A few days ago, we lost another one. Comedian and actor Steve Landesburg passed away. Sadly underused and underrated, he made his most lasting impact as the fact-filled Lt. Arthur Dietrich on ABC’s Barney Miller, the great sitcom of the 70s.
I’ve always had a special affection for that show. When it originally aired, I was too young to “get” its droll sensibilities. So much of its comedy was derived from pondering, pauses and outright silence, that I hadn’t a clue what could be inspiring so much laughter from the studio audience. Still, I faithfully watched it by my Pop’s side (it was one of his favorites). He’d sit there laughing and laughing, and I’d be saying in my pipsqueak voice, “What’s so funny? I don’t get it? There’s nothing going on! They’re not even talking! Why are you laughing?!” I started to catch on when I was around 11 (aka Barney Miller’s 7th season).
I could go on and on about show’s many accomplishments/merits:
-its depiction of bankrupt New York City in the 70s and the impact that had on crime and the city’s mentality
-its theme song, arguably the most-sung bassline of all time, giving air-bassists a weekly workout
-its principle cast (don’t get me started!)
-its supporting cast, a rotation of character actors, which made the show virtually a weekly Preston Sturges film; creators Danny Arnold and Theodore Flicker fearlessly reused actors season and season, always in different roles, like a stock company. (For example, the crumpled Phil Leeds appeared 7 times in 8 seasons, each time playing a different victim or perpetrator.)
But that praise will have to come another time. Until then, here’s a clip that sums up the show’s strengths. It’s the conclusion of season 3’s 4th episode (“Bus Stop”), which aired October 14, 1976, but that’s all irrelevant. Lt. Dietrich is doing what he usually does—espousing fact after fact—to his fellow detectives, Phil Fish (Abe Vigoda) and Nick Yemana (Jack Soo). It’s a beautiful example of comic timing.
Who could imagine so much laughter could be derived by simply watching two homely men chew doughnuts?