In the vast, swift-flowing, treacherous, suffocating river of entertainment gushing out of Hollywood and into the great ocean of television sets across the nation, Steven Bochco swims upstream.
"Right," he laughed. "I am the salmon of television." It wasn't always that way. Bochco is a product of the industry, having spent 12 years in the flow at Universal. ("I sort of grew up there," he'll tell you.) Today, he's correctly regarded as a revolutionary — (danger, cliché ahead) an innovative, barrier-busting producer of the most original, daring, intelligent, and entertaining programs ever to be projected through cathoid rays or whatever they use in TV sets these days.
It all started a long time ago in a spawning ground far, far away ...
"I grew up on the west side of Manhattan," said Bochco amiably, from his Hollywood office. “West 83rd Street, which, when I was a child was not the classiest neighborhood in New York. You know, it was something of a ghetto. It was predominantly Puerto Rican. It was kind of a tough neighborhood, but it was a great neighborhood. I love having grown up there.”
His mom, Mimi, was a painter and jewelry designer. His late father, Rudolph, was a concert violinist. (That's Pop bowing the fiddle in the Bochco corporate logo that follows each program; they computer-animated him from an old photo.) His sister was a singer. For young Steven, however, it was a case of wanting to write right from the start. “It just seemed to be something that I loved doing. I always felt safe doing it. I always felt comfortable at school with it. Teachers told me from a very early age that I could write. I was not a voracious reader; I was a voracious writer.”
Poems, short stories, whatever. The lad was ceaselessly inventive. Naturally, he went straight to the New York City High School for Music and Art, to study singing. Whatsat? "My sister was there, and I didn't want to go to public high school. I could sing, I mean, I really had a nice voice."
A few thousand arpeggios later, Bochco refocused on writing — at New York University, then Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon) where he bumped into a few people who would figure rather prominently in his life: Hill Street Blues alumni-to-be Charles Haid, Bruce Weitz, Barbara Bosson (his longtime wife) and L.A. Law's Michael Tucker. He also bumped into an MCA fellowship, granted to promising scribes on the basis of financial need. ("God knows I was needy," he says.) Then, as they say, it's all who ya know: a friend of a friend, a cousin's half-brother, or, in this case, Bochco's first wife's stepfather, who knew an entertainment attorney who knew Jennings Lang, who got Bochco a summer job at Universal. Which led to a job offer straight out of college, in 1965. Of course, Bochco was damn good at what he did, er, that is — "Nobody," he declared, "is damn good at what they do at the age of 22."
Steven Bochco is the kind of guy who doggedly credits those who helped along the way — but it's not typical Hollywood humility, famous for being not quite as deep as a puddle. He means it. At Universal in the mid-'60s, there was Michael Ludmer who "was quite wonderful to me, and set me on my path." During the '70s, there was Richard Levinson and William Link, the stellar mystery writers-producers (Bochco wrote a bunch of Columbos). Former MTM chief Grant Tinker, former NBC head Fred Silverman, and Brandon Tartikoff are names he routinely credits for unflagging support. His meeting with one Richard Erving, the man who first pushed him to produce, is both funny and telling. Bochco, it seems, has always aimed to do things on his own terms:
“Dick Erving was a mentor of mine. A wonderful guy. He was an executive vice-president at Universal in charge of doing all those long form series, and he was a director and a tough New York guy. He was a shrieker. He'd holler at people. And he took me under his wing for some reason, and said, ‘You've got to produce.’ I said, ‘Bullsh- -, I'm not going to do it.’ He said, ‘Why not?’ I said, ‘Because I'm going to produce something and you're going to see my dailies and yell at me, and I'm not good at that. I don't like being yelled at. I don't want to do it.’ He said, ‘I promise you, I'll never yell at you.’ I said, ‘You mean it?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Because if you do I'm going to embarrass you. I'll fall down and roll around on the floor. I'll …’ And he said, ‘I'll never yell at you.’ And he never did.”
Erving soon gave Bochco a script to rewrite, a work that ultimately became The Six Million Dollar Man. The original writer was Howard Rodman, and although Bochco found the piece "terrific," it seems network people wanted it "dumbed down." Bochco refused both on principle and because he held Rodman in high regard. Next came a call from Rodman, thanking the young writer for being so (daringly) respectful, but urging him, please go ahead and rework it. They became friends. "When we did Hill Street years later," Bochco recalled with undisguised sentimentality, "Howard Rodman would call me practically every Friday to tell me how much he loved the episode."
