Remembering Groundbreaking Television Producer Steven Bochco

Apr 2, 2018
Originally published on April 3, 2018 12:20 pm
Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. One of the most important TV producers of our time has died. Steven Bochco, the creator of "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law," "Doogie Howser, M.D." and "NYPD Blue," died yesterday of complications from cancer. He was 74. Our TV critic David Bianculli has an appreciation. After that, we'll hear the interview I recorded with Bochco in 1989.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIKE POST'S "HILL STREET BLUES")

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Steven Bochco was one of American TV's first celebrity writer-producers. And he deserved all the fame he achieved because he made some of the very best TV of the '70s, '80s and '90s. He was a story editor on "Columbo," writing the pilot script that was directed by another young talent named Steven Spielberg. And when Bochco started making his own shows, he and his co-creators presented a lot of TV series that made TV a lot better - "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law," "NYPD Blue," "Murder One." Even his rare flops, like "Cop Rock," were oddly fascinating.

"Hill Street," which premiered in 1981, was Bochco's first groundbreaking series. And it broke most of the rules for U.S. dramatic television at the time. It had continuing storylines, like soap operas, rather than stand-alone episodes. It was shot more like a documentary than a TV show with frenetic action filling the frame and with dialogue interrupting, overlapping and competing, as in a Robert Altman film. It mixed moments of intense drama with touches of dark and even light comedy. It had a maturity to its stories and a complexity to its characters. The good guys weren't always good, and characters tended to change and deepen over time. Or sometimes they didn't because they were unexpectedly killed off without warning even if they were regular, popular characters.

And "Hill Street," rather than relying on one or two stars, featured an entire ensemble. And every character each week and each season got more and more interesting and surprising. But even in the very first episode, there were shocks to spare. A couple cops were gunned down though not killed while on routine patrol. The police captain, Frank Furillo, ended up having a secret affair with one of the public defenders, Joyce Davenport. And when Furillo's ex-wife Fay, played by Bochco's real-life wife Barbara Bosson, visited the precinct, she had a very tender but awkward moment with the station's sergeant, played by Michael Conrad.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HILL STREET BLUES")

MICHAEL CONRAD: (As Sgt. Phil Esterhaus) Hey, how you been, Fay?

BARBARA BOSSON: (Fay Furillo) Good. How are you, Phil? How's Margaret?

CONRAD: (As Sgt. Phil Esterhaus) What? Didn't Frank tell you? We split up.

BOSSON: (As Fay Furillo) I'm sorry. You guys were married forever.

CONRAD: (As Sgt. Phil Esterhaus) Twenty-three years.

BOSSON: (As Fay Furillo) I'm really sorry, Phil.

CONRAD: (As Sgt. Phil Esterhaus) Well, don't be. To tell you the truth, I'd never been happier. Now granted, I hit the skids real hard for a ten-month period. I mean, I came close to ending it. But then I met Cindy. Over night, my life turned around.

BOSSON: (As Fay Furillo) Oh, yeah? Oh, that's terrific. I'm glad to hear that. Are you thinking of getting remarried?

CONRAD: (As Sgt. Phil Esterhaus) As soon as she graduates.

BOSSON: (As Fay Furillo) She's a college student?

CONRAD: (As Sgt. Phil Esterhaus) High school - she's a graduating senior.

BIANCULLI: That wasn't a throwaway punchline either. The rest of that first season of "Hill Street" followed, among many other storylines, that sergeant's angst as he was torn between his high school sweetheart and a much more mature woman who excited him both intellectually and sexually. Sex and unpredictability were even bigger elements of "NYPD Blue," another of Bochco's immeasurably influential TV series. In that show, Dennis Franz played Andy Sipowicz, a bigoted, loose-cannon cop who ended up being the soul of the show and and going from lost cause to precinct hero - a sort of "Breaking Bad" in reverse.

