Steven Bochco, a producer whose boundary-pushing series such as Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue helped define the modern TV drama, has died. He was 74.
Bochco had battled a rare form of leukaemia for several years. He had a transplant in 2014 that was credited with prolonging his life. A family spokesman told the Associated Press that he died in his sleep on Apr 1 from the cancer, but did not release details of a memorial service.
Working with different collaborators, Bochco co-created some of TV’s most popular series for more than 20 years while helping to create the template for modern hour-longs featuring large ensemble casts, serialised storylines and edgy content.
The recipient of numerous industry awards including the Humanitas Prize and Peabody honours, Bochco was nominated for an Emmy 30 times in his capacities as writer and producer, winning 10.
On NYPD Blue, he set out to expand the parameters of what was acceptable on broadcast TV and recalled sitting with then-ABC Entertainment chief Robert Iger – who later became CEO of Walt Disney Co. – drawing naked figures, determining exactly how much body could be shown.
Bochco launched series like Hill Street Blues – a groundbreaking, Emmy-winning cop show – and LA Law for NBC before entering into a landmark 10-series deal with ABC in the 1980s.
The relationship produced clear hits (NYPD Blue, Doogie Howser, M.D.) and notable failures, including the musical police drama Cop Rock and the serialised courtroom drama Murder One, which followed a single murder trial over an entire season.
As proof that Murder One was ahead of its time, Bochco essentially revived it in 2014 under the title Murder In The First for TNT, where it ran for three years.
Bochco wasn’t above engaging in public spats and power struggles, from complaining about his treatment by network execs to tussling with recalcitrant stars. In one of the highest-profile tiffs, his rift with David Caruso in the first season of NYPD Blue led to the actor’s exit, a considerable gamble for a new series. Bochco replaced him with former LA Law star Jimmy Smits, and the series went on to run for 11 years.
Though Bochco often consciously pressed against boundaries and seemed to delight in testing censors, he recalled that the breakthrough storytelling style of Hill Street Blues was born more out of necessity than design.
“We had so many characters that we couldn’t service 10 or 11 characters within the confines of a single episode. So the only way we could really do justice to the size of the world was by creating storylines that spilled over the margins,” he told New York Times.
Bochco also had a way of celebrating his failures. When Cop Rock came to an end after just 11 episodes, what turned out to be the finale incorporated a musical sequence where a fat lady literally sang, signalling its cancellation.
Bochco appeared to relish nettling his critics, saying that the pressure campaign waged against NYPD Blue – which prompted dozens of stations not to air the show when it premiered – ultimately helped the series and turned it into a smash hit.
Steven Ronald Bochco was born in New York, the son of a violin virtuoso (which inspired his production company’s onscreen logo). He attended NYU and subsequently Carnegie Institute of Technology, receiving a degree in theatre.
He started his writing career in the 1960s. His credits included Columbo, with an episode directed by Steven Spielberg. Bochco wrote features like The Movie Maker and Silent Running before he steadfastly focused on TV and created his own shows including Delvecchio, a drama starring Judd Hirsch. Later came Bay City Blues, about a baseball team, which didn’t last.
With Hill Street Blues, Bochco and co-creator Michael Kozoll broke the dramatic mould, featuring a huge ensemble cast and gritty narrative while juggling various subplots.
Beyond his career, Bochco shepherded those of other prominent writers, hiring David Milch on Hill Street Blues and enlisting David E. Kelley – then a Boston lawyer – to work on LA Law.
When the Producers Guild of America honoured Bochco with its David Susskind Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999, his track record of quality programmes was cited as “the standard all television producers strive for”.
For all of his success with police dramas and legal shows, Bochco produced a wide variety of series, from the animated satire Capitol Critters to Public Morals, an edgy comedy on which he collaborated with Jay Tarses that also ran into standards-and-practices problems.
Although successes eluded him in his later years, Bochco remained active and in demand, taking over as showrunner of Commander-In-Chief – a drama starring Geena Davis as the first female US President – and co-creating Over There, a series that focused on soldiers in Iraq and their families back home. Over There, introduced during the ongoing war 2005, drew controversy because of its timing and subject matter.
Bochco also produced the legal drama Raising The Bar that ran for two seasons in 2008 and 2009.
He tried his hand at novels, writing Death By Hollywood, a darkly comic satire with a struggling screenwriter as its protagonist. Bochco’s struggle with leukaemia prompted him to write his autobiography, Truth Is A Total Defense: My Fifty Years In Television, which he self-published in 2016.
Bochco was loyal to his friends – certain actors appeared in his shows time and again – but could also nurse a grudge. He became disenchanted with what he saw as creative interference from the networks and hewed more toward cable.
Bochco’s association with the business extended to his family. His second wife Barbara Bosson, co-starred in Hill Street Blues, and his sister Joanna Frank, had a recurring role on LA Law as the wife of firm partner Douglas Brackman, played by her real-life husband (and thus Bochco’s brother-in-law) Alan Rachins.
Bochco later married Dayna Kalins, a TV executive. His son, Jesse, became a prominent director, working on many of his father’s shows. Bochco was thrice married, the first time to Gabrielle Levin, the second to Bosson. He is survived by his third wife Dayna Kalins, whom he married in 2000, as well as daughter Melissa and sons Jeffrey and Jesse. – Reuters/Brian Lowry