Dick Wolf on Meeting Steven Bochco at Age 5 and Reuniting on 'Hill Street Blues'

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"When he was dealing with the studio, he could be a little prickly, but I learned a lot watching him at that time. I learned that when you offer [the studio] your pinky, they’ll take your whole arm," Wolf says of the prolific showrunner, who died Sunday at age 74.

I first met Steven when I was 5 years old. His parents and my parents were best friends when we were growing up in New York, and the families would meet once a month. He was three or four years older than me, and when you’re 5, a 9-year-old seems like a college student, so we never got close back then. We played some games — something like Scrabble — but he had a much better vocabulary than I did. He was always coming up with words that I had never heard of. And then, when I was 13, I went away to boarding school and didn’t see him again for probably 30 years, not until I got a job writing for Hill Street Blues.

I was one of the junior guys on a small writing staff, and I didn’t see Steven hardly at all. I mostly dealt with David Milch and Jeff Lewis, the showrunners. Milch and I argued a lot. The season was 280 days [of production], and Milch and I had screaming matches for 270 of them. But Steven was a private guy. He did not go out for dinner with the writers — it was not who he was. Also, this was the period when he was not getting along with [Hill Street producers] MTM — they were arguing about money.

Everybody agreed that the intellectual level of Hill Street Blues was higher than most television. It was a definitive shift in the reality factor in drama. Steven changed that part of TV single-handedly and completely. But the show was expensive to make, and when Steven thought he needed something, he really didn’t care what the studio said.

When he was dealing with the studio, he could be a little prickly, but I learned a lot watching him at that time. I learned that when you offer [the studio] your pinky, they’ll take your whole arm. But Steven didn’t give in to MTM. And he ended up walking away from the show.

I remember the day he left. He spotted me on the set. Until then, I don’t think he was even aware that I was writing on the show. We hadn’t really dealt with each other. But he came up to me and said, “Wolf, is that you? I’m really glad you’re here. Keep making me money.” 

This story first appeared in the April 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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