Monday, April 02, 2018

RIP Steven Bochco

Television has lost a GIANT. There’s just no way to overstate the impact Steven Bochco had on the medium. All the David Chase’s and Matthew Weiner’s and Vince Gilligan’s and other masterful storytellers who created series that elevated the TV drama to an art owe a huge debt to Steven Bochco. And I bet each and every one would be the first to agree.

HILL STREET BLUES was revolutionary. Viewers had never seen a TV drama that complex, that gripping, that real. To be honest, most viewers didn’t know what to make of it at the start. It took the unflagging support of Grant Tinker, who presided over NBC, to keep the show on the air despite it’s paltry initial ratings.

Once America did catch on, the show received the appreciation, ratings, and Emmys it deserved. When CHEERS premiered in September of 1982 we were the lead-in to HILL STREET BLUES. Talk about “the Best Night of Television on television.”

I’m sure there are a thousand tributes. More groundbreaking shows like NYPD BLUE and LA LAW followed. Bochco also discovered and nurtured some pretty astounding writers like David Milch and David E. Kelley. Bochco pushed envelopes, he challenged networks, and he challenged audiences.

And all the while, he was a mensch.

That’s an important key. Without naming names, there are a number of these brilliant show creators that followed who were horrible to work for. They’d pummel their writers, take all the credit they could, and created a toxic atmosphere. Not Steven Bochco. He supported writers, protected writers, and allowed them to blossom.

I can’t say I was a friend of Steven Bochco’s. I was, at best, an acquaintance. We had seen each other enough at functions, or when we both worked at 20th Century Fox that he knew who I was. The first time I met him was when David Isaacs and I were nominated for a WGA Award for an episode of OPEN ALL NIGHT we had written. By the time the nominations were announced the show had been cancelled and the production company disbanded. We had to pay for our own tickets. We were placed at the HILL STREET BLUES table. Needless to say, none of the HILL STREET BLUES writers knew who we were or that OPEN ALL NIGHT had even existed. But Steven was warm and welcoming. He was the first to console us when we lost and the first to congratulate us when we won our Emmys. (Of course he had just won one too.)

The last time I saw him was a year ago. I was recording my interview segment for the CNN documentary series, THE ‘90s. Steven followed me. I remember thinking he looked very thin. But he was his usual chipper self. I didn’t know he was sick. Perhaps others who were more on the inside did, but I had no idea. If you watch that segment (and CNN reruns it a lot, God bless ‘em), see for yourself. But anytime I was with Steven Bochco I knew I was in the presence of a giant. He leaves behind a legacy of excellence, vision, innovation, conviction, and inspiration. I wish I had had the chance to work for him.

37 comments :

VP81955 said...

You're more than a good enough writer, Ken, and I hope you're merely being modest. Don't short-change yourself because you're associated with comedy, as so many in and outside of this industry do.

McAlvie said...

HSB was an amazing show for its time. It was intelligent, real, gritty ... not a trendy anti-hero drama or just another car chase cop show. I'm not knocking the latter; sometimes you don't want too much reality, you just want to be entertained. But HSB gave us good guys who were also just regular guys doing a hard job, and the storylines were complex. The camera work was groundbreaking, too. I don't even know anything about that stuff, but I do remember thinking at the time that it played a roll in the show's sense of realism. Perhaps someone here who knows about the technical aspects can better explain it.

davidschwartzmft.com said...

When I watch dramatic shows from the 70's or early 80's they all have a very dated feel to them. Some of them are enjoyable (still love Mannix), but you can tell you're watching something from another era. However, when I revisited Hill Street Blues it still felt current. Even though it was done 35 years ago, the way it was shot, the types of stories, just about everything could be lifted right out of the time and plopped into today. With our society changing as quickly as it has during the past few decades it's a remarkable feat to be able to have created a TV show that seems as fresh today as it did all those years ago. His shows created a whole new way of story-telling on television and he was indeed a giant of the medium.

jcs said...

When HILL STREET BLUES finally found its way on German TV screens I was hooked. A diverse cast of colourful characters and excellent scripts made most episodes standouts. Instead of a clean-shaven and suave detective we got Belker biting suspects, instead of a veteran sergeant emanating gravitas we got Esterhaus dating women probably a third his age and instead of a captain running a tight ship we got Furillo trying very hard every week to herd cats. And actress Veronica Hamel never needed to lose any clothes to build up sexual tension. A few deep looks by her and a few clever lines from Bocho's writing staff were all that was needed to have this teenager's imagination run wild. Even though I am a cancer researcher, I am willing to forgive Hamel's participation in cigarette ads.

Interestingly, the NYT reported that Bocho enjoyed a good fight with Standards & Practices every now and then. Episode titles were never aired, so Bocho just tried to amuse his staff (and to annoy S&P) by creating titles such as "Moon Over Uranus". Bocho also kept problematic actors like Kiel Martin on the roster, despite all the extracurricular mayhem he and others caused.

Rock Golf said...

With all the reboots of comedy series, I'd love to see a TV-MA version of Hill Street Blues come back. It could be amazing. Put it on HBO or Netflix or anything but the networks.

