In the US, the "golden age of television" usually means the early 1950's, when live and original dramas filled the airwaves. But a growing number of critics have defined a "Second Golden Age" of US television, starting in the early 1980's. The "father" of that "Second Golden Age" is considered to be producer and writer Steven Bochco. He paved the way for an era of daring dramatic series that continues to this day.
"Hill Street Blues" redefined the modern American police series, while "L.A. Law" gave us a new look at the legal system. Bochco broke new language and sexual barriers with "NYPD Blue", and even had the nerve to bring TV viewers a 16-year-old doctor ("Doogie Howser, MD"). Even some of his failures, such as the short-lived "Cop Rock" and well-regarded "Murder One" were interesting. Others, such as the animated "Capitol Critters" and lowbrow "Public Morals," are best forgotten. Not that Bochco is a saint, however. He has been criticized for his use of scatological and gross humour. His public disputes have been many, including his firing from MTM at the height of "Hill Street's" success; his lawsuit with "L.A. Law" co-creator Terry Louise Fisher; a now-famous battle with former "NYPD Blue" star David Caruso (who left the show at the beginning of the second season); and most recently, the departure of Paris Barclay, who
co-produced the medical drama "City Of Angels" with Bochco.
Native New Yorker; Universal Man
Steven Ronald Bochco was born December 16th, 1943 in New York City. His father was a concert violinist who ended up as a furniture salesman. (Hence the man playing the violin at the end of a "Steven Bochco Production". His mother was, as Bochco described her in an interview on the website "Mr. Showbiz," "an artist, designer and hustler." Growing up in a tough West Side section of the city, Bochco eventually won a college scholarship to New York University. He later transferred to Carnegie-Mellon University and studied as a playwright. (He also met future actors such as Michael Tucker, Bruce Weitz and Charles Haid, who would all be seen on future Bochco productions.)
After graduating in 1966, Bochco was hired as a storywriter at Universal Studios. In those days, Universal was known as an assembly line where talent went in one door and formula TV shows came out the other. With its large backlots, Universal's mainstay was
action-adventure and police dramas. Bochco quickly went to work writing scripts for such shows as "Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theater", "The Name Of The Game:" and "Ironside". In 1971, he became a story editor on Peter Falk's classic "Columbo" (which aired once a month on the "NBC Mystery Movie"). Bochco wrote the first episode of the series, "Murder By The Book". Its director was another Universal contract worker--Steven Spielberg. Bochco also wrote for another
show in the "NBC Mystery Movie" rotation, Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James' "McMillan And Wife"
Another significant Bochco show for Universal was "Delvecchio" (CBS 1976-77). A pre-"Taxi" Judd Hirsch starred as a police detective in LA. Also in the case were future Bochco players Charles Haid and Michael Conrad. Bochco wrote two more series for Universal-the situation comedy "Turnabout" (featuring a pre-"Cagney and Lacey" Sharon Gless), and the short-lived detective drama "Richie Brockelman."
In 1978, Bochco moved to MTM, the independent production company run by Grant Tinker and his then-wife Mary Tyler Moore. "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "The Bob Newhart Show" "Rhoda" and "Phyllis" gave MTM a reputation for high-quality comedy. But starting in 1977 with "Lou Grant" and a year later with "The White Shadow," MTM began branching out into hour-long dramatic series that earned both critical praise and respectable ratings. One year after he arrived at MTM, Bochco created and produced a cop show for CBS called "Paris." It starred the talented James Earl Jones as a police captain (one of the few African-American leads in a drama at the time). Also in the cast was a young Michael Warren as a police officer. But "Paris" was yanked from the CBS schedule after just three episodes. At that point, Bochco swore he would never do another cop show.
