It's axiomatic in television that anything the critics like is doomed to oblivion—or PBS. Now for the exception that proves the rule: NBC's red-hot Hill Street Blues. When the innovative show about a Fort Apache-type police station debuted last year, critics beat the drum loudly for what many called the best new show in years. But ratings started low and stayed there. Then last September Hill Street Blues—a once unthinkable mixture of humor and abrupt violence, racial strife and interracial affection, good intentions and unhappy endings—copped an unprecedented eight Emmys. A mass audience began to build. Since then Blues has become TV's most talked-about hit, partially because it treats sex—without a jiggle, leer or sitcom smirk—as something more than a Saturday night special. "I can't believe people find that [jiggly] stuff sexy," says Hill Street co-executive Steven Bochco. "We're talking about adult people. We're talking grown-ups."
Three of the most interesting grownups are Hill Street's main stars—Daniel J. Travanti, 41, a reformed alcoholic learning to enjoy his biggest triumph as the stoic, handsome precinct boss, Capt. Frank Furillo; Veronica Hamel, 34, an ex-high fashion model who as Public Defender Joyce Davenport relishes both her independence and her steamy affair with Captain Furillo; and Michael Conrad, 55ish, a leathery Hollywood veteran who as sesquipedalian Sgt. Phil Esterhaus arouses passion in every woman he meets, from a 17-year-old cheerleader to a middle-aged widow. Among the excellent 15-member ensemble cast the affection seems as genuine off-camera as on. According to Travanti, "We are all very huggy-huggy with each other. People come over to the set and say, 'Look at those guys!' But we're not homosexual or bisexual, just sexual," he grins. "We all lean on each other a lot."
Travanti, in another sense, particularly enjoyed leaning on Hamel recently when reports surfaced in a small L.A. paper that her "star behavior" was disrupting the show. "I was with Veronica on the set," says Travanti, "when Taurean [Neal Washington] Blacque came around the corner. I said, 'Say hello to the bitch, Taurean,' and he said, 'Whaaat?' because the word coming from me was such a shocker." That's how Travanti, like other cast members, laughs off the supposed friction.
Travanti's bluff, easygoing demeanor testifies not only to his hard-earned success but also to his much-publicized victory over the bottle. "There's a sense of relief that I'm getting to do the kind of work I always knew I could do," says Dan, whose 10 years as an alcoholic ended with an onstage crackup in 1973 during a performance of Twigs in Indianapolis. He now follows a strict regimen of cycling and gym workouts. His shooting schedule has meant less time for the circle of friends, all reformed drinkers, with whom he used to meet up to four times weekly. Still, "It's not a thing you ever lose," he says of the shadow cast by alcoholism. "You're living in recovery."
And in style. He turned in his modest Santa Monica cottage last year for a nearby three-bedroom cliff house with a view of the ocean. A new red Mercedes 380 SEL, bought after three months' deliberation, sits in the garage. "Before, I had a truck and a six-year-old Rabbit," Dan says. "It's taken me this long to have the sense of self-worth to enjoy the luxury and comfort.
"I will always be the son of practical farmers from the hills of eastern Italy who knocked their brains out for a buck," Travanti observes. But he won't sell out for any of the TV movie "junk" offers that are dribbling in. Besides Hill Street, at the moment he's most excited about hosting Saturday Night Live this spring. "Success is all it's cracked up to be," he grins. "Life gets better, the work is nicer, and I'm nicer."
Success on her own terms is also a treat for Veronica Hamel, the brown-haired, green-eyed beauty who looks as if she might have made it on Charlie's Angels, a job she claims she turned down because she was tired of living off her looks. "My business people were in tears, had strokes, convulsions," laughs Hamel of her decision not to join the Angels at the outset in 1976. "They said it would make me a star. But I said, 'You're talking about my life, my work—and I'll be miserable.' " Her role as the tough-minded lawyer who shares battles and bubble baths with Furillo is "a prize" and more compatible with her nature. "We're both independent," Veronica says of her character. "We are not appendages, living through someone else. I never have done that."
