Bochco’s series over several decades revamped the cop and legal genres and created lucrative franchises for NBC and ABC. He had most recently co-created mystery crime-drama Murder in the First, which began its run on TNT in 2014. Another TNT show he created, Raising the Bar, ran for two seasons in 2008 and 2009. Among his other credits was L.A. Law, a significant hit for NBC in the 1980s which he was working on rebooting in recent years.
As a writer and producer, Bochco popularized the notion of authorship in television, something today’s audiences take for granted during the current Golden Age. He helped make TV a sandbox for complex ideas and complicated heroes, and also repeatedly pushed the boundaries of content that broadcast networks (his home for the majority of his career) could show.
Bochco was nominated for an Emmy 30 times as producer and writer, winning 10. His many other honors include the Humanitas Prize and Peabody honors. Reaction poured in Sunday from inside Hollywood and beyond as collaborators, industry admirers and fans all processed the news. No information has been released about memorial services.
A New York City native, Bochco attended NYU and earned a theater degree from Carnegie Institute of Technology before beginning his career at Universal as a writer for shows like Ironside and Columbo. He then left for MTM Enterprises, where James Earl Jones starred in his first show, the short-lived cop drama Paris. A few years later, he created Hill Street Blues, his breakout, which premiered in 1981. It collected eight Emmys in its debut season and racked up 98 nominations in its seven-season run. The show turned previous broadcast cop dramas like Dragnet on their head, deliberately showing the flaws and human dimensions of police officers and using cinematic techniques to reveal the gritty landscape they patrol.
The other trailblazing aspect of Hill Street, whose signature line was Sergeant Phil Esterhaus (played by Michael Conrad) telling the troops, “Let’s be careful out there,” was its serialized narrative. That was a break from the stand-alone episodes networks had been producing for the prior two decades, always with a close eye on the syndication marketplace and burgeoning international interest. Bochco, by contrast, wove stories from multiple strands with running storylines and arcs and character moments that he arranged like a symphony over the course of a season or longer. TV landmarks that would follow, from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad to anything currently on air, all took up the serialized approach and the economics of the business would come to accommodate it in time.
After the success of Hill Street, Bochco reached a key crossroads in 1987. When legendary CBS chief William S. Paley offered Bochco the job of entertainment president for the network, he decided to turn it down. Instead, he signed an unprecedented six-year, 10-series deal at ABC, which let him own the series he developed. The decision led to some middling shows, among them Murder One and City of Angels, but also to his peak achievement, NYPD Blue.
Building on the complex depictions of the workaday ambiguities of police work he established in Hill Street a decade earlier, NYPD Blue brought a bolder, more in-your-face tone. No character or actor personified that more than Andy Sipowicz, the complicated detective played by Dennis Franz in a turn that brought him four Emmys. From the pilot of the show to its finale 12 seasons later, it continually pushed the boundaries of decency in skirmishes that might seem almost quaint by today’s standards.
In his 2016 memoir, Truth Is A Total Defense, Bochco recalled taking part in weeks of intense negotiations over the content he and fellow producer David Milch would be able to get away with. (On his wish list, he sardonically recalled, were “breasts, buttocks and torsos.”) Sitting across the table was Bob Iger, the Disney CEO who at that time was president of ABC.
“Obviously we couldn’t say ‘f—‘ or ‘s—‘ or several other words that your mother would smack you for using,” Bochco wrote. “But everything else was on the table. Bob and I finally agreed to a glossary of ‘acceptable’ words, and for reasons I simply cannot recall, we agreed to a cap of 37 uses of those words per episode. I was quietly ecstatic. After a year and a half of stubbornly holding out, I had gotten about 95% of everything I wanted.”
In a statement, Iger called Bochco “a visionary, a creative force, a risk taker, a witty, urbane story teller with an uncanny ability to know what the world wanted.”
Family was always woven through Bochco’s work in many senses of the word. Not only did he frequently collaborate with a set of writers and producers, but his immediate family also was involved in the industry. His sister, Joanna Frank, was an actress, and his wife, Dayna, was a TV executive, and son Jesse has become an TV director. His first wife was actress Barbara Bosson, one of the stars of Hill Street Blues.
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