On Steven Bochco and the Revolution of “Hill Street Blues”

A post today in honor of the late Steven Bochco (1943-2018). Cancer took Bochco at the young age of 74. I crowed about him on social media at the time, but now we hazard a more thorough appreciation. For Bochco was the prime mover of one of the few show biz revolutions I have been alive for, and was old enough to appreciate. Simply put, he dragged police procedurals out of the doldrums and into the grown-up era. The crucial pivot was Hill Street Blues (1981-87), although there is both a before and after to that story.

Bochco’s legend had begun over a decade earlier. His first major credit was co-writing the film The Counterfeit Killer (1968), starring Jack Lord. He was co-creator of the TV medical drama The Bold Ones: The New Doctors, which ran from 1969 through 1973. More memorably, he wrote a half dozen classic Columbo episodes from 1971 through 1974, including the very first episode Murder by the Book, directed by young Steven Spielberg. Bochco wrote and produced for The Invisible Man (1975) and its successor show The Gemini Man (1976). He penned several episodes of the short-lived cop show Delvecchio (1976-77) starring a pre-Taxi Judd Hirsch. From this show he would draw future Hill Street Blues cast members Charles Haid, James B. Sikking, Michael Conrad, and George Wyner. Then came a short-lived vehicle for Dennis Dugan, formerly a semi-regular on Columbo, called Richie Brockelman, Private Eye, a Rockford Files spinoff that started with a TV movie in 1976, and then went on to a series in 1978 and was cancelled after five episodes. This is notable because Dugan would later be a regular on the second season of Hill Street Blues as a crazy vigilante who called himself Captain Freedom.

There’s still other early stuff. He wrote for McMillan and Wife. He created and wrote for Griff (1973-1974), a cop show for Lorne Greene in his first post-Bonanza venture. He co-wrote the pilot of Turnabout (1979) a shortlived sitcom where husband John Schuck and wife Sharon Gless switch bodies! And he created Paris (1979-80) a cop show starring James Earl Jones.

Then the big one. I used the word “revolutionary” to describe Hill Street Blues, and I think there will be few who will disagree with me. For context and contrast we might offer the typical TV police procedural fare prior to Hill Street’s advent, Adam-12, an artificial, stiff, awkward, and fairly humorless exercise in conservative boredom in which a couple of starched uniformed patrolmen drove around doing good deeds and arresting actors in hippie costumes. Adam-12 was stilted and presented through a rosy prism of virtue. And most importantly, like a lot of TV of its day, it was shot and directed in a makework assembly line fashion that echoed its own blue collar characters, without any imagination or joy or love, just kind of plodding along from day to day, week to week. It’s just a job, man, like walking a beat! Get off my case!  TV had been inching towards some greater realism mostly through the influence of Joseph Wambaugh, whose projects included Police Story (1973-78), and The Blue Knight (TV movie 1973; series 1974-75). But the way it looked still lagged far behind cinema, and then-recent masterpieces of realism like The French Connection and Serpico. Certain shows, like Baretta or Starsky and Hutch may have used something resembling the inner city as a setting, but it seemed phony.

Why is “customers” in quotations?

When Hill Street Blues premiered it seemed to attack all of those chronic, seemingly endemic ills at once. The language it was written in seemed rawer and realer. Real ugliness was depicted at such a high volume compared to what had gone before that I can only compare it to the relationship between Saving Private Ryan and previous Hollywood war films. Where Adam-12 might have given you one canned moment of tragedy somewhere near the end of an episode, Hill Street Blues seemed to deliver a moment like that every minute. And this helped you see, for the first time on a TV show, how cops develop iron stomachs and cynical attitudes. They see so much. And this also fueled (and was fueled by) lots and lots of comedy, mostly deadpan gallows humor.  At the time, I assumed the show had been influenced by the movie Fort Apache the Bronx (1981) which had come out just a few months before, but it was also rightly compared to Barney Miller. Here, at last, was a jungle we could see and believe. The canvas was much bigger. There was a huge ensemble cast of regulars. There was overlapping dialogue. Multiple scenes playing out at the same time, sometimes in the same shot. Multiple story arcs, some of which lasted several episodes. And lots of documentary style shooting, hand held cameras, and fast edits. These elements influenced later shows like Bochco’s own NYPD Blue; Homicide; Law and Order, and then basically everything, until it became a cliche, one that frankly I feel overstayed its welcome a quarter century ago. Really: I never need to see shaky hand-held camera work ever again. But back then, none of it had been done before.

