Steven Bochco, Creative Force Behind ‘Hill Street Blues,’ ‘L.A. Law’ and ‘NYPD Blue,’ Dies at 74
The unwavering TV writer-producer, winner of 10 Emmys, butted heads with networks and almost always won.
Steven Bochco, the strong-willed writer and producer who brought gritty realism and sprawling ensemble casts to the small screen with such iconic series as Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law and NYPD Blue, has died, a source told The Hollywood Reporter. He was 74.
No details of his death were immediately available. Suffering with leukemia, he received a stem cell transplant from an anonymous 23-year-old in late 2014. In May 2016, he met the man that prolonged his life.
The 10-time Primetime Emmy Award winner also was behind the Neil Patrick Harris ABC comedy-drama Doogie Howser, M.D. and the TNT drama Murder in the First.
A New York City native who began at Universal Studios in the mid-1960s, Bochco time and time again refused to bend to network chiefs or standards and practices execs, thus earning rare creative control during his five decades of envelope-pushing work.
In a 2002 interview for the Archive of American Television, Bochco explained how he and Michael Kozoll, both working for MTM Enterprises, came to Hill Street Blues, which debuted on last-place NBC in January 1981 and amassed 98 Emmy Awards during its remarkable 146-episode run.
“We agreed that we would do it, on one condition, which we assumed would kill the deal right there,” he said. “I said to [NBC entertainment exec] Brandon [Tartikoff], ‘We’ll do this pilot for you on the condition that you leave us completely alone to do whatever we want.’ And he said OK.
“I began to hear words about myself: He’s arrogant, he’s this, he’s that. My attitude was, call me what you will, but I know I have a great project here. I don’t know how many great projects there are going to be in my life, and I’m not going to screw this one up. I’d rather not do it. And they folded. They virtually folded on everything.”
In 1987, CBS legend William S. Paley offered Bochco, then 44, the job of president of the network’s entertainment division. He turned that down to sign an unprecedented six-year, 10-series deal worth in the neighborhood of $10 million at ABC, which had just ended its contract with another legendary producer, Aaron Spelling. The pact gave Bochco ownership of the series he developed.
As Hill Street was winding down without him after he was fired at MTM, Bochco jumped into the legal world with a new deal at 20th Century Fox and created (with Terry Louise Fisher) the stylish NBC smash L.A. Law, which ran from 1986-94.
And with fellow Hill Street scribe David Milch, he came up with ABC’s controversial NYPD Blue, which aimed to compete with the risque kind of shows that were siphoning audiences from broadcast to cable. That series, the longest-running one-hour drama in ABC history until surpassed by Grey’s Anatony, aired from 1993-2005.
Bochco, though, was not without his misfires. They included NBC’s Bay City Blues, a 1983 drama about a minor-league baseball team that lasted four episodes; CBS’ Public Morals, a vice squad-set comedy that got canned after one episode in October 1996; and ABC’s infamous Cop Rock, which incongruously combined police drama and show-stopping Broadway-style singing and dancing and lasted a scant 11 episodes in 1990.
The best Bochco series included large ensemble casts and parallel storylines that pushed the hot button social issues of the day. In an interview with Pamela Douglas for the 2007 book Writing the TV Drama Series: How to Succeed as a Professional Writer in TV, Bochco explained how he pulled it all together:
“When you end up creating a show with seven, eight, nine characters — ask yourself, how can you appropriately dramatize that many characters within the framework of an hour television show? And the answer is that you can’t. So you say, OK, what we have to do is spill over the sides of our form and start telling multi-plot, more serial kinds of stories.
“Even though any given character may not have but three scenes in an hour, those three scenes are part of a 15-scene storyline that runs over numerous episodes. So that was simply a matter of trying to react to the initial things we did. The show began to dictate what it needed to be. Probably the smartest thing Michael and I did was to let it take us there instead of trying to hack away to get back into the box. We just let it spill over.”
Bochco also created the short-lived CBS police drama Paris, which starred James Earl Jones. And his landmark ABC series Murder One followed a complicated investigation during the course of a 23-episode season — much like The Killing or True Detective would years later.
Bochco was born in New York City on Dec. 16, 1943. His father, Rudolph, was a violinist, his mother, Mimi, a painter and jewelry designer. He attended the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan to pursue singing, attended NYU for a year and graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he left with a theater degree in 1966.
He received a fellowship from MCA to help him pay for school, and through that, landed work at Universal during the summers before he was a junior and senior. He knew he would have a job at Universal when he finished college, and he drove across the country with classmate (and future L.A. Law player) Michael Tucker to Hollywood.
“Universal had dozens of hours of television that they were churning out. Inevitably, they started steering me toward writing for television,” Bochco said in his TV Archive interview.
His first writing credit came when he expanded an already filmed one-hour drama into two hours. He did that by adding backstory about the characters when they were kids.
“I was so naive about the business that it didn’t even occur to me that my name would be up on the screen,” he said. “Suddenly when this thing was finished and I went to see it, it said, ‘Written by Rod Serling and Steven Bochco.’ That was my first professional writing credit.”
He worked on Columbo for a few seasons; the first 90-minute episode he wrote was 1971’s “Murder by the Book,” directed by Steven Spielberg, and Bochco received his first of his 34 Emmy noms.
