Steven Bochco, the visionary television producer who co-created pioneering series like Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue and L.A. Law, died Sunday following a long battle with leukemia. Bochco was 74.
“Steven fought cancer with strength, courage, grace and his unsurpassed sense of humor,” Bochco’s spokesman said in a statement. “He died peacefully in his sleep [at home] with his family close by.”
Bochco, the winner of 10 Primetime Emmy Awards over the course of his groundbreaking career, started off in Hollywood as a screenwriter (The Twilight Zone, Colombo, the 1972 film Silent Running) before joining Mary Tyler Moore’s MTM Enterprises as a producer. Three years later, Bochco would co-create Hill Street Blues.
The police drama, Number 59 on Rolling Stone‘s 100 Greatest TV Shows of All Time list, was instantly acclaimed upon its arrival in 1981. The series received an unprecedented 21 Emmy nominations, winning eight in its debut year including for Outstanding Drama Series. Hill Street Blues would win that award four times over its seven-season run, a record matched later by Bochco’s next major drama series L.A. Law (and subsequently by The West Wing and Mad Men).
Hill Street Blues delivered on Bochco’s boundary-pushing as a producer: To make television an edgier, grittier and more sexually conscious medium, goals which often found Bochco inflaming the network’s Standards and Practices department.
In one episode of Hill Street Blues, a dead man and a live sheep are found in a hotel room, with the implication being the two were in a bestial relationship. “Standards and practices went bullshit,” Bochco told Rolling Stone in a 1988 profile. “It finally narrowed down to a couple key lines of dialogue, where we made an absolute distinction in no uncertain terms that the sheep was female as opposed to … I mean, we didn’t want to imply that the guy was having a homosexual relationship with a sheep. So we made it very clear that at least he had the good taste to be involved with a very attractive female creature.” The episode was ultimately allowed to air.
In the Nineties, Bochco again would push the envelope of decency on network television by controversially broadcasting bare buttocks on NYPD Blue.
“I’m a realist,” Bochco said. “I know that I function in a medium that is not an art medium. It’s not even fundamentally an entertainment medium. It’s basically a selling medium.”
Bochco also helped foster the careers of two more famed executive producers, David E. Kelley (Chicago Hope, Ally McBeal, Big Little Lies) and Deadwood creator David Milch, who also penned one of Hill Street Blues‘ most renowned episodes, “Trial By Fury.” Kelley, an L.A. Law vet, later co-created Doogie Howser M.D. with Bochco, while Milch and Bochco would go on to co-create NYPD Blue, Number 42 on Rolling Stone‘s 100 Greatest TV Shows of All Time list.
“Bochco is a genius,” Milch told Rolling Stone in 1988 profile. “What’s been missed in all the Sturm und Drang involving Steven are the two gifts he has: an extraordinary sense of what works and what doesn’t, as well as a tremendous administrative ability. He is also an extraordinary discoverer of ability — once he’s discovered it, he enjoys seeing it develop independently.”
NYPD Blue‘s first season in 1994 broke Hill Street Blues‘ record for most Emmy nominations for a debut season by receiving 26 nods, winning eight.
Even Bochco’s television misses were noteworthy for their risk-taking: Cop Rock, a drama that reimagined the police procedural as a musical, lasted only 11 episodes but is enshrined on countless Worst TV Shows lists, even though the series somewhat predicted the future of television. The primetime animated series Capitol Critters, about mice and roaches living in Washington D.C., only lasted for two months on ABC before it was canceled.
Steven Spielberg said of Bochco in a statement to Variety, “Steve was a friend and a colleague starting with the first episode of Columbo that he wrote and I directed. 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.”