But when "NYPD Blue" began, Bochco's stated intention was to beat cable TV at its own game. Cable back in the early '90s was still scoring biggest by showing unedited and uncensored theatrical films. Bochco convinced ABC to give him a 10 pm slot for "NYPD Blue" and to loosen up the censorship restrictions, so he could feature more sex, violence and language than broadcast TV had ever permitted before.

Advertisers shied away for a bit, but viewers didn't. They made "NYPD Blue" Bochco's biggest hit and were there from the start. And it was a start that in the pre-credit scene of the opening episode had Andy Sipowicz confront the district attorney, played by Sharon Lawrence. They insult each other, and Sipowicz ends the discussion by quoting a little Latin while grabbing his own genitals - "Dragnet" this wasn't.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NYPD BLUE")

DENNIS FRANZ: (As Andy Sipowicz) Hey, Miss District Attorney, you really prosecuted the crap out of that one.

SHARON LAWRENCE: (As Sylvia Costas) I went with the crap I had, detective.

FRANZ: (As Andy Sipowicz) Woah, you think that was a hummer bust, huh? You're saying I queered that guy's hire?

LAWRENCE: (As Sylvia Costas) I'd say res ipsa loquitur if I thought you knew what it meant.

FRANZ: (As Andy Sipowicz) Hey, ipsa this, you pissy little bitch.

BIANCULLI: Taken together, "Hill Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue" completely changed the TV landscape. Very quickly, we got "St. Elsewhere" from Bruce Paltrow, who worked alongside Bochco at MTM Productions. And Bochco himself, between "Hill Street" and "NYPD Blue," gave us "L.A. Law," another big hit with a large ensemble cast. Bochco also was a major mentor to other TV talents, including David Milch, David E. Kelley and Dick Wolf. And while Steven Bochco tried to combat cable with "NYPD Blue," what he really ended up doing was showing cable the way. If not for Andy Sipowicz, there's no Tony Soprano, no Dexter, no Walter White. And if not for Steven Bochco, quality television would have been a longer time coming.

GROSS: David Bianculli is the editor of the website TV Worth Watching. His latest book is "The Platinum Age of Television: From I Love Lucy To The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific." Steven Bochco died yesterday. After we take a short break, we'll hear the interview I recorded with Bochco in 1989. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL SIMON SONG, "HOW CAN YOU LIVE IN THE NORTHEAST?")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We are remembering Steven Bochco, the groundbreaking TV producer who created "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law," "Doogie Howser, M.D." and "NYPD Blue." I spoke with Bochco in 1989. "Hill Street Blues" was still on the air although he'd left the show. "L.A. Law" was going strong, and Bochco was about to premiere "Doogie Howser, M.D."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: You started in television at Universal when you were in your - what? - early 20s?

STEVEN BOCHCO: Yeah, I was 22. I went there right out of Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh.

GROSS: In your early writing days, you ended up writing and doing rewrites on a lot of crime shows, including "Colombo," "Delvecchio," "Name Of The Game," "McMillan & Wife." How did you end up doing so many crime shows?

BOCHCO: Well, that's about the only thing that was on TV in those days. And in fact, if you look at what's on television now in the dramatic form, you have very few shows that are outside the action-adventure, police, private detective genre. And in the '60s and '70s, that was the overwhelming kind of programming that we had. And so as a young guy just coming up and basically working on assignment, you did what you were told to do. And those were the shows they put me on.

GROSS: When NBC approached you to write a crime series - the series that ended up as "Hill Street Blues" - were you anxious to do yet another crime show?

BOCHCO: No, not really. I had worked on so many cop shows over the years - as had Michael Kozoll, who I created "Hill Street" with. And between us, gosh, I guess we'd worked on a dozen or more of those shows. And NBC wanted a cop drama And we had other ideas that we wanted to develop. But when we talked to them about it, their interest in doing something that had a focus more on the personal lives of cops struck a nerve with us both. And we simply asked them to leave us alone if we were going to do something like that. And I guess their need was so great that they said, gee, OK. And they did.