Never Say Never: "Hill Street Blues"
In the winter of 1980, Bochco and his then-partner Michael Kozoll went to lunch with NBC Entertainment Division President Brandon Tartikoff. Bochco pitched an anthology show about people in a busy city hotel. But Tartikoff had another idea. His boss, network President Fred Silverman, wanted Bochco to create a cop show with an urban feel. After much discussion, Bochco and Kozoll agreed to give NBC the cop show it wanted. But the two men would do it their way, without network interference. In his autobiography, Tartikoff said, "I could have been insulted by their terms, but I wasn't. In the first place, I knew Bochco well enough to understand that this was his way of sticking it to the networks for meddling with, then ultimately bouncing, his
last several shows. Besides that, I was overseeing about forty pilots, so if they had complete autonomy on their show, that was one less thing I had to worry about. Tartikoff did have some worries when Bochco brought him the pilot of "Hill Street Station" (later renamed "Hill Street Blues" at the suggestion of an NBC executive). For one thing, "Hill Street" was different from any other US dramatic series. The lighting was dark, handheld cameras were used to give a documentary feel; the main cast had more than a dozen characters; there were
no known stars in the lead roles; and there were several subplots in each episode which demanded viewer attention. In addition, not every storyline would wrap up neatly within an episode; some would drag out for several shows. Test audiences gave "Hill Street" some of the worst numbers ever for a pilot in NBC history. But Silverman and Tartikoff put the show on the schedule anyway, because they believed in its quality. (One change was made: Viewers liked the chemistry between white cracker Andy Renko and his black partner Bobby Hill (Charles Haid and Michael Warren.). But in the pilot, the pair died during a drug-related shooting. NBC urged Bochco and Kozoll to let them live. They did.
When it premiered on January 15th, 1981, "Hill Street Blues" wowed the critics. But the ratings were at or near the bottom. Two things worked in favour of "Hill Street", however. First, NBC was still in third place among the US networks and the network had nothing to put in its place. Second, Tartikoff noted that the show did very well among viewers who had cable television, indicating the cop drama was the type of show NBC and other networks needed to fight off the dreaded pay TV threat. "Hill Street Blues" became the lowest-rated series in television history at the time to get a second-season renewal. But NBC demanded the show wrap up at least one of its subplots within each episode. Bochco agreed, but Kozoll fought the change and left after the 1981-82 season.
The Television Academy of Arts and Sciences may have done more than NBC to keep "Hill Street" alive. The show picked up a record 21 nominations and eight Emmys. Viewers finally tuned in to see what the excitement was all about. "Hill Street" never became a smash hit, but it landed among the top 30 series, and was NBC's highest-rated series for a time. It stayed on the air until May 1987, when MTM decided not to produce an eighth season.
Let's Be Careful Out There: Bochco's Fall And Rise
MTM's shows were among the most expensive to produce, and "Hill Street" was at the top of the list. A large cast and expensive outdoor scenes, coupled with budget overruns, concerned MTM executives.
The cost issue came to a head in 1983 when NBC bought another show from
Bochco. "Bay City Blues" was the story of a minor-league baseball team in Northern California. Like "Hill Street," there were interwoven stories about the personal and professional problems of the rookies, the former major leaguers and staffers (along with their respective lovers). Among its large cast was a young Sharon Stone and a tough-talking actor who made an impression as crooked detective Sal Benedetto on "Hill Street": Dennis Franz. For realism, Bochco filled a baseball field with paid fans, helping to push the show's cost even higher. In an unusual move, NBC promoted the show as the latest offering "from the co-creator of Hill Street Blues."
Unfortunately, shows about baseball have generally failed on US television, and "Bay City" was no exception. In a season when EVERY ONE of NBC's nine new series failed, "Bay City" was one of the first to go after four low-rated episodes.
The "Bay City" fiasco, coupled with increasing costs on "Hill Street," proved to be the last straw for MTM. Soon after the 100th episode of "Hill Street" was filmed, Bochco was fired. Fortunately, he already had a series commitment from NBC. Now all he needed was a new studio--and an idea.
Legal Briefs: L.A. Law and the ABC Deal
During a brief meeting between Bochco and NBC's Brandon Tartikoff in 1985, Tartikoff noted that "'Hill Street' is about eighty-five percent cops and fifteen percent lawyers. Why don't we flip the proportions and see what happens?"
Bochco recruited former attorney and "Cagney And Lacey" producer Terry Louise Fisher; signed a deal with 20th Century Fox; and the two came up with "L.A. Law," the story of attorneys in an upscale law firm. At a time when prime-time soaps like "Dallas" and "Dynasty" dripped with money and sex, "L.A. Law" became Bochco's vision of the go-go Reagan Era. Unlike most soaps, it also had substance, with gripping courtroom scenes, office politics, and well-written dialog, along with the usual sex. And unlike "Hill Street," "L.A. Law" was bright and cheery, with the main characters quite well-off. But the Bochco trademark of shocking the audience was clear from the start: The pilot episode began with the death of a partner at the fictional law firm, and a fight over who would get his office-all in the first few minutes!
"L.A. Law" premiered in the fall of 1986, but really caught fire when NBC moved the show to "Hill Street's" old Thursday night timeslot. "L.A. Law" quickly became a top-15 show, and was frequently in the top ten--a feat "Hill Street" seldom achieved.
