'NYPD Blue' Star Bill Brochtrup on How Steven Bochco Pioneered Gay Characters on TV

Bill Brochtrup attends the 2017 Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild Awards - Getty-H 2018
Tara Ziemba/WireImage

"Steven came up with this idea for a character who was openly and unapologetically gay. That was way ahead of its time," Brochtrup says of the prolific showrunner, who died Sunday at age 74.

In 1995, we had a wrap party for Season 2 of NYPD Blue at Spago in Beverly Hills. I was so green and I couldn't believe that I was even invited because, at that time, I was just a recurring character. When I arrived, there was Steven standing at the front door.

I came to find out that he always did that — holiday parties, wrap parties and everything — he stood at the door and greeted every single person that came in the door. I walked toward him and he grabbed me by the arms, gave me one of his warm hugs and whispered in my ear, "You're going to be here a long time." That was all he said, and it remains one of the headiest moments of my life. I felt dizzy the rest of the night. 

After that, they brought me on to his shows Public Morals and Total Security and I eventually joined NYPD Blue for the rest of its run. That was the entirety of the conversation we had about my working there. That shows what kind of person he was. He made a decision and that was the decision. Steven had the power to make that happen with just one sentence whispered in my ear.

I'm the one who said, "Is this OK to have a gay guy on television?" He was always fine with it, and this was before Ellen DeGeneres. There were no gay characters on TV at the time. He never blinked. That says so much about him. That's the bravery and courage he showed in his take-no-prisoners attitude. Steven was never afraid of these kinds of things. He just said we have to be bold and do it. There were never network executives there weighing in on decisions, at least that we could see. He kept us all in a safe place and we all felt like we worked in this protective bubble. 

On my first day of shooting, he was there watching from the side, and he gave me a smile and a thumbs up. That's all the encouragement I got, but you don't have to say a lot when you have that kind of support. When there is a guy like Steven who believes in you, not a lot of words have to be said.

He came up with this idea for a character who was very openly gay and unapologetically so, and he wanted to show that in contrast to Det. Andy Sipowicz [Dennis Franz's character]. That was way ahead of its time. The great thing about television and how Steven told stories was that they would solve a crime every week, but these personal stories would go on all season.

The story of my character, John Irvin, and his friendship with Sipowicz went on for 10 years in real time, from me saying 'Hello, detective' at the introduction to babysitting his son and officiating at his wedding in one of the last episodes. The growth of that friendship over 10 years is something that only television can do and that only television that Steven Bochco makes would do.

Steven changed my life in every way. I have a house now because of Steven, but there's so much more than that. He gave me confidence that I could do this and have a career — not only as an openly gay guy but as an actor in general. The stamp on my passport is from him. 

I'm not alone.

He did this for hundreds and hundreds of people. When you look at how many people's lives and careers were affected by him, I'm just one of bazillions. That's just the people who he worked with, let alone the millions that he touched through the shows that he made. 

I still get letters and emails from people who are watching NYPD Blue now in reruns. I just got an email from a guy saying that he and his son are watching it, and the father used my character as an example of what it might be like to be friends with a gay guy to help his son with a friendship of his own. That is all Steven. That kind of reach and influence is the sign of a great man. His heart is so huge and is reflected in everything that he did. I am so lucky to have had a mentor like him.

I remember we won a GLAAD Award and they sent me to accept it because he couldn't be there. I brought it back to his office, trotting it over to hand it to him. I was nervous because it was like going to the principal or the president's office. He was so happy about us having won that and here is this guy who had won Emmys and all kinds of awards, and he was so proud of the GLAAD Award. It was always important to him that every kind of person be shown and reflected on his shows. The show was inclusive in its casting before people were even thinking about that.

Steven and I had an email correspondence and I knew that he was not doing well. Cancer is a horrible thing and I know he fought bravely and had a sense of humor but I don't think it was an easy way to go. My heart goes out to him and his wonderful family. The last email I received from him ended with the word "Excelsior!!" and the admonition "Look it up."

I did. It means "ever upward." That's how I will remember Steven Bochco.

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