Florence Stanley wanted her character on Fish to feel real

Image credit: The Everett Collection

Many actors don't know when or what their next big acting gig will be, which makes the acting world a hard place to navigate. In many cases, actors go on endless auditions, go back and forth with representation, and search far and wide for the perfect role. 

Then there are actors who were born into the profession, actors who have long-running roles on TV shows, or actors who simply got lucky. Whether it was three seasons or 13; Knowing they're in a steady place can elevate an actor's performance. 

There is nothing someone loves more than the feeling of being secure.

For Florence Stanley, who played the role of Bernice Fish on Fish (1977), being secure came with hard work and a bit of luck.

Stanley played Bernice Fish in Barney Miller for a total of six episodes before joining the spin-off, Fish. While six episodes don't seem like much time to become familiar with the character, Stanley proved that she was the only woman for the job. 

According to a 1978 interview with The Wichita Beacon, Stanley said that when Fish became a series, producer Danny Arnold said he wouldn't want to do the series without Stanley playing the role of Bernice.

She already had another leading role in the 1975 series Joe and Sons, but Arnold said he would wait until she was done with the series. There was no one else who could play Mrs. Fish quite like Stanley and she proved that to be true once already.

So, Stanley accepted the part and said: "I never had to read for it at all. It was just sort of handed out. It doesn't happen very often."

She was one of those hard-working actresses who just seemed to embody their onscreen character. She went from a minor role in Barney Miller to a leading role as the same character in the spin-off. 

"I used to watch television and say to myself, 'There isn't a lady on it I can relate to,'" Stanley said. "So, when I was given the opportunity to play this part and I was left alone — they gave me the script and went with me on whatever I did. I really went after some reality, some universality and it worked."

With Stanley as her own boss, she was able to bring a unique sense of relatability to the role. She said she knew her message was coming across to TV viewers because of the feedback she received.

She added: "They say 'You're somebody I relate to.'"

"My concept of her isn't at all what Fish thinks of her," Stanley said. "He thinks of her as a complainer and a nag."

Stanley's version of Mrs. Fish could be seen in the series. She wanted her character to come across as having empathy, someone who could stand up for herself, and most importantly, someone fans could relate to.