Hal Linden, 87, the Barney Miller star who narrated the 1994 PBS documentary America and the Holocaust, plays a Holocaust survivor whose grandson (Ryan Ochoa) makes an animated art project about the secret of his dramatic past in The Samuel Project, written and directed by Marc Fusco, former assistant to Steven Spielberg. “We never wanted to make a picture that competed with Schindler’s List — that hung over our decisions,” Linden says. “So the movie became less of a Holocaust picture and more about a boy pursuing his dream of being an artist.” To make his film, the kid has to get the story out of his grandpa. “Like many survivors, he doesn’t want to talk about it. The Samuel Project is about three generations that don’t communicate much — it isn’t until art tells the story that you get communication,” he adds.
Linden knows how to bridge the generations through media. Recently, when his granddaughter was glued to her cellphone at dinner, he texted her: “The gentleman on your right is your grandfather, please say hello.” He is also a living bridge between Hollywood and classic Broadway, where he started out as a song-and-dance man after rock ‘n’ roll torpedoed his original dream of being a big-band musician. “I’m still singing and dancing,” Linden says. He costarred with Sally Struthers, 71, in last month’s musical stage version of Grumpy Old Men — “It was a big hit” — and Fusco cast him as the San Diego dry-cleaner hero of The Samuel Project while he was doing Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater.
It was musical theater that made Linden famous — but he never went to the theater when he started out in music, which influences his brilliant phrasing as an actor. “I was a classically trained clarinetist and saxophonist, and if I’d had the slightest bit of discipline, I probably would’ve spent my life as first chair in some major symphony. I was good,” he says. “I only slid over to theater accidentally.” In 1956, his girlfriend was on Broadway in the musical Bells Are Ringing, whose star, Judy Holliday, would win the Tony for best actress (to go along with her Oscar for 1950s' Born Yesterday), and Linden’s lover wangled him an audition for the chorus. “The Asian flu hit, I was elevated to the standby, replaced the star, and I — a sax player! — made my Broadway debut as a leading man.”
Bells Are Ringing and Funny Girl composer Jule Styne regularly hired him to test out new tunes. But fame eluded Linden until 1971, when Fiddler on the Roof creators Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock wrote him a great signature tune, “In My Own Lifetime,” in the show The Rothschilds, which got him a Tony for best actor. More fatefully, by an odd chance, producer Danny Arnold — needing to entertain his kids during a brief production break on a film — caught a matinee performance and was so impressed that he ignored the studio’s long list of famous actors they wanted him to consider for his new cop show Barney Miller, tailoring the star part of Captain Miller to Linden’s gift for droll, deadpan calm as funny chaos erupts around him. Shot before a live audience, the show barely survived at first, but eventually became a hit. The sitcom aired from 1975 to 1982, earning Linden eight Emmy nominations and making him a star, at last, at 44. “It was the great writing and the fact that the cast was all actors, not comedians,” says Linden, who almost turned the part down to play a New Orleans clarinetist on Broadway in Doctor Jazz.
He did reject a role on the smash hit St. Elsewhere. “That’s gonna haunt me for the rest of my life,” Linden says. “If they do a reboot, maybe I can get the part.” He figures he’s got time. “My mother lived to 98, sharp as a tack until the day she died. So I look forward to that.” Just now, Linden is looking forward to performing as the narrator in the musical Grand Hotel, which opens in October in Los Angeles. He tried to inject Fusco’s film with some of his own upbeat, still-vital spirit. “It’s a Holocaust story, but we didn’t want to make it tragic — it’s about aspiration,” Linden says. “The hero has succeeded in life. We tried to get as much of a sparkle in his eye as possible.”
Linden also gives much-raved-about live concerts featuring songs from It’s Never Too Late, his first-ever CD, recorded when he turned 80. It contains the very Samuel Project-relevant lyric, “It’s never too late in life to reach for a childhood dream.” He really believes it. “There's been a lot of luck in my life. I’m not going gently into that good night — no, sir! I’m still here.”