Some of them.

Just some of the cast regulars:  Daniel J. Travanti starred as Captain Frank Furillo, station commander in a high crime area in an unnamed city — could be the Bronx, or Chicago, or Detroit. Furillo is a straight arrow, but the world he lives in constantly tortures him with dilemmas. Veronica Hamel was Joyce Davenport, the public defender (do we even have those anymore?) who was simultaneously Furillo’s adversary, confidante, and fuck-buddy. Bochco’s wife Barbara Bosson was Furillo’s weepy, clinging wife Fay. The terrific Michael Conrad played Furillo’s right arm Sgt. Phil Esterhaus, whose endless variations on “Let’s be careful out there” at the top of each episode became a national catchphrase. (Conrad died midway through the run and was placed by Robert Prosky as a similar character). Nicaraguan-born René Enríquez was Furillo’s second-in-command Ray Calletano, an early positive Latino authority figure in the TV universe. James B. Sikking was hilarious as Lt. Howard Hunter, a kind of Frank Burns character who relished the use of force and who headed up the S.W.A.T. unit. His opposite number was Joe Spano as Lt. Henry Goldblume, a bow-tied, college-educated cop who specialized in negotiation. Another favorite was Bruce Weitz as Mick Belker, a cigar-chomping savage who usually went undercover as a homeless street person, and really loved mano-a-mano combat with perps, even resorting to biting them (and calling them names like “dirtbag”, which we hadn’t heard used with such vehemence or profusion on broadcast TV before). We haven’t even gotten to the patrolmen! Unlike, say, the Jack Webb shows (Dragnet, Adam-12), which usually focused on a single pair of partners, Hill Street Blues had several. Merv Griffin’s cousin Charles Haid played a Southern cop named Renko, who was paired with the African American Bobby Hill (Michael Warren). Second City alumna Betty Thomas played a tough lady uniformed officer named Lucy Bates (back when that was much rarer). Her partner Joe Coffey was played by football star Ed Marinaro. And one of my favorite actors Dennis Franz (later of NYPD Blue) was on the show twice in two different characters, Benedetto (1983) and Buntz (1985-87). Oh yes, Jeffery Tambor was a regular; this was probably the first place I ever saw him. And as we said, familiar character actor George Wyner.  I have left out perhaps a dozen or more regular and recurring characters, but it’s already gotten to be an unwieldy list.

The show had everything: action, drama, sex, and comedy. That’s everything, right? The formula was so winning that the year after it launched, the company that produced it, MTM billed their new show St. Elsewhere as “Hill Street Blues in a hospital”, and it seemed to make sense at the time, though, nowadays, less so (other than the humor and the large cast).

Bochco, who had always been crazy-prolific, remained so. In 1983, he launched a new show Bay City Blues, about a baseball team. It was cancelled after a few episodes. In 1985, MTM let him go. Hill Street Blues only lasted two seasons without him. His subsequent shows included L.A. Law (1986-94), Hooperman (1987-89) with John Ritter, Doogie Howser, M.D. (1989-93), Cop Rock (1990), Capitol Critters (1992–an animated show that starred the voice of Patti Deutsch, whose birthday it also is, and who also died recently); NYPD Blue (1993-2005) which was even rawer than Hill Street Blues; The Byrds of Paradise (1994), Murder One (1995-97), Brooklyn South (1997), City of Angels (2000), Philly (2001) and Over There (2005). His last show was Murder in the First (2014-16).