The daughter of a Philadelphia carpenter and a housewife, Hamel was a successful Vogue model at 17. "It was lucrative, it was wonderful, and I kept my anonymity, which I enjoyed," says Hamel. She earned six-figure salaries and traveled twice around the world during her 10 years as a glamour queen. Nevertheless she grew bored and switched to acting and Hollywood in 1975. It wasn't easy. "There's a stigma put on models—that you can't walk and talk at the same time, let alone act," says Hamel. "So you have to work twice as hard." She appeared in trash films such as Beyond the Poseidon Adventure and When Time Ran Out before landing Hill Street over some 40 rivals.
Divorced last year from occasional Lou Grant actor Michael Irving after 10 years of marriage (the last five separated), Hamel says she has no steady guy these days: "I have many friends. We organize tennis tournaments on Sundays. I have some close women friends I don't think I could live without—that holds it all together." She lives alone in a rented three-bedroom house in Brentwood. "I can't afford to buy what I want, which would probably cost a million dollars," she says. Still, it's commodious enough for occasional picnics and barbecues, once for the whole Hill Street cast. An avid equestrian, she's given up jumping lest an injury jeopardize the show.
True to form, Hamel has turned down lucrative TV movie offers, and instead will star in a stage version of The Miracle Worker in St. Louis when Hill Street goes into its annual hiatus next month. "You get into that 'pretty girl' syndrome, and you become the obligatory leading lady," says Hamel. "I don't want to be the obligatory anything. I'm smart, I'm good, and I want to be better, and the only way to do that is to take chances."
Michael Conrad was spoiling to take such chances when Hill Street came along after three decades of credits as the hard-guy type. "I think I can show softness in a male," says Conrad, who notes that years ago he "thought you had to look like Tony Perkins to have sensitivity." Michael, in fact, is about the only one who isn't surprised that he has emerged as prime time's most unlikely sex symbol. "My wife, Sima, has heard me say this before, so she won't mind," says Conrad of his ladies' man reputation, "but I've been successful with women in a modest kind of way. I listen to them. Women appreciate that." Four times married, he admits that he "fouled up—there were certain people I could have been a lot nicer to." Conrad nonetheless says he has a special affinity for women because "I've lived with them all my life."
His father, a career soldier, left home when Conrad was a tyke, and he, his mother and younger sister moved into a crowded Brooklyn apartment with his grandparents, an aunt and assorted other relatives. Michael served as an artilleryman in World War II, then returned to New York and tapped the Gl Bill to study English and drama at City College and the New School. Acting gigs on and off Broadway led to films (including 1974's The Longest Yard with Burt Reynolds) and a stream of TV work including his 1976 role on Delvecchio. There he met Hill Street's future creators, Bochco and Michael Kozoll, who wrote the part of Sergeant Esterhaus for him.
Now he and Sima, 30, an Israeli-born actress he married eight years ago, live idyllically on one Malibu acre in a wood-beamed home with a 180-degree view of the Pacific. There are a brace of Volvos in the garage, and the couple keep two Thoroughbred horses at a stable five miles south. They hike in the nearby mountains and each morning run a few miles at the water's edge before Conrad heads for the studio.
The only thing he has trouble with on Hill Street is his character's multisyllabic tendencies. "I don't have anywhere near his capacity to express myself, and I struggle with those words mightily," says Conrad, who believes the writers delight in finding mouthfuls like "tinea pedis dermatophytosis" (athlete's foot) for him to contend with. Conrad admits: "I try to get the script a week in advance."
Striking a blow against TV typecasting is particularly gratifying for the 6'4", 205-pound Conrad. "I walk into a room and there's a sense of danger about me," he says. "I sort of lean back and take everything in. In public, or at cocktail parties, I do it as a form of protection, really," he adds. "But now if someone comes up and says something that annoys me, something inside says, 'Hey, you're Sergeant Esterhaus. You can't snap back the way you used to.' " A guest shot on an Incredible Hulk episode last year confirmed Conrad in his new onscreen persona. "I was a writer, a sensitive caring man," he says, beaming. "People now see me as a compassionate human being."