Today, we look at the circuitous route that Abe Vigoda’s Fish took towards getting his own spinoff series from Barney Miller.
This is Back Door Blues, a feature about “backdoor pilots.” Backdoor pilots are episodes of regular TV series that are intended to also work as pilots for a new series. Sometimes these pilots get picked up, but a lot of times they did not get picked up. I’ll spotlight examples of both successful and failed backdoor pilots.
CONCEPT: The home life of Detective Phil Fish.
SERIES IT AIRED ON Barney Miller
As I wrote about in the last installment of Back Door Blues, the original intent of the ABC sitcom, Barney Miller, was to show the home life of Captain Barney Miller and also his work life as the Captain of the 12th Precinct. However, the detectives at the 12th Precinct were all so interesting that the show quickly became solely a workplace comedy.
The standout character on a series filled with excellent characters was Abe Vigoda’s laconic Detective Phil Fish. Fish was such an unusual character, as America wasn’t quite ready for an old (Vigoda played Fish as about a decade older than Vigoda’s actual age), grumpy but lovable police detective and the networks quickly asked the show’s creator, Danny Arnold, to give Fish his own series. The idea had some merit, as the ensemble cast of Barney Miller was SO good that the show could survive losing Fish and Fish was good enough to maintain his own show.
So the first idea was to do a spotlight on Fish at home, with his wife, Bernice (Florence Stanley played the part of Bernice in her first two appearances and then in every other later appearance of the character, but in this episode, Doris Belack played her for some reason – perhaps Stanley wasn’t ready to do a spinoff at this exact point in time?) and their adult daughter (Nancy Levine)’s strange love life. This occurred in the Season 2 episode, “Fish.” However, the concept wasn’t compelling enough for the spinoff to work.
Then, as I noted last time, Danny Arnold came up with the idea of doing a separate spinoff where we would just see the home lives of the various detectives on the series. Each detective would get a distinctive setup for their episodes and the cast would alternate among the regulars on Barney Miller so that no one would be overworked so much that they wouldn’t be able to remain on Barney Miller. One of the main plots would be Max Gail’s Stan “Wojo” Wojciehowicz moving in with Linda Lavin’s recurring character, Detective Janice Wentworth. Another one of the plots would be Fish and Bernice taking in a bunch of foster kids of different ethnicities.
Lavin left the series to star in Alice on CBS, so the spinoff was squelched at first, but eventually, they returned to the Fish plot idea and decided to just do that as its own series. Fish, featuring Vigoda and Stanley as the foster parents for an eclectic group of kids and teenagers (including a young Todd Bridges, soon before Diff’rent Strokes), debuted in the middle of Barney Miller Season 3. It aired 13 episodes in its first season.
Like the other idea, Arnold’s take on things was that Fish would continue to appear on Barney Miller (perhaps less frequently) while also starring on Fish, but Arnold later recalled that Vigoda did not like that idea, “I found myself with a very unhappy actor on my hands. Abe would walk around the set like a man in shock. Who was I to deprive an actor of this once-in-a-lifetime break? Finally I said, ‘Okay–just stay through the third year of Barney Miller, and we’ll go with your show, too.'”
So Fish then retired at the start of Barney Miller Season 4 to devote himself full time to his foster kids. Interestingly, Fish and Barney Miller (which was a hit show still at the time) were never paired together on the schedule, airing on different nights throughout Fish‘s short run).
Fish would only last one more season (there are disputes over why it was canceled, Todd Bridges says that the network was willing to renew it for a third season but Vigoda wanted a raise. However, its ratings weren’t amazing, so it could just have easily been canceled for that reason).
Vigoda would later return to Barney Miller to wrap up the plot of Fish, but that’s a story for another day! Amusingly, the first Fish backdoor pilot also introduced Detective Arthur Dietrich (Steve Landesberg), who was filling in for Fish in that episode and later took over for Fish wehn Fish left the series for good.
DID THE PILOT GO TO SERIES? Not right away, but eventually.
SHOULD IT HAVE? Fish was a great character, so I think he could support his own series, so I’m fine with the idea.
Okay, that’s it for this installment of Back Door Blues! I KNOW you have suggestions for other interesting backdoor pilots, so drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org (don’t suggest in the comments, as this way, it’ll be a surprise!).