Your humble curator had considered this project for some time, and spurred by a recent passing, I've decided to dip into the police files from my favorite fictional precinct, the ol' 12 of Barney Miller fame.
This is the first of several profiles of the many character people who walked and in and out of those ancient doors, as perpetrators, victims, witnesses, or just generally confused locals. As early as the second season, Barney Miller began to move away from "wacky" crooks and focused more often on either colorful eccentrics (usually candidates for Bellevue) or just average citizens who snapped under pressure of modern life and especially living in New York (getting into brawls, vandalizing property, or taking to theft because "everyone else is doing it!") The show liked repeat offenders, using the same actors again and again, usually in different roles. A few recurred as the same character, and several alternated between both. They all added to the neighborhood feel of the show, and many would go on to appear on Barney Miller alumnus Reinhold Weege's Night Court in the eighties and nineties.
So our inaugural offender, Ralph Manza, born on December 1st (today, at time of writing), 1921. He had expressive eyes which gave him a vaguely woeful look. Combined with short stature and going white haired fairly early, he had a very long career in supporting or bit parts, often as nervous little men, flunkies, henchmen, old men (obviously), or working class types (drivers, waiters, hot dog vendors, etc.) He appeared four times as Mr. Leon Roth, neighborhood blind man, his most visible (ahem) role.
However, he appeared twice in other parts. We'll look at those as well as Mr. M.'s overall career. To begin, let's look back at a young Ralph Manza from the 1962 Academy Players Directory (Characters and Comedians).
Manza had been a premed student when he was drafted during WWII. He became an army medic and was assigned to a performing troupe; as often happened overseas, Manza was not sufficiently inoculated from the acting bug. Postwar, he showed up on TV fairly early in the 1950s, as cabbies and the like. He also had a regular role on the 1959 series The D.A.'s Man, as First A.D.A. Al Bonacarsi. By 1962, he had racked up appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Judge Roy Bean, Sugarfoot, 87th Precinct (getting familiar with New York police habitats), and The Twilight Zone (as a stage doorman in the classic "The Dummy," with George "Lt. Scanlon" Murdock in a rather wooden role).
Now, we'll skip ahead to 1975, and Manza's first visit to the 12th Precinct. In the second season Barney Miller episode "Protection" (December 18, 1975), an extortion racket is capitalizing on rumors that the 12th will be closing its doors (in the midst of New York's financial crisis, and after Gerald Ford's infamous speech which papers of the day summed up as "Ford to City: Drop Dead"). One of the joys of the show is how it reflects New York of the day. Well, Wojo, eager to get to the source, goes back to old New York, bringing in Ralph Manza as Anthony Borelli. Known to Inspector Luger as Tony "The Emperor" Borelli, he last worked the rackets in 1942. A tiny old man with a cane, blinking behind glasses, he mostly seems bemused by Wojo's interest. He'd rather talk about 1923 than 1942 ("the good stuff"), now mostly works in his garden (demonstrating his crops with his fingers), and finds he's confused one of his old-time don colleagues with The Godfather.
The following season, we see Manza debuting in his main Miller role, as Leon Roth in "Community Relations" (Jan. 13, 1977). Mr. Roth is arrested for shoplifting, explaining he does so to compensate for all of the times he's been robbed, living alone. He also describes how from the feel of a person's hand, and their sounds, he can tell a lot about them. Nick Yemana asks for a character assessment, resulting in glowing positive traits... "either that, or you're Japanese." At the episode's end, another case, the shotgun wielding Mr. Lukather (Judson Morgan), who they've just dispossessed, moves in with Mr. Roth, solving their mutual problems.
Manza takes a momentary break from Mr. Roth, in "Kidnapping," the one hour fifth season opener (September 14, 1978). Mr. Siegel, owner of Siegel's Department Store (oft mentioned on the show and a stand in for Spiegel's) has been kidnapped. Manza plays his remorseful, arthritic chauffeur who was unable to prevent the snatch. Another episode that mostly calls on Manza to be little, old, and nervous, but it's still a pleasure to see him.