Peter said...

He was also ahead of his time with Cop Rock, the musical cop drama. It was a failure when it aired but I remember enjoying it. Now, in the era of Glee and High School Musical etc, it would have been a smash hit.

Daniel said...

As revolutionary as Bochco's shows were, do you think they still hold up? Is he more like D.W. Griffith (pioneer whose work comes across as dated today) or Orson Welles (pioneer whose work stands the test of time)?

VincentS said...

A great loss. He was one of my writing heroes. HILL STREET BLUES opened my eyes to the potential of dramatic television.

Tudor Queen said...

I agree that he was a giant. Every Thursday night, as soon as HSB finished, my cousin and I (who lived on opposite coasts for most of its run) were on the phone discussing the episode. It lost a little steam the last couple of years but was still one of the best series on the air - an unbeatable combination of writing, acting, and production talent.

As Peter, above, said, Bochco was ahead of his time. I was a huge fan of his series "Murder One", which eked out two seasons (the second only getting the go-ahead after he made major changes to the cast and format) but was a forerunner of huge hits like "24" in its first-season focus on one capital murder case from beginning to end. It also featured one of Stanley Tucci's finest tv performances.

I'm grateful to Mr. Bochco for treating audiences as intelligent people capable of nuance, and for introducing me to a wide range of talent in front of and behind the camera.

tavm said...

As a showrunner, he was on both sides of the replacement spectrum: He was replaced on "Hill Street Blues" by Jeffrey Lewis and David Milch (both of whom were previously working under him) and he replaced the creator/showrunner, Rod Lurie, of the short lived "Commander-in-Chief" in the middle of its only season. "HSB" lasted two more seasons after Lewis and Milch created Det. Norman Buntz, "CIC" was quickly axed a few eps after Bochco took over. Still, he leaves a fine legacy of innovative TV shows behind...

Johnny Walker said...

I read a great quote from him today:

“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.”

Dennis' fan said...

Hill Street and NYPD Blue air daily on a channel called Heroes and Icons. Hill was fantastic, Blue is even better. LA Law was also a must watch in our house. Doogie Howser was pretty good though I seldom saw it in first run, but occasionally see it now on Antenna TV. He was, still is, a giant!

Cowboy Surfer said...

I was 13 when I saw the Hill Street pilot. I was blown away. I was always checking the ratings in the LA Times. WTF am I the only one watching this show. I was relieved when it finally grabbed hold.

CHEERS with HILL STREET BLUES on Thursday nights was the best.

Michael said...

So much great stuff. Daniel asked about stuff holding up--NYPD Blue seems to me to do so in reruns. But that may be because Bochco and Dennis Franz deserve this: in Andy Sipowicz, they may have created the greatest character in TV history, and certainly one of the funniest ones. Seriously. Franz is a brilliant comic actor. To anyone who loves NYPD Blue as I do, you will know why I say that from this line: "Can you honestly tell me the difference between cow meat and man meat?"

Eric J said...

I remember the first episode of Hill St. especially the first scene like it was yesterday. At the end, which came too soon, I sat back and said to myself, "Wow, what the hell was that?" I was hooked. I haven't seen the series since it first ran, but I can still probably name all the major characters. Outstanding storytelling.

MikeN said...

I remember how much they promoted his name with Murder One, asking people to tape ER to watch this.

TNT essentially remade the show recently.

Tudor Queen said...

I agree that he was a giant. Every Thursday night, as soon as HSB finished, my cousin and I (who lived on opposite coasts for most of its run) were on the phone discussing the episode. It lost a little steam the last couple of years but was still one of the best series on the air - an unbeatable combination of writing, acting, and production talent.

As Peter, above, said, Bochco was ahead of his time. I was a huge fan of his series "Murder One", which eked out two seasons (the second only getting the go-ahead after he made major changes to the cast and format) but was a forerunner of huge hits like "24" in its first-season focus on one capital murder case from beginning to end. It also featured one of Stanley Tucci's finest tv performances.

Pete Grossman said...

Was fortunate enough to see a preview of LA Law at the Paley Center for Media (called the Museum for Television and Radio at the time) hosted by Steve Bochco, wherein he spoke about the show and took questions after the screening. All were enthralled and I had the opportunity to say to him, "Man, this is gonna fly. Its gonna go through the roof." Knowing the precariousness of the industry, he replied with a cautiously optimistic "I hope so, we'll see." Glad it came to be as it was groundbreaking for its time.

estiv said...

You’ve often talked about the importance of theme songs. I’d like to think that Bochco was the person who chose the Hill Street Blues theme, because it is perfect: it starts off slowly and quietly, then gradually builds into something stronger, then finishes cleanly. It seems to describe an emotional arc from sadness to acceptance to resolution, which of course is the journey that the characters went through regularly.

https://youtu.be/PjVelAcJSY4

Roger Owen Green said...

I was looking at videos and noticed that there were certain people, including Michelle Greene, James McDaniel, Michael Warren, Barbara Bosson, and of course Dennis Franz who were cast in more than one of his shows.

Brian said...

Great shows, nice tribute, Ken.

Johnny Walker said...

