LOS ANGELES, April 2, (RTRS): 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 been battling a rare form of leukemia for several years. He had a transplant in late 2014 that was credited with prolonging his life. A family spokesman told the Associated Press that he died in his sleep on Sunday after a battle with 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 hourlongs featuring large ensemble casts, serialized storylines and edgy content.
The recipient of numerous industry awards, including the Humanitas Prize and Peabody honors, Bochco was nominated for an Emmy 30 times in his capacities as producer and writer, winning 10.
On “NYPD Blue,” he consciously set out to expand the parameters of what was acceptable on broadcast television, and he recalled sitting with then-ABC Entertainment chief Robert Iger — who went on to become CEO of the Walt Disney Co. — drawing naked figures, determining exactly how much of the body could be shown.
Bochco launched such series as “Hill Street Blues” — a ground-breaking, Emmy-winning cop show — and “LA Law” for NBC before entering into a landmark 10-series deal with ABC in the late 1980s. The relationship produced some clear hits (“NYPD Blue,” “Doogie Howser, MD”) and notable failures, including the musical police drama “Cop Rock” and the serialized courtroom drama “Murder One,” which followed a single murder trial over an entire season. As virtual proof the latter 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.
Asked how he could risk gambling on a musical like “Cop Rock” given the richness of his ABC pact, Bochco once joked, “With my deal, how could I not?”
Bochco wasn’t above engaging in public spats and power struggles, from complaining about his treatment by network executives to tussling with recalcitrant stars. In one of the highest-profile tiffs, his rift with David Caruso during the first season of “NYPD Blue” led to the actor’s exit, a considerable gamble for a series in its first season. Bochco replaced him with former “LA Law” co-star Jimmy Smits, and the program went on to run for 11 years.
Although Bochco often consciously pressed against boundaries and seemed to delight in testing censors, he recalled that the breakthrough storytelling style of “Hill Street” was born more out of necessity than design.
“We had so many characters that we realized we couldn’t service 10 or 11 characters within the confines of a single episode, so the only way that we could really do justice to the size of the world was by creating storylines that spilled over the margins,” he told the New York Times.
The producer also had a way of celebrating even his failures. When “Cop Rock” came to an end after a mere 11 episodes, what turned out to be the final episode incorporated a musical sequence where a fat lady literally sang, signaling its cancellation.
Bochco also appeared to relish nettling his critics, saying that the pressure campaign waged against “NYPD Blue” – which helped prompt dozens of stations not to air the show when it premiered – ultimately helped promote the series and turned it into a 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 theater.
He started his writing career in the 1960s. Credits included “Columbo,” with an episode directed by Steven Spielberg, who also came up through the ranks at Universal Television.
Bochco wrote such features as “The Movie Maker” and “Silent Running” before he began to steadfastly focus on television and create 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 mold, featuring a huge ensemble cast and gritty narrative while juggling various subplots. NBC was in the ratings cellar at the time, but its patience with prestige programs like “Hill Street” and “Cheers” was rewarded after “The Cosby Show” premiered in 1984, turning its Thursday lineup into a ratings juggernaut.
Beyond his own career, Bochco helped shepherd along those of several other prominent writers, hiring David Milch on “Hill Street” and enlisting David E. Kelley — then a Boston lawyer — to work on “L.A. Law.”
When the Producers Guild of America honored Bochco with its David Susskind lifetime achievement award in 1999, his track record of quality programs was cited as “the standard all television producers strive for.”
Longtime friends and colleagues such as Steven Spielberg hailed Bochco’s long run and legacy in the industry.
“Steve was a friend and a colleague starting with the first episode of ‘Columbo’ that he wrote and I directed,” Spielberg said in a statement. “We have supported and inspired each other ever since and through many deep mutual friendships we have stayed connected for 47 years. I will miss Steve terribly.”
Other entertainment biz figures took to social media to pay tribute.
“He was an amazing talent,” wrote Mark Altman, co-executive producer of “The Librarians.” “He changed television forever.”
Showrunner Marti Noxon had kind words for Bochco, recalling that her surprise when he reached out to her after she made a break with ABC.
Writer and “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” creator Nell Scovell wrote, “The first TV drama I remember watching was ‘Hill Street Blues.’ I loved it so much and only later realized it set the standard. Thank you, Steven Bochco.”
“NYPD Blue” actress Sharon Lawrence remembered Bochco. “It was his vision, style, taste and tenacity that made me love watching TV. It was being on #NYPDBlue that made me love working on TV. Thank you and rest well Steven Bochco. You were one of a kind.”
“It was 30 years ago, but hard to overstate how Steven Bochco and ‘LA Law’ influenced the way people saw LA during this golden age for the city,” wrote L.A. Times’ Shelby Grad.
“RIP Steve Bochco, creator of Hill Street Blues, a great & transformative show that blew my mind,” posted New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum.
Former USA Today TV critic Robert Bianco wrote that “every great modern drama owes ‘Hill Street’ a debt.”