It's a long way from being a new kid on the block at Universal (where he rubbed elbows with another new kid named Steven Spielberg) to Hill Street Blues, and it took a tremendous act of courage, or faith, or panache, or something, to get there. Bochco quit Universal — leaving behind what, for many, would be a whole career. He had been story editor for MacMillian and Wife, Columbo and Name of the Game, had written myriad scripts, and yet, by 1978, “I was dead in the water. They wouldn't let me go, and wouldn't promote me. I knew I had to get out there when my contract finally expired. At the end of the day, I was kind of scared to leave. It's the only place I ever worked.”
Along came a fairy tale called MTM, a place that bore as much resemblance to a major studio as a mom-and-pop store does to AT&T. Bochco placed a call to MTM head Tinker, who he had met briefly years before. Tinker's response? Simply, "Come on up." The rest was a dream.
"At Universal," Bochco remembered, “to get an appointment with Frank Price was like getting an appointment with the Pope. You'd go up there, and then cool your heels for 15 minutes. And here I walk into MTM, and there's Grant saying, ‘Come on in.’ This guy in dungarees and a sweater. I thought, ‘Wow, look at this!’ He said, ‘It's great to have you here.’ I said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ He said, ‘It doesn't matter what I want you to do, what do you want to do?’ I thought I'd died and gone to heaven, and in fact, I had.”
Before Hill Street, there were pilots, a short detective series with James Earl Jones, and a TV movie with Mike Kozell for ABC. Bochco just wasn't keen on cop shows anymore, having done so many over the years, but NBC leaned on him. Once again, he proceeded on his own terms: "We'll do it," he said, "if you absolutely leave us alone." A week later, the network was on the phone to Bochco, asking "When are you going to sell us a story?"
"I said, 'No, no, no, you don't get it!"' he remembered. "First of all, we're already writing the script. Second of all, 'leave us alone' means leave us alone. They gave it to us, but spent the next year and a half trying to take it back."
Who could blame NBC? There had never been a multi-episodic show like Hill Street before, and nobody was watching during its first season except happy critics — oh, and NBC President Fred Silverman. In a funny way, Bochco will tell you, he owes his career to Silverman. Hill Street was the lowest-rated program in history to be picked up for a second season, thanks entirely to Silverman.
"He sent me a copy of the NBC press release announcing that we'd been picked up," said Bochco. "And he scrawled across it, 'Dear Steve, Hill Street Blues is going to sweep the Emmys and go on to become a big hit. Best, Fred.' Then he had drawn a little happy face. I still have it somewhere."
And, as is well known, this is exactly what happened (although, Bochco still points out, with playful irritation, "We were always second to Knots Landing"). Astonishingly, five years of superb, high-rated, downright beloved programming later, the creator of the series was out of a job — the victim, the story goes, of new management at MTM, known euphemistically as "bottom-liners." Director Greg Hoblett, who first met Bochco in 1973, and has worked with him steadily from MTM to the present, picks up the story:
“MTM was no longer the kind of nurturing, creative, fertile, creative place it had been. We were running that show as responsibly as we possibly could, but we were also running a show that had no business being done in eight days. It was just too big and complicated and vicious, and the cost of doing it had gotten to a place where the studio was going to say, ‘You can't do anymore what made you great,’ and suggesting to Steven and those around him, me being one of them, that we were somehow or other responsible. Well, that's not something you ever want to say to him.”
Bochco, spectacularly axed (the media feasted for weeks), kept his temper — which is more, said James B. Sikking (Hill Street's stodgy Lt. Howard Hunter and later, Doogie Howser, M.D. co-star) than he would have done.
"He was fired, and they said all kinds of dishonest … despicable things about him … And Steven did not say anything," said Sikking, a longtime close friend of Bochco (they met through their kids, who went to school together in the early '70s). "He said, 'We had a difference of opinion.' He didn't say, 'the dirty s.o.b.'s,' and he had every right to. I don't think I could have kept my mouth shut, it was so unjust."
