Sunday, April 01, 2018

Lazy Sunday # 516: Your Turn In The Barrel

I first met Steven Bochco over coffee in Las Vegas.

That's not as world-shattering an event as it might appear. I'd just finished 4 seasons of "Top Cops" and a fistful of TV movies for CBS and was taking a break, or more accurately a busman's holiday, attending my first National Association of Television Production Executives Convention in Sin City.

Steven Bochco, the man who had created "Hill Street Blues",  "LA Law", "Doogie Houser M.D." and was currently the toast of television with his latest hit series "NYPD Blue" was doing an early morning talk about the craft of writing and I knew I had to be there first thing because this was the "can't miss" event of the symposium and all the seats would be gone the minute the doors opened.

Back then, Steven Bochco was a God to writers and remains so to many of us. He broke so much new ground in television that those writing obituaries following his death today will be hard pressed to do more than scratch the surface of all the changes he wrought and how many successful series would never have made the air without the creative pioneering he did.

Bochco was so beloved of the networks that William Paley of CBS had once offered him the presidency of his entire entertainment division. More interested in creating television than deciding who else should do it, Bochco turned him down for an unprecedented 10 series deal with ABC where he would retain ownership of his shows.

I set my alarm to go off before dawn and arrived to find waiters rolling in huge carafes of coffee, trays of muffins and piles of ceramic cups labelled "I just had coffee with Steven Bochco". As I selected one, the man of the hour strolled in and poured himself a cup.

He asked if we were the only ones there. I suggested some other people were sure to turn up. He laughed and asked what part of the business I was in.

And here's where it got tricky.

Because "Top Cops" had debuted in the same Thursday at ten time slot as Bochco's "Cop Rock" when it made its debut. And 11 weeks later, we were a huge hit and the series ABC had poured a fortune into because it was from the magic pen of Steven Bochco was gone.

Knowing how much some Hollywood types hold grudges, I danced around offering my resume, just saying I wrote and produced. Uh, yeah -- series. What am I working on? I told him my show had just ended its run. He asked the title...

I had no choice. I confessed. He studied me for a moment, "That was you?". I said it was a lot of other people too, people equally enamored of his work and who didn't have any say whatsoever over what time slot we got, or...

He laughed again, offered congratulations and said a couple of nice things about the show. I said I was sorry "Cop Rock" had been cancelled so soon and commented on how innovative and courageous it had been.

He shrugged off the sympathy, admitting he'd liked it a lot too, but "Sometimes it's just your turn in the barrel".

Somewhere back in grade school I'd memorized Rudyard Kipling's "If" and its instructions on what it takes to make a man successful and respected and the lines...

"If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same..."

...immediately sprang to mind. And I realized that in addition to his many talents, Steven Bochco was a man whose character rose far above the showbiz environment Hunter S. Thompson once described as... 

"...a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs."

He'll be missed on too many levels to count.

YouTube's Archive of American Television has dozens of videos of Bochco discussing his life and work. What follows is one of my favorites, for the way it makes innovation look like just another practical day-to-day decision -- which in many ways it usually is.

Enjoy Your Sunday...