October 20, 2018

Barney Miller and Big Band

Back when Hal Linden was Harold Lipshitz, a Jewish kid from the Bronx, he dreamed of becoming a big-band leader. “So I felt I had to change my name,” says Linden, best-known as the stalwart Jewish police captain in the hit sitcom “Barney Miller.” “‘Swing and Sway with Harold Lifshitz’ just didn’t parse.”

The mustachioed musician went on to tour with Sammy Kaye, to star in Broadway musicals and win a 1971 Tony for his portrayal of a Jewish banking patriarch in “The Rothschilds.” But only a minority of his TV fans know about his musical background — a history he’ll explore in his acclaimed cabaret act at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa this weekend. Backed by a seven-piece band, the 70-year-old performer will sing, dance, play the clarinet and reminisce about his life and career. “The show is all about nostalgia,” he says.

When Linden picks up his clarinet, he’s transported back to the age of 8, when his Lithuanian emigrant father suggested he study music. Dad didn’t play any musical instruments, but he had a philosophy: “You go to a concert, you should know from what you’re listening,” he used to say.

While Lifshitz senior lost relatives in the Holocaust and co-founded a Zionist group, Linden, also an ardent Zionist, developed an additional passion: big-band music. He took up the saxophone, played with Boyd Raeburn but switched to theater when, in his words, “the big-band era disbanded” around 1950.

By 1958, he was working as an understudy in the hit Broadway show “Bells are Ringing” when the leading man unexpectedly took ill. During a Saturday matinee, Linden suddenly found himself dancing across the stage with Judy Holliday to the song “Just in Time” (which of course he sings in his cabaret). He remembers how the actress gently turned him toward the audience, as if to say, “This is your number. Let the people see your face.”

It took another dozen years and “The Rothschilds” to make Linden, by then in his 40s, a bona fide Broadway star. A few years later, TV writer-producer Danny Arnold, who at the time was casting his ABC comedy “Barney Miller,” invited the actor to dinner. “He said he wanted to give the [titular] character a sense of Talmudic justice, which is what I suspect he read in my ‘Rothschilds’ performance,” Linden recalls.

In interviews with the Los Angeles Times, Arnold said he had a hard time selling the actor to the network because “There was supersensitivity at the time [1974] to anything ethnic.” Arnold said he called the Jewish character “Miller” because it was an “ethnic-nonethnic name.” Says Linden, “It was one of those surnames Jews got at Ellis Island.”

The actor — who won Emmys for the vaguely ethnic role — eventually rebounded on Broadway with a part that was unabashedly Jewish. In 1986, he replaced Judd Hirsch as the cantankerous elderly socialist Nat in Herb Gardner’s Tony award-winning comedy, “I’m Not Rappaport.” In 2000, he earned rave reviews as a Holocaust survivor confronting his past in Arje Shaw’s “The Gathering.”

The role allowed Linden, who as a child had been traumatized by news of the Shoah, to achieve a closure of sorts. “The Holocaust touched a nerve in me that had felt raw my entire life,” explains the performer, who is now the national spokesperson for Jewish National Fund. “I identified with the loss the character felt, and by playing him I was able to get a lot of those feelings out.”

For tickets and information about Linden’s cabaret actDec. 14-16, call (714) 740-7878 or visit www.ocpac.org .