In 1987, Bochco and Fisher teamed up to create "Hooperman". This time, the show went to ABC. The half-hour comedy-drama series focused on a San Francisco police officer who also owned an apartment building. It starred John Ritter, with Debrah Farentino as his love interest. It lasted two seasons.
Bochco was ready to produce other series, and he began talks with the three networks. In his book "Three Blind Mice," author Ken Aulella says Bochco was approached by CBS to run the network's troubled entertainment division. Bochco eventually turned down the CBS offer, but he could not turn down a production deal with rival ABC. The network offered him a 50-million dollar deal, for ten series over a ten-year period, plus a five million dollar signing bonus.
Terry Louise Fisher had hoped to become the new executive producer of "L.A. Law," but Bochco passed her over and gave the job to a lawyer who began on the show as a story editor--David E. Kelley. (A lawsuit was filed by Fisher, but it was eventually settled.) Kelley proved to be an asset to the show when Bochco left. He provided "L.A. Law" with some of its best storylines and courtroom scenes. (He also wrote the infamous "lesbian kiss" between attorneys C.J. Lamb and Abby Perkins, which led to controversy in the years before "Ellen"). But in 1991, Kelley left to create his own series for CBS, and several of the show's
stars also quit. "L.A. Law" never recovered creatively from Kelley's
departure, and the ratings began to fall. It went off the air in 1994 as the second most-popular legal series in US television history after "Perry Mason" (1957-1966).
For Steven Bochco, the next few years would be rocky ones.
TEEN DOCS AND SINGING COPS: ABC 1989-1993
Bochco's first series under the ABC deal was a hit. "Doogie Howser, MD," co-created by Bochco and David E. Kelley, was a half-hour comedy/drama that told the story of a 16-year-old doctor (played by Neal Patrick Harris). James Sikkling (Lieutenant Howard Hunter on "Hill Street") played his dad. A well-acted and well-written series, "Doogie Howser" ran for four seasons. But a suggestion to turn "Hill Street Blues" into a Broadway musical gave Bochco the idea for his next series--and probably his biggest critical and commercial failure to date.
"Cop Rock" sounded like a good idea on paper--cops, lawyers, politicians and crooks not only acting, but SINGING tunes by some of the best songwriters around (including the legendary Randy Newman). Bochco was reportedly influenced by the late Dennis Potter, especially his BBC classic "The Singing Detective," and he had a fine cast with such actors as Ronny Cox and a pre-"NYPD Blue" James McDaniel. When it premiered in September 1990, "Cop Rock's" pilot brought viewers well-written dramatic scenes interrupted by a chorus of criminals ("In these streets, WE got the power"), a jury choir singing "He's guilty," or a man lamenting about his stolen luxury car ("I want my Beemer back"). But critics were not kind. In his book "Bad TV," author Craig Nelson called "Cop Rock" "the worst drama of all time...The whole show is so goofy and inane, you can't even give Bochco credit for trying."
Viewers agreed. Despite a cost of one-point-eight million dollars an episode (a record for 1990), "Cop Rock" quickly sunk to the bottom of the ratings. ABC tried to talk Bochco into dropping the musical numbers, but he refused. In December 1990, "Cop Rock" was history. Bochco later told "Entertainment Weekly:" that "Cop Rock" was the most fun he ever had on a series.
Bochco's next show for ABC was something different--a prime-time cartoon series. Influenced by the success of "The Simpsons", Bochco and Hanna-Barbara Productions teamed up for "Capitol Critters," the story of mice living in the White House. ABC wanted a prime-time cartoon to compete with "The Simpsons," but "Capitol Critters" scampered away in just a few months. Next up was "Civil Wars." Bochco and "L.A. Law" producer William Finkelstein
came up with the story of a New York divorce attorney's office. Mariel
Hemingway and Peter Onorati starred in the drama, but after two years failed to achieve either critical acclaim or high ratings. Even an episode where Hemingway was naked (as much as network TV would allow) failed to draw viewers. In an ironic twist, co-stars Alan Rosenberg and Debi Mazar took their "Civil Wars" characters to the final season of "L.A. Law."
With several failures behind him, Bochco needed a hit. His greatest success was yet to come.
R-RATED TELEVISION: NYPD BLUE
In the early 1990's, with so many television choices, Bochco realized that network TV drama was being hurt. Cable and pay television could deal with sex and violence more explicitly than broadcast television, with its standards and practices. So he started developing what he called an "R-Rated" cop drama for the 10 PM hour.
