In his new memoir, the prolific showrunner recounts his negotiation to show "breasts, buttocks and torsos" with ABC's Bob Iger to the tense falling-out with its "malcontent" star, whose over-the-top demands (from a 38-foot trailer to his own office suite and development exec to a $100,000-per-episode payday) led to his ouster.
Steven Bochco is one of the greatest showrunners in TV history. His résumé includes such hits as Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law and NYPD Blue. His first job in Hollywood in 1969 was as a story editor at Universal, working on Ironside, Columbo and other dramas. Bochco, 72, moved to MTM in 1978, and the second series he created there was Hill Street Blues (co-created with Michael Kozoll), which redefined the cop drama with its multiple storylines and gritty realism. Despite low ratings, NBC boss Fred Silverman stuck with it, and it became the then-lowest-rated show ever renewed for a second season. The gamble paid off when the first season set a record for most Emmy nominations (21) by one show. Despite a 2014 battle with leukemia, Bochco still is at work, having brought Murder in the First, his 22nd series, to air on TNT that year. In this excerpt from his new memoir, Truth Is a Total Defense (CreateSpace, Aug. 1), Bochco recalls the creation of NYPD Blue in the '90s and his battles with ABC's broadcast standards (also a problem on Hill Street). He also recounts star David Caruso's outrageous demands to stay on after the first season — from seven weeks off to make films to bodyguards for protection from fans — and ultimate decision to leave. — ANDY LEWIS
The one-hour drama business, replaced by much cheaper to produce news magazine hours, was in decline in the early '90s. The last bona fide hit had been my own L.A. Law in 1986. In the summer of 1991, NYPD Blue was my proposed solution. In the presence of [then-ABC Network president] Bob Iger, and with his blessing, I made my pitch to Dan Burke, who was the head of Cap Cities, which owned ABC. When I was done, he paused for fully 30 seconds before turning to Bob: "Do you really want to develop this show?" Without hesitation, Bob said yes. Dan said: "You better be right. Because if you're wrong, my skirts won't be big enough for you to hide behind."
I asked David Milch, whom I had worked with on Hill Street Blues, if he wanted to do a cop show with me. The script of NYPD Blue was spectacular. I loved it, 20th Century Fox loved it, and the programmers at ABC loved it. But when it went to ABC's broadcast standards department, the shit hit the fan. We got back pages and pages of notes regarding language and nudity. Had we agreed to them, they would have gutted the script of its uniqueness and realistic grittiness. And thus commenced my war with broadcast standards, which finally caused me to yank the script. I told Bob Iger I wasn't going to make their watered-down version. Bob was desperate to have a great cop show on ABC, but I was adamant. Essentially, it was going to be my way or the highway, my reasoning being that I'd already made what was generally considered to be the best cop show ever (Hill Street), and I had no motivation to do another one that, in its own way, wasn't every bit as distinctive.
Six months later, Bob invited me over to his office to have another conversation about NYPD Blue. It had already missed the 1992 season, and development was well underway for the new shows of 1993. I told Bob I hadn't changed my mind about watering down the content. He invited me, [Bochco Productions president] Dayna [Kalins] and [Bochco's attorney] Frank Rohner to meet with ABC's top executives, and we spent two hours arguing the issue with ABC/Cap Cities' highest-ranking lawyers, who had ultimate authority over the broadcast standards department. At the end of the meeting, we'd gotten nowhere. I, for one, was sure the show was deader than Kelsey's balls.
ABC Network president Bob Iger, then 41, at the 1992 upfronts in New York that NYPD Blue missed because of a fight with Broadcast Standards.
Another two or three weeks went by, and I was actively thinking of other concepts to pitch to ABC when Iger called me and asked me to come over to his office. Knowing how adamant I was about content, the two of us sat in his office for more than an hour, with scratch pads and pencils drawing "dirty" pictures like two 9-year-old schoolboys: breasts, buttocks and torsos. Neither of us could draw worth a shit, but we finally agreed on how much nudity ABC would be willing to tolerate, and it pretty much conformed to my own thinking. I wasn't trying to make porno films. I just wanted to depict adult sexual relationships more realistically than broadcast TV ever had. We turned our attention to the language issue. Obviously we couldn't say "f—" or "shit" or several other words that your mother would smack you for using. 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 percent of everything I wanted.
