"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

From Ali to Xena: 34

A Message From Mr. Bochco

By John Schulian

In the midst of the terror that paralyzed me in my first Hollywood story meeting, I heard a voice from my newspaper days tell me to do what I’d always done when other people were talking: take notes. So I madly started scribbling down everything Steven Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher were saying. And I kept scribbling until the day was done (thank God) and the story was broken (no thanks to me).

The story would become a script called “Gibbon Take.” It was about, among other things, a trust for the poor people of Beverly Hills. Steven sent me off to write the beat sheet for it, so we could see how the story looked on paper and where it needed shoring up. A beat sheet is a scene-by-scene outline that serves as the foundation for a script and a safeguard if a writer (me, for instance) makes a hash of said script. In the movie business, it’s known as a step outline, but movies take forever to make and writers come and go, leaving step outlines trampled and forgotten. But in TV, where the pace is furious-–a new episode is shot every seven or eight days-–a beat sheet is a rock to cling to.

On my way out the door that day, with my head still spinning, Steven’s assistant asked me the magic question: “John, where would you like us to send your check?” I hadn’t done anything to earn it yet, but I’ve never been one to turn down an offer of money, so I gave her my address in Philly and hurried off before she learned the awful truth about me.

I was staying at the Hyatt on Sunset Boulevard–the fabled rock-and-roll Riot House from the 60s-–and I spent the next day or two arranging and rearranging the order of scenes, looking for coherent act breaks, and basically taking baby steps as a TV writer. I worked on the same Olivetti portable typewriter that I’d hauled around the country as a sports columnist.

Steven would make changes in what I concocted, but still what I handed him wasn’t so bad that he banished me back from the premises. Instead, he gave me a big smile, wrapped an arm around my shoulder and asked, “You all right?”

“I think so,” I said.

“Well,” he said, “you looked like a horse in a burning barn the other day.”

Then we sat down to do some more work on the story. He wanted to get me writing as soon as he could, just as he had the other two untested TV writers he was taking a flier on. One was a woman whose name I forget. The other was a young lawyer from Boston named David Kelley. Maybe you’ve heard of him. Created “Boston Legal,” “Ally McBeal,” and “Picket Fences,” to name but a few series. Wrote almost every episode himself (to the amazement of even the most prolific and best writers in the business). Won every kind of award they hand out. Married Michelle Pfeiffer. All that and he was a good guy, a certified Boston sports nut who kept asking me what his favorite ballplayers were really like. I told him they were all princes. I was in no position to disillusion anybody.

Anyway, Steven wanted to find out about me as a writer as fast as he could. The woman he’d taken a chance on had just delivered her script, and it was a disaster. If I turned out to be just as bad, he wanted to send me packing as quickly so he and Terry Fisher could do a salvage job.

This wasn’t anything he told me, of course, but I could see it written on his face just as he had seen the fear written on mine. Inspired by our mutual discomfort, I made a proposal: what if I wrote five or six scenes from my beat sheet as a test run? If he liked them, I would finish the script. If he didn’t, I’d go back to sportswriting and we would part as friends. It didn’t take any convincing for him to say yes.

By now I was staying at Mike Downey’s apartment in Marina del Ray while he was on the road for the L.A. Times. Just me and my Olivetti as I tried to bring those great Bochco-esque characters to life. If I had any gift at all for what I was attempting, it was that I was a decent mimic. Steven’s characters spoke with such specific voices that I could imitate them without embarrassing myself. So I wrote and re-wrote each scene, polishing them until they had as much shine on them as I could muster. Then, on a Friday afternoon, I stopped by Fox and handed them to Steven. He said he’d read them and get back to me as fast as he could. Both of us were nervous, though for far different reasons.

I spent most of the next day wandering around and didn’t get back to Downey’s apartment until 3 or 4 in the afternoon. The message light on the phone was blinking. It was Steven, with a verdict: “I don’t know what you’re doing hanging around with sports writers, kid. You’re in show business.”

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1 Alex Belth   ~  Sep 14, 2011 10:25 am

Interesting stuff, J. I've never imagined what it'd be like to write for a TV show. And I never really watched "L.A. Law." But now I'd be curious to go back and see some of it.

2 Ben   ~  Sep 14, 2011 11:00 am

I didn't dig the early installments of the Ali to Xena too much. It seemed a little rambling, nostalgic. But starting with the move to Philly, and the disillusionment with the paper biz, the move to Hollywood, I'm loving it. Maybe it's just my interest in screenplay writing over sports writing that's biasing me. Whatever it is, keep it coming.

And me too. I always thought LA Law was a yuppy soap opera. But I was pretty young when it was on. Be interesting to see what it was really about.

3 Jon DeRosa   ~  Sep 14, 2011 11:12 am

I saw some Hill Street Blues and most of LA Law when I was probably too young to get it. But I really was into LA Law. I remember we had a mock trial in the 6th grade and I had to be one of the lawyers, and I was trying to be Kuzak.

Speaking of Harry Hamlin, he was balls-out awesome in Veronica Mars too.

4 Alex Belth   ~  Sep 14, 2011 11:35 am

I missed out on "Hill Street" too. My dad loved it, though. Would like to check it out now.

5 Shaun P.   ~  Sep 14, 2011 12:30 pm

I was too little to watch "Hill Street Blues", but I remember LA Law very, very well. I watched it religiously from the night it premiered until the end of the 1991-92 season, at which point it had started to go downhill.

Some of it went over my head, but the stories were incredible. That show brimmed with conflict. My favorite story arc was all the angst between Leland MacKenzie and Rosalind Shays, who eventually became lovers. I will never forget the episode where Rosalind died by falling down the elevator shaft, which was simultaneously shocking (does that even happen?) and managed to solve a lot of the problems all the other characters were having because of her.

A great show in its time.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver