If you've heard him on cast albums, you know that Linden has a terrific voice and, like me, you are probably disappointed that we haven't often gotten to hear him sing in recent years. Happily, the man whom the world knows and loves as TV's Barney Miller is back performing in New York--not in one of the theaters clustered around Times Square but at the upscale cabaret club Feinstein's at the Regency. (Click here for schedule and other information.) I spoke with Linden about his career in general and about his plans for what will be, believe it or not, his solo cabaret debut in NYC.
THEATERMANIA: I guess you're a prime example of someone who started in musical theater and then became so famous in a non-singing role on TV that a lot of people don't even know you have that background.
HAL LINDEN: Actually, I didn't start out in musical theater; I had a totally different career before that. I was a musician, clarinet and sax. I did the Big Bands and clubs, playing and singing, a long time before I ever got to Broadway. I was a part of the Big Band era, albeit the very tail end of it.
TM: This show at Feinstein's is your first cabaret engagement in New York?
HL: Yes. I've been doing an act for about 30 years...just never here, for one reason or another. There are very few places to play here, and it's the same in Los Angeles, though there are large venues. I guess I could have played the Hollywood Bowl, but I haven't done that yet. Nor have I played Carnegie Hall. That's next!
TM: What kept you busy immediately after Barney Miller ended?
HL: I did three television series and, I don't know, maybe 50 symphony concerts. On stage, I've done four Broadway and Off-Broadway productions since then: Visiting Mr. Green, A Christmas Carol at Madison Square Garden, The Sisters Rosensweig, and I'm Not Rappaport.
TM: Were there any major musical theater opportunities that you passed up after you'd gained fame on TV?
HL: There were a couple of things that came along, but they didn't work out or I didn't want to do them or they didn't want me. I suspect that's why I've been concentrating on concerts, though I did do a tour of La Mancha in the '80s and I did Kismet in stock. I was busy when they cast La Cage on Broadway; they called me for that but I was doing a production of something else at the time.
TM: You understudied Sydney Chaplin in two shows, isn't that right?
HL: Yes, Bells Are Ringing and Subways Are For Sleeping. Sydney has become a very dear friend of mine. He had a little nightclub in the Palm Springs area that I used to frequent quite often.
TM: Those must have been amazing times to be on Broadway, working with people like Judy Holliday...
HL: ...and Jule Styne and Comden and Green...
TM: I treasure the cast album of the Anything Goes production that you did Off-Broadway in 1962 with Eileen Rodgers, Mickey Deems, Kenneth Mars, and Barbara Lang.
HL: I think that was pretty much the beginning of musical revivals Off-Broadway. What we did was kind of shameless, if you really look at the score. There are about four or five numbers on that album that did not come from Anything Goes. The original opening number was "I Get a Kick Out of You," of all things.
TM: I know! I was so surprised when I saw the later revival at Lincoln Center and it opened with Patti LuPone singing that song.
HL: Yeah, it's kind of a strange thing to start off with a ballad like that. Not only that, Reno sings it to Billy, and that's the end of that relationship; it never goes any further. That's why there were so many changes when we did it. As I said, we were shameless. Mickey Deems [who played Moonface Martin] used to come in every morning and tell me, "Hey, if I say this, then you say that." There was a lot restructuring of scenes and adding of jokes. Then, on opening night, one of the original authors came to the show: I believe it was Guy Bolton, who was an old, old man by then. He came backstage and said, "Son of a gun, the show still works!" We said, "Yes sir, oh boy, it's still good!!" I was embarrassed. I was still pretty new to the business and I didn't know you could make changes like that.
TM: Another thing I wanted to ask you about was the revival of The Pajama Game that you did in the '70s. It didn't run very long...
HL: No, it didn't, and one of the reasons is that it was under-financed. It ran about six or seven months. I remember that I left it to do the pilot of Barney Miller; by the time I came back, it was kind of weak and it didn't last much longer.
TM: Barbara McNair was Babe, right?
HL: Yes, and Cab Calloway was Hines.
TM: So that's another innovative production in which you were involved: Back then, shows with racially integrated leads were pretty much unheard of.
HL: Yes. Quite frankly, that's why I got the job. Mr. Abbott was directing; I'd worked for him twice before. He liked me and, of course, I was a great fan of his. But when I went in for Pajama Game, he said, "You can't do this role." He originally thought of it as the upstanding, leading-man type along the lines of John Raitt. I said, "Sir, if you're going to do an integrated relationship, then you'd better get somebody hipper than the original Sid that you envisioned. You've gotta take out the 'Gosh, Babe' lines and all that. If this man is ready for an interracial love affair, he'd better be a street smart guy from Chicago."
TM: A few years ago, Alex Cohen gave me a videotape copy of the 1970 Tony Awards show. You won that year for The Rothschilds. That was also the telecast where they featured numbers from 25 years' worth of Tony-winning musicals, most of them performed by original cast members.
HL: That evening was amazing for me. All of a sudden, you're up there; you're not an understudy anymore.
TM: Your last Broadway show was The Gathering, a major flop. I recall that you made some very honest, no-holds-barred remarks about the play after it closed...
HL: Yeah, The Gathering was a revelation to me--or, I should say, it led me to a self-revelation. I realized that I've always selected projects by the roles and not by the plays. That's a frailty. You should be able to temper it by saying, "It's a great role but a lousy play." This wasn't the first one of those that I've been in! Look at my Broadway record: I don't have any hits. Even The Rothschilds wasn't a financial success. I have a career totally predicated on flops. That's true of me and Alex Cohen; he never had a hit, either, but we both survived in the theater for many years. What's that theater on 48th Street; is it the Longacre? I did The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window there and it was the last play to run in that theater for a decade, so the marquee with my name was up for about 10 years!
TM: Can we talk a little bit about your show at Feinstein's?
HL: As I say, I've been doing this as a concert act with symphony orchestras for a long time now, ever since The Rothschilds. Of course, there have been changes over time. It's a kind of compendium of the career of Hal Linden, from the Big Band era to Broadway theater to television and movies. A little bit of this, a little bit of that. Songs I sang on Broadway, songs I never sang on Broadway, songs I wish I had sung on Broadway. And it's all done with the same attitude: That I never had a hit!