Thursday, 1 October 2009

298: Barney Miller 1975

“Barney Miller” was a sitcom set in a small NYC police office, whose chief of police was the titular character played by hal Linden. This setting reasonably allowed for many oddballs and unusual social specimens outside the normal remit of sitcoms. One of the recurring characters was a gay thief, Marty Morrison, played by Jack De Leon.
Marty first appeared in only the second episode of the series, made another appearance in the first series, and made several more appearances in later series, often with another gay character, his friend (maybe lover?) Darryl Driscoll, played by Ray Stewart.

Marty was largely intended as a relatively positive character. Including him in the second episode of a new series at this time, was one way of demonstrating some degree of commitment to realism. However, what controversy the character provoked, came from the gay community, who had qualms over the character the his portrayal. Strangely enough, I don’t. Either several years of looking at this stuff has left me inured, or else this isn’t as bad as was made out.

Strongly insistent upon the idea of a dignified gay identity, mid-70s gay groups who took an active interest in gay media images would probably be appalled by many of the comedic gays who appear on screen nowadays. Particularly, by the fact that many of them are offered by actual gay men. What offended in the 70s and 80s may not today. And I think this is the case with Marty Morrison.


“Experience” written by Steve Gordon
30 January 1975

Marty is introduced as a secondary character in this episode, and is there mainly as more obvious comic relief to a plot about a mad bomber. A gay thief stealing purses may seem a touch clunky today, and probably struck Gay media advocates as wholly crass then. Marty as a character gets surprisingly strong lines in this episode, and gives as good as he gets. Which can only be a bonus. He speaks in a slight drawl and camply effete manner. Plenty of bitchy retorts (which works well in the normal gag manner of American sitcoms). However, since it’s easy to see how all these could have played in a much more whiny and fey way, or simply pissy manner, Marty therefore seems a stronger character. All in all, De Leon’s performance seems within hailing distance of the characterisations offered by Anthony Cotton over the last decade, or the sort of jokes which are accepted within “Ugly Betty”, particular about fashion, slightly vain, faintly ridiculing unthinking machismo, and slight sexual insinuations.

“Kleptomania is a disease not a crime. Besides. I’ve thrown away better purses than that” (with a whole sequence of gags upbraiding the tackyness of a stolen purse)
Marty upbraids the police photographer for the shoddiness of his picture-taking ability
When Marty talks to his lawyer about police brutality, a line like “Wait until I tell what they gave me for lunch” could have come from any character in that situation witho0ut necessarily seeming over-gay.
“I applied to be a cop. They turned me down. What’s wrong with a gay cop? There are gay robbers. I mean. For god sakes. They always expect me to come on like Paul Bunyan.” (then apes a butch thuggish cop)
When the woman whose purse he stole say “You’re just lucky the police got to you before my husband”, Marty replies “The same to you”.

Undeniably, there are certainly a lot of standard gay mannerisms employed. When Marty’s first shown, he’s languidly propped on the desk, supporting his head on his desk. When sat, he’s usually crosslegged, resting his hands clasped on knee. He also has a slightly limp hand, usually splayed downwards. Walks with slight sashay, elbows hovering above hip and hands, and often speaks so head slightly tilted. Speaks with animated eyebrows and shoulders. When put in the background in a police cell, he tends to pull various moues just to remind us that he’s there. And crosses his arms across his chest, sometimes clutching his shoulders in the process, for a diva-ish manner. And note in the photo how nicely he holds his hands on the prison bars.

He very mildly flirts with the store robber who’s put in his same cell, and when threatened Marty doesn’t quite crumble into shrill hysterics (unlike some of the homosexuals in crime films of the same period – although I’ll concede it’s a near call). And there is a scene where he shows envy of the police dealing with a male flasher

For all that the episode centers around the bomb plot, Marty/ Jack De Leon holds his own so that the character is not merely a simple camp comedic relief, is a bit more assertive. The character is played in such a way that the all elements cohere and so makes sense without being an obvious stereotype or mockery. Marty makes sense. Just as importantly, all the other characters on-screen accept him for what he is. There are no fag jokes at his expense.


“The Guest” written by William Taub
27 March 1975

This is Marty’s second appearance later in the first season, so evidently the character was felt successful enough for a return visit. Again Marty is in the episode as comic relief, while the ostensible motor of the episode is the squad’s attempt to protect a Mob witness. Again Marty is unashamed of his homosexuality, nor does he doe much to deny his thefts either, though there isn’t any cack-handed attempt to relate the two. Unlike the first episode, there are a few slight swish jokes by others at Marty’s expense. The policeman who brings him for shoplifting calls him “Dr Strangelove”.
There are a few opportunities for camp insinuations. Marty pulls a face when officer comments “There are no privates on the police force”
And when the Mob witness, scared for his life, complains that Marty wasn’t frisked, Barney Miller replies ”You’re right. I didn’t have the nerve...Marty’s not gonna kill you. Take you to dinner maybe”

Marty’s own strand follows from the reason he stole luggage from a shop, which he explains in Barney’s office.

Marty: “I’m getting married”
Barney: (interested) Really? Who’s the lucky...person?
(The person Marty describes is a woman, with lots of comparisons to his mother, leading to the confession he’s only marrying for money)
When Barney says “I won’t book. But I’m going to have to hold you”, this provokes a look from Marty, with Barney replying: “Just a police expression”

When Marty is locked up in the cell with the Mob witness, much of his contribution to the episode is slightly catty things said in the background – although in reality they’re no different from the wisecracks any other character might say, but done with a camp manner.
When the Mob witness starts detailing all the reasons why he never found the right woman and was distracted by other things, Marty takes a distinct interest, echoing him almost romantically, and casting wide eyes at him. When Marty is released he tells the Mob witness, “I really enjoyed our...brief encounter”. Marty is at the door about to leave when he turns back and ask “Are you a Scorpio?” When the Mob witness replies, yes, Marty moans” “Oh God I knew it” and leaves semi-anguished. Later in the episode, the police station receives a phone call, which evidently a hysterical tearful Marty phoning after Mr Schuster.