If "Hill Street Blues" broke new ground for the 1980's, Bochco's new "NYPD Blue" would go even further in the Clinton Decade. Shots of bare breasts and naked rear ends shared screen time with language that would make a sailor blush. ABC and its affiliated stations were nervous. Conservative groups called for a boycott, and before its September 1993 premiere, some ABC stations refused to show "NYPD Blue" even with an explicit warning at the beginning of each episode.
But if viewers were drawn by the nudity and swearing, they stayed for the quality. And that was Bochco's secret weapon. The dialogue was clipped; the conversations sometimes in code; and the personal and professional demons many. No character on "Blue" wore those scars better than Detective Andy Sippowitz. He was the character of a lifetime, and Dennis Franz made the most of it.
Eventually, "NYPD Blue" became a top-ten hit (the biggest hit of Bochco's career to date). It would survive many cast changes, including the much-publicized departure of co-star David Caruso in 1994; the onscreen death of Jimmy Smits' Bobby Simone in 1998; and the successful casting of Rick Schroder as Smits' replacement. But the true heart and soul of "Blue" has been producer and writer David Milch, who has given the show its best moments. Milch has left the show after seven seasons, and Bochco is now overseeing the writing staff. Time will tell if Milch's touch will be missed.
BOCHCO FROM PARADISE TO BROOKLYN
"The Byrds of Paradise" (ABC, 1994) was Bochco's attempt at family drama. Timothy Busfield ("thirtysomething"; "The West Wing") starred as a father who moved himself and his children to Hawaii, in an attempt to get away from a crime-ridden mainland. (One of his children was played by a young Jennifer Love Hewitt, before her breakthrough role in "Party of Five.") The show lasted only a few months.
"Murder One" (ABC 1995-1997) was probably one of Bochco's best series. Inspired by the O. J. Simpson trial, "Murder One" dealt with one high-profile murder case during its entire first season, looking closely at the strategies for both the prosecution and the defense, right down to the verdict and the aftermath. "Murder" had a topnotch cast, including Daniel Benzali as defense attorney Ted Hoffman and Stanley Tucci as the evil Richard Cross. But ABC slotted "Murder One" against NBC's powerhouse medical drama "ER," and only a timeslot change in the middle of the season brought enough viewers to give "Murder" a second season. In year two, Benzali was replaced by Anthony LaPaglia, and three murder cases were followed instead of just one. But again, ABC was intent on killing "Murder One," this time by slotting the show against NBC's hit sitcom "Seinfeld." "Murder One" never saw a third season.
"Murder One" was also the latest Bochco show to feature his then-wife, actress Barbara Bosson. She played Fay Furillo on "Hill Street"; Captain Celeste Stern on "Hooperman"; Mayor Louise Plank on "Cop Rock"; and prosecutor Miriam Grasso on "Murder One." The couple divorced in 1999; Bochco remarried this past year.
With his ABC contract winding down, Bochco signed with CBS for several new shows. First up was "Public Morals" (1996), a comedy drama co-created by Bochco and Jay Tarses ("The Days And Nights of Molly Dodd"; "Buffalo Bill"). The show immediately drew fire for its language, including the use of a vulgar term for a part of the female anatomy to describe the character's jobs (vice cops in a New York squadroom). It died after a few episodes. Among the cast members was Bill Brochtrup, who brought his "NYPD Blue" character of gay administrative assistant John Irvin to "Public Morals." Brochtrup was also a cast member in Bochco's last series under his ABC deal, "Total Security" (1997). James Belushi starred in this drama as the head of
a Los Angeles security firm. "Entertainment Weekly" noted that the show "has the smell of burn-off," as if Bochco and ABC wanted to end their deal.
"Total Security" was cancelled after a few episodes.
But this show was overshadowed by Bochco's other new series that
fall--"Brooklyn South" (CBS 1997-98). He and co-creator David Milch decided to focus on the cops on the beat instead of the detectives, and shifted focus to a different borough of New York City. In many ways, "Brooklyn South" seemed to be an update of "Hill Street Blues." From the whimsical Mike Post theme song (not unlike HSB), to James B. Sikking as a precinct captain, "Brooklyn" was "Hill Street" with a 1990's facelift.