Manza returns as Mr. Roth in "People's Court" (Jan. 3, 1980), still rooming with Mr. Lukather. It turns out they're living in the same building as frequent 12th Precinct pest Bruno Binder (Stanley Brock), the irate sporting good's store owner with vigilante tendencies. He turned his fellow tenants into a court, originally designed to solve their own disputes, but now having branched out into jailing burglars. Mr. Roth's participation is limited to being a rather ill-equipped public defender for the accused.
In "Movie, Part 2," Mr. Roth enjoys his finest hour. This time, he's been mugged, by a crook targeting the disabled (he's eventually caught in front of the House of Canes). Mr. Roth goes through mug books (just feeling his way through) and, while waiting for Mr. Lukather to pick him up, he gets to join the squad in screening Harris' new movie (a porno as part of a departmental decoy, later abandoned). He helpfully offers a tray of crab puffs but ensures that Luger only gets one. He yells "Down in front!" at another civilian, taken aback when he sees who it is. Wojo, who had to take a call and missed the first half, says he liked "what I saw of it." Mr. Roth heartily chimes in with "Same here!"
Even when they use his blindness as a punchline, and despite his clear vulnerability to thieves, Mr. Roth is a fun, feisty character, reflecting the general mix of the 12th Precinct's colorful neighborhood.
In that capacity, he and Mr. Lukather show up in "Finale, Part 3." As the 12th Precinct really *is* shut down this time, and the squad dispersed, the neighborhood folks have dropped by to say farewell, including Binder, gay couple Marty and Mr. Driscoll, and more of the stock company. Mr. Roth asks if Barney looks surprised. It's a sweet and fitting goodbye to the show, the cast, and yes, those guests to the 12th who added so much to the series.
Ralph Manza also worked on several of Barney's sister shows. On the spinoff Fish (1977-1978), he appeared twice as elderly postman Mr. Jackman.
Finally, he appeared several times on Night Court (less a sister than a weird cousin), created by Reinhold Weege, who had been a staff writer, story editor, and for a time producer on Barney.
Now, having looked at Manza's priors at the 12th and related environs, let's get back to the rest of his career. In the sixties, he continued to pop frequently all over the place. He surprised me on Perry Mason as an expert medical witness (twice), well dressed and professional. He returned to more expected environs as a plaster yard foreman in "The Case of the Scandalous Sculptor' (1964). He was a henchman on Batman (to Catwoman, appropriately named Felix and wearing a cat-eared hat) and at various times on Get Smart (best represented by Finster, the tiny hospital orderly to KAOS doctor Dana Elcar in 1969's "And Baby Makes Four.")
In the seventies, he enjoyed a regular stint on Banacek as faithful driver Jay Drury. He made it as far as Cincinnati for the WKRP episode "Clean Up Radio Everywhere" as Harvey Green, WKRP's longest standing sponsor as owner of Red Wigglers (the Cadillac of worms). He continued to be everywhere, or so it seemed, including Soap (as a prisoner named Digger in three episodes), Fantasy Island, Newhart (semi-regular as Bud, crew member on "Vermont Today"), Doogie Howser, M.D>, The Golden Girls, and the 80s revival of The Twilight Zone (as a harried sound effects man in "Cold Reading" with Dick Shawn). Here he is in the 1989 edition of the Academy Players Directory.
In the nineties, even when he was usually just "Old Man," he stayed busy with spots on Seinfeld, Friends, Mad About You, and Charmed.
Film work always played second to the tube, but Manza can be spotted in Blazing Saddles (as an actor dressed as Hitler), 1984's The Philadelphia Experiment, and the 1998 remake of Godzilla *as "old fisherman.") He passed away at the age of 78 on January 31, 2000.
Mr. Roth's vision may have been lacking, but Mr. Manza's career sure wasn't.