As the creative community tonight mourns the loss of legendary television show creator Steven Bochco, several of the writer/producers who cut their teeth on his shows and went on to great careers reminisced with Deadline on what made him so special. A common theme that explains how one man’s company could generate so many seminal dialogue-driven dramas like Hill Street Blues, LA Law and NYPD Blue: Bochco was ferociously protective of the writers who worked for him, and heaven help anyone who violated that.
Ted Mann’s work with Bochco encompassed the early days of the provocative drama series NYPD Blue, as well as Brooklyn South and Civil Wars. Nicholas Wootton and Matt Olmstead came up under Bochco, and together they ran the signature series NYPD Blue after David Milch departed along with Mann and the early core of writers. Each shared some of their experiences with Bochco, and gave a glimpse of why he meant so much to so many other writers who cut their teeth on his shows.
Ted Mann, currently consulting producer on Homeland
“The last time I saw Steve was last year at lunch and he was really happy, having been just pronounced free of the disease which finally killed him. He was a skillful player of the producer game and one of the great all-time winners at that game. He could be tremendously funny, was an excellent judge of character. It was a pleasure working with him.”
Nicholas Wootton, whose Bochco shows included NYPD Blue, Blind Justice, City of Angels and Brooklyn South. Currently executive producer of Scorpion.
Wootton’s first association with Bochco came when he was just three years old, because Wootton and Bochco’s kids attended the LA elementary school that is now Crossroads. Wootton’s parents are physicians who were technical consultants on Doogie Howser, M.D., and they occasionally showed up in roles on the show. Wootten became smitten with the TV business, and said he could not have had a better mentor.
“My first job was as a PA at age 14 on LA Law and Steven became a mentor and gave me the chance to sit in the writers room and observe an episode break with Billy Finkelstein and David Milch on Civil Wars. I was an apprentice in the second season of NYPD Blue, and joined the staff stayed with his company for 12 years. Steven was just unflappable. All of the writers, he guarded us like we were his kids. Me especially, because I was just 23 years old on NYPD Blue. There was nothing that Steve couldn’t fix, and nothing that got him riled, except when he felt an injustice was being done to his creative vision, or the vision of the people he worked with. He was a writer at heart; he just loved TV, he loved the medium, and loved what it could do. The thing I will never forget, his door was always open. There was never a time when you had any issue and he wasn’t available. It could be personal, or an outline, script, anything. You would walk by his office and the door was always open. He would be at his desk. Often hunched over at the side desk where his computer was, or sitting back, feet up, writing on a pad of paper, curling and flipping the edge. If I saw that once, I saw it 20,000 times. He was always ready, and he always had a fix. His mantra was, can always fix it. There is no reason to panic, because we can always fix it.”
As for his big break on NYPD Blue: “There was script. I’m trying to dance around this because it was illegal…ah what the heck, are they going to fine him now? There was a script that had been assigned out to other writers at the conclusion of the second season. The writers were departing the show, and they were not around. I was around, in the writer’s room and I was given the opportunity to co-write the script, under the table. Steve and David Milch were running the show, and I co-wrote it with Gardner Stern. It was the second season finale of the show. One of the writers was Walon Green and when he came back, he said, you can take my name off and give the money to Nick, which was so generous. It went off without a hitch and we pulled it off in the pinch. And then Steven called me and said, you are coming on staff. I remember it like it was yesterday, coming back from commissary on the Fox lot where we ate every single day. I had known these writers I had once been a PA for, getting their bagels and washing their cars, and they had all been so generous to me. And then I was in the club. It felt great and utterly terrifying. Steven was protective of me but he also let me take my lumps which was an equal opportunity thing with David Milch, who was so brilliant but sometimes you came under fire. Steven was always there when I needed him and we created two shows together, City of Angels for CBS and Blind Justice for ABC. It was the most amazing place to work. Matt Olmstead and I would think of something we thought was cool, tell Steven, who would say do it, and then we would and it would be on the air. The way he worked and treated writers is something everyone can aspire to, but it doesn’t happen often.
The thing about him was this: He was successful, proud of it and he was happy to share it. He wanted those around him to be successful and he was generous with everything he had. What he wanted from us was that we all rise just as he had risen, and he forged a path for everybody else to do that. He was the funniest person I have ever met. I saw him last Sunday, and got to laugh with him a final time. I will never forget that, and him, and all that I learned from him.”
Matt Olmstead, who worked on the Bochco shows Brooklyn South, NYPD Blue and Blind Justice. Currently writer/creator of Chicago P.D. and Chicago Med.
“My first jobs were with Steven, so it was only later that I would really be able to appreciate how I’d be able to compare my experiences with Steven to what would follow on other shows. I think the thing that made him so special was the way he nurtured the writer. You would go into the writers’ room in the office, that was where you pitched, and in six years, I never heard him condescend to a writer, or yell at or belittle one. Now, he would lock horns with executives, and the network. But with writers, his attitude was to put everyone in best position to contribute with confidence. He created a safe environment and that meant never talking down to a writer. Sometimes, you would bite your lip, because there would be a bad idea or a ridiculous comment, but he would never react. I was always struck by that. I benefited from it, and I always tried to honor that in other shows I’ve run since.
“His skill was one of those things. You can teach a writer structure, form and pace, but you can’t teach dialogue. There is a certain level of writer and producer who just kind of had it and he certainly did. In terms of story, whether you thought of something great yourself or he gave you an idea, he was borderline magical in doing that all the way to the cut. I remember him telling us that when he screened the pilot of Hill Street Blues, he was told it was terrible. And that you could just see the energy seeping out of the room. But Steven would have none of it. He said he knew exactly what had to be done, and he buoyed the spirits and got the confidence of everyone. He pulled some story lines out, and changed some things, and he never panicked or outwardly showed anxiety or got pissed off. So many times I referenced that, as a reminder of what you need to be a leader who instills confidence. Even if he didn’t know how to fix it, he made you trust that he would have the answer soon. That was another big lesson. The man was a prince, a total gentleman and what he did was borderline magical. I’m just one of the many people whose lives were changed by Steven. He gave me my first job and when he did, I remember the sensation of my feet not touching the ground when I walked to my car. Generous, kind and nurturing, beyond being wildly talented. Just one of a kind.”