The casting was tops, with Jon Tenney, Yancy Butler, Michael DeLuise and Dylan Walsh in the ensemble. In typical Bochco fashion, the pilot started off with the graphic and brutal shooting of a police officer, and a suspect who charged the cops with brutality and racism. But it seemed that Bochco was covering old ground instead of breaking new territory. After a strong start, viewers tuned out. Bochco and Milch made changes to improve the show. Sikking's police captain brought a moral center to the show and the focus moved toward a few key characters. The plots became more gripping and dealt with real-life police issues. But at a time when viewers could choose among several good police dramas, including Bochco's own "NYPD Blue," there seemed to be no room for "Brooklyn South." CBS did not sign up for a second season.
In 1999, Bochco filed a multimillion dollar suit against 20th Century Fox (the studio that distributed his series), claiming the company sold "NYPD Blue" reruns at a cheap price to Fox's FX cable channel. Then, he had a public battle with ABC. The network planned to delay the start of "Blue's" seventh season to launch the new drama "Once and Again" in "Blue's" Tuesday timeslot. Bochco claimed favoritism, because ABC owned "Once" and did not own "Blue." Ironically, the move worked. With "Blue's" new season delayed until January, ABC was able to run new episodes every week through the end of the season, with no reruns. The result was improved ratings for "Blue." ABC has repeated the strategy for the current season, and "Blue" has been renewed for two more years.
FLATLINE: "CITY OF ANGELS"
In the fall of 1999, national civil rights groups complained about the lack of African-American leads on television. With the exception of smaller networks UPN and WB, the Big Four broadcasters had minority secondary characters on many of their series. But few were stars of a series, especially dramas.
CBS became the most aggressive of the Big Four to promise changes, and noted that Bochco was working on a new medical drama with a mostly black cast, which would air in early 2000. That show became "City of Angels"
Created by Bochco and Paris Barclay, an award-winning writer and director on "NYPD Blue", "City" featured former "L.A. Law" co-star Blair Underwood as an idealistic surgeon; Vivian A. Fox as the no-nonsense Chief of Medicine; Michael Warren (Officer Bobby Hill of "Hill Street") as a pompous and fawning hospital director, and Robert Morse as the sleazy political figure who oversees the county-run but underfunded facility.
While Bochco has had African-American actors on his various shows, "Angels" would be his first since the failed "Paris" to have a black lead. But at a time when the NAACP and other groups were looking closely at the show, there were internal disputes over the direction of "Angels", especially whether race-related issues should be highlighted. The white characters seemed to be depicted as evil or ignorant. Making the situtation worse was Fox's icy performance, which made her romantic relationship with Underwood's Dr. Turner unbelievable. And ther was Bochco's penchant for outrageous situations. (In the pilot, guest star Garrett Morris had his picture taken with the corpse of a famous singer; another episode featured a man who has a Golden Globe statue lodged inside his--well, let's say where the sun don't shine!)
"City Of Angels" finished its first season with low ratings, but a publicity campaign by black groups helped get the show renewed for a second year. There were changes. Fox left even before a second season was announced; and the behind-the-scenes fights led co-creator Paris Barclay to depart as well. Bochco brought in former "White Shadow" actor-director Kevin Hooks to help behind the scenes, and "Homicide's" Kyle Secor was cast as a plastic surgeon.
The show improved, and critics started to notice. Audiences
didn't. CBS renewed "City Of Angels" for just 13 episodes, then
moved the show to Thursday nights, up against "Will And Grace" on NBC and "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" on ABC. Facing two Top-20 programs, "Angels" became the lowest-rated series on a Big Three network. CBS pulled the plug in November.
WHAT'S NEXT FOR BOCHCO
In January 2000, Bochco left 20th Century Fox, and signed a new five-year development deal with Paramount Television. The first show under the new contract will premiere in the fall of 2001. Bochco and co-creator Alison Cross ("Roe Versus Wade"; "Serving In Silence") will produce an untitled legal drama for ABC. The network has signed up for 13 episodes, and "NYPD Blue's" Kim Delaney will star. No word yet on how Bochco will have Detective Diane Russell leave "Blue," but if the new show does not work, Bochco says Delaney will return to the police drama.
One thing is certain: No matter what happens with the new show, you can bet it will be typical Steven Bochco--daring, outrageous, compelling and high-quality.
I have relied on a number of books, newspaper and magazine articles for this profile. I would recommend the following books:
"The Last Great Ride" by Brandon Tartikoff
Questions Site Information Contact
"Three Blind Mice" by Ken Aulella
"Inside Prime Time" by Todd Gitlin (which features a chapter on the first season of "Hill Street Blues.")
"MTM: Quality Television" by various authors (this British work looks at Bochco's years at the studio before he was fired in 1985).
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