Steven Bochco: Tinseltown unmasked

Steven Bochco, the creator of the TV hits Hill Street Blues, LA Law and NYPD Blue, has just written a dark novel about sex and double-dealing in Hollywood. So just how much of it is based on personal experience? Andrew Gumbel finds out
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The Independent Online

In Steven Bochco's debut novel, the entertainingly raunchy Death By Hollywood, everyone is either having sex, watching other people having sex, or using sex as a power-tool in order to clamber over their rivals and humiliate their nearest and dearest. As the plot thickens, the characters allow thoughts of sex - especially the transgressive kind, the kind with someone other than their wives or husbands - to push them to acts that they would really have been best advised to reject as too risky, too stupid, or too immoral, even by Hollywood's rock-bottom standards. Sex, in this overheated setting, becomes a matter of kill or be killed.

One might have wondered why Bochco - the super-successful television writer and producer behind such hits as Hill Street Blues, LA Law and NYPD Blue - would turn his hand at this late stage in his career to writing a novel, an art form usually viewed in Hollywood circles as the desperate last resort of the failed screenwriter. After a few pages of Death By Hollywood, though, one wonders no longer. He's clearly having way too much fun, with material whose chances of passing muster with the censorious TV- network honchos are about as likely as a snowstorm in Beverly Hills.

"It was a great experience. I enjoyed myself immensely," Bochco told me when I visited him at his offices on the Fox lot. And he readily explained why. For once, he said, he was writing entirely to his own specifications, not someone else's. He could play with the characters and the structure to his heart's content. Nobody was looking over his shoulder, or bankrolling him, or pressing him to compromise his vision to accommodate directors, actors, the studio, or the network. It was a very low-risk enterprise - a "simple joy", as he put it. If it didn't work, artistically or commercially, he could return to his much better-paying day job as chief executive of Steven Bochco Productions, and forget all about it.

As it is, the book is garnering only positive reviews, and selling well - all icing on the cake, as far as Bochco is concerned. "I started with no sense of making a buck out of it," he said. "I did it because I'd never done it before. And because friends felt that this story, and the voice I'd found for it, were conducive to development as a novel."

That voice belongs to his narrator, Eddie Jelko, a talent agent with a reliably sardonic take on the events swirling around him, but who stays deliberately in the background. The real protagonist is his client, a washed-out screenwriter called Bobby Newman who hatches a scheme to revitalise his career after witnessing a sensational murder through his electronic telescope, which he uses to spy on the neighbours in varying states of undress. Naturally, Bobby's plan goes horribly wrong, even as he convinces himself it is working to perfection, and pretty soon his vengeful ex, a sexually uninhibited billionaire's wife and a Hollywood homicide cop with his own movie-world ambitions are drawn into his complex web. Booze, drugs, plastic surgery, fancy restaurants, voyeurism and a lust for wild sex spice just about every page, contributing significantly to the characters' failure to recognise their own vulnerabilities and baser instincts beneath the surface vanities.

The sense of wry detachment is essential to a story about hopelessly self-absorbed, self-deluded people, and Bochco's agent follows a long tradition - in the movies as well as in print - of cynical, semi-detached narrators - Waldo Lydecker in Laura, Addison DeWitt in All About Eve, The entertainment industry, we are told on page 2 of Death By Hollywood, is "one giant dysfunctional family": "Everyone's terrified - of their own failure, or of everyone's success - and, as a general rule, you can assume that everyone lies about everything." That may or may not be an exaggeration of the real Hollywood (Bochco swears it isn't), but as a premise for a thriller, it's pretty compelling.

Since the book started out as a hoot, Bochco set the relatively modest goal of writing two pages a day. That way, he figured, he would just keep writing - and six, or eight, or however many months later, he would have a book. But it didn't take long before the project took a far greater hold on him. "Within two weeks, I was gone, just obsessed with the thing," he said. "Wherever I was, in the car or in the shower, day or night, on the weekends, I found myself thinking about it... It took just four months to produce a first draft, the most enjoyable four months I've had as a writer."

The delight with which he zipped through the book's 274 pages contrasts starkly with the writer's block assailing his protagonist. In some ways, Bobby Newman is not unlike Bochco: both are transplants from New York City, and both found success at a young age. You can't help feeling that Bochco was writing from the heart when he has his agent-narrator explain that he loves writers such as Newman "because I don't think there's anything in the world that's scarier than staring at a blank page and reaching inside yourself for the inspiration it takes to put your fingers on the keys and make something out of nothing, knowing the whole time that when you're done, some idiot in a suit, with tons of opinions and no talent, will probably shit all over it".