GROSS: As a veteran of cop shows, what did you know right off the bat that you wanted to do differently on Hill Street? What were some of the frustrations you faced in the formulas you had to work before?

BOCHCO: Well, I think we approached Hill Street more from the things we knew we didn't want to do. We didn't have a clear idea of how we wanted to change the form. But we were very tired of the kind of standard cop show format where a crime is committed. You - your cops track down the bad guys. You go - you find suspects. You question witnesses. You or you have a little chase at the end. You have a shootout. And you arrest the guy - and that the personal lives of these cops is something that exists on those other six nights of the week when nobody is watching them. The kind of closure, the kind of simple, neat closure that you would get in these in these shows was always kind of annoying to us both. I think, as well, when you're telling stories about violence, which that world is filled with, it always bothered us that none of those stories ever dealt with the consequence of violence the, you know - the terrible emotional toll on cops from from doing the work they do day in and day out. There's a very high rate of divorce amongst cops. There's a very high rate of alcoholism amongst cops. And these are all things that we wanted to explore in some depth, which - when you are doing a show about the personal lives of cops - you can do.

We started out with this sort of checklist of things we didn't want to be. And a lot of what we wound up with on Hill Street is kind of - it was a little bit like form following function. We had a large group of characters that we had developed. And what we discovered pretty quickly as we wrote the pilot was that there's no way on a weekly basis that we were going to be able to dramatically honor the needs of what had quickly become a dozen regular characters - 10 or 11, whatever the exact number was. And so we developed a story flow that would span two, three, four episodes at a time because it was the only way that you could involve your characters in complex stories without devoting a lot of screen time per episode to those characters. And so in that way, we began to develop what really didn't seem all that new to us. It was sort of a police soap opera. That we sort of kiddingly always referred to as cop soap.

GROSS: You have the reputation for being the kind of producer who will put his job on the line if there's something you really want to fight about with the network or standards and practices. What's an example something you put your job on the line for in Hill Street?

BOCHCO: Oh gosh. I seem to quit my job once or twice a year no matter what. And I get - it was is usually over something which in retrospect didn't really seem to have all that much importance but, at the time, seemed seem to be insanely passionate, you know? It was often something that would start with a broadcast standards note about something you couldn't do or say in a script. And, you know, you'd worked so hard on these things. And writers are so passionate about what they're doing on a show like that. And then somebody says, well, gee, you know, this is offensive. So you get into a discussion about it. And the discussion escalates into an argument. And, of course, what those people and broadcast standards don't realize that oftentimes you change something - it's like pulling a thread on a sweater and very often the fabric of something tends to unravel - so every once in a while.

GROSS: Can you think of a specific?

BOCHCO: Oh, gosh. There were so many of them. Gosh, I remember one time we had an episode where some elderly woman was having an affair. And her husband came home and caught them. And he chased the guy through the house. And the guy was trying to get out the bathroom window. And he got his head lodged in between the side of the toilet and the bathtub where he was stuck. So they call the police. And Hill and Renko arrive on the scene. And there puzzling as to how to free this guy. And, of course, they finally free him with a - they shatter the toilet with a sledgehammer. But in the course of it, the husband, who by now has sort of reconciled with his wife, turns to his wife. And it really was like a background piece of dialogue and said, what really upsets me is that you took your teeth out for her. They went nuts. They simply went berserk over that piece of dialogue, which was a background of dialogue.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BOCHCO: They never objected to it on the page. So what happened was that we shot the scene. We didn't have close-ups, coverage of the various elements in the scene. So there it was. It was not exercisable from the scene. And they said, you have to take it out. So I guess that's about as angry as I ever got. Because, you know, the deal that I always had with them was if you give me time I think I can pretty much accommodate any of the notes you have that I can't sway you on. But when you give me a note like that after we've shot the film, I'm trapped. And then, of course, to fix it, you have to butcher the film. You know, one of the interesting things we've discovered over the years is that you'd have all these terrible fights in a vacuum. Then finally - and you'd scream and you'd yell and you'd rattle your saber. And you'd threaten to quit. And they'd back down. And you shoot the film. And it goes on the air. Nobody says boo. Nobody writes you a letter. And what you begin to realize, A, is that you've got a far more sophisticated audience watching what you do. The networks are willing to admit. And, B, the republic doesn't fall. That audience comes to you Thursdays at 10 o'clock looking for a degree of sophistication and complexity and humor. And they're very happy with the product they get, by and large.

