When Hal Linden made his first visit to Israel in the late 1970s, he could walk the streets relatively anonymously.
Israel Television, then just one channel, hadn’t picked up the hit American sitcom Barney Miller that Linden played the title role in alongside ensemble players like Abe Vigoda. However, a station dial away, Jordan TV’s English language station was broadcasting the show about an idiosyncratic New York city police precinct with Arabic subtitles.
“When I went to Bethlehem, I was mobbed,” laughed Linden, now 85 and back in Israel leading an “active seniors” mission for Jewish National Fund-US.
“In fact, at the end of the trip, there was a dinner at the King David Hotel in the presence of [prime minister] Menachem Begin and his wife Aliza. And in the reception line, I was introduced to him as an American actor.
When I got to Aliza, she says to me softly, ‘don’t tell anyone, but I watch you every week on Jordan TV.’” Linden can still walk down the streets of Jerusalem without being noticed, but as a spokesman for JNF for over two decades, he has helped the organization reach a wider audience and has helped to bring over many missions to Israel. It was an unlikely development for Linden, who grew up staunchly assimilated as Harold Lipshitz in New York City.
“We weren’t a religious family, but my parents were ardent Zionists, and I guess that rubbed off,” says Linden, who discovered an aptitude for music at an early age. After studying music at Queens College and changing his stage name to Hal Linden, he pursued a music career as a saxophonist and clarinetist, touring with many big bands.
“If I had kept at it, I could have been a good clarinet player,” he says.
While serving a stint in the US Army in the 1950s, he saw a production of Guys and Dolls, and already discouraged at the burgeoning influence of rock & roll on the music scene, decided to try his hand at acting after his discharge.
“When I saw that show, I thought ‘that looks like fun.
I think I could do that,’” says Linden. “I can’t even call it a calling, it just sort of happened.”
His breakthrough came in 1958 in the Broadway production of Bells are Ringing and in 1962 in the revival of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. The 1971 musical The Rothschilds netted him a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical. The jump to TV in 1974 for Barney Miller was more of a hunch than a career plan, Linden says.
“It was an interesting decision, looking back on it,” says Linden, admitting that he was stepping into a medium still known as the Boob Tube.
The pilot that he made for Barney Miller wasn’t picked up, so he went back to Broadway and was rehearsing for a new show when the producer of Miller called with a request to go back to Hollywood to film two more episodes.
“Do I leave this sure thing theater job to go back and do two episodes for a dead pilot? I admit it was kind of a cavalier decision. At the last minute, I thought ‘well, I did Broadway, let’s try this.’” He rejected the notion that the increasingly irreverent TV fare in the 1970s, dominated by Norman Lear and All in the Family, had anything to do with his decision. “I wasn’t much of a TV watcher, and my decision wasn’t made on the creative aspect.”
Whatever the reasons, the hunch proved to be gold, as Barney Miller became one of TV’s most popular and best ensemble comedies, earning Linden seven Emmy Award nominations during the series’ run from 1975-1982.
His compassionate, nuanced portrayal of the down-to-earth captain in a bohemian Greenwich Village precinct inhabited by a cast of offbeat colleagues provided a solid anchor for the show and won the actor legions of fans.
“It was the writing – good solid writing. We didn’t fool with the scripts or ad-lib.
We executed what were very strong scripts,” says Linden, adding that his character did not emerge from any personal traits that Linden necessarily possessed. “The script defined Barney’s character quite quickly. But maybe I’ve grown closer to Barney over the years.”
After the end of the show, Linden continued to work steadily in TV, film and theater. Most recently, he appeared in an episode of the hit US comedy Two Broke Girls. But most unexpectedly, he returned to his first love of music, launching a cabaret show – An Evening with Hal Linden: I’m Old Fashioned and releasing an album of jazz, Broadway and pop standards called It’s Never Too Late.
Between his work and his ongoing position with JNF, Linden is the poster boy for the active senior, and he says that it is intentional.
“I just keep working. A lot of people my age are retired and I have no intentions of doing that. I’m continuing to act and do my concerts and keep doing more of the same,” he says, adding that he would be open to performing in Israel.
However, with Linden’s lack of local notoriety, that may need to be a joint production with Jordan.