Steve Bochco: From TV To Novel

"There used to be a writer by the name of Merle Miller who wrote that people in Hollywood are always touching you - not because they like you, but because they want to see how soft you are before they eat you alive. He was right," Steve Bochco read from his new book.

A first time novelist is often advised to write what he knows. When that novelist is ten time Emmy winner Bochco, what he knows is Hollywood.

Co-creator of the ground-breaking television shows "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law" and "NYPD Blue," Bochco bites the hand that feeds him with a wry look at the cheesy side of the entertainment industry in "Death by Hollywood."

It's the story of a down-on-his-luck screenwriter who witnesses a murder and rather than report it, decides to write about it.

To write his first novel properly, Bochco had to insinuate himself into the lives of the principals involved in the case, reported Bill Lagattuta.

Being in Hollywood, Bochco set out to write a movie treatment for "Death by Hollywood" until a friend suggested it might make a good novel.

"It's a completely different experience for me," Bochco said. "You get to do this wonderful thing that you could never do when you're writing scripts. You get to digress. You know, you get to be an observer."

And what he observes is a company town with glitter, grit and a cast of characters with faults as deep as San Andreas.

Bochco said everyone's fair game in the book - the agents, the actors, the writers and the studio heads.

"I hope I've looked at it and depicted it with some humor and some affection ultimately, but it's a tough business," Bochco said. "And success is so elusive that most people will do pretty much anything to gain a foothold."

Bochco got his foothold in Hollywood straight out of college. His father was a New York concert violinist. His mother was a painter. Bochco went west to write for such '60s and '70s cop shows as "Ironside," "McMillan and Wife" and "Columbo."

Many fans are impressed with Bochco depictions of cops on his television shows.

"I hope I write them well," he said. "God knows I've spent enough time over the last 30 years meeting them, talking to them, hearing their stories. Cops are fascinating characters, they're fascinating people."

Bochco found his niche as a producer when in 1981 he co-created a cop show unlike any that had gone before "Hill Street Blues."

"The model was some aspect of 'Dragnet' where you go out there, you catch your case, you track a guy, you arrest him, end of story," Bochco explained. "And 'Hill Street' was this messy, funny, tragic world populated by really flawed men and women trying to keep the lid on a garbage pail."

Hill Street Blues — with its hand-held camerawork, multiple story lines and overlapping dialogue — won the Emmy for "Best Drama Series" each of it's first four seasons. And then Bochco was fired by the studio in a budget dispute.

Bochco then did for the lawyer show what he'd done for the police drama. He broke the mold. "L.A. Law" won the "Best Drama" Emmy three times.

"It seemed to me that I could sort of borrow the template of 'Hill Street' and sort of impose it on a law show," Bochco said. "And to go from a gritty, urban environment to sunny southern California and up-scale and good looking people in expensive clothing."

Bochco's glamorous lawyers on the show may have helped law school enrollment that went through the roof.

But with commercial success there was bound to be some commercial failures. Bochco created "Cop Rock," a television musical about police officers that was a flop.

"Some people would probably say I wasn't thinking," Bochco said. "I thought it was a terrific experiment. But most people, I think, were embarrassed by it ... I suppose the way you'd be embarrassed at thanksgiving dinner when your drunk uncle Nathan gets up and sings 'Some Enchanted Evening.'"

There would be other hits such as "Doogie Howser M.D.," and a few misses.

"NYPD Blue," Bochco's current Emmy-winning hit, began with a bang.

"I wanted to do a show that pushed at the bindings of broadcast standards in terms of language and nudity and sexual content," Bochco said. "And thank god we were an instant hit. Because if we had faltered at all, I think we would have been off the network within three weeks."

Dennis Franz has acted on Steven Bochco shows for much of the past two decades, including his award winning role as "NYPD Blue's" Detective Andy Sipowicz.

"When we first came out 10 years ago we were exploring territories that hadn't been explored yet on network television," he said. "Steven has a way of gathering together people that work well together and enjoy being with each other and create wonderful work. You hear about families developing on sets, and we certainly do have a family on 'NYPD Blue.'"

Bochco's son Jesse is a director and producer on the show. Though an HBO drama on marriage wasn't picked up, Bochco is working on two new pilots, and an eleventh season of "NYPD Blue."

At 59, having earned virtually every award the industry offers, Bochco can look out on the television landscape with some perspective.

"Television is a mass pop culture medium," Bochco explained. "And it's a selling medium. And whatever serves that end is gonna be on the tube. That said, I can look over the tapestry of the last dozen, fifteen years, extraordinary shows, memorable shows. Shows that really had an impact on the culture, in spite of the medium, certainly not because of it."

And he had a hand in some of those memorable shows.

"I've been so fortunate in this business, uh, you know, if they boot me out on my rear tomorrow, that's okay, I'll go write novels," Bochco said.

No doubt writing more about what he knows and perhaps who he knows.

"People ask me, 'Gee, you know, is this based on that person,' or whatever, and I say no. It's fiction informed by experience," he said. "A lot of the characters are composites of all kinds of folks that I've known over 30 plus years in the business."
  • Rome Neal

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