GROSS: When you started "L.A. Law" after your experiences with "Hill Street Blues" - "L.A. Law" being another show in which there was an ensemble approach in terms of character and storyline - what were some of the experiences that you learned from "Hill Street" that you were able to apply there, experiences pertaining to how many storylines you could balance in the air at the same time, how many actors you can - you could make regulars without it becoming too cluttered or too confusing?

BOCHCO: Well, "L.A. Law" has roughly the same number of regulars. I think there's a dozen regulars on "L.A. Law." The tricky part with "L.A. Law" is that you can't fragment the storytelling quite the way you could on "Hill Street." You do wind up telling fewer stories because the law really requires a more orderly progression of events. And your scenes tend to play longer. I think it is an easier show to track.

The show physically was designed to look different, to be more upscale. "Hill Street" was a show that I always felt was fundamentally about despair and people's desperate attempt to keep that despair at arm's length and I - as a opposed to "L.A. Law," which I always felt was basically about people who are competitive and liked to win and need to win and do win more often than not and are successful because of it. It was also a much more interior show than "Hill Street," easier to produce for that reason, more controllable. So, you know, in many ways, it - they're apples and pears.

GROSS: Gosh, you know, I like your description about "Hill Street" being a show about keeping despair at arm's length. I bet that's not the way you pitched it to the network (laughter). I mean, it's usually the last thing they'd want on TV (laughter).

BOCHCO: Well, I tell you, we never pitched - we never pitched one - we never pitched "Hill Street" to the network at all. They sort of pitched us to do a cop show. I think what they thought they were going to be getting was some version of "Fort Apache, the Bronx," which had recently been released as a film, and it was getting some play, which I'd never...

GROSS: Now, there was more action - more emphasis on action.

BOCHCO: Well, inner-city action. There was some attempt in that movie to deal with the personal lives of some of those cops. I think that's what they were looking for. I hope we didn't disappoint them.

GROSS: Steven Bochco is my guest, the creator of "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law," "Hooperman" and a new series called "Doogie Howser, M.D." This is the first show in your new contract with ABC which calls, I think, for the creation of 10 programs...

BOCHCO: Right.

GROSS: ...Over the next decade. How are you going to be testing your ideas before you actually make an investment in them?

BOCHCO: Well, I never do. I don't know. I don't believe in testing. I resist always looking at any of the research that networks do on my shows either before they go on or even after they go on because I think the moment you begin to really pay attention to research in television, you stop being creative. And you start trying to design products for a marketplace. And that's not what what I'm interested in doing. I accept the risks inherent in television.

I accept the fact that it is a failure-oriented medium, that you are going to succeed far less often than you fail and that that comes with the territory. And if you're not comfortable with that reality, then you should be doing something else. All the research in the world doesn't seem to prevent the vast majority of television shows from failing miserably. So, you know, here we are. When I get an idea, I like to live with the idea for a long time so that I know personally that it has longevity. And if I feel that, then I'm prepared to fight as hard as I can for it.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us about television and your work. Thank you for your time.

BOCHCO: You're welcome.

GROSS: Steven Bochco, recorded in 1989. He died yesterday of complications from cancer. He was 74. After we take a short break, we'll hear from the author of a new book about the original so-called Siamese twins - conjoined twins from Siam, which is now Thailand, who were taken to the U.S. to perform in freak shows. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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