Steven Bochco, prolific TV writer-producer dies, THR says

Steven Bochco’s title card for the Columbo episode Murder by the Book.

Steven Bochco, a prolific television writer and producer whose credits included Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, has died at 74, The Hollywood Reporter said.

Details about Bochco’s death were not immediately available, THR said. Bochco had been suffering from leukemia.

Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue and LA Law featured large ensemble casts. The two police series in particular addressed adult themes and had a gritty presentation.

“Bochco time and time again refused to bend to network chiefs or standards and practices execs, thus earning rare creative control during his five decades of envelope-pushing work,” THR said in its obituary. Bochco won 10 Emmy awards.

Bochco began his career at Universal’s television operation. He was the story editor for the Robert Stack episodes of The Name of the Game, a series about a publishing empire. The series rotated Stack, Tony Franciosa and Gene Barry as lead actors.

When that series wrapped in 1971, Bochco moved over to Columbo, part of the NBC Mystery Movie. Bochco wrote the first regular Columbo episode broadcast, Murder by the Book.

The story concerned half of a mystery writer team who kills his partner. The episode was directed by another up and comer, Steven Spielberg. Bochco was nominated for an Emmy for his script. But he lost out to Richard Levinson and William Link, Columbo’s creators, for an episode they wrote that season.

What follows are some excerpts from an interview Bochco did for the Archive of American Television about his career. The first concerns how he came to work on Columbo. The others concern Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue.

Universal in the ’60s & ’70s: The Television Factory

 

Universal logo, circa 1960s

In the 1960s and ’70s, Universal’s television division was like a TV factory.

Its shows had a certain look, a certain sheen. Universal’s TV operation would help launch the careers of people such as director Steven Spielberg and writer-director Steven Bochco (who both worked on the same episode of Columbo).

Universal developed the concept of “the wheel,” where different shows rotated in the same time slow, or a series that had rotating leads. Examples: The NBC Mystery Movie (different rotating shows) and The Name of the Game (rotating leads).

Universal, of course, still produces television shows. It’s now part of Comcast as is NBC, where many Universal shows were telecast. But it’s not the same because, naturally, television has evolved. Still, it’s a worth a look back.

Origins: Music Corp. of America, or MCA, was a talent agency. But MCA saw the potential of television. It formed Revue in 1950 as a television production arm. It acquired the studio lot of Universal (then known as Universal-International) in 1958 and eventually acquired Universal itself.

Revue produced all sorts of shows: Westerns (Wagon Train and The Virginian), comedies (The Jack Benny Program, Leave It to Beaver, The Munsters), crime dramas (M Squad), and anthology shows such as Alfred Hitchock Presents (hosted by Hitch), Thriller (hosted by Boris Karloff) and The General Electric Theater (hosted by Ronald Reagan).

Eventually, all of its TV series were under the better-known Universal brand. The boss of MCA-Universal was Lew Wasserman, who became a major figure in Hollywood. Writers Richard Levinson and William Link, when devising the Mannix television series, came up with a character named Lew Wickersham (Joseph Campanella) who was modeled on Wasserman.

The Universal mogul apparently didn’t mind. After Campanella’s Wickersham character was written out after the first season of Mannix, the actor ended up as one of the leads on “The Lawyers” part of The Bold Ones, another Universal “wheel.”

Glory Days: Universal was a major supplier of shows for U.S. television. As early as 1964, it embraced the idea of made-for-television movies. Its first effort, The Killers, directed by Don Siegel, was deemed too violent and got a theatrical release.

One of the early TV movies was 1966’s Fame is the Name of the Game, starring Tony Franciosa as an investigative reporter for a magazine.

This would be the basis for The Name of the Game (1968-71), an early example of “the wheel.” Franciosa, Robert Stack and Gene Barry rotated as the leads of the series, which concerned the magazine empire headed by Glenn Howard (Barry).

A key figure at Universal television, who is not remembered much today, was Richard Irving (1917-1990), a producer-director. He oversaw a Universal Western series (Laredo), which aired on NBC from 1967 to 1967.

Irving also produced and directed the 1968 television movie Prescription: Murder, where TV audiences were first introduced to Lt. Columbo (Peter Falk). The same year, he produced and directed a TV movie with international intrigue titled Istanbul Express, starring Barry, Senta Berger and John Saxon.

