Car 54, Where Are You? was an American sitcom, created by the incomparable genius that was, Nat Hiken, that ran on NBC from 1961 to 1963.
Nat Hiken’s Sergeant Bilko didn’t toss a grenade. These Bronx cops of his never fired a gun. Result: the only roar you heard was the sound of grateful laughter.
"A couple of television cops were busy every Sunday evening exposing one of television’s greatest hoaxes. They were demonstrating that policemen are people and not sub-human, trigger-happy zombies. These cops ---- the stars of a glint of TV sparkle known as Car 54 Where Are You? --- were nutty, to be sure, but they were definitely human beings: Their feet hurt and they owed money."
The officers were Gunther Toody and Francis Muldoon of the Bronx, whose most petrifying capers involve peaceable citizens trying to earn some daily bread. The citizens called Toody and Muldoon not because they’d been shot, but because they wanted their furniture moved, free, in a police prowl car. Car 54’s patrolmen were the neighbourhood’s heroic handymen.
In addition to nonviolence, another peculiarity continued to surround life in television’s 53rd Precinct. Its inhabitants made up a familiar segment of American life; easily recognized as lower-middle and working-class Italians, Jews, Irishmen, and others who perpetuated an old-country flavour in the midst of the slick, modern city of New York.
All these circumstances were highly unusual --- revolutionary may be the word --- in television’s vast fairyland. There, police guns are not often cool, everyone was strictly upper middle class, and heroes almost never betrayed a nationality or religion; on most shows you can’t tell the Joe Smiths from the John Browns from the Ozzie Nelsons.
The pilot film was made in December 1960. After pocketing a deal for five
per cent of the proceeds, Proctor & Gamble agreed to sponsor the show,
and Nat Hiken began writing scripts and shooting pictures. Nat refused to
go to Hollywood on the theory that a Bronx show should be shot in the Bronx.
So the 53rd Precinct was born in the barny old Biograph Studios on East
175th Street, where silent movie queen Mary Pickford once played.
In September 1961, about fifteen months from its origination, or about
half the time most television series spend between inspiration and exhibition,
Car 54 was giving NBC’s Sunday schedule a needed lift (CBS and ABC had
their chances to land the show, but claimed they couldn’t find the right slot.)
Almost nothing in Nat’s 53rd Precinct resembled the more traditional 87th
Precinct, a Monday night noisemaker from NBC. Officers Gunther Toody
and Francis Muldoon were too busy to ride to the din of the siren and play
bang-bang. They had to deliver live chickens to Mr Katz the butcher,
arrange for Mr Callucci to place his produce on the sidewalk in violation of
the law, take old ladies home from church, and baby-sit for marketing
Children were born in Car 54, of course, and even the girls were named
Toody and Muldoon. This did not surprise Captain Block, their long suffering
superior. When his brave patrolmen return from a tour of duty, he imagined
he saw “Tinker Bell and Peter Pan coming from Never-Never Land.”
But when this modern Keystone Cop nonsense made its debut, Nat’s best
laid plans seemed to be going astray. He had not worried about his cowboy
competition on ABC, nor even about the formidable task of stealing
Ed Sullivan’s fans from CBS halfway through the variety show. Everybody in
television land worried about the critics, though, and in particular about Jack
Gould of the New York Times.
Gould hated the show. He called Toody and Muldoon “cardboard patrolmen”
and said Car 54 was “a series with an absurd premise inanely executed.”
Five weeks later, he added that Nat’s policemen “grow more preposterous with
each week.” In the corridors of NBC, awful words were whispered: Nat Hiken had laid an egg........or had he?
Then, slowly the series began to catch on. Those whose taste had been dulled by the synthetic fervour of “action adventure” series began to notice that Nat was portraying the fears, hopes and strivings of decent people with gentle, perceptive humour.
Muldoon wasn’t terrorized by gangsters, but by the fact that he was so much taller than everybody else, especially girls. Among the show’s other characters was the ailing Officer Schnauser (played by Al Lewis), who had no illusions about getting rich; he just wanted to get a few more dollars out of the precinct’s welfare fund. And there was Sergeant Abrams, who wasn’t afraid of being shot, but of having to retire from the force because his feet hurt. People with the garden-variety problems of human existence made up Car 54.
There was also the realism of life in a politicians’ playland, the big city. When apartment buildings were condemned to make way for a new approach to the George Washington Bridge, during an election year, quaint Mrs. Rachel Bronson refused to move.
Offering coffee and cake to Toody, Muldoon and various process servers, Mrs Bronson explained a delicate truth: “They wouldn’t put a nice grandmother in the street. In an election year with the Democrats worried about the Bronx, especially they wouldn’t put a nice Jewish grandmother in the street.”
Those Nat Hiken lines had to get by Proctor & Gamble’s censor --- an ad man who kept a sponsor’s eye on Car 54 scripts --- and they did. But Nat declined to make much of this fact. Although remarks about nice Jewish grandmothers, even delivered with wholesome good humour, would be banned by most shows, he did not agree that he was deliberately violating television’s play-it-safe rules.
Such themes and lines finally brought the critics around. Jack Gould said: “Nat Hiken quite possibly is going to have the last laugh on the early detractors, including this corner.” He observed that the adventures of Toody and Muldoon “tend to grow on a set owner.”
Once the tide turned, though, praise also went rather far. On its editorial page during a period in which New York policemen were being worked over by street mobs, the Times suggested that Nat’s depiction of the real neighbourhood cop “might well be the soft answer that turns away the wrath of the bottle-wielding rioters.” The attacks subsided shortly afterward, but the connection was, at least, misty.