Hal Linden can still hold a note
“It’s Never Too Late” is not only the title of Hal Linden’s first CD of songs, it’s also his mantra.
A robust 80, the Tony Award winner for the musical “The Rothschilds” and star of the classic 1974-82 television series “Barney Miller” is “still kicking,” as he describes it. And still singing, having just returned from doing 28 concerts in Florida — “generally for older people” — “with gigs for next year already. We got about eight or nine gigs starting in December.”
Keeping busy, he adds quietly, is also helping him cope with the death of his wife, Frances, last year after 52 years of marriage.
The newly released “It’s Never Too Late” quite literally was 30 years in the making.
“Why did it take so long?” he quips while sitting in the dining room of his Marina del Rey condo that has expansive views of the marina.
Linden explains that he began his career in the early 1950s as a musician and big-band singer. “I went into the Army in 1954 and I was prepared to come back and be a professional musician. My first job out of the box was with [orchestra leader] Sammy Kaye, who had a TV show. I got a gig on the TV show playing the saxophone.”
One evening, the guests on the show were the seminal rockers Bill Haley and the Comets. As fast as they could sing “Rock Around the Clock,” the big-band era was over and rock ‘n’ roll was here to stay. “The world changed right under my foot,” he says. “I became obsolete forever. I am not complaining about it because it forced me into theater.”
But in the 1980s, he was touring the country giving concerts with a 15-piece orchestra and he thought it would be fun to revive the big-band sound. So he hired jazz arranger Bob Florence to work on creating a big-band sound for such tunes as “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home to.” Linden recorded four songs but no one seemed to share his interest, so the tracks were relegated to a drawer.
Flash forward a decade and Linden was in New York when he ran across a man who had been in the jingle business years before. They decided to collaborate on recording four more tunes. This time, the concept was Grammy Award winners. Linden recorded “You Light Up My Life,” “Hello, Dolly!,” “Evergreen” and “Moon River,” the latter with a country twang. But everyone turned a deaf ear, and these tracks joined the others in the drawer.
Until last year — when the booker for his Florida tours suggested a CD. “People want souvenirs,” the man told Linden. “They want to buy something after your concert.” So Linden quickly resurrected the eight songs and added a few more for “It’s Never Too Late,” including the haunting ballad, “Late in Life,” which had been submitted to him years before.
“I took ‘Late in Life’ and made an arrangement with the orchestra that backs me up and I use that as my encore for senior audiences,” Linden says.
Though success didn’t happen to him late in life, Linden was nearly 40 when he got his big break on Broadway in the Sheldon Harnick-Jerry Bock musical, “The Rothschilds,” in which Linden played the patriarch of the financial titans.
“I had auditioned for every Harnick and Bock show there was,” Linden says. “I auditioned for ‘She Loves Me,’ ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and ‘The Apple Tree.’ I came in second every time.” Then one summer, Harnick, who was a good friend of Linden’s, told the actor he was writing “The Rothschilds” with him in mind.
It was “The Rothschilds” that won Linden the role of the even-keeled New York City police Capt. Barney Miller in the series that garnered Emmys and Golden Globes and is still considered one of the best sitcoms ever to grace the small screen.
“It was pure luck that got me the role,” Linden recalls. “Danny Arnold, who created it, was doing a movie in New York he had written and was the line producer, which means you are always on the set. At Christmastime, his wife sent him his two kids [from Los Angeles] to spend Christmas with him. But he had no time for them, so he got the assistant stage manager to get a limo and keep them busy until the evening.”
But one day the children rebelled and demanded to spend the day with their father. “He said, ‘I don’t have time,’” Linden says. “The director overheard it and said, ‘We are just finishing the scene and we have a set move, so it’s going to take all afternoon.’”
So Arnold and his children went off and caught a matinee of “The Rothschilds.”
Some two years later, Linden reports, Arnold was preparing to shoot the pilot of “Barney Miller” when ABC sent him a list of actors the network thought he should consider for the lead role. “He said, ‘No. There is an actor in New York. I saw him in ‘The Rothschilds.’” In those days, you could tell the network whom you wanted.”
It was Linden who needed convincing.
“I was mainly theater and I was looking forward to a continuing career on Broadway,” he says. But the script was just too good to pass up. And there were just too many “what if’s” for the actor to ignore.
“What if he didn’t go to the play? What if the kids didn’t rebel? What if, what if? So that was that.”