TV's Veteran Risk-Taker

This season Steven Bochco - known for innovative series - offers a police musical: `Cop Rock'

WHAT'S all this about a TV trend toward the daringly different, necessitated by an eroding audience - with the remaining watchers becoming more selective? Nine-time Emmy-winning producer-writer-creator Steven Bochco has been making innovative, ahead-of-the-pack TV for most of his unpredictable career - shows like ``Hill Street Blues'' ``Hooperman,'' ``L.A. Law,'' and now the biggest stretch of all, ``Cop Rock,'' a musical police series with five songs in each show. Its second episode will air tomorrow (ABC, Wednesdays, 10-11 p.m.), after a premi`ere last week.

``Timing is important,'' says Mr. Bochco, ``and if I hadn't had a proven track record and the TV climate wasn't changing, I might never have had the courage to present the concept of `Cop Rock' to ABC.

``A few years ago, a network would probably have blown me away when I suggested a series whose leading characters are a lady mayor on the take and a policeman who has deliberately killed a suspect.'' He pauses. ``For starters, that would be enough to be laughed out of the conference room.''

But ABC executives didn't laugh, even though they realized the project would cost one-third more than the conventional hour-long drama. They remembered Bochco had come to them two seasons earlier with the premise of a 16-year-old who was smart enough to be in medical school and work with 20-something interns.

He cast 16-year-old Neil Patrick Harris in the lead and called the series ``Doogie Howser, MD.'' It became the second-highest-rated new comedy in the '89-90 season, and was honored with two People's Choice Awards.

There are more innovative ideas up Bochco's sleeve. ``What is a forthcoming project?'' Bocho said, digging his elbows deep into the pile of scripts on his desk, as he rested his chin on his fists. ``Would you believe a series about a group of mice that live in the White House?''

Cartoon venture

This reporter has learned never to smile when Bochco announces a project. As unusual as it may sound, it's for real.

``We're developing it now,'' he continued, ``Unlike `The Simpsons' - which is terrific and could actually survive if you cast actors, for it's a sitcom - my `little critter' show is a pure cartoon piece.

``Listen, I know `Cop Rock' is high-risk. The viewers aren't used to having musical numbers in a gritty police show. But look at Broadway musicals: The audience doesn't go into shock when a song comes along. I feel if the public will watch for at least three shows, the unconventionality will wear off. They'll become comfortable, and we may have a hit.''

According to Barbara Bosson, one of the ensemble cast of ``Cop Rock'' and Mrs. Bochco in real life, ``Steven tested the pilot in a theater to judge reactions. In the opening episode when I, as the Mayor of Los Angeles, and my staff, do a musical number, the entire audience applauded.

``Later, in the pilot, when the jury - instead of giving its verdict in dreary dramatic tones - burst into a gospel announcement, the audience responded. Young people really loved it.''

Some of the ABC affiliates were not as excited. ``Everyone, even Steven Bochco, has to have a loser sometime,'' grumbled one station-owner after seeing a print of ``Cop Rock.''

``Of course, it's different,'' Bosson defended, ``but risk-taking is what Steven is all about. He's a ready learner; he's never ironclad. He originally cast `Cop Rock' with Hollywood actors and then discovered it wouldn't work. He went to New York and recast singers who could act, not actors who could sing, and he had what he needed.''

Bochco says he was doing ``Hill Street Blues'' seven years ago, when someone asked, ``Wonder how this would play as a musical on Broadway?''

A developing idea

``The idea intrigued me,'' he recalled, ``so I mentally filed it under `something to think about when I'm less busy.'''

A few seasons later at a party, he mentioned the idea to Robert Iger, president of ABC Entertainment, who recalled his brows went up in surprise. But he didn't shoot down the idea. Then last year, after Randy Newman signed to write songs for the pilot, the executives listened when Bochco and staff formally presented ``Cop Rock.''

If you're getting the idea that Bochco is persistent, you've got him pegged. He writes, researches, sells, and produces, with lots of homework before progressing to the next step. He's on a creative track with new rails and different scenery.

Take one of his earlier successes, ``Hooperman.'' As Bosson says, ``Steven created and did the pilot on `Hooperman.' He wanted me to play the captain of the San Francisco police precinct. He knew the network had approval on casting the leads, and he didn't think they would okay me. Of course, I was an established actress; after all Steven and I met at Carnegie Tech [now Carnegie Mellon]. But I had been at home for the last 10 years raising our two children.

An adventurer by nature

``He had me do the pilot, but listed me as a nonrecurring character. After the show hit, the head of the network, then Fred Silverman, told Steven, `You are going to make that lady-captain a regular.'''

Bochco has always been an adventurer. He parlayed an apprenticeship scholarship with MCA into a writing job at Universal - this during his junior and senior years at Pittsburg's Carnegie Tech, where he graduated in 1966 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in theater.

He developed writing on-the-job. His first TV screen credit was shared with writer Rod Serling. The next four years, Bochco was writing for his day job and creating his own series at night.

He has paid his dues. Two years ago, he signed a 10-year exclusive contract with ABC. His first series under the new pact was ``Doogie Howser, MD.'' His second is ``Cop Rock.''

``I'll tell you the truth,'' he says, running a hand through his mop of silver hair. ``I've never worked so hard - or had so much fun. We're having the time of our lives! I guess we're a bunch of excitement junkies, but we do get a charge trying something new. I can't unring a bell. I hope they like what I've done.''

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