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Fifty Years Later, Car 54 Shows Up
Reviving a Classic TV Sitcom With New York in Its DNA
By Bruce Bennett
Updated April 12, 2011 12:01 a.m. ET
Over the course of only two seasons, "Car 54: Where Are You?," the early-1960s sitcom about a fictitious New York City police precinct, garnered three Prime Time Emmy nominations and one win for its creator and principal director, Nat Hiken. The show also counted among its loyal viewers author William Faulkner, who, according to several biographers, never missed a Sunday-night airing of the program during the final year of his life.
"William Faulkner hated television," said actor Hank Garrett, who played Officer Ed Nicholson on the program. "But he would go every week to a friend's house to watch the show."
And yet, despite a loyal and in Faulkner's case, Nobel-winning following, "Car 54" could not muster a third season. As a result the show, which was produced between 1961 and 1963 at the long-shuttered Gold Medal Studios in the Bronx, has eluded the syndication ubiquity of vintage sitcoms like "I Love Lucy" and "Leave It to Beaver," and has remained absent from DVD. But this week, New Jersey-based Shanachie Entertainment has at last compiled a four-disc set comprising all 30 episodes from the show's first season.
"Fifty years I've been waiting for this!" Mr. Garrett said.
Mr. Hiken (1914-68) created "Car 54: Where Are You?" in the wake of his enormously successful series "The Phil Silvers Show." (He also penned, with composer John Strauss, the memorable theme song: "Car 54, where aaaaaare yooooou.") Actor Fred Gwynne and comedian Joe E. Ross were cast as the default main characters on "Car 54," officers Francis Muldoon and Gunther Toody, respectively. But in any given episode, the show might center on the other colorful denizens of the 53rd precinct, including Mr. Gwynne's future "The Munsters" co-star (and real-life Green Party gubernatorial candidate of 1998) Al Lewis, as Sgt. Leo Schnauzer. Plots in the first season ranged from a funny-because-it's true quest for an affordable New York apartment to an absurd farrago depicting the potential mental-health risks involved in judging a barbershop-quartet contest.
"It was incredibly well-written," Mr. Garrett said. "Nat Hiken was kind of an introverted guy, but boy did he know comedy."
The series generally depicted a considerably more realistic view of New York City's ethnic composition than was the network norm of the day, and the varied social fabric depicted onscreen was reflected by the backgrounds of the cast. Both leads were born in New York City: Mr. Gwynne (1926-93) found his way to Harvard, while Mr. Ross (1914-82) dropped out of Seward Park High School on the Lower East Side. Mr. Garrett's pre-television resume, meanwhile, is wholly unique. "I started doing stand-up in the Catskills when I was 16," the Manhattan native said, " and I became a pro wrestler at 17. They dyed my hair blonde and named me Hank Daniels the Minnesota Farm Boy. But I'm from the streets of Harlem."
More than a decade later, with a television career that had yet to get off the ground, he found himself in line for an actual post at the NYPD. "I took the exam for the police department, went to the police academy and took the physical which I passed," he said. "Then I got the call to audition for Nat Hiken and got the job on 'Car 54.'" Mr. Garrett said the potential double-booking forced him to make a call that evoked the show's farcical view of a city precinct's chain of command. "When I told the police department about the show, the commanding officer that I'd been assigned to said to me, 'Do you want to be a comedian on television or do you want to be a comedian on the police force?'"
Looking back, Mr. Garrett has no regrets about turning down New York's Finest. "'Car 54' just opened up the world for me," he said. He went on to what is still a thriving career, with a New York Film Critic's Circle nomination and a place in both the Professional Wrestling and World Karate Union halls of fame among his accomplishments.
The demise of "Car 54" after two season was, however, the end of the road for both Mr. Hiken and many of the locations where the show was shot. Mr. Hiken never had another series on network television and, five years after "Car 54" was canceled, he died of a heart attack at age 54. The Tremont Avenue neighborhood that housed Gold Medal Studios (previously the site of D.W. Griffith's Biograph Studios complex) was meanwhile bisected and all but destroyed when Robert Moses's Cross Bronx Expressway was completed in 1963.