KILL YOUR ENTHUSIASM (17)
November 19, 2022
One in a series of 25 enthusiastic posts, contributed by 25 HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the topic of favorite killed-off TV characters. Series edited by Heather Quinlan.
SGT. PHIL ESTERHAUS
On Hill Street Blues, the police drama that commanded American TVs for most of the 1980s, the character of Sgt. Phil Esterhaus represented a dying breed of fictional cops — right up until he died himself.
Esterhaus was the strait-laced foil to a broad cast of often struggling colleagues. His by-the-book, starched-uniform appearance was incongruous to many of the cops, lawyers, and repeat offenders who populated the precinct. It was Esterhaus, portrayed by veteran actor Michael Conrad, who assembled his officers at the start of each day and admonished them: “Let’s be careful out there.”
Esterhaus was the sort of police officer more common during television’s idealized past: serious but good natured, balancing humility and authority. The casting of Conrad cemented a connection to that past. His face was a regular living room presence long before Hill Street Blues thanks to series like The Twilight Zone and Perry Mason, Bonanza and Gunsmoke, The Bob Newhart Show and The Rockford Files. His marked contrast served the vision of Steve Bochco, the show’s creator, who pushed toward a new level of TV realism that smudged the thin blue line.
Hill Street Blues, which ran from 1981 through 1987, helped set the stage for the “gritty“ reboots that followed, not that Hill Street Blues was a reboot — except in the sense of rebooting a genre. For those of us who read the comics Watchmen (1986-1987) and The Dark Knight (1986) as pamphlets before they were collected into graphic novels, a connection could be made to the way Hill Street Blues extrapolated pop-culture clichés into trenchant narratives by leveraging heightened reality.
And then reality hit. Conrad died of cancer at the end of 1983 during the show’s fourth season. Esterhaus was killed off in early 1984. I was a high school student — quite a naive one, I’d have to say — and I found the treatment of Conrad’s death thrilling and confusing, impressive and a little uncomfortable, all at once. Esterhaus could have taken an early, off-screen retirement. He could have fallen prey to one of the threats that his “Let’s be careful out there” catchphrase alluded to. Except that wasn’t what the writers room had in store.
Esterhaus died while having sex.
I needed to leave that previous sentence as its own paragraph to provide some semblance of the impact the twist had at the time. This is the plot of the week for any number of shows four decades later, but it was something else in 1984.
Esterhaus could have walked onto the Hill Street Blues set from Dragnet, one of the few classic TV shows Conrad didn’t guest-star on. He had been in an opposites-attract relationship with Grace Gardner, played by Barbara Babcock, another TV veteran. Babcock’s Gardner was highly sensual, complementing the stoic, grandfatherly Esterhaus. I marveled, at the time, at the creative scenario in which his death was deemed respectful to the actor and the character, and I’m not sure I’ve experienced anything like it since.
KILL YOUR ENTHUSIASM: INTRODUCTION by Heather Quinlan | Max Alvarez on LANE PRYCE | Lynn Peril on PETE DUEL | Miranda Mellis on LISA KIMMEL FISHER | Trav SD on COL. HENRY BLAKE | Russ Hodge on DET. BOBBY SIMONE | Kathy Biehl on PHIL HARTMAN| Jack Silbert on MARTY FUNKHOUSER | Catherine Christman on MRS. LANDINGHAM | Kevin J. Walsh on YEOMAN JANICE RAND | Heather Quinlan on DERMOT MORGAN | Adam McGovern on LT. TASHA YAR | Nick Rumaczyk on BEN URICH | Josh Glenn on CHUCKLES THE CLOWN | Bart Beaty on COACH | Krista Margies Kunkle on JOYCE SUMMERS | Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons on DENNY DUQUETTE | Marc Weidenbaum on SGT. PHIL ESTERHAUS | Michael Campochiaro on GORDON CLARK | Fran Pado on EDITH BUNKER | Mark Kingwell on OMAR LITTLE | Bridget Bartolini on ALEX KAMAL | David Smay on VANESSA IVES | Tom Nealon on JOSS CARTER | Michele Carlo on FREDDIE PRINZE | Crockett Doob on AUNT LOUISE.
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