Abe Vigoda was perfect as Sgt. Phil Fish, usually just known as Fish.
As the roof of the squad-room accumulates rainwater, Fish, on his way to the bathroom says, “You’d be surprised how much water an old structure can hold.”
Typical dry humor of Sgt. Fish.
Of Barney Miller’s eight seasons, Fish was a regular was three seasons before getting a chance for his own show. Unfortunately, it last just a season. In later seasons, Fish would drop by the squad-room once in awhile.
When Barney Miller premiered, the cast seemed to have a variety of character types. Fish was the older, veteran detective with bad feet, insomnia and a ton of ailments. His haggard look, slow gait and general lack of enthusiam defined his character.
Vigoda was a member of the original cast and his three seasons were in my opinion the best in the series run. Gregory Sierra was also a regular during the first two seasons, his desk sitting across from Fish.
Fish moved slowly and his reactions were equally slow and pronounced. His slow delivery gave him a chance to milk his facial expressions, much like Jack Benny.
Between the aggravations of his loving wife Bernice and his frequent trips to the bathroom, he usually fended off comments about age. He frequently enters the scene from the bathroom to some manner of conversation where Fish can add a dry comment to great laughter.
The running gag is that Bernice is always calling Fish or coming by the squad-room. His work world is one way to be away from her. For him, togetherness doesn’t have to include being physically together. His affection for her does run deep, just almost too deep to find.
My ten favorite Fish episodes:
“Smog Alert” Fish shows up for work later than the others, it’s a smog alert day in the city. Fish is breathing heavily. On finding out it’s smog day, “I ate a piece.” On a call, Fish collapses, and they can’t find out where he is. Later, Fish shows up saying he got some oxygen from the paramedics and they let him out. Barney says the ambulence usually doesn’t do that. “The gun helped,” he says.
“Group Home” Fish has to dress as a woman to catch a mugger. Not a pretty sight, but he gives it his best effort. Bernice the wife stops by to get a check, she kisses him, to his dissatisfaction. “Afraid I’ll smudge your makeup?” she asked. An older mugger tried to pick up Fish and is arrested. He seems to want a friendship with Fish.
“Hair” Fish is assigned to visit a massage parlor as they are looking for prostitution. Bernice does not like the idea. It turns out Fish falls asleep while getting a massage.
“Discovery” Due to a computer problem, The NYPD thinks Fish is dead. He has to prove he’s still alive, and offers some dry comments along the way.
“The Kid” Fish arrests a young mugger. His mother comes to the station to get him. Fish flirts with her, and she returns it. He stops by her apartment to check on the boys and has wine with his mother. Fish feels guilty for the attraction and turns his attention back to Bernice.
“The Mole” Fish considers an operation he’s been putting off, and is nervous about. Hemmoroids. Although Fish’s story is a minor one in this episode, it brings out his best character traits.
“Hash” Wojo brings in a box of brownies his girlfriend baked. They don’t know it contains hash, which everyone but Barney indulges. Fish chases a suspect displaying agility of a much younger man. He’s disappointed to hear it was the brownies. In the meantime, old rival for Bernice visits and still has the hots for her. Fish, still under the influence of the brownies, tells him off, before coming to his senses.
“Evacuation” Fish gets mixed up with an orphans from a group home whose house parent suddenly died. Fish hates sweetness, especially from kids. What killed the house parent? “Aggravation,” Fish says. The girl says, there are just some woman that men can’t get out of their system. “Maybe they’ll invent a laxative,” he says.
“The Quarantine” Everyone must stay overnight until the doctor is sure the exposure is not smallpox. This creates a great humorous situation of close contact. Fish must be apart from Bernice, which he doesn’t seem to mind. Others are concerned about the quarantine but Fish says don’t get existed until they know for sure. He makes small talk with a hooker who confesses she had a short-lived marriage. He counters with, “some of us are more fortunate than others,” in his dry sense of humor.
“The Recluse” The foster children return to see Fish, looking for a loan to leave town. Fish refuses and sends them away with money for ice cream instead. They get caught in New Jersey and sent back. Bernice stops by to have dinner with him when the children returns. To his horror, Bernice insists they take them to dinner. It’s his worst nightmare.
Barney Miller was one of the smartest, character-driven shows of the era. Det. Sgt. Phillip K. Fish was a memorable character and it gave Vigoda a chance to escape the typecasting he got from The Godfather. “Once you’ve done one thing successfully, producers and directors only see you in one role,” Vigoda said at the time. Fish have a chance to step beyond the gangster Tessio.
The first season of Barney Miller aired in the first five months of 1975, as a mid-season replacement of thirteen shows. Ranking number 64 of all shows for the season, it had potential but didn’t bowl over audiences. It wasn’t until season three that the series cracked the top twenty at 17, slowly building its audience. Back in those days, that sometimes happened, network patience. The fans of Barney Miller are grateful.