The difference between Newman and Bochco, though, lies precisely in their response to that challenge. The fictional screenwriter falters, turns self-pityingly to drink, and screws up; Bochco, by contrast, has played the Hollywood game with consummate finesse over more than 30 years, and has now turned to novel-writing, not alcohol, as an outlet for his frustrations. "I've certainly struggled with issues of courage at times in my career," he said. And he has certainly had his downs as well as his ups. After a golden beginning as a writing intern at Universal while at college - a beginning that matured into writing gigs on Columbo and McMillan and Wife - he had a couple of early bumps (the relative failure of two producing efforts in the mid-1970s, including the TV version of The Invisible Man), and later got fired from Hill Street Blues after four award-winning seasons, for failing to rein in the budget.

It's hard, he says, to take such setbacks in your stride: "A failure of courage is often a failure of confidence, and you need a lot of confidence to perform at the highest levels. You have to dig deep to do the hard part of your job, then you have to do it all over again to present your work. If you fail, whatever the public face you present, you'll feel a certain loss of confidence."

The liberating thing about writing a novel was that his relationship with the blank page changed entirely. "I didn't experience it as an act of courage," he said. "I experienced it as an adventure with nothing at stake until the book was plopped on the table for critical review." It may be no coincidence that his decision to write Death By Hollywood came after an uncharacteristically dry patch in his production company's commercial fortunes. NYPD Blue, which debuted in 1993, is still on the air, but all his other well-known shows have long since lapsed into syndication and reruns. Bochco has gone on record to criticise spineless network chiefs who would rather cancel an edgy new show, the kind he has always specialised in, than wait for its audience to grow. He has certainly not run out of ideas - the hospital drama City of Angels, with its largely black cast, being a relatively recent example of an interesting project that perhaps did not get its due. Who can blame him for branching off in a different direction, and scoring points against his own industry in the process?

There are, of course, certain risks that a Hollywood insider assumes when writing about his own world. Self-indulgence is one. Pandering to clichés is another. Offending the high and mighty is also something to consider. Bochco was initially defensive on these points, finding in the corrosive cynicism of his own narrative "a certain good-naturedness towards the community" - perhaps because he makes his barbs so amusingly over-the-top. Only a couple of his characters, he insisted, were based on real people, and even they were composites. (He refused point-blank to name names.)

But then he argued that he could have set his story almost anywhere, that Hollywood was no more cynical or amoral than any other industry in the States. "Welcome to American business," he said. "Any time you shine a light on any competitive business, you're going to find ambition, greed, dirty tricks, avarice, lust... It's the same in any company town, whether you're looking at advertising in New York or the car industry in Detroit." The difference being, I suggested, that there aren't quite as many breast implants in Detroit. Bochco retorted, quick as a flash: "Sure there are, only the ones in Detroit are made of chrome."

Eventually, he did acknowledge that LA and the entertainment industry had a specific creative richness all their own, particularly in the "onslaught of continual seduction" created by so much wealth, glamour and celebrity in one place. One character in the novel, his otherwise upstanding cop Dennis Farentino, falls victim to precisely this sense of limitless bounty lying just beyond his grasp. "Yeah, there's a corruptive element," Bochco conceded, "but it's not just this town. It's also the culture we live in. It is fuelled by the media and advertisements. Everything is geared to make you feel inadequate and unhappy with your station in life, to make you want more. Whatever the product - whether it's an implant, a diet, or something for your hair - the rationale is to make you think: I'll be a better, more attractive person. And that's the business of Hollywood."

Bochco talks a good talk, and it's tempting to take at face value his elegant skewering of modern America as a seething, amoral pit of power play, passion, crime and hot sex. But then you look at him sitting comfortably in his spacious office, dressed in the jeans-and-sneakers attire of Hollywood's élite, his awards hanging on the walls, his assistants tending to his every need, his table loaded with nuts and jelly babies, his manner casually dismissive as the photographer asks if he would mind moving to a different part of the room ("No, I don't think so. I don't feel like it"). And you can't help wondering: isn't he exactly the kind of person he is writing about?

Bochco, who, at 59, is settled into repeat marital bliss (he married his office manager after divorcing his first wife in 1997), acknowledges that not everybody leads the dissolute lifestyle of his protagonists, though the potential is always there for good people to do bad things. Generally, he notes, it is the most successful people who are the most generous. For everyone else, though, morality comes on a sliding scale of insecurity, fear and professional fragility. "I know some really wonderful people in this business," he said, drily, "who are straightforward and honest and have an operative ethical code. I know at least two of them."

So, is everyone else sleeping with each other's husbands and wives, stealing each other's material, and flirting on the fringes of criminality? Bochco seemed to sense where the conversation was heading, and abruptly changed tack: "A lot of people in this town lead a pretty normal life, have families, kids, that sort of thing," And, with a smile stretched implausibly far across his well-preserved, tanned face, he added: "Just look at me!"

'Death By Hollywood' is published by Bloomsbury (£12.99)