a prostitute and a cop in the same season!

It also mentions one of the gay characters you highlighted: "Marty and [his partner] Darryl were among the earliest recurring gay characters on American television. Danny Arnold worked closely with the Gay Media Task Force, an activist group that worked on LGBT representation in media, in developing the characters. Initially both characters were presented in a stereotypically effeminate manner but in later appearances Darryl began dressing and speaking in a more mainstream fashion. Officer Zitelli's coming out was the first gay story arc on American television, occurring across the series' sixth and seventh seasons."

... and ending up just south of Hawkeye Pierce


allan said...

The episode in which Zitelli says he is gay aired on January 24, 1980.

The claim that this was "the first gay story arc"? I don't think so.

I found an article listing: "The Corner Bar: Vincent Schiavelli plays flamboyant set designer Peter Panama, who is considered TV's first recurring gay character. (1972) ... Soap: Jodie Dallas (Billy Crystal) becomes TV's first openly gay main character. (1977)"

I do not know The Corner Bar at all. Also, in an episode of All In the Family the previous year (1971), Archie's friend Steve tells him he's gay. He was probably not a recurring character, though.

laura k said...

So she played a prostitute and a cop in the same season!

I wish I had remembered that, I would have used it!! :)

Does one episode constitute a story arc? I guess in the context of a sitcom, it does. But the 1979 Dallas ep aired before the Barney Miller, plus it was much more of a story.

Nice to know that they worked at getting Marty & Darryl right. They were very good characters, especially Darryl.

#LeastImportantThing I would have thought the gay cop's name was spelled Zitelli, but imdb has it as Zitelli, and who am I to argue with imdb.

Unknown said...

Star Trek in several incarnations has done this repeatedly. It means they like the actor, think they have sufficient range, and can be relied upon.

James Redekop said...

Star Trek and Doctor Who are also famous for recycling actors, even prominent ones.

Diana Muldaur played Dr. Ann Mulhall and Dr. Miranada Jones -- both major guest-star roles -- in the original Star Trek, and of course Dr. Kate Pulaski in The Next Generation. David Warner played Gul Madred (from the "There are four lights!" two-parter) in Next Generation, as well as Chancellor Gorkon and St. John Talbot in the original series movies. (And lots of other examples as well...)

Both Colin Baker (the Seventh Doctor) and Peter Capaldi (the Twelfth Doctor) had previous roles on the show, Baker as a Galifrean guard, and Capaldi as a Pompeiian Roman. Karen Gillan, who eventually played the companion Amy Pond, first showed up in the same Pompeii episode as Capaldi.

Also, Bernard Cribbins, who played companion Donna Noble's grandfather in the revived series, appeared 45 years earlier in the Peter Cushing "Daleks: Invasion Earth" Doctor Who movie.

laura k said...

Oh yes, I remember the Star Trek recycles! Funny.

It means they like the actor, think they have sufficient range, and can be relied upon.

It also could mean their casting is lazy, they lack funds to do full casting searches, and they lack imagination.

None of the parts I'm thinking of require great range -- and they exhibit none! There are thousands upon thousands of reliable actors. Sorry, not buying it.

James Redekop said...

Usually, it means funds are limited, time is limited, who do know who can do the role so we don't have to spend days auditioning people?

Even shows with huge (for their time) budgets like TOS and TNG were constantly scrimping. The phrase "bottle episode" (short for "ship-in-a-bottle episode") was coined on the TOS set for episodes which saved money by being set entirely on the Enterprise, and so didn't require extra set construction. I'm sure they applied the same approach to casting.

Which reminds me of another actor re-use: Mark Lenard played the Romulan Centurion in "Balance of Terror" and Sarek in "Journey to Babel" -- both of which are bottle episodes. (He also played the first bumpy-forehead Klingon in the first movie.)

laura k said...

Usually, it means funds are limited, time is limited, who do know who can do the role so we don't have to spend days auditioning people?

Exactly. It's more a commentary on the production values than the actors themselves.

When I re-watched TOS a few years back, I remember thinking, What's Spock's father doing in a Romulan ship?

The same approach was applied to the look of other humanoids, too. Gee, why do so many populations look exactly like humans except for their weird noses or foreheads? :)

James Redekop said...

Part of the alien makeup thing is cost (and time to apply) -- when they tried very non-humanoid aliens, you ended up with things like the Tholians, which were less than convincing.

Part of it also was wanting their female actors to be attractive. They changed the design for the Trill makeup when DS9 went on the air so Terry Farrell's face wouldn't be lumpy. Bejoran's makeup was just something light on the bridge of the nose so that the first Bejoran character, Michelle Forbes' Ro Laren, wouldn't be too covered up.

They had no problems with covering Michael Dorn with lumps, though.

impudent strumpet said...

Mark Lenard played the Romulan Centurion in "Balance of Terror" and Sarek in "Journey to Babel"

I didn't know this because I never got super into TOS, but that has so many possibilities (especially since alternate timelines are now a viable option). Maybe he's a spy! Maybe he's a clone like that Picard clone in Nemesis! Now I must go and see if anyone has fanficed this.

Gee, why do so many populations look exactly like humans except for their weird noses or foreheads?

They've written a canon explanation :)