Irving remained a booster of Columbo. He directed another TV movie with the detective, 1971’s Ransom for a Dead Man, which finally sold Columbo as a series.

The Universal TV operation cruised throughout the ’70s. In the early 1980s, it had another hit with Magnum: P.I. But things got tougher that decade. Universal excelled at one-hour dramas and TV movies at a time things were changing.

In 1990, MCA sold itself to Japan’s  Matsushita Electric. It would be bought and sold over the years before being acquired by Comcast.

UK film industry not diverse, says report backed by 007 boss

Barbara Broccoli

The British film industry faces a “pandemic lack of inclusion,” says a report backed by the bosses of the James Bond and Star Wars film franchises, according to The Guardian.

Barbara Broccoli, boss of Eon Productions, and Kathleen Kennedy, head of Star Wars maker Lucasfilm Ltd., “are throwing their weight behind a plan, backed by £20m of national lottery money, to improve diversity in the sector,” wrote Mark Brown of The Guardian.

Both film franchises have their home bases in the United Kingdom. Lucasfilm is owned by Walt Disney Co.

Here’s an excerpt from The Guardian’s story:

The report on film employment, whether of camera operators, riggers, props or hairdressers, shows a striking lack of diversity and “significant obstacles” to people getting jobs in the first place.

Heather Carey, an associate consultant at the Work Foundation thinktank, led the data research for the report and found major barriers. “There is a culture of nepotism and a lot of the employers we spoke to just recruit via word of mouth,” she said.

“You tend to get that a bit in certain industries but in this industry it is kind of … that’s how it’s done. If you don’t have the network it is incredibly difficult to get in and progress.”

Kennedy, 64, became president of Lucasfilm when it was acquired by Disney in 2012. Previously, she was a co-founder, with Steven Spielberg, of Amblin Entertainment. Her IMDB.COM ENTRY lists 92 producer credits.

Broccoli, 57, has been producer of the last eight Bond movies, sharing the producer’s credit with her half-brother Michael G. Wilson, 75. She held other posts at Eon before that and has produced non-Bond films and plays. She is the daughter of Eon co-founder Albert R. Broccoli.

Jonathan Demme’s Columbo episode

Louis Jourdan and Peter Falk in Murder Under Glass, directed by Jonathan Demme

Jonathan Demme, a well-regarded director, has died at 73. He’s understandably remembered for Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia and other films.

Demme, though, shares something in common with another major director, Steven Spielberg. Both had early credits directing an episode of Columbo.

Spielberg directed a first-season episode, Murder by the Book. (It was the first series episode telecast after two pilot TV movies.) Demme’s turn came toward the end of the detective’s 1971-78 run on NBC (the show was revived later on ABC).

Murder Under Glass, featured Louis Jourdan as an influential food critic (who has his own television show) who has extorted owners of restaurants for favorable reviews that has made their businesses successful.

When one of them (Michael V. Gazzo) balks, the food critic poisons him through an ingenious method, thanks to the critic’s own formidable culinary skills and knowledge.

Lt. Columbo (Peter Falk) plays his normal game of cat and mouse before bringing in his man. The good detective (a good cook in his own right) also manages to eat quite well along the way.

As often was the case with Columbo, it wasn’t the outcome as it was the journey.

Jourdan’s Paul Gerard was a worthy adversary for the detective. Gerard even tries to do in Columbo while the two are having a meal. The attempted murder is the last thing Columbo needs to make his case.

The episode was a highlight for Columbo’s final NBC season. For Jonathan Demme, bigger things lay ahead.

2017: Spielberg’s future arrives

Title card for The Name of the Game episode LA 2017

Title card for The Name of the Game episode LA 2017

Some time back, the blog examined the television series The Name of the Game, about a publishing empire.

It’s now appropriate to take a look at the show’s most unusual episode:  LA 2017, a dystopian tale about, what seemed in 1971, a far-off year in the future.

It was also one of the early directing credits for Steven Spielberg. LA 2017 originally aired Jan. 15, 1971, less than a month after the director’s 24th birthday.

The Name of the Game tackled current events as experienced by key personnel at Howard Publications, headed by Glenn Howard (Gene Barry).

For LA 2017, the production team decided to address the environment — but in a way the series hadn’t previously attempted.

