Sunday, December 25, 2016

A Barney Miller Christmas: "Homeless" (season 8, 1981)

Well, 2016 was not content with finally taking Abe Vigoda. Within the last thirty days, we've lost fellow BARNEY MILLER alums Ron Glass (Det. Sgt. Ron Harris) and character actor Don Calfa (a frequent arrestee). I hope to write more about both gents soon. But right now, the timely episode "Homeless," from the final season, seemed a nice way to look at both of them in action. This was only the last of three Christmas episodes for the show. Season 3's "Christmas Story" is the best known, highlighted by a love interest for Jack Soo's Nick Yemana, and it featured to a lesser extent in season 5's "Toys."

"Homeless" is a sweet, underlooked gem. Glass has little to do (most of the regulars are on the periphery, watching events converge). But Calfa, who often played despicable crooks or else those with definite health (or mental) issues, has his most likable role here, his seventh and last appearance.

So, the episode opens with Officer Levitt (Ron Carey) on detective assignment again. Harris brings in a large wrapped gift for a needy child... a Bavarian German-crafted march of the wooden soldiers set. Levitt, whose gift is the size of a matchbox, resents it.
Before the main theme rolls, he'll refer to them as a "box of Nazis." (I'm not a fan of Levitt, who started out sullenly insufferable and stayed there; he had his moments, often with Dietrich, but the writers left him flatter as a character than Inspector Luger, which is saying a lot). I like Harris' sweater, though.

Now, plot starts: Dietrich (Steve Landesberg) and Wojo (Max Gail) enter. Wojo helps a clearly shaken, ailing Edward Pratken (Don Calfa), Eddie to his many friends. Dietrich's escorting a repeat offender, obnoxious sporting goods store owner Bruno Binder (Stanley Brock). As a loudmouth merchant with vigilante tendencies, Binder was often in as complainant or arrestee (or both at the same time). He found Pratken in his tent display and attacked him with a cattle prod (!) Binder never appeared without a hat, and usually had a cigar present, adding to the impression of boorish shopkeeper (who really hates the public; he "jokes" about wishing he could zap some carolers.)

Wojo learns that Eddie has been living in that display ("only at night"). One of Wojo's best traits (even in the early seasons where he could be an outright goon) is his sympathy for the underdog, although he gently suggests Eddie should have tried a mission, shelter, or even sleep in the subway. "That's where the bums live!" Eddie explains he doesn't drink, he has a steady job as a dishwasher.... but the 25 dollar a week hotel where he lived was sold to a developer. So all fifty or so residents were dispossessed. Calfa's expressive eyes ahdn hang-dog look really add to the character, trying to maintain his dignity while aware of his situation.

Wojo tries to argue Eddie's case with Barney (wrapping a Christmas present), who becomes apprehensive: "Who did you call?" Wojo's tendency to go overboard in these matters has been well established by now; notable examples include telling the Bureau of Indian Affairs that the case of a single elderly native man "involved a treaty," and most famously, in "Agent Orange," calling down a VA representative, chemical company head, *and* then wondering "Where's the air force?")

This time, Wojo called a man from the Department of Human Resources. Barney assures him that's who he should have called. Wojo: "Don't play games with me, Barney!"

Harris enters with a new Christmas guest, and the only subplot this time (everything else relates somehow to the starting incident at Binder's): Joseph Kellogg (Broadway actor Paul Stolarsky in his only appearance; stolarsky also had a bit part in Muppets Take Manhattan, more heard than seen as the announcer for Gonzo's chicken-themed aquacade).
Greeting card writ Kellogg was causing a disturbance at the office Christmas party... after Santa handed him a sympathy card with a pink slip, instead of his expected bonus.

In the meantime, however, the station has been stormed by two of Eddie's friends and former neighbors: Sam Belinkoff (frequent visitor Walter Janowitz) and Linda (Zane Busby), wanting to get "our Eddie" out of jail.