The Marty performance holds together again. But the way it’s been written this time indulge several other gay stereotypes - a certain mother-obsession, and also unmanly over emotionalism. Since Marty is marrying an unseen woman for money, but the falls for the Mob witness, it makes gay affections seem rather unreliable (but then this is a 23 minute comedy so realism is asking a bit much).


“The Discovery” written by Chris Hayward
30 October 1975 explains some of the background to this episode. The gay audience had not been pleased by Marty and their complaints were forwarded by the Gay Media Task Force. So to placate gay viewers, not only does this episode have a specifically gay theme, harassment of homosexuals, but it also introduces a non-stereotypical gay police officer. The harassment at first looks as thought it may originate in the police, with gays be shaken down for money. Barney is offended by this and is determined to find out what’s happening. Set against this, one of the officers, Wojo, makes his discomfort about homosexual evident with various small jokes. Wojo, a slightly dumb but usually well-meaning character, was often used in the series to point up the sort of low-grade, institutional bigotry many people employ. Significantly, after the perpetrators have been found, and Wojo has been incidentally reprimanded, he manages to reach some sort of accommodation with the idea of homosexuality. And so in the course of the episode, in the low-key manner available to a sitcom, Wojo demonstrates the police prejudice against homosexuals. The episode is not just about showing the two gay men as slightly more than comic relief (although the querulous cowardice on Darryl’s part doesn’t help), but also finding opportunities for Wojo’s education.
Also this episode introduces another recurring gay character, Darryl Driscoll, played by Ray Stewart. Both men are here in a non-criminal capacity to argue against injustice. Although as casual wear for two off-duty homosexuals go, these two are dressed oddly.

(Darryl and Marty appear quarrelling at doorway to the squad room)
D: I don’t like it her
M: Don’t be silly
(Marty swans in. When Wojo looks at him, Darryl gives him haughty look, and walks to Marty)
D: This is enemy territory

M (To Barney Miller) We have a problem
W: (dryly) no kidding
M (sotto to D) He was the one I was telling you about. Can we speak to you captain (so W hears) Privately
Goes into office (makes moue as goes past B)
W: if you need any help in there (to other guys) Those guys make me nervous

M: Darryl was arrested by a detective from this precinct
B: What charge
D: Being Unique
M: He was coming out of the Velvet Den when he was busted. He had to buy his way out for 50 dollars
D: I told you he’d be angry. We’ll never be seen again (turns away to shield his head in his hand). He gave me a choice. Either pay through the nose or bleed through it...he was ugly
B: Tall ugly or short ugly
M: When you’re ugly what’s the difference?
D: He was a bit shorter than me
B: 5’11?
D: No. 6’3. I was wearing my platforms
(All three go back in office to ensure that it was not one of B’s officers. M waves D with fingers to follow. B introduces W)
D: I haven’t had the pleasure (extends long limp hand which B doesn’t take, so folds his hand below his waist)
(When B sits D to look through records, M pats D’s shoulder approvingly
D: I hope this doesn’t take too long. I have a lecture at noon – I’m having lunch with my mother (weary look from M)
(A potential suicide has been brought in. He is divorced. He is questioned about personal life.)
Suicide: Of course I live alone. What do you think I am? (loud enough for M and D to hear and then turn to each other pulling offended faces)
(When the suicide suddenly runs off causing a disturbance – M puts hand to cheek in shock)
W: The guys some fruitcake (to M and D) no offence (Both give slightly haughty offended glares at him)
W: (sotto to Barney, confused) How do guys get like that
(shot of both pouring over records like happy old maids)
B: Who knows? Could be a small psychological phenomenon kicked off by anything
W: (chewing gum) Diet?
B: Possibly
W: I try and keep a good eye on my starches
B: (beat) You worried
W: (trying to laugh it off) Me? No........(abashed) Well, every once in a while I wonder (B gives him look) Don’t you?
B: No
W: I guess that’s one of the things I admire about you
(Later there is a conversation between M and the suicide now in jail, heavily suggesting M has tried suicide)
Suicide: We all have different problem
M (clasping and fingering cell bars) I wanted to be John Wayne until I was 17. (M’s fingers splayed near his throat) And then one day I didn’t anymore. I wanted to die. Then I heard Doris Day singing Que Sera Sera. And I though she’s right. There’s nothing wrong with me.
Suicide: I’m a perfectly normal man
M: (slightly huffy) Well if you want to settle for that, it’s perfectly alright by me
W: I have sheets here of guys who have a record of beating up sex
B: Are you referring to women?
W: No, I’m referring to those guys
B: (calmly) They’re not the opposite sex
W: Well they are so for me...aren’t they?
Other cop: No to me. I don’t care (walks off)
B: (firmly) They preferred to be called “gay”
W: I know. But .. I just have trouble saying it

(Policeman brings in another man. D jumps up)
D: O my God! That’s the man! (goes behind M as a shield) I told you he was ugly
M: (aghast) You were being kind!
D: Oh yes that’s him (goes close, then puts arm in front of face to suggest how hideous man is)
(Sergeant explains how man accosted him outside of gay bar. B laughs about how anyone could think a NY cop was gay)
Sergeant says pointedly “Que sera sera”.
Sergeant , man, M and D go off.
M – I told you they were human (refers to cops, or because one might be gay??)

In tag scene, W is finally able to use the word “gay”

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