I’m old enough that I watched Barney Miller when it first ran, although young enough that I didn’t quite get all the jokes. A decade or so it ran in late night syndication I watched it again and enjoyed it even more, but one thing remained the same throughout: Detective Harris, played by Ron Glass, was one of the coolest people ever. He was a dedicated cop but what stood out to me was he was also a writer. I have a lot of literary models but even before I knew I wanted to be a writer Detective Harris was my model for the kind of person a writer could be. He balanced his day job and his artistic ambitions–or sometimes didn’t always balance them. Barney Miller‘s opening credits for at least one season show him banging away at a precinct typewriter, using office supplies for his own personal pursuit. And in one episode he used an office phone to have a lengthy argument with his publisher. The lurid cover of his novel Blood On The Badge, which he described as “hemorrhaging”, made it look like a cheap thriller, not the serious work of fiction he’d written. It was the first time I understood the writer as more than just a storyteller. Detective Harris was passionate and thoughtful, an artist.
A few years later I was majoring in English at the University of Evansville with hopes of being a writer myself and learned that Ron Glass had also been a student there a few decades earlier. The irony was not lost on me, although it wasn’t really funny. It was more a feeling that he and I really did share something.
Others will of course remember Ron Glass from the tragically short-lived Firefly. I loved it too. Even though he was a very different character, gentler and more avuncular, I still felt like his playing a scholarly priest named “Book” was a nod to Detective Harris.
And in between he made an appearance on an ’80’s reboot of The Twilight Zone with the also amazing Sherman Helmsley that I’ve never forgotten. He played a very different character, showing his range, but still as cool as always.