Bochco, for his part, shrugged it off: "We're all big boys, I thought, so let's move on." He did — to 20th Century Fox. Along, in short order, came L.A. Law — somewhat improbably, even accidentally. Truth be told, the idea originated as a false rumor in the trades. During Hill Street's fourth season, Tinker, then head of NBC, phoned Bochco to warn him that trades stories were appearing about a law show in development for NBC by Bochco. "I don't know where the story came from," Tinker announced, prompting Bochco to say, "Okay, but you know, that's not a bad idea." Now working for Fox, he revived the notion — "Hill Street in a law firm" — and pitched it to Brandon Tartikoff and five or six NBC executives.
"I pitched it pretty well, and then, for like 20 minutes, they just took potshots at me," said Bochco, a touch of incredulity in his tone. “It was, you know, ‘You don't know what you're doing — a legal drama’ and blah blah blah. And Brandon never says a word, while I'm twisting on a spit, fighting for my life. Finally, Brandon said, ‘Uh … I like it. Let's do it.’ And that was the end of it — Bam! Got a good show out of it.”
Bam! By the end of the '80s, Steven Bochco Productions was under way, giving the producer a downright dangerous amount of freedom to swim against the tides of convention. Doogie Howser became a hit against all predictions, expectations, and critical complaints about the premise. ("It was probably the most fully formed idea I ever had … I was reading an article about child prodigies. There were six-year-old mathematical wizards, musical wizards—why not a medical prodigy?") Yes, there was a spectacular flop, but it was one of the most interesting concepts in TV history — Cop Rock (remember, Bochco was a singer). Bochco, who confesses to a "soft spot" for Cop Rock, thinks the musical-drama (with a lot of songs written by Randy Newman) failed because "it embarrassed people — it was sort of like your Aunt Thelma gets loaded at the family wedding and gets up to sing." Other series were critically lauded (Civil Wars), and NYPD Blue has arguably become the producer's greatest success, pushing the limits of commercial television drama to the breaking point. With increased sophistication in story and characterization came occasional nudity and profanity.
"For me," said Bochco, who is a father of two (Melissa, 26, and Jessy, 21), “this came out of two strongly held convictions. One is that television is held back to a significant degree from being the medium it can become by the incredibly conservative forces that control it. Another is that, five years ago, our television as we know it was virtually moribund. Cable was eating us alive. There was nothing we could put on the network that could even compete … The only way we could compete with cable was to approximate the level of sophistication available to viewers by virtue of cable.”
All right, that makes sense, but, come on, did this really mean having an unobstructed view of Dennis Franz's backside?
"I thought it was kind of cute," laughed Bochco. "You know what's cute about Dennis Franz's backside? It's attached to Dennis Franz. I'm being absolutely serious. He's an Everyman, and every man has a [backside] like Dennis Franz's. And nobody ever died from seeing that on television!"
Murder One, which has survived without the benefit of Franz's posterior, is another revolutionary concept — to follow a single murder trial over the course of an entire season (tempered a bit in its second year). Coming soon: something called Public Morals, which, one can safely assume, is bound to make somebody nervous.
"Steven does an extraordinary honor to a questionable business," said Sikking. “I think he gives it dignity and content and an ethical morality that I'm sure some people argue with, but that I think is right-on. And he's on the thin edge … He's always challenged the establishment. He's always challenged the status quo.”
And he's been doing it for 30 years, one way or another — a stat that the 53-year-old writer/producer has some trouble embracing. "It always startles me when I realize how long I've been in this business," said the 10-time Emmy winner (three for L.A. Law, one for NYPD Blue) and recipient of the Writer's Guild Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award for Television, two Peabodys, two Humanitas, and two Edgar Allan Poe Awards.
“I mean, that's a long career, but I started so young that I don't feel old. I'm not old — well, my kids might think so. I'll tell you what I miss — I miss the kind of focus that I had as a younger professional doing one thing at a time. You know, [like] when I was making Hill Street, with an incredible amount of help. I ain't no one-man band, and I think what partly embarrasses me about this kind of honor, being in the Hall of Fame, is that in truth, I owe so much of what I've done to the ensemble efforts of a great many people.”
That, director Hoblett will tell of you of his great friend, cuts both ways: “Humor, loyalty, compassion, and wanting to have a good time, and treating people well, are very much what Steven Bochco gets up every day to do. And in the context of that, some very good work gets done … You get back what you give. You see a lot of people who are really having a good time doing good work, and there's a reason for it.”
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Steven Bochco's induction in 1996.