Producer Dean Hargrove commissioned a script by science fiction writer Philip Wylie. As the episode begins, Glenn Howard is driving in Southern California. The publisher is planning a campaign across his magazines to highlight environmental issues.

As Howard drives, he uses a tape recorder to dictate a letter to the president. “Priorities have to be established or this may very well be the beginning of the end for Earth as we know it,” he says.

Howard has an accident, and ends up in a ditch. He also, seemingly, is now in 2017. An ecological disaster has forced people to live underground. National governments have been replaced by corporate ones.

Despite being a CEO, Glenn Howard doesn’t like what he sees and sides with those resisting the corporate order. The episode eventually ends with it being revealed that it (probably) was a dream. Spielberg’s last shot is of a dead bird. presumably not to let the audience off too easily.

The episode’s title card, primary actors and the writer, producer and director credits are in a font used a lot at that time because it seemed futuristic.

Wylie turned the story into a novel, Los Angeles: A.D. 2017. He died late in 1971 at the age of 69. Spielberg’s career, meanwhile, was still gearing up.

Douglas Slocombe, renown cinematographer, dies at 103

Never Say Never Again's poster

Poster for Never Say Never Again, photographed by Douglas Slocombe

Douglas Slocombe, who photographed more than 80 films in a long career, has died at 103, according to AN OBITUARY BY AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE.

Slocombe’s many credits included the first three Indiana Jones films from 1981 to 1989 as well as the 1983 007 film Never Say Never Again, not part of the 24-film series produced by Eon Productions.

The cinematographer also had his own real life adventure. He was in Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, working on filming for a documentary when Germany invaded the country, starting World War II. Here’s an excerpt FROM A 2014 BBC STORY:

“But I still remember the shock when at about 05:00 on 1 September we awoke to find the attack had begun,” says Slocombe. “There were bombers overhead and the whistle of falling bombs.

“I had no understanding of the concept of blitzkrieg. I had been expecting trouble but I thought it would be in trenches, like WW1. The Germans were coming over the border at a great pace.”

Slocombe and American filmmaker Herbert Klein, who was making the documentary, took a long, arduous trek. At one point, “A young girl died in front of us. We were shaken by that,” Slocombe told the BBC.

For part of the journey, “(W)e walked and walked north with the cart — me, Herbert Kline, the horse and the foal. By now I was an enemy alien so if we’d encountered any Germans that would have been it,” Slocombe told the BBC. They eventually got to Stockholm. The documentary, Lights Out in Europe, came out in 1940.

After something like that, photographing the make-believe Nazis of the Indiana Jones movies must have been child’s play.

Besides Steven Spielberg on the Indiana Jones films and Irvin Kershner on Never Say Never Again, Slocombe worked with a number of famed directors, including John Huston, as noted in this tweet:

The Spy Command’s final thoughts on ‘Year of the Spy’

BridgeOfSpies
Almost a year ago, this blog christened 2015 as the “Year of the Spy.” As the year draws to a close, this post looks back on that year with some final thoughts.

The blog didn’t write about all the movies discussed here. But the blog editor did see them all. The films listed are in order from best to worst. Actually, none of them was a stinker, so “worst” here is relative. Regardless, here we go.

Bridge of Spies: This wasn’t so much a spy movie as a film about the aftermath of espionage.

The Steven Spielberg-directed “biopic” starred Tom Hanks as James B. Donovan (1913-1970), the American lawyer who negotiated the release of U.S. U2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers from the Soviets.

With any “based on true events” film, one should never view it as history. Regardless, it was very engrossing. Here, CGI is used to recreate Powers’ capture when his plane was shot down.

Hanks is an accomplished actor and, as usual, delivers a strong performance. This movie also is a milestone of a different sort. Spielberg had to rely upon a composer other than mostly retired John Williams. For this film, that was Thomas Newman.

Bridge of Spies is mostly a low-key drama. The stakes are large, but it doesn’t have the pyrotechnics of the typical action film. This is exactly what Newman excels at. His score is perfect for the movie — and also points out his weakness at another prominent movie on this list.

U.N.C.L.E. movie poster

U.N.C.L.E. movie poster

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: The return of Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin after a 32-year absence was a financial failure, despite a modest $75 million production budget.