Bochco later wrote and produced a 1972 ABC movie of the week, Lieutenant Shuster’s Wife, which starred Lee Grant; co-created his first series, NBC’s The Bold Ones: The New Doctors, starring E.G. Marshall as a neurosurgeon; and wrote for NBC’s McMillan & Wife and the CBS cop drama Delvecchio, starring Judd Hirsch and future Hill Street roll-call cop Michael Conrad (“Let’s be careful out there”).
In 1976, Bochco left Universal after 12 years for Grant Tinker’s MTM. Hill Street was championed by NBC’s Fred Silverman, who wanted a series along the lines of the 1981 Paul Newman film Fort Apache, the Bronx, about the personal lives of cops.
“Here are these cops who are trying to keep the lid on 10 pounds of crap in a nine-pound can,” Bochco said in describing the series. “That created the incredible push/pull tension of that series. … We stuck intensely powerful melodrama side by side with slapstick farcical, fall-down clowning. It was absurd, and it worked.”
Hill Street was the lowest-rated show to be picked up for the following season, 87th among the 96 series in the Nielsen ratings. The show won eight Emmys out of 21 noms in its first try and eventually moved to Thursday nights, where it would establish NBC as a powerhouse.
After the fifth season of Hill Street in 1985, Bochco was fired from MTM (after Tinker left to run NBC) when he refused to cut costs and pare storylines. (The show nabbed the best drama series Emmy in each of his five seasons and did not win again after he left.) An extremely motivated Bochco then signed a three-year deal with Fox and went about creating L.A. Law, with Fisher, a lawyer and novelist, providing the legal expertise.
“To me, Los Angeles was the absolute antithesis of that fictional city in which Hill Street Blues took place,” Bochco said. “I wanted [L.A. Law] to be the polar opposite thematically. One show at its core was about despair and the inevitable failure of a kind of system. At the other end, I got L.A. and the land of dreams and wealthy, young, upwardly mobile attorneys who drive Porsches. It’s the same legal system, yet these people are masters of the universe.”
L.A. Law, which took Hill Street’s 10 p.m. Thursday slot, amassed 15 Emmys, including four for outstanding drama series.
Bochco gave David E. Kelley, then a practicing attorney in Boston, his first show business job as a writer, then handed the L.A. Law reins to him when he stepped aside to focus on his ABC deal.
Secure with his ABC pact, Bochco formed Fox-based Steven Bochco Productions and with Kelley created Doogie Howser, about a precocious doctor (Harris) who scored a perfect SAT score at age 6 and graduated medical school at 16. That series lasted four seasons.
When we cast [Harris] he had just turned 16 and he looked like he was like 12,” Bochco said. “He was perfect.”
NYPD Blue was set to debut in fall 1992, but when he and ABC clashed on issues of language and sex, Bochco refused to budge, and its debut was postponed a year.
“There really hadn’t been a one-hour hit [that was started] since L.A. Law in 1986, and here we were in 1991,” he said in the Writing the TV Drama Series book. “The hour drama was in the toilet and that’s my business, so my business was in the toilet.
“I thought the only shot we had at reviving the form is if we were willing to compete with cable television. So that was my pitch to ABC when they wanted a cop show from me. I remember [then network exec] Bob Iger saying, ‘I made a huge deal with you because I wanted another Hill Street Blues and what did I get — a 16-year-old doctor [Doogie] and a bunch of cops [Cop Rock] who sing.’ So I said, ‘I’ll give you the cop show you want, but be careful what you wish for, because the price is this, the language and the nudity.’”
Bochco noted that the “religious right” paid for ads lambasting the show’s sex, language and immorality before NYPD Blue even aired.
“They created a stir that no publicity machine in the world could duplicate,” he recalled. “And thank God they did, because given all the anxiety about the show, if we had faltered a moment in the ratings then, I think we would have been gone in three weeks. But we came out of the shoot huge.”
NYPD Blue went on to win 20 Emmys. (Bochco later sued Fox over the sale of reruns to its sister company FX, saying the “sweetheart deal” deprived him of fair-market value.)
Bochco also was involved in such series as ABC’s Hooperman, starring John Ritter; ABC’s Capitol Critters, an animated show about a mouse in the White House; CBS’ Brooklyn South, another police drama; CBS’ City of Angels, centered on an inner-city hospital; ABC’s Civil Wars, about a law firm specializing in divorce; Over There, an FX drama set during the war in Iraq; and the TNT legal show Raising the Bar.
In 2007, Bochco launched the Internet series Cafe Confidential, with each episode lasting about 60 seconds. Murder in the First, which in its first season examined one crime from commission to trial, debuted in June 2014.
Bochco’s survivors include sister Joanna Frank, who played Sheila Brackman, the wife of Douglas Brackman Jr. (her real-life husband Alan Rachins), on L.A. Law; his wife of 17 years, Dayna; and children Jesse, Jeffrey and Melissa. His first wife was actress Barbara Bosson.
Asked about his producing style in the TV Archive interview, Bochco said his was “not a producing style, it’s a lifestyle.”
He added: “Years and years ago I worked for a producer who taught me more about how not to behave than how to behave. One of the most valuable lessons I ever had. This individual said to me, ‘You get shit on by the people above you, and you shit on the people below you.’ I thought, ‘Hah, there’s a life lesson.’
“I figure if you turn that upside down, you’re on to something. So what you try to do is never shit on the people below you and only shit on the people above you. That always seems to work.”