Re: Theme music. He apparently told Mike Post that the theme to LA Law had to build from the sound of a car trunk shutting. He was obviously very involved at every level, and it's nice to see that he wasn't afraid to take big chances and fall flat on his face (see Cop Rock).

Buttermilk Sky said...

A creator of real originality. I can even forgive him casting his wife Barbara Bosson as the first Mrs. Furillo.

gottacook said...

During some NBC program in early summer 1981, after Hill Street Blues' first half-season had ended, I heard the following voice-over during an ad break: "Hill Street Blues! Renewed for fall!" This was months before the series' Emmy award nominations for that season were announced. I don't recall any other instance when a network essentially broadcast the message "We know not too many of you are watching, but we've really got something special here." And indeed they did.

Dr Loser said...

@Johnny Walker: Great quote. I'll bear in mind Mr Bochco's advice from now on.

Ken: You missed out Joss Whedon, who also gave an effusive tribute.

And finally: "HEY! Let's be careful out there!"

Dr Loser said...

Oh, and story arcs. Story arcs over any number of episodes that the story arc needs. Story arcs intertwined with other story arcs.

Genius.

Mike Bloodworth said...

HILL STREET BLUES was a little too intense for me when it debuted. I had to grow into it. I did enjoy NYPD BLUE, however. Although I must admit that I was initially drawn in by the promise of brief nudity. (Since cut out in syndication.) I have a personal story about MURDER ONE. I was an extra on that show. Here's the funny part. I was called for jury duty, but got out for a "financial hardship." I said that since extra work was my primary source of income I had to be available for work. Ironically, my very next job was as a JUROR on MURDER ONE. I worked two days. I guess it was some sort of karmic payback. And even though I didn't serve on a REAL jury I count it, unofficially. I also met Bochco's then wife, Barbara Bosson. I can't remember if she was a regular cast member or doing a guest shot, but she was very nice. R.I.P. Steven.
M.B.

MikeKPa. said...

Reading how Grant Tinker stuck with HSB despite poor ratings, similar to what Bill Paley did for THE WALTONS, you wonder how many shows that might have been classics never got the chance to find its audience.

Dr Loser said...

You know what?
I'm going to watch the first episode of Hill Street Blues again right now.
It's late, I've got half a pack of cigarettes, two gallons in the tank ... let's do it!"
Too many obituaries, too much sadness. For Steven Bochco? Fire that baby up! Remember the Good Times!

Dr Loser said...

Class Report:
Pretty darned good.
Thank you, Mr Bochco. Thank you for everything.

Tudor Queen said...

To Mike Bloodworth -

Barbara Bosson was indeed a regular on "Murder One" - she played senior ADA Miriam Grasso who, for most of the season, led the prosecution of Neil Avedon. She received an Emmy nomination for the season, but lost to Tyne Daly for "Christy". I thought she was great in the role, showing that a DA in a defense-oriented courtroom drama could be smart, honorable and dedicated - and even friendly towards defense attorneys in a reasonable way.

BTW, did you meet Stanley Tucci or Jason Gedrick? Inquiring minds...

Steve Lanzi (formerly known as qdpsteve) said...

Great tribute, Ken. Sad that Bochco is gone. I was personally still hoping he would make a comeback with some new shows. You could always count on his episodes being entertaining, thought-provoking and memorable, and today's writers such as Aaron Sorkin could learn *so much* from him, it's not even funny.

Interesting trivia about Bochco: he helped write the 1972 sci-fi theatrical film with Bruce Dern, "Silent Running," along with another then-up-and-comer named... Michael Cimino. I always wanted to ask SB if he still had any kind of relationship with Cimino, after the Deer Hunter became such a controversial hit and Heaven's Gate became the legendary all-time box office bomb it's known as being.

Mike Bloodworth said...

T.Q. Unfortunately no. Extras are always told to not talk to the actors. However, B.B. was sitting by the holding area and interacted with us. Although, she was trying to study her lines so, she couldn't talk that much. Otherwise, no contact with any of the other stars.
M.B.

David Arnott said...

Loved Hill Street Blues.
Enjoyed LA Law.
Enjoyed Hooperman.
Loved the first few seasons of NYPD Blue
Loved Murder One.
Enjoyed Murder in the First.

And before all that, in 1975, he wrote a damn fine episode of Columbo, Season 1, Ep 3: Murder by the Book, starring Jack Cassidy as a mystery writer... and directed by this new kid, Steven Spielberg.

What a career.

Kosmo13 said...

Now we'll probably never get to see a continuation of the "Richie Brockelman, Private Eye" series.

Diane D. said...

Hill Street Blues will always be on my list of top 10 favorite TV Shows of all time. It had some of the most memorable characters I have ever encountered. One of my favorites was Howard Hunter—always ready to go to war; so hilarious, and it wasn’t even a comedy. The actor’s name was James Sikking, I think. The cast was huge and just wonderful.
RIP Mr. Bochco

MikeN said...

Tudor Queen, Stanley Tucci's #1 all-time is his appearance on Monk, playing Daniel-Day Lewis playing Monk. So well done, I was mad at the comedy of the show at the end.