At age 91, Hal Linden is still very much an actor looking for the next great role.
How else to explain the fact that Linden, who became a household name when he played the title character in the hit ABC sitcom “Barney Miller” during its 1975-82 run, is grabbing key opportunities as they come his way. He currently stars with Bernie Koppel, one of the stars of “The Love Boat” from the same era, in “Two Jews Talking,” a comedy currently running on off-Broadway in New York.
Of course, Linden’s career goes well beyond “Barney Miller.” He’s been a regular on Broadway through the years and won the Tony Award for his performance in the musical “The Rothschilds” in the early ‘70s. He’s also appeared in several movies, from “Bells Are Ringing” (1970) to “Out to Sea” (1997).
And while Linden is best known as an actor, he started his career as a musician. He played clarinet and saxophone and attended New York’s High School of Music and Art (now part of LaGuardia High School, otherwise known as the “Fame” school). He formed his own band at the age of 15 — and as he says, “From that point on, I was a professional musician.”
MarketWatch caught up recently with Linden to ask about his life and work as well as to hear his money-related views. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation:
MarketWatch: You’re at an age when most folks, if they’re lucky to still be around, are taking it easy. What drives you to continue working?
Linden: Well, first of all, I fell in love with the process of acting. The most asked question (I get) in most interviews is, “Which do you prefer — the screen, television or stage.” And I used to say, “All of the above.”
And then I realized about 25 years ago, that’s not really true. What I really like most is rehearsal because that’s where the process kicks in. The creation of the character, the creation of everything. Otherwise, it’s just execution…Not nearly as fulfilling as starting with words on a piece of paper and ending up with a human being. That process is I guess what has energized me all my life, and it still does.
MarketWatch: Talk about “Two Jews Talking.” How did this project come to be?
Linden: It’s the creative work of Ed Weinberger, who is a very well-known television comedy writer. And actually, the truth is I believe he wrote it for Ed Asner, and when Ed Asner died, I got a telephone call. So I’m Ed Asner’s understudy, which I’ll take any day.
MarketWatch: What would you say the play is about? It’s obviously a comedy about two older Jewish men talking, but it also has bits of wisdom that are imparted.
Linden: Yes, there are larger issues that are talked about. The major theme is skepticism versus belief — being able to believe in something as opposed to being very skeptical about it. I wouldn’t say cynical, I’ll say skeptical.
The other theme has to do with friendship, the ability of two people to speak to each other and end up caring what happens to the other person. If you communicate with somebody honestly, you’ll have somebody on your side.
That’s kind of what it’s about, peppered with as many funny lines as possible.
MarketWatch: Being a senior statesman of sorts, tell me something you know at age 91 that you didn’t know as a younger person.
Linden: I have just had a hip replacement. And from the moment I left the hospital I had one child — either daughter or son, or son-in-law — with me every minute. I never asked. They just showed up. So, what do I know now? I got great kids.
MarketWatch: You just had a hip replacement?!
Linden: Yes, I know insane for a 91-year-old man.
MarketWatch: I was thinking back on your playing Barney Miller. He was a character who was always a calming force in a storm. Do all workplaces need a Barney Miller?
Linden: I’m sure they would benefit by one. Interesting that that you bring up “Barney Miller.” In this play (“Two Jews Talking”), I’ve got most of the punchlines. I got some of the best lines in the show. In “Barney Miller,” I didn’t have a punchline in eight years. I was just playing straight to everybody else. Which tells you something about acting. It’s still the same technique, whether it ends up with the punchline or the straight line. You still have to ask the same questions every time you start.
MarketWatch: How have you approached your life from a financial perspective?
Linden: I’m a child of the depression. I’ve never been a big gambler financially. I have taken a few shots. Most of them fell dead. But I thank heaven I found a career that I love doing and I did for all these years. If I ever had to go into business, I don’t think I would have been much of a success. I don’t think I have that eye for detail that is necessary in a business, you know.
MarketWatch: What’s something you hate spending money on?
Linden: I hate being manipulated by brand names. I’m really annoyed when I see anybody in my family spending big money on the big names. Because I spent so much time in the advertising business. I did a lot of voiceovers for years and jingles and whatnot, and that’s manipulation.
MarketWatch: What’s something you’re willing to splurge on?
Linden: Experiences. I always had this with (my) kids. We didn’t spend money on things, but we did go skiing and camping and traveling to places.
MarketWatch: What’s a favorite possession of yours?
Linden: I love my clarinet. I’ve had it since I was about 12.
MarketWatch: You’ve won a Tony and some Emmys. Where do you keep them?
Linden: In my office I keep all the awards (at home in California). A lot of them are ridiculous awards. Father of the year? What do they know? What is that?
MarketWatch: You’re only two awards away from being an EGOT recipient (an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winner). You need a Grammy and an Oscar. Do you think you have a chance?
Linden: Not only do I not expect to get an Oscar, I’m worried about ever getting another movie role.
MarketWatch: What’s a job you’d do even if you didn’t get paid?
Linden: I don’t know if you know anything about the financial balance sheet of an off-Broadway theater, but this (appearing in “Two Jews Talking”) is practically for free. Actors do it all the time in order to do good work or to accomplish something personal. I did an off-Broadway show in California. I played “The Sunshine Boys.” I got nine dollars a performance. And the next week I did maybe a movie where I got thousands. That happens all the time in our business. I was backstage at some event, and saw an old friend and said, “How’s it going?” He said, “I’ll tell you how bad it is. I’m doing theater for money.”
MarketWatch: A final question: Do you ever plan to retire?
Linden: Retire? What is retirement? After I did ‘The Rothschilds,” there was a period where I was in demand for concerts, for television, for movies. I ended up doing “Barney.” It was about a decade of one thing after another, and somebody said to me, “Don’t you ever take a vacation?” I said, “I took all my vacations from 1959 to 1967. At the time, we referred to it as unemployment.”
Retire, why? As long as I can keep doing this and keep my brain working. As I said, it’s the process. That’s the joy.