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Bochco’s Law: Forget Emmys, Just Get Invited Back

The, ahem, Emmy winner on how a summer job turned into his big Hollywood Breakthrough.

Steven Bochco, whose “Raising the Bar” began its second season this week on TNT, virtually defined the one-hour ensemble drama with the classic “Hill Street Blues,” winning a slew of Emmys in the process. But before “Hill Street,” “L.A. Law,” “NYPD Blue” and the many other shows he’s created and run over the years, Bochco was once a summer intern at Universal, talking his way out of a menial job and into a better opportunity. He spoke with Eric Estrin about palling around with that other Steven (and Stephen), the mysteries of mystery writing and being anointed into the big leagues by Peter Falk.

The stepfather of my girlfriend when I was in college helped me get a summer job out here at Universal. This was in 1964, something like that.

When I went to interview, I met with a guy who was the head of the feature story department and he said, Well, we’ll give you a job in the maintenance pool. You’ll deliver typewriters to offices and that kind of stuff for the summer. And so I said, I don’t want to do that. I want to learn something.

He said, We have guys with master’s degrees who are working in our mailroom. I said, Well, good for them, but I only have two months here and I don’t want to do that. I’ll work for nothing, but I want to come away with some knowledge. I think he got a kick out of that. Because of that, I got to work very closely with this guy — and he invited me to come back when I graduated.

Probably the single biggest break that I got after I came back to Universal was that they recruited me to work on this new show that was going on in the fall of 1971 called “Columbo.” I was reluctant to do it, because I didn’t know anything about mysteries. I had never written a mystery before, and it was not my general inclination from a storytelling point of view to do those sorts of things. But there was an executive there who had kind of taken me under his wing, and he said, God, you have to do it; I need you on the show. So I said okay.

They needed bodies. You have to remember what the studio system was like back in the early ‘70s. Universal was the single largest suppler of programming for NBC, and it had dozens and dozens and dozens of writer-producer guys and staff writers like me under contract. We were all on these long-term slave contracts. And so, come the new season, they would fill these shows with young writers who were under contract and get everybody working.

In that first year, “Columbo” got so much wonderful attention. It got nominated for an Emmy, and I got nominated for an Emmy; Peter Falk got nominated for an Emmy. I didn’t win — nor should I have — but the creators of the show won for best writing, Richard Levinson and Bill Link. And Peter, when he won his acting Emmy, thanked me by name. And you know, it was amazing. I must have gotten 100 calls over the next few days. Suddenly people knew who I was.

It was an incredible environment at Universal in those days. Virtually every top writer-producer in television was there, and so it was a tremendous opportunity to just hang around those people. Steve Cannell and I were very good pals for many years because we were both young writers there. Steven Spielberg and I were pals; he directed the very first “Columbo” that I ever wrote.

I had great mentors over there. I not only had Levinson and Link, I worked for Billy Sackheim, who was just one of the really great writer-producers. So there was this remarkable environment where the older writer-producers really took care of us. And over time I got good at writing mysteries. It wasn’t so much the mystery element as it was the intricacy of plot that really became interesting to me. And I owe so much to Levinson and Link for teaching me about that stuff.

One of the things I’ve always said to a new director who we hire — somebody who’s doing it for the first time — I always say, Your only job is to get invited back. Don’t try to win an Oscar; don’t try to win an Emmy; just get invited back. Because that’s how you progress in life.

So I guess I did enough to get invited back.