The Guy Ritchie-movie took liberties with the source material. Henry Cavill’s Solo was, more or less, the same character that Robert Vaughn played in the 1964-68 series but his back story was quite different. Ritchie took more liberties with Armie Hammer’s Kuryakin, who had a far darker side than David McCallum’s original.

Still, it mostly worked, even if it relied on an “origin” story line. It had a strong opening, downshifted to a decent middle section, then went into high gear in its second half. Once main villain Victoria (Elizabeth Debecki) calls Cavill by “Mr. Solo,” the proceedings accelerated until the end.

One of the strengths of the movie is Daniel Pemberton’s score. The composer was instructed by Ritchie NOT to emulate John Barry’s 007 movie style and that advice pays off.

The chances of a sequel are remote. That’s show biz. But the movie wasn’t camp (a fear of long-time U.N.C.L.E. fans). Perhaps, in coming years, this movie might attain the status of a “cult classic.”

SPECTRE poster

SPECTRE poster

SPECTRE:  The 24th James Bond film started out strong as it sought to mix “traditional” 007 movie elements with Daniel Craig’s 21st century grittier take. For the first two-thirds, it succeeded.

Yet, in its desire to top 2012’s Skyfall, some things went awry. The same writers of Skyfall (John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade) worked on this year’s Bond film. Their roles, however, were reversed.

Until now, Purvis and Wade — who are very familiar with Ian Fleming’s original novels and short stories — would do the early drafts while another writer (Logan in the case of Skyfall) would come in and polish things up.

In this case, Logan did the early drafts. Purvis and Wade weren’t even supposed to participate. However, Logan’s efforts were found lacking — something that likely wouldn’t have been known had it not been for computer hacking at Sony Pictures, which exposed behind-the-scenes details of many movies, including SPECTRE. Also, playwright Jez Butterworth (who did uncredited polishes on Skyfall) apparently did more on SPECTRE because he got a credit with the other scribes.

Thomas Newman, who did such a splendid job on Bridge of Spies, is only serviceable here, even recycling some of his Skyfall score in some scenes. Clearly, doing a Bond film is NOT in the talented composer’s wheelhouse.

Regardless of the soap opera, SPECTRE ran out of gas. Its final third wasn’t a total loss but it didn’t sustain the momentum of the first two-thirds. As a result, this blog puts SPECTRE behind U.N.C.L.E., which finished much stronger.

Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation's teaser poster

Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation’s teaser poster

Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation: The fifth Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible film had its own behind-the-scenes soap opera.

The movie was originally scheduled to debut Dec. 25. But Paramount abruptly moved up the release date to July 31, presumably to get it out of harm’s way from Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Presumably, that had to add extra stress to screenwriter-director Christopher McQuarrie. Directors almost always want more time to tinker with a movie in editing, not less.

Regardless, from a box office standpoint, it was an astute move. It definitely hurt the U.N.C.L.E. movie (which came out two weeks later). And the movie was well received, encouraging Paramount to order up another film.

Technically, the movie was very exciting. Star (and producer) Cruise probably scares studio bosses by insisting on doing his own stunts. This blog drops the movie down a step because it’s not as much of a Mission: Impossible movie as its predecessor, the Brad Bird-directed Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol.

The original M:I series (1966-73) was very much about team work. Ghost Protocol very much followed that path (even reworking some bits from the show, albeit in a bigger and more spectacular fashion). Rogue Nation was a step backward. It was another example of turning M:I into The Tom Cruise Show.

Kingsman: The Secret Service: If this movie had sustained its first half for the rest of the film, it probably would have been the best spy movie of the year.

It didn’t. In the first half of the movie, one of the best scenes in the first half is where Kingsman Harry Hart (Colin Firth) says, “Manners maketh man,” before he clobbers some British thugs. But director Matthew Vaughn conveniently forgets that advice. Once Harry is killed midway throught he film, the movie dies a bit with him.

There’s still a decent amount worth watching (and the movie was a hit, especially with international audiences). Still, whatever class was present disappears into the mist.

Taken 3: The final (we hope) of Liam Neeson’s adventures as a former spy does everything it’s supposed to do — but no more. In this installment, the wife of Neeson’s Bryan Mills has been killed and he’s been framed. Of course, he’ll get out it. The question is how.