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Bochco on His Own : Veteran Producer's New Firm Bows With 'Doogie Howser'

September 14, 1989|DIANE HAITHMAN | Times Staff Writer

Forget "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law" and "Hooperman." Steven Bochco is worried about producing his first TV show.

Never mind his illustrious, Emmy-studded past. The veteran writer-producer's newest creation, ABC's "Doogie Howser, M.D."--a quirky half-hour about a child prodigy who zipped over the academic hurdles to become a physician at age 16--is the first new show of the 10-series deal Bochco struck with ABC in November, 1987.

And it feels like the very first time.

"The stakes are higher, I guess, on the first one--you want it to be a credible effort, because there are a lot of people who will be watching," Bochco said at his airy new production headquarters--informally dubbed the "Bochco Building"--on the 20th Century Fox lot. The show debuts Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. and then will be seen Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m.

In an era when multiple-series deals with networks have fallen out of vogue, Bochco believes the success or failure of his first few series could affect the future of such deals for other producers.

"I would hope that, in the course of the next few years, ABC is going to look as though they were very smart," Bochco said. "If we don't do well, I guess I don't look so smart."

In 1987, Bochco turned down an offer from CBS to become president of its TV entertainment division and chose instead to accept ABC's offer of a six-year, seven-series deal with three more non-exclusive commitments over a flexible period of several years. At the time, Bochco's attorney said ABC paid Bochco in the ballpark of $10 million.

A few months later, Bochco announced that he would produce the 10 ABC series at Fox--for whom he already was making "L.A. Law"--and that Fox would get worldwide distribution rights to the shows.

If ABC doesn't like a Bochco series, he can sell it elsewhere, and Bochco can also take a series to another network first--but such a decision would result in substantial penalties for whichever party breaks the agreement.

"I like that aspect of the deal, because it keeps everybody on their toes," Bochco said. "Quite honestly, I don't see that happening. We were in easy accord on this first one. We're both a little nervous about the second one, just because it's an odd, different sort of hour."

Bochco, grinning widely, refuses any further details about his second ABC series, except to say: "Well, I don't know how odd it is, but it's complicated, and I'm not sure it's feasible, and nobody's ever done anything quite like it, so we both had anxieties about it for different reasons."

Anxiety doesn't seem to be leaving Bochco much the worse for wear these days, however. Although the "Bochco Building" is still so brand-new it has entrances and exits that don't lead anywhere, it seems more like a resort hotel than an office complex: "I wanted it to feel like a home, not like every building on every studio lot I've ever worked on, a warren of little hallways," Bochco said with a shudder.

And even with new-show jitters, Bochco seems as happy as a housecat here. Even though it's a new project, "Doogie Howser" remains all in the family, sort of: Scott Goldstein, producer of "L.A. Law" from 1986 to 1989, has moved over to produce "Doogie" this season; David Kelley, taking over from Bochco as "L.A. Law" executive producer, co-created "Doogie" and will serve as a creative consultant, as will Rick Wallace, now co-executive producer of "L.A. Law." Actor James B. Sikking, who portrays Doogie's father, is a "Hill Street Blues" veteran.

Bochco said his idea to develop a series about a child prodigy existed long before the deal with ABC. Bochco's father was a child prodigy who went on to become a concert violinist. An animated version of a 50-year-old photograph of Bochco's father playing the violin is part of the Steven Bochco Productions logo, which will appear at the end of each "Doogie Howser" episode.

"When I was growing up, he was just my dad," Bochco said. "He was 43 when I was born, so by the time I was a young child, my dad was 50 years old. Prodigy didn't mean anything to me. All I knew was I had a dad who was a violinist--that's what he did professionally.

"But he was also a guy who was a gifted portrait painter, self-taught, a wonderful architect, self-taught, a wonderful designer and master-builder, a voracious reader. That is my enduring memory of my dad, with a book in his hands. He audited medical school when he was a 20-year-old kid, because he had a bunch of friends who were medical students."

Bochco's interest was solidified by a magazine article on such children. "I thought, what if a kid's prodigious ability, through a certain set of circumstances, were focused almost obsessively on medicine?"

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