We commenced casting. We had Dennis Franz's commitment from day one, but we couldn't find the right actor to play his partner, John Kelly. Finally, our casting director, Junie Lowry-Johnson, brought up David Caruso's name. I had worked with David on Hill Street Blues and thought he was a very interesting (and different) sort of leading man: red-haired, a classic Irish mug and a wonderful voice. Twenty years earlier, you would only have cast him as a heavy. Caruso read for the role and was terrific. I was ready to hire him, but David Milch begged me not to. Caruso's reputation as a malcontent (to say the least) had preceded him, and Milch was convinced that Caruso would be nothing but trouble. I told David: "You may be right, but he's a wonderful actor. I'm going to hire him anyway." The fact of the matter is, we were both right. Caruso was a big-time malcontent, but he was also terrific in the role.
Franz (left) and Caruso during NYPD Blue’s first season, which aired in 1993-94.
At some point during the first season, we were shooting parts of four or five episodes in New York City. One of the scenes involved setting up a roadblock at an entry ramp to the West Side Highway. Sipowicz and Kelly were trying to apprehend an escaped felon. The scene called for traffic to back up, antagonizing the drivers, who were yelling at the cops and honking. At one point, Sipowicz was supposed to yell at one of the drivers, "Hey, asshole!" and the driver, as it was written, was supposed to flip Sipowicz the finger. Broadcast standards said we couldn't do that. Somehow, with our obsession over tits and ass and language, Bob Iger and I had never bothered to negotiate the flipping of the bird. I responded to broadcast standards with the observation that if they didn't let me have the guy flip Sipowicz the bird, I would have Sipowicz call this guy an asshole 37 times, which, per our agreement, I could do. They folded, and the guy flipped Sipowicz the bird.
By the end of season one, I was dealing with two opposing realities. The first was, thankfully, that NYPD Blue was a hit. The second was that David Caruso had become impossible. His clashes with David Milch were occurring on an almost daily basis, Milch was having serious heart issues, and every time I'd call Caruso into my office for a conversation about his problems, he'd shut down like a sullen teenager. Caruso's behavior was, simply put, cancerous. He was emotionally unavailable to everyone, and he was volatile, moody or sullen, depending on the day. Most people don't function well in a dysfunctional environment, but Caruso loved it because he was the source of all the discontent, and it empowered him.
From left: Doogie Howser, M.D. and Hill Street Blues actors at the launch of TV Land: Barbara Bosson, Rich Cronin, James Sikking, Bochco, Ed Marinaro, Bruce Weitz and Taurean Blacque.
He never said it to me directly, but the simple truth was, Caruso felt he was too good for television. He wanted to be a movie star. And his plan was to alienate the writers, producers and his fellow castmates in hopes that we would dump him from the show. Fat chance. Against all odds, we had turned NYPD Blue into a hit, and I wasn't about to unravel that sweater just because of an actor who thought he was too good for the room.
About a month into the summer hiatus, David Milch and I were already working on second-season scripts when Caruso's agent called. Caruso wanted to be let out of his contract. Of course I said no and that if he decided not to show up for work, we would sue his ass. In that case, said the agent, could we all sit down and talk about restructuring his deal? In attendance were Caruso's lawyer, his agent, his manager, me and, of course, Dayna. The meeting started with Caruso's agent saying that Caruso had felt persecuted all year and that he felt Milch had reduced the size of his role out of personal animus. He again asked that we let Caruso out of his contract. Dayna, in no uncertain terms, asked what were they looking for on Caruso's behalf. Caruso's lawyer, with a straight face, said that their demands were based on the theory of diminished opportunity. Huh? Diminished opportunity, explained the lawyer, rested on the fact that Caruso was currently in New York working on a movie, making $75,000 a week. Returning to NYPD Blue for a second season at his contractual rate of $40,000 or so represented a big pay cut — hence the concept of diminished opportunity. I pointed out that if it weren't for NYPD Blue, Caruso would be in New York for the summer working in a car wash. Dayna saw the red creeping up my neck. She tried to steer the meeting back on course. "What exactly are you looking for?" Caruso's lawyer ticked off the following: One, $100,000 per episode. Two, Fridays off. Three, a 38-foot trailer. Four, an office suite on the lot, replete with his own development executive, for whom we had to foot the bill to the tune of $1,000 a week. Five, two hotel suites in New York when the company went there on location, plus a dozen first-class plane tickets. And lastly, Caruso had to have additional security to shield him from his adoring public. I said, "You've got to be kidding me." Now the lawyer said, "Well, if you're not willing to meet those demands, here's a second set of demands Caruso could live with." And he went on to ask for $65,000 an episode, Fridays off, the office suite, the development executive, the hotel suites, the plane tickets and, lastly — and here's the kicker — Caruso wanted the last seven weeks of the season off, so that his window for doing feature films would be larger.
