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Hill Street Blues Badge

Police captain's badge prop worn by Wisconsin's Daniel J. Travanti on the television series Hill Street Blues, 1981-1987.
(Museum object #2007.41.2)

With the premiere of Hill Street Blues on January 15, 1981 a new type of police procedural hit the television airwaves. Of the 13 regular characters on the show, Captain Frank X. Furillo stood out as the lead role. He was played by Daniel J. Travanti, a native of Kenosha, Wisconsin. The role not only made Travanti famous, but also a sex symbol at the age of 41. Although he no longer lives in Wisconsin, Mr. Travanti feels a strong attachment to the state. In the past he has donated his records to the Wisconsin Historical Society archives and in 2007 he presented the museum with his dressing room keys from the show, his "Capt. Furillo" desk plate, and this captain's badge.

Travanti was born Danielo Giovanni Travanty on March 7, 1940, the son of an American Motors auto worker. After showing both academic and athletic prowess in high school, he continued his education at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. While there he developed an interest in acting, appearing in many college plays. After graduating in 1961, Travanti went to the Yale School of Drama. Anticipating success as an actor he moved to Los Angeles two years later.

Once in California, Travanti found work on television playing guest roles, often as the villain. He also did a number of television commercials in these early years. Through the 1960s he used his original name, but decided to change it to its current form in the early 1970s. Around the same time he started to burnout on the steady, but routine, roles he was being offered and turned to drinking to combat his frustration.

In 1973 Travanti sought professional help for his alcohol problem and, after extensive treatment, began his life and career anew. His first accomplishment was getting a master's degree in English literature from Loyola of Marymount, a Los Angeles university, in 1978. The next year he found work as a regular on the ABC daytime soap General Hospital. His career finally peaked in 1981 when he was hired by producer Stephen Bochco to play Frank Furillo in Hill Street Blues. For this role he won two Emmys as outstanding lead actor in a drama series in 1981 and 1982, as well as a Golden Globe.

Over the course of its seven seasons Hill Street Blues was nominated for 98 Emmys and won 26, including Outstanding Drama Series from 1981-1984. Unlike earlier police dramas that focused on one character and single storylines that one television reviewer called "slow-moving and underwritten," Hill Street Blues had an ensemble cast, multiple storylines, a gritty urban feel created in part by hand-held cameras, and a mix of dark comedy and drama. More than 25 years after its premiere it is still looked upon as an innovative series that brought a new type of drama to television that influenced the look of shows like St. Elsewhere, Homicide, and NYPD Blue.

The show has even been used in university courses as an excellent illustration of 1980s television. One professor described its importance by writing that "Hill Street Blues presented perhaps the starkest and most sustained picture of the extreme dislocation, fragmentation and alienation of American society. … Not only through its storylines, its characterization and its dialogue, but also through its very methods of production, it broke new ground in giving expression to the edginess, the intricacy and the turbulence of contemporary urban life." This professor believes its innovation and significance came from its standing "in sharp contrast to most of the rest of the prime-time crime shows in running counter to the spirit of the Reagan era and refusing to give simple answers to complex questions." The innovated spirit could not last, however, and Hill Street Blues petered out, airing its last episode on May 12, 1987.

Daniel J. Travanti built on his success during these years by portraying John Walsh, the father who turned activist after his son was murdered, in Adam (1983) and its sequel Adam: His Song Continues (1986). He also had the title role of broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow in the television special Murrow (1986). In 1993 he played a police officer again in the short-lived television series Missing Persons. Since then he has focused most of this energy on theater productions, including All My Sons in 2002 and Major Barbara in 2003.

[Sources: Brumburgh, Gary. Brief biography of Daniel J. Travanti written for IMDB.com; Sheehan, Helena. Hill Street Blues: An Analysis of Text and Context (online at www.comms.dcu.ie/sheehanh/tv/hillstbl.htm); Arneson, Erik. Hill Street Blues: A Cop TV Turning Point (online at www.mysterynet.com/tv/profiles/hillstreetblues); Daniel J. Travanti papers, WHS Archives.]

LAB


Posted on September 06, 2007

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