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Detroit Policeman Gilbert Hill Stood Out, Now He's a Hollywood Cop

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When the film crew for Beverly Hills Cop went to Detroit last March, they were scouting locations, not talent, but they came back with a streetwise homicide detective named Gilbert Hill. A veteran cop famous for his ability to get suspects to talk, Hill, 53, is now getting known for his ability to open up onscreen. In the new comedy smash about a gritty Detroit cop transplanted to elegant Beverly Hills, Hill plays Gilbert Todd, the supervisor who chews out unorthodox detective Axel Foley, a/k/a star Eddie Murphy.

Hill was serving as tour guide for the crew when director Martin Brest, impressed by his presence, asked him to read a few lines. “I thought, ‘Holy smoke, there could be something here,’ ” recalls Brest, who asked Hill to study the part and audition again in a few days. The detective debated: He wasn’t convinced that he had a shot at the role, and going to the audition meant missing the men’s NCAA basketball semifinals on TV.

But Hill showed up at the director’s hotel, and Brest remembers how “after only one or two tries, his natural nervousness faded and we started improvising. Not only was he able to put out a lot of hot-tempered emotion but, in a subtle way, convey an underlying love, the kind a father would have for a son. That’s difficult for a professional actor, and the fact that Gil was doing it just blew my mind.”

Hill brought realism as well as power to the film, rewriting many of his raunchy lines to make them more authentic. He still can’t quite swallow the triumphs of Murphy’s supercop, who disobeys his superiors, breaks the law, hunts down a murderer single-handedly and winds up a winner. “In real life,” says Hill, “he would have been murdered twice—first by the criminals, then by the top brass.” Hill adds that his own film character is not entirely realistic: “When I’m angry at other officers, I don’t curse them out like that. First of all, they carry guns, and I can never tell how their wives treated them the night before.” Murphy reportedly found a role model in Hill, copying, for instance, his habit of carrying his gun tucked in his pants in the small of his back.

A 25-year veteran of the Detroit force, Hill has a national reputation as a top-notch investigator. In 1980 he was one of the five “supercops” from other cities that the Atlanta police consulted while struggling to solve the city’s notorious series of child murders. “He has an uncanny ability to talk to criminals on their level,” says former partner Sgt. Lloyd Clemons.

Hill can empathize with the criminal even in the most gruesome cases. He shudders as he remembers a high school math teacher found in her apartment with her head nearly severed. A suspect, who had bought the victim $20 worth of drinks and believed that that entitled him to sexual favors, spilled the beans during interrogation. “I remember crying with him,” Hill says. “He kept saying he was sorry, and I did feel sorry for him because that was a life wasted too.” In another case, Hill and his partner played on the sympathies of two women, persuading them to testify against boyfriends responsible for shooting two little boys whom they had kidnapped. “We look at their eyes, read their body language,” says Clemons. “It’s like a mongoose circling a snake. You jump in when you see an opening.”

Hill learned to read people while growing up in Birmingham, Ala. with no father and a mother who worked menial jobs in department stores to support her two children. He remembers “Colored Only” signs downtown as well as the joy of listening to Joe Louis fights on a neighbor’s radio.

After three years in the Air Force as a staff sergeant, Hill moved to Detroit, hoping to attend college on the GI Bill, but was sidetracked working odd jobs as a pots-and-pans salesman, chauffeur and short-order cook. He met his future wife, Delores Hooks, at a Lutheran church, married and struggled to keep a young family afloat working as a clerk and deputy sheriff. In 1959 he joined the Detroit police, though there were only 200 black officers on a 3,500-man force and prejudice was still virulent. Hill remembers a precinct urinal with a sign saying “NAACP Blood Bank.” Back then, he says, “The idea of being an inspector was about as realistic as becoming king of England.”

But Hill did make inspector and now he might become a star. In May he was asked to audition for the part of the roll-call sergeant on Hill Street Blues, and though the part went to seasoned actor Robert Prosky, other television producers are sending out feelers. “I’m still a policeman on a policeman’s $40,000-a-year salary,” he says, “and I’m not going to pack my bags and chase casting calls—though, if I had a nice offer, I’d seriously consider staying in California during the filming.” In any case, he’s glad he skipped the basketball on TV.