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Bochco still marching to his own drummer

Veteran producer, whose shows changed television, is working on a show about a Bronx public defender.

August 24, 2007|Verne Gay | Newsday

The man sitting in the big comfy chair in the big comfy office in Santa Monica looks familiar and sounds familiar but -- in some hard-to-define way -- he is not familiar at all. He turns 64 this December yet remains youthful in a way that only California and good genes can confer. His hair is gray. His skin is unwrinkled.

But what is so different about Steven Bochco may be this: He is reflective and even philosophical. "I'm not chasing the way I used to," says someone who spent four decades in the chase and changed television in the process.

There is an autumnal air about Bochco.

And Bochco, you should understand, is not an autumnal sort of guy.

He is not chasing, nor is he doing much producing. Bochco, co-creator and executive producer of such heralded series as "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law" and "NYPD Blue," is shooting a pilot for TNT titled "Raising the Bar." It's about a public defender in the Bronx and stars Jane Kaczmarek and Mark-Paul Gosselaar.

But after that, zip.

An association with ABC that dates back to 1987 ends shortly. he has little interest in working for the networks -- too much micromanaging -- though admits the feeling may be mutual.

"I don't think there's a big appetite for the stuff I like to do," he says.

In the argot of the trade, Bochco is a reality-based drama producer in a business now crawling with "high-concept" fantasists who draw their inspiration from comic books. "You're looking at 400-year-old cops and detectives who are vampires. . . . It's fine. I don't have any disdain for it. It's just not what I do."

What Bochco has done well are cop and legal dramas. He's arguably the most successful drama producer in TV history -- nine Emmys, a pair of Humanitas prizes and a penchant for pushing the boundaries of content and language, which made him a controversial figure at the outset of "NYPD Blue's" run in 1993. (The word "blue," of course, was a double-entendre for the uniform of cops as well as their language and off-duty behavior.)

Dennis Franz, "NYPD Blue's" Andy Sipowicz and a Bochco associate going back to "Hill Street Blues" in 1981, said in a recent phone interview, "Steven is very much a realist and he never tried to fool anybody with anything. What you see is what you get, and he's very honest with himself and with other people around him to a fault. But . . . he's acknowledged [to me] that when you get older, the fires don't burn as strong, and the drive may not be as strong as it was. I'm experiencing the same thing."

Another of Bochco's longtime friends, James Sikking -- the veteran actor who played Lt. Howard Hunter on "Hill Street" and starred in half a dozen other Bochco shows -- says, "I would kick his . . . if he were bitter. Come on -- Steven has had extraordinary success and . . . I would never let him fall into that category. You'd have to be a really shallow . . . and he is not that at all -- not that at all."

For the record, the guy in the big comfy chair doesn't seem bitter at all. He seems pretty happy, in fact, but he is also bluntly pragmatic. He's gotten older, and audience tastes have changed. They're not his tastes.

"I remember when I was in my 20s working at Universal and at 3:30 in the afternoon, all these big writer-producers would congregate in front of the commissary and gossip. I was the kid, and I'd pick up pearls of wisdom [as] I circled the periphery of this group and hear stuff like 'This business stinks. . . . It used to be fun and it's not fun anymore, blah blah blah. . . ' I'd think to myself, 'I'm having fun. If you're not having fun, there's the door. . . .'

"I always promised myself that if I ever got to be that person, I'd stop doing it," adding. "I really don't feel like banging heads with the current generation of network-runners."

Nor perhaps they with him. Bochco famously jousted with ABC during "NYPD Blue's" run over everything from language to scheduling. It happened again when the network asked him in late 2005 to take over "Commander in Chief," a drama starring Geena Davis as the first female U.S. president. It had gotten off to a good start in the ratings but then began to sink.

He brawled with Davis over the show's direction: "She was adamant that her character, the president, had to essentially solve every problem presented to her in every episode so that she was heroic." He insisted that the commander in chief should be fallible.

He brawled with ABC because he demanded the network give him the room to fix the show, "but inevitably the micromanaging became so distracting and so horrendously time-consuming that I began to understand why the thing had become so chaotic to begin with." (Bochco replaced creator Rod Lurie, who had reportedly fallen behind on production, forcing ABC to air repeats.)

"Oh yeah, they wanted me out. They couldn't stand me. It did a great deal of damage, probably, to my relationship with that network. It was not fun."

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