From left: Smits, Bochco, Franz and James McDaniel on the NYPD Blue set in September 1994.
I'd had it. "Your client is under contract, we've exercised his option for a second year at $42,500 an episode, and if he doesn't show up for work on the first day of shooting, we will sue his ass for everything he has." And I walked out. As declarations of war went, that had gone well. The lawyer, the agent and the manager kept up a daily barrage. Ted Harbert, then an executive under Bob Iger, tried to meet with Caruso to talk him into returning. It was getting ugly. By now, we had four scripts written that, without Caruso, would have to be thrown in the trash. I finally decided to let Caruso go, but first I tracked down Jimmy Smits, who had been my first choice for the role when we were originally casting the show but who turned us down in favor of pursuing a film career. Jimmy was at the time somewhere in Morocco, shooting one of those sword-and-sandal epics. When I finally tracked him down — I think the nearest phone was 10 miles away, and he probably had to hitch a ride on a camel to get to it — I offered him the role again. Actually, I begged him. "Do you want to come home and be a huge TV star in a show that's already a hit or do you want to be making movies in Morocco in 100-degree weather wearing a leather skirt?" Jimmy's no fool. He came home and took over Caruso's role in NYPD Blue and made the series even greater.
We then negotiated a deal with Caruso that, in exchange for his release, required him to do the first four episodes so that we could properly write his character out of the show and further stipulated that he couldn't work on another television series for five years. Caruso was officially gone. When he had shot his last scene of the fourth episode, he turned without a word and left the set, the stage and the lot. He didn't say a single word of thanks or a goodbye to his castmates — nothing.
In the meantime, Milch and I had to invent a whole new character for Jimmy Smits, which we did on the fly. It was a bit of a fire drill, but Jimmy — a consummate pro and a truly fine person — jumped into a fast-moving river and hung on for the remainder of that second season. The audience loved him, and by the end of the second season, we were an even bigger hit, ABC was thrilled, and no one missed David Caruso, whose so-called movie career was already circling the drain. Boo hoo.
One last note about Caruso: About two years later, his film career having totally flamed out, his agent called and asked me if I might consider releasing David from the clause in his exit deal that prevented him from working in television for five years. Apparently, he'd been offered a CBS pilot. I've never been much for holding a grudge, and I certainly wouldn't have wanted to ever prevent someone from making a living, so I acquiesced. The CBS pilot was a bust, but the next show Caruso did was CSI: Miami.
Caruso in 2005 on CSI: Miami, the second show he did after Bochco waived his five-year no-TV exit clause.
He was right back where he'd started, except that instead of being the star of NYPD Blue — one of the most acclaimed and honored shows on television — he was the star of a standard spinoff of the CSI franchise. The worst part for David Caruso was that he was … David Caruso: a malcontented, self-destructive, emotionally unstable actor who made life miserable for everyone around him and who was constitutionally incapable of happiness. I'm not a psychologist. I don't even play one on TV. But I've run into my share of talented but highly neurotic or dysfunctional types throughout my career. Mike Kozoll, Terry Louise Fisher, David Caruso, Sharon Stone, Daniel Benzali, to name just a few who in my estimation shot themselves in the foot, career-wise.
The film and television industry is loaded with men and women blessed with talent and on the cusp of great success who go off the rails. Why? I can only assume that, short of the true narcissists and sociopaths among us, or those afflicted with crippling addictions, the majority of these self-inflicted wounds are the result of a deeply ingrained sense of unworthiness that success threatens to upend. It's ultimately easier for these people to blow up their own sandbox than to live into the responsibilities — and compromises — that sustained success requires. There's a certain personality type (David Caruso, unfortunately, comes to mind) that, unlike the majority of us, flourishes in a dysfunctional environment and is therefore masterful at creating it. But as with cancer, one of two results is inevitable: The cancer gets cut out in order to save the organism, or the organism is destroyed by the cancer. But in destroying the organism, the cancer dies with it — at best, a Pyrrhic victory.
When asked about Bochco's recollections of Caruso's exit, the actor told THR: "Young actors sometimes do very dumb things. I was no exception. NYPD Blue was a hallmark moment in my career, largely due to the talents of David Milch and Steven Bochco. I credit them both for all of the wonderful opportunities I've had over the 22 years since Blue."
Excerpted from Truth Is a Total Defense (Amazon CreateSpace, Aug. 1) by Steven Bochco, copyright 2016 by Steven Bochco Truth Is a Total Defense LLC.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.