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Steven Bochco Dies At 74. Created 'Hill Street Blues,' 'NYPD Blue'



Many people alive in the 1980s knew that tune, and many people born since likely know it, the theme to "Hill Street Blues," one of the hits produced by Steven Bochco, who died Sunday of leukemia at age 74. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans joins us now. Hi there, Eric.


INSKEEP: I guess we should just recall that Bochco was, at his peak, in a very different era of television. Just three networks, essentially, and half the country might see a single show and sometimes it was his show.

DEGGANS: Yeah. And it was also a more restrictive environment. They were very careful about what kinds of things you could talk about on television, and they were very - a lot of the shows were very formulaic. And that's where he pushed the boundaries as a TV producer.

INSKEEP: OK. So how did he push the boundaries?

DEGGANS: Well, you know, let's start out by talking about his life. He was a New York native. He spent his early career working as a writer and editor on these 1970s shows like "Ironside" and "Columbo," and he even helped create this cop show called "Paris" with James Earl Jones. But in 1981, he co-created, wrote and produced the police drama "Hill Street Blues," and that became one of the most influential dramas on TV. It was notable for these storylines that were grittier and a little more morally ambiguous than some of the stuff you'd see on network TV back then. You'd look at shows like "Homicide: Life On The Street" or "ER," and you'd see the influence of "Hill Street." It started out at the bottom of the ratings, as a matter of fact. But after its first year, it won a bunch of Emmy Awards, and after its first season, it became a big hit.

INSKEEP: Was it hard in the 1980s to get TV executives to sign onto that more morally ambiguous, I guess we might say, more realistic portrayal of life?

DEGGANS: For sure. And Bochco just developed this reputation for going to battle for the TV shows that he believed in. After "Hill Street," he went on to create "L.A. Law," which was this provocative, kind of soapy drama about West Coast lawyers. And then he created the quintessential cop show of the 1990s, which was "NYPD Blue." And this was a show, it got its name from the nudity and the explicit scenes that they put on air to kind of compete with racier cable TV dramas. And he was always fighting with the censors over whether he could use curse words. They used the N word in a notable episode. And he was always pushing back to say, we've got to compete with cable, we've got to be more racy, we've got to be more experimental.

INSKEEP: Because this was a period where the three networks were beginning to give way to dozens and dozens, and eventually hundreds, of channels. Where does another show fit into this - "Doogie Howser, M.D."?

DEGGANS: (Laughter). OK. So this was an interesting show. Bochco also created a lot of shows that were outside of the cop or legal drama area, and "Doogie Howser" was this sort of comedy about a genius teenager who became a medical doctor. He created a show called "Capitol Critters." It was an animated show about mice, rats and roaches living under the White House. He even tried merging a cop drama with a musical, in this show called "Cop Rock" that fortunately didn't last too long.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

DEGGANS: But what was really interesting, too, about him, though, he created "Doogie Howser," for example, with David E. Kelley, who went on to create "Ally McBeal." He had all these guys who went on to work on "Law & Order" and co-create "Twin Peaks." So he has a long legacy for mentoring people who would go on to do great things in television, as well.

INSKEEP: Backstory to lots of today's television. Eric, thanks very much.

DEGGANS: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Eric Deggans, our TV critic, on the death of Steven Bochco, who died Sunday of leukemia at age 74.

(SOUNDBITE OF HILL STREET BLUES THEME SONG) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.

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