Bochco had been battling a rare form of leukemia for several years. He had a transplant in late 2014 that was credited with prolonging his life. A family spokesman told the Associated Press that he died in his sleep on Sunday after a battle with cancer, but did not release details of a memorial service.
Working with different collaborators, Bochco co-created some of TV’s most popular series for more than 20 years while helping to create the template for modern hourlongs featuring large ensemble casts, serialized storylines and edgy content.
The recipient of numerous industry awards, including the Humanitas Prize and Peabody honors, Bochco was nominated for an Emmy 30 times in his capacities as producer and writer, winning 10.
On “NYPD Blue,” he consciously set out to expand the parameters of what was acceptable on broadcast television, and he recalled sitting with then-ABC Entertainment chief Robert Iger — who went on to become CEO of the Walt Disney Co. — drawing naked figures, determining exactly how much of the body could be shown.
Bochco launched such series as “Hill Street Blues” — a ground-breaking, Emmy-winning cop show — and “L.A. Law” for NBC before entering into a landmark 10-series deal with ABC in the late 1980s. The relationship produced some clear hits (“NYPD Blue,” “Doogie Howser, M.D.”) and notable failures, including the musical police drama “Cop Rock” and the serialized courtroom drama “Murder One,” which followed a single murder trial over an entire season. As virtual proof the latter was ahead of its time, Bochco essentially revived it in 2014, under the title “Murder in the First,” for TNT, where it ran for three years.
Asked how he could risk gambling on a musical like “Cop Rock” given the richness of his ABC pact, Bochco once joked, “With my deal, how could I not?”
Bochco wasn’t above engaging in public spats and power struggles, from complaining about his treatment by network executives to tussling with recalcitrant stars. In one of the highest-profile tiffs, his rift with David Caruso during the first season of “NYPD Blue” led to the actor’s exit, a considerable gamble for a series in its first season. Bochco replaced him with former “L.A. Law” co-star Jimmy Smits, and the program went on to run for 11 years.
Although Bochco often consciously pressed against boundaries and seemed to delight in testing censors, he recalled that the breakthrough storytelling style of “Hill Street” was born more out of necessity than design.
“We had so many characters that we realized we couldn’t service 10 or 11 characters within the confines of a single episode, so the only way that we could really do justice to the size of the world was by creating storylines that spilled over the margins,” he told the New York Times.
The producer also had a way of celebrating even his failures. When “Cop Rock” came to an end after a mere 11 episodes, what turned out to be the final episode incorporated a musical sequence where a fat lady literally sang, signaling its cancellation.
Bochco also appeared to relish nettling his critics, saying that the pressure campaign waged against “NYPD Blue” – which helped prompt dozens of stations not to air the show when it premiered – ultimately helped promote the series and turned it into a hit.
Steven Ronald Bochco was born in New York, the son of a violin virtuoso (which inspired his production company’s onscreen logo). He attended NYU and subsequently Carnegie Institute of Technology, receiving a degree in theater.
He started his writing career in the 1960s. Credits included “Columbo,” with an episode directed by Steven Spielberg, who also came up through the ranks at Universal Television.
Bochco wrote such features as “The Movie Maker” and “Silent Running” before he began to steadfastly focus on television and create his own shows, including “Delvecchio,” a drama starring Judd Hirsch. Later came “Bay City Blues,” about a baseball team, which didn’t last.
With “Hill Street Blues,” Bochco and co-creator Michael Kozoll broke the dramatic mold, featuring a huge ensemble cast and gritty narrative while juggling various subplots. NBC was in the ratings cellar at the time, but its patience with prestige programs like “Hill Street” and “Cheers” was rewarded after “The Cosby Show” premiered in 1984, turning its Thursday lineup into a ratings juggernaut.
Beyond his own career, Bochco helped shepherd along those of several other prominent writers, hiring David Milch on “Hill Street” and enlisting David E. Kelley — then a Boston lawyer — to work on “L.A. Law.”
When the Producers Guild of America honored Bochco with its David Susskind lifetime achievement award in 1999, his track record of quality programs was cited as “the standard all television producers strive for.”
For all of his success with police dramas and legal shows, Bochco produced a wide variety of series, from the animated satire “Capitol Critters” to “Public Morals,” an edgy comedy on which he collaborated with Jay Tarses that also ran into standards-and-practices problems.
Although major successes eluded him in his later years, Bochco remained active and in demand, taking over as showrunner of “Commander in Chief” — an ABC drama that featured Geena Davis as the first female U.S. president — and co-creating “Over There,” an FX series that focused on soldiers in Iraq and their families back home. The latter, introduced while the war was ongoing in 2005, engendered controversy because of the timing and subject matter.
Bochco also produced the legal drama “Raising the Bar” for TNT that ran two seasons in 2008 and 2009.
The producer also tried his hand at novels, writing “Death by Hollywood,” a darkly comic satire with a struggling screenwriter as its protagonist. His struggle with leukemia prompted him to write his autobiography, “Truth is a Total Defense: My Fifty Years in Television,” which he self-published in 2016.
Bochco was loyal to his friends — certain actors appeared in his shows time and again — but could also nurse a grudge. He also became disenchanted with what he saw as creative interference from the networks, hewing more toward cable.
Bochco’s association with the business extended to his family. His second wife, Barbara Bosson, co-starred in “Hill Street Blues,” and his sister, Joanna Frank, had a recurring role on “L.A. Law” as the wife of firm partner Douglas Brackman, played by her real-life husband (and thus Bochco’s brother-in-law), Alan Rachins. The producer later married Dayna Kalins, a TV executive. His son, Jesse, became a prominent director, working on many of his father’s shows.
Bochco was thrice married, the first time to Gabrielle Levin, the second to Bosson.
He is survived by his third wife Dayna Kalins, whom he married in 2000, as well children Melissa Bochco, Jesse Bochco and Sean Flanagan, and two grandchildren.