Barney Miller was a real outlier of the 1970’s sitcoms. It was character driven not gag driven, its ensemble was a pretty diverse group from Jewish, Polish, African American, Japanese, Chicano etc. The leads were all men over 30 as opposed to twenty something supermodels who you’re supposed to believe have years of police experience, and its humor was far more subdued and verbal than more loud, slapstick punchline humor on most other sitcoms at the time. Barney may not have been groundbreaking in the way All In The Family, MASH and Mary Tyler Moore were but it was just as hilarious and just as brilliant in its execution of laughs with heart and poignancy.
I could talk in depth about every character on that show but for this article I choose to discuss the character of Detective Sergeant Ron Harris portrayed by the iconic Ron Glass. Ron Harris was a totally new type of black character on television at that time as he was a contradiction: Educated, sophisticated and literate while still being smooth, hip and a sharply dressed ladies man with a perfectly tight Afro.
This was a unique combination at a time where black male roles were one dimensional. If you were an educated black man you were normally “Bougie”, nerdy snobs who were out of touch with their race or if you were supposed to be a hip black man you had the coolness and smooth talking bit down pat but you weren’t exactly an intellectual or had an appreciation for the cultural arts because anything resembling that would be considered selling out or “acting white”. Harris was able to be both hip and sophisticated, he was also as flawed as any other character on the show. He was arrogant, pompous, self involved, heavily sarcastic and as erudite as they come, but, all his faults made him hilarious and that type of well rounded characterization was not given to black male actors to play before Barney Miller.
One of the most fun aspects of Ron Harris was his series long arc of writing a book, what he would consider “The next great American novel”. Blood on The Badge which Harris eventually got published and even had prospects of a movie deal, then he lost everything when he was sued by a conniving lawyer for using his likeness without permission and lost his shirt in court.
What was so great about Harris’ story arcs is that his race, his being an African American wasn’t at the center of the stories. His character wasn’t “The black character” on the show he was a character on the show that happened to be black and his stories were stories that could’ve easily gone to any other character of any other ethnicity, we didn’t see that a lot then and we still don’t see a lot of that now.
And when the show did touch on his race in one of its best episodes “The Harris Incident” where Harris was nearly shot by two beat cops while he was trying to arrest a mugger and they assumed he was the one robbing the guy since he was a black man with a gun, it was done with such exquisite taste, honesty, style, heart, intelligence, sensitivity and most importantly humor. The show didn’t set out to preach to their audience or be melodramatic, but, just tell stories like this with honesty and more conversational because everyone in every home has had these discussions and everyone has a different viewpoint which Barney Miller emulated with each character taking on a different point of view about the situation:
While the character of Harris was created and written brilliantly by the eccentric and extremely talented creator Danny Arnold and the stellar writing staff of Barney Miller, the one man who truly brought Harris to life and made him such a classic character was Ron Glass, who wasn’t the first choice to play the role, but, was the only one who ever could’ve done it:
Glass’ portrayal of Harris would lead to other wonderfully diverse roles for African American male actors like TC Carson’s Kyle Barker from Living Single:
Michael Boatman’s Carter Heywood from Spin City:
Reggie Hayes’ William Dent from Girlfriends:
Andre Braugher’s Frank Pembleton from Homicide: Life on the street:
Avery Brooks’ Hawk from Spenser for Hire and A Man Called Hawk:
Tim Reid’s Venus Flytrap from WKRP in Cincinatti:
Cress Williams’ Jefferson Pierce from Black Lightening:
and even in movies like Eddie Murphy’s Marcus Graham from the 1992 classic rom com Boomerang:
That blending of hipness and sophistication, pompousness and likability was more in fashion as the years went on because of this great man’s talent and for that, Ron, we say thank you. Rest in power.