Steven Bochco obituary

Television producer and writer who broke new ground with the US police drama series Hill Street Blues

“Armed robbery in progress, see Surplus Store corner of People’s Drive and 124th street.” It is hard to overstate the excitement in viewers when those words opened each episode of Hill Street Blues. Its creator, Steven Bochco, who has died of cancer aged 74, was arguably the most influential producer of television drama of the past half-century. Hill Street Blues, his first major success, changed the very nature of cop shows.

It influenced all episodic drama; in its wake came St Elsewhere, which was conceived as Hill Street Blues in a hospital and spawned Casualty in Britain. Among Bochco’s later hits were LA Law, Doogie Howser, MD, and most notably NYPD Blue, which marked an effort by network television to capture the more adult territory being claimed by cable’s episodic drama.

Bochco was notable not only for his creativity as a writer and producer, but for his ability to navigate the ruthless business side of Hollywood. “In the end, it’s not about writing or producing,” he said. “It’s about selling.” Working with Bochco was the spur to many careers in television for writer-producers, notably David Milch (Deadwood) and David E Kelley (Ally McBeal).

Bochco was born in New York, where his father, Rudolph, a Russian immigrant, was a concert violinist. His mother, Mimi (nee Nathanson), emigrated from Lithuania when she was 14; her son described her as “an artist, designer and hustler”. Steven specialised in singing at the High School of Music and Art, then after a year at New York University transferred to the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now part of Carnegie-Mellon University) where he studied theatre. Among his classmates were Charles Haid, Bruce Weitz, Michael Tucker and Barbara Bosson, all of whom would act in his shows; Bosson would become his second wife.

Steven Bochco in his office in Santa Monica, California, in 2016. ‘In the end, it’s not about writing or producing,’ he said. ‘It’s about selling.’
Steven Bochco in his office in Santa Monica, California, in 2016. ‘In the end, it’s not about writing or producing,’ he said. ‘It’s about selling.’ Photograph: Chris Pizzello/AP

In the summers he worked at Universal in Hollywood. He was promised a job after graduation, and the day after he graduated in 1966, he and Tucker drove to Los Angeles. His first credit came on The Movie Maker (1967), when he added an hour of backstory to Rod Serling’s 1964 teleplay A Slow Fade to Black. He co-wrote the film The Counterfeit Killer (1968); its production manager Abby Singer would be the head of production for Hill Street Blues.

In 1969 he co-created and wrote episodes of The Bold Ones: The New Doctors, and co-wrote Douglas Trumbull’s 1972 sci-fi cult classic Silent Running. But he was busiest on television, writing and producing a TV film, Lieutenant Schuster’s Wife (1972), and writing a TV adaptation of Double Indemnity (1973). He scripted for series including McMillan and Wife and Columbo, for which he became story editor, and received his first Emmy nomination for the episode Murder By the Book (1971), directed by a young Steven Spielberg.

In 1978 he moved to MTM (Mary Tyler Moore) Enterprises, where he was promised more scope for producing. And when the NBC television president Fred Silverman asked MTM for a gritty crime drama like Paul Newman’s 1981 film Fort Apache: The Bronx, Bochco and Michael Kozoll came up with Hill Street Blues.

Set in a nameless rust-belt city, it was seen by Bochco as a mix of “intensely powerful melodrama and slapstick farcical clowning”. It broke ground in the size of its ensemble cast, which was based firmly on a family structure. Sgt Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad) presided like a grandparent over a precinct where Capt Frank Furillo (Daniel J Travanti) was the father and the prosecutor Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel), his girlfriend, the mother figure for a group of unruly children. Bosson, by now married to Bochco, played Furillo’s angry ex-wife.

The multiplicity of personal storylines meant that episodes were open-ended; the beauty of the writing was that audiences cared for such a large cast. And with its use of handheld cameras, off-camera sound and fast-paced editing, Hill Street Blues set the look for dozens of shows which followed.

It was not a ratings hit, becoming the lowest-rated programme ever renewed for a second year, which was because it was a critical smash. In its first season it was nominated for 21 Emmys, winning eight, including best series. It would win best series in each of its first five seasons.

Hill Street Blues, 1985

But by that fifth season in 1985, the MTM boss Grant Tinker had left to run NBC, and Bochco came under pressure to cut the budget and the number of storylines. He offered to leave, and the company accepted his offer. He moved to 20th Century Fox, and, with Terry Louise Fisher, created LA Law (1986) for NBC, where it was so successful it took Hill Street’s coveted time slot.

LA Law was, Bochco said, the “polar opposite thematically” to Hill Street, where the failure of the system led to despair; here it led to the dream life. As well as starring his college friend Tucker, and Tucker’s wife, Jill Eikenberry, it featured Bochco’s sister, Joanna Frank.

Bochco and Fisher next created Hooperman (1987), a comedic cop show. That year, Bochco was offered the presidency of CBS television’s entertainment division, but instead signed a deal with ABC to deliver 10 shows, six in the first eight years of the contract.

ABC’s first shows were Doogie Howser, MD, Cop Rock, and the animated Capitol Critters, about a mouse who lived in the White House. When ABC’s president Bob Iger complained that he wanted “another Hill Street Blues and got a 16-year-old doctor and cops who sing”, Bochco proposed NYPD Blue – a darker and more adult version of Hill Street. He and the co-creator, Milch, refused to tone down the scripts, and when the dispute went public the outcry delayed the series by a year. When the show debuted in 1993, a quarter of ABC’s 225 affiliate stations refused to air it. Perhaps because of the notoriety, it became a huge hit, starring Dennis Franz as Andy Sipowicz, a thinly disguised version of his Hill Street character, Norman Buntz.

ABC wanted to challenge the growing domination of subscription channels on cable TV, but Bochco’s other shows for them largely disappointed, apart from Murder One (1997), which broke ground by tracking one case for an entire season. He also reprised NYPD Blue with Brooklyn South and moved to hospital drama with City of Angels, both for CBS. Over There (2005), for Fox’s cable channel FX, was the first show about America’s conflicts in the Middle East, but lasted only a season.

Bochco spent a season as showrunner on Commander in Chief, trying to rework the show in which Geena Davis plays the US president, and did two more legal series for TNT, Raising the Bar (2008) and Murder in the First (2014).

Bochco also wrote a crime novel, Death By Hollywood (2001). In 2016 he self-published a memoir, Truth is a Total Defense.

He is survived by his third wife, Dayna Kalins, whom he married in 2000, a son, Sean, from his first marriage to Gabrielle Levin, which ended in divorce, a daughter, Melissa, and son, Jesse, from his marriage to Bosson, which ended in divorce, and by his sister.

• Steven Bochco, television writer and producer, born 16 December 1943; died 1 April 2018


Michael Carlson

The GuardianTramp

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