Walter Janowitz was your go to twinkly Eastern European on sitcoms (and some dramas) in the sixties and seventies. This was his fourth visit to the 12th Precinct (the most famous being as the swordfighting Polish actor in "Hash") and he'd even be in the crowd of neighborhood regulars in the finale.

Zane Busby appeared in comedy films, usually small roles, in the likes of Oh, God!, Americathon, This Is Spinal Tap, and notably in Cracking Up (as foil to Jerry Lewis, in multiple roles). She moved behind the camera around 1984, directing frequent episodes of the sitcoms Dads, My Two Dads, and before she got in a rut of dad shows, Charles in Charge, as well as Blossom and single installments of Newhart and The Golden Girls

So, after Binder hurls some verbal abuse at the "scuzz" outside the cell, Mr. Belinkoff reveals their protest method. At least twenty five of Eddie's fellow dispossessed are in the precinct, essentially staging a sort of sit-in (or at least crowd-in). Wojo grins at the notion, prompting him to disclaim, "Wasn't my idea!"

The homeless horde swells, with Belinkoff having started a rumor that the station was providing free board for the holidays (a pregnant woman is among their number, unseen.) Wojo finds food for the increasing throng through the vending machines: "Lucky you had enough quarters." "Umm, we'll talk about that later."

Further arrivals: Naomi Binder, who for only a month or so has been Mrs. Binder. She's played by Mari Gorman, who played neurotic housewife-types before (once as a woman who decides to try hooking in the hopes of being noticed, and thrice as Det. Rosalyn Licori, who was scatterbrained and had a controlling husband). Mrs. Binder is much the same, and when she flinches as an angry Binder thrusts a hand near the bars, one really rather worries about their homelife.

Next, Howard Weckler of the NY department of Human Resources has finally arrived. He's played by frequent visitor David Clennon, who appeared in assorted roles but more than once ended up as basically the guy in the suit (more on him in a future profile). Nearly all Barney Miller bureaucrats are beleagured (most mean well but their hands are tied), but Weckler looks bewildered before he even enters the room, as if he'd already given up. He talks to Barney a little bit about the problem (city crackdowns, unemployment, tax incentives leading developers to buy up hotels and flophouses to turn into condos.) But nothing useful comes from the conclave.

Finally, smug, pointlessly vindictive Arthur Mench of the greeting card company. It's Ben Piazza, who specialized in smarmy smiling men in sits who you'd like to see get kicked in the teeth. This was his third and final appearance, and they were all louses. This one presses charges, rattles on about wanting to sell greeting cards to hostages (!) and is mostly unfazed when Binder and Eddie threaten to boycott his cards (Harris writes his own).
Weckler has proved useless by this point, only obtaining an abandoned correctional facility in the Catskills (but they'd have to supply their own transportation). But Dietrich reveals it's all academic, as the city is snowed in. Nobody (including city bureaucrats who live in Connecticut) is getting out. Well, except for Bruno Binder, released on bail and willing to brave the snow to his nearby store/home. And a Christmas miracle occurs. Bruno had been observing Eddie (and his lady friend Eddie) with growing warmth and understanding (Linda beat both heroin and hooking, getting two things off her bat). While still apt to call Eddie "Mr. Potato Head" and Linda "Princess Grace," he drops the charges... and invites them both home for Christmas. He even hugs Barney!

Meanwhile, the remainder bunker down for the night: officers, dispossessed, and man from the city. We get a shot of the precinct window and some Waltons style exchanges: Harris wonders who took his pillow, Dietrich reveals he normally sleeps in the nude, Mr. Belinkoff says "Goodnight, Mr. Weckler" (very funny) and we close with a "Merry Christmas" from Levitt to the captain (and vice versa). Definitely a Grand Hotel-esque episode, for a series that tended to specialize in them (we seldom ever saw beyond the squad room, and by episode's end, they really *are* cut off).
*cue bassline in credits, and a cup of eggnog instead of the bad coffee*

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