Steven Bochco: TV Innovator

TV producer Steven Bochco

TV producer Steven Bochco with Jim Longworth in earlier times
Legendary television producer Steven Bochco had a wry sense of humor, so when I first heard that he passed away on April Fool’s Day, I held out hope that he had perpetrated a hoax on us. He hadn’t. Steven, who won countless awards and accolades across a career that lasted for half a century, finally lost his long battle with leukemia last week. He was 74 years old.

Like his virtuoso father, Steven had a talent for music, but it was writing that captured his interest. In the formative years of his career, Bochco took any job he could get just to be around the written word, first as a $50-per-week script reader for Sam Goldwyn, Jr., and later as a script fixer at Universal. His early writing credits for NBC included Columbo and McMillan and Wife but his first big solo series came while working for Grant Tinker at MTM studios. Hill Street Blues was a critical success, racking up 98 Emmy nominations and four wins as “Best Drama” during its seven-season run.

Bochco followed Hill Street with L.A. Law, another four-time Emmy winner, then signed a long-term development deal with ABC, where he co-created the ground-breaking cop drama, NYPD Blue, which ran from 1993 to 2005. Unlike Hill Street Blues, which one reviewer referred to as a “balance between comedy and drama”, NYPD Blue was mostly a gritty, edgy drama that pushed the envelope when it came to raw language and nudity. Not surprisingly, more than fifty ABC affiliates refused to air the first episode in which David Caruso and Amy Brenneman showed off their bare body parts during a roll in the hay.

After creating the short-lived Iraq War drama Over There, Steven returned to the legal and police genres with Raising the Bar (2008) and Murder in the First (2014-2016), respectively.

In addition to writing award-winning television scripts, Bochco also penned two books, Death by Hollywood, a tongue-in-cheek detective novel, and Truth is a Total Defense, his 2016 autobiography. I first met Steven at the Museum of Television and Radio (now Paley Center) in 1998, where he participated in a panel discussion about creating dramatic television. The following year I interviewed him for my first volume of TV Creators. Before the book went to press, I sent Steven a preview copy. A few days later, he returned the pages, and they were filled with handwritten notes in which he corrected my grammar, and even fact-checked some of my research. I still have that marked-up manuscript, and point to it with pride. After all, how many authors can say that they were edited by Steven Bochco? His notes made me a better writer, and a more thorough researcher, and for that I will always be grateful.

During our two interview sessions in the summer and fall of 1999, Steven revealed a lot about himself and his craft. Here are some highlights:

 


(On his early interest in writing): “My teachers always told me I could write, and so it just sort of seemed clear to me at a very early age, that that’s what I did better than anything else. I wrote a lot. I wrote short stories, I’d write poems. I always enjoyed the actual act of writing. I enjoyed expressing myself on paper.”

(On creating Hill Street Blues at MTM): “That was the most creative control I ever had. I had creative autonomy on that show, for the first time. […] Grant Tinker created an amazing company, and the environment was truly unique, in much the same way I hope that the environment of my company is unique, and a reflection of the environment that existed in those days at MTM.”

(On dealing with network censors): ”I’ve had horrible fights (with them), because even though you may have creative control, you still have to deal with broadcast standards. I‘ve been at war with those turkeys ever since I’ve been in television, but I’ve never lost an episode to it. I’ve never had to fundamentally alter an episode.”

(On pushing the envelope with NYPD Blue): ”We were being deserted in droves for cable, and I felt if we didn’t make this kind of show, and get people back in our tent by being more adult, and more contemporary in our use of language, then we were going to be out of business.”

(On trusting your vision): “If you start listening to everybody who’s telling you what’s wrong with what you’re doing, then you end up with the old cliché. You end up with a camel, and a camel is a horse designed by committee. My responsibility is to myself. I trust my judgement, and you’ve got to be true to your own vision.”


 

Steven Bochco was always true to his own vision, and he left behind an innovative body of work to prove it. He also left me with some notes on how to be a better writer. I hope I didn’t let him down.

 
 

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