Each week 12 million or so fans tune in to the gritty dialogue on NBC’s police opera, Hill Street Blues. But no viewers watch with a greater sense of excitement—and trepidation—than the show’s co-executive producer Steven Bochco and his wife, Barbara Bosson, who plays the divorced wife of precinct captain Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti). While others find their thrill in watching the critically acclaimed program’s crisply written plots unfold, Bochco, 37, and Bosson, 41, reach an adrenaline high from just wondering whether the year-old series itself will survive.
For all its devotees, the Blues (slang for police) has languished in the Nielsen ratings. But last week the series got the kind of boost producers pray for: It won a record eight Emmys, including awards for best drama series, best actor (Travanti), best actress (Barbara Babcock) and best writer (Bochco and co-writer Michael Kozoll). That’s no guarantee Hill Street will move to easy street. But as Bochco reckons, “Now people at least have to give us a look.”
After the show’s January debut, Barbara recalls, “We all felt it was the best thing we’d done—and we didn’t know if it would last two more weeks.” Steven, who unabashedly agrees with reviewers who laud the show’s blend of trivia and tragedy in an inner-city station house, was more optimistic. “I couldn’t believe anything this good would be taken off the air,” he says. “Besides, I didn’t think NBC, of all networks, had anything to replace it with.”
The fact that Bosson received a best supporting actress nomination helped her husband counter charges of casting favoritism. Although he jokes that her name is spelled “B-O-S-S-O-N, with an ‘n’ as in ‘nepotism,’ ” Bochco adds seriously: “The only rule I have about working with friends and loved ones is that I’m not going to penalize them for it, but if they’re not better than the next person on the list, I’m not going to hire them, either. I’ve never been very sensitive about charges of nepotism because I’ve turned Barbara down for parts before. We’ve had a few words about that.”
When they do have words, they let off steam in a sauna and Jacuzzi bath in back of the Santa Monica home they share with children Melissa, 11, and Jesse, 6. “Once we get the kids in bed every night, that’s where we go to do all our catching up,” says Bosson. “It’s terrific—we don’t get colds anymore, and the marriage stays current. I really recommend them.” Moreover, adds Steven: “They’re a really good place to fight. You’re hot, you’re naked and you’ve got nowhere to go. Only thing is, five minutes into the argument, you have to say, ‘Excuse me,’ and go jump in the pool to cool down.”
Otherwise, life is mostly no sweat. Professional considerations aside, says Barbara, “The only thing I have trouble with—and I can handle it—is that Steven is so used to being an executive. I bristle at having someone else in charge. I have to get aggressive, and say, ‘Look, this is the way it will be’—and he backs down immediately.” Counters the soft-spoken Bochco, explaining with a laugh why he cast his spouse as a beleaguered single mother: “She screams at me—all the time.”
Bosson began her assertiveness training 23 miles south of Pittsburgh in Belle Vernon, Pa., where she was the daughter of a tennis coach who worked as a milkman to make ends meet. “I saw him suffer silently—he hated being a milkman—and that’s why I was determined not to compromise,” says Barbara. She decided to be an actress “when I was 3.” At 13, she moved with her family to St. Petersburg, Fla., and after high school hopped the first bus to New York to seek a stage career. “It was like going to Paris or London for me, I’d been so sheltered at home,” she recalls. “I remember calling my mother after I first got there and saying”—she slips into a drawl—” ‘Ah hav met Jews! And they are all so SMART!’ ” She worked summer stock and as a Playboy Club bunny before enrolling in 1965 in a drama course at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Tech. There she met playwriting student Bochco, the Manhattan-born son of an immigrant Polish violinist father and Lithuanian painter mother. It was ennui at first sight: Barbara left after one year to enlist in San Francisco’s improvisation troupe, the Committee. After graduating, Steven also headed West and joined Universal Studios to help write the NBC series The Name of the Game. They were reintroduced by friends after she moved to L.A. in 1967, and married 18 months later. Barbara went on to alternate between small acting parts and mothering. Steven’s reputation soared through his work as a writer on McMillan and Wife, Columbo and Delvecchio. After Steven switched to MTM Enterprises in 1978, then NBC president Fred Silverman approached him with the Hill Street idea. Steven and co-writer Kozoll brazenly demanded—and got—total creative control. As a result, Hill Street has unusually vivid ethnic and sexual humor.
By comparison, the couple’s home life is tame. Steven watches football and plays racquetball regularly; Barbara prefers to “ski and break bones.” As for common interests, jokes Steven, “We’re reduced to orgies, that sort of thing.”
He talks about someday getting a degree in psychology. “With 14 regulars in the cast, I’m not sure I’d even have to hang out a shingle,” he cracks. Both call themselves politically liberal—though they admit to “sending out mixed signals,” particularly about police. “They’re not better than the rest of us, emotionally or philosophically,” says Steven. “But there are things which we as a society ask that they do, and some of those things are definitely heroic.”
As for the fate of Hill Street Blues, there’s always the hope that Grant Tinker, the MTM founder-turned-NBC president, will have a soft spot for a show produced by his old company. “My favorite joke about all this is that Grant has been tough but fair with us,” deadpans Bochco. “He’s giving us five years, and if we’re not doing well by then, he’ll yank us off the schedule.”