James B. Sikking, the mad hatter on ‘Hill Street Blues’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – ‘Hill Street Blues’, the American cop show that was a hit for most of the Eighties, had one of the best casts in television. Of them, James B. Sikking had probably the toughest job playing jut-jawed, pipe-smokimg Howard Hunter, commander of Hill Street’s Emergency Action Team.

Sikking, who turns 90 today, understood that Hunter was a cardboard character used mostly on the show to seque from one scene to another. ‘He’s what I call a coat holder,’ he told me. ‘He’s holding somebody else’s coat while they’re doing the scene. He’s mad as a hatter but from his point of view he’s absolutely correct.’

As such, he was a very difficult character to write. ‘With fourteen regular characters plus guest stars, under the stress and strain of a weekly television series, the last one you really have time to devote to as a writer is the complicated character,’ Sikking said when I interviewed him for Canadian TV Guide in 1983. 

When the actor asked the writers to give his part greater dimension, they tended to say, ‘Look, let’s just keep him the way he is because he’s a wonderful twit and people love him that way.’ Sikking said, ‘My response is, OK, I can understand that. I’m still employed in a horrendous economy. I’ve got a job and I’m delighted to have it. But perhaps maybe once or twice a year you could challenge Howard’s humanity, strip him of his defences. Obviously, a man who walks around in a uniform with a flak jacket and a .357 Magnum, handcuffs, combat boots and all of that, is dealing with some kind of basic personal insecurity. I say, let’s now and then take all that crap away and put him in the grinder.’

That happened a few times during the show’s long run and Sikking was nominated for an Emmy Award. He had already earned scores of acting credits over twenty-five years and went on to appear in many more including movies such as ‘Star Trek: The Search for Spock’ and ‘Soul Man’ with a regular role in the TV series ‘Doogie Hauser M.D.’ playing Doogie’s father.

There was another reason Sikking wanted Hunter to be more real. ‘What all actors suffer from is that, first of all, we are children,’ he said. ‘We all suffer from rejection. We want  to be loved. I know Carroll O’Connor (who played Archie Bunker in ‘All in the Family’) very well and when you play roles like ours, after a while there’s something inside that tells you, “But I want you to love me and understand why I’m crazy or a bigot.” I fall into that trap. People go, oh, you’re such an ass. I’ve got children. I don’t want them walking around hearing, oh, your dad’s an ass. So you are seduced by trying to explain to people why you are that way.’

Still, Sikking took it all in stride. ‘Acting is very important to me. I take it very seriously. I just don’t take myself seriously,’ he said. ‘That’s a bunch of horse manure. I find that inordinate self-interest in an actor is self-defeating. You lose touch with what we are all seeking as performers and that is to get out of ourselves and not be self-indulgent.’

As disarming as Howard Hunter was armed, Sikking was drolly disdainful of the business. ‘In relation to what’s important in the world, actors get a disproportionate amount of attention and money – which I am delighted to have,’ he said. ‘I don’t have a sense of guilt about it. I mean, I don’t send the money back or anything like that. I just think it’s a dumb way to run the world, that’s all.’

Before he joined ‘Hill Street Blues’, he had a feature role in the space thriller ‘Outland’ starring Sean Connery whom he admired greatly. ‘Now, there’s a wonderful actor,’ he said. ‘None of his best films made any money. Sean is a terrific actor but he just made a lot of money doing crap. I hope that happens to me, quite honestly.’

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