Bochco on His Own : Veteran Producer's New Firm Bows With 'Doogie Howser'

Times Staff Writer

Forget "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law" and "Hooperman." Steven Bochco is worried about producing his first TV show.

Never mind his illustrious, Emmy-studded past. The veteran writer-producer's newest creation, ABC's "Doogie Howser, M.D."--a quirky half-hour about a child prodigy who zipped over the academic hurdles to become a physician at age 16--is the first new show of the 10-series deal Bochco struck with ABC in November, 1987.

And it feels like the very first time.

"The stakes are higher, I guess, on the first one--you want it to be a credible effort, because there are a lot of people who will be watching," Bochco said at his airy new production headquarters--informally dubbed the "Bochco Building"--on the 20th Century Fox lot. The show debuts Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. and then will be seen Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m.

In an era when multiple-series deals with networks have fallen out of vogue, Bochco believes the success or failure of his first few series could affect the future of such deals for other producers.

"I would hope that, in the course of the next few years, ABC is going to look as though they were very smart," Bochco said. "If we don't do well, I guess I don't look so smart."

In 1987, Bochco turned down an offer from CBS to become president of its TV entertainment division and chose instead to accept ABC's offer of a six-year, seven-series deal with three more non-exclusive commitments over a flexible period of several years. At the time, Bochco's attorney said ABC paid Bochco in the ballpark of $10 million.

A few months later, Bochco announced that he would produce the 10 ABC series at Fox--for whom he already was making "L.A. Law"--and that Fox would get worldwide distribution rights to the shows.

If ABC doesn't like a Bochco series, he can sell it elsewhere, and Bochco can also take a series to another network first--but such a decision would result in substantial penalties for whichever party breaks the agreement.

"I like that aspect of the deal, because it keeps everybody on their toes," Bochco said. "Quite honestly, I don't see that happening. We were in easy accord on this first one. We're both a little nervous about the second one, just because it's an odd, different sort of hour."

Bochco, grinning widely, refuses any further details about his second ABC series, except to say: "Well, I don't know how odd it is, but it's complicated, and I'm not sure it's feasible, and nobody's ever done anything quite like it, so we both had anxieties about it for different reasons."

Anxiety doesn't seem to be leaving Bochco much the worse for wear these days, however. Although the "Bochco Building" is still so brand-new it has entrances and exits that don't lead anywhere, it seems more like a resort hotel than an office complex: "I wanted it to feel like a home, not like every building on every studio lot I've ever worked on, a warren of little hallways," Bochco said with a shudder.

And even with new-show jitters, Bochco seems as happy as a housecat here. Even though it's a new project, "Doogie Howser" remains all in the family, sort of: Scott Goldstein, producer of "L.A. Law" from 1986 to 1989, has moved over to produce "Doogie" this season; David Kelley, taking over from Bochco as "L.A. Law" executive producer, co-created "Doogie" and will serve as a creative consultant, as will Rick Wallace, now co-executive producer of "L.A. Law." Actor James B. Sikking, who portrays Doogie's father, is a "Hill Street Blues" veteran.

Bochco said his idea to develop a series about a child prodigy existed long before the deal with ABC. Bochco's father was a child prodigy who went on to become a concert violinist. An animated version of a 50-year-old photograph of Bochco's father playing the violin is part of the Steven Bochco Productions logo, which will appear at the end of each "Doogie Howser" episode.

"When I was growing up, he was just my dad," Bochco said. "He was 43 when I was born, so by the time I was a young child, my dad was 50 years old. Prodigy didn't mean anything to me. All I knew was I had a dad who was a violinist--that's what he did professionally.

"But he was also a guy who was a gifted portrait painter, self-taught, a wonderful architect, self-taught, a wonderful designer and master-builder, a voracious reader. That is my enduring memory of my dad, with a book in his hands. He audited medical school when he was a 20-year-old kid, because he had a bunch of friends who were medical students."

Bochco's interest was solidified by a magazine article on such children. "I thought, what if a kid's prodigious ability, through a certain set of circumstances, were focused almost obsessively on medicine?"

So Bochco created Doogie Howser, portrayed by 16-year-old Neil Patrick Harris, a child who becomes obsessed with medicine during a life-threatening illness. Douglas (Doogie) Howser scored perfect 800s on his SATs after completing high school in nine weeks. At 14, he received his medical degree and is now a second-year resident.

Bochco hopes the audience will be able to accept the reality of a 16-year-old doctor, who can dispense narcotic drugs but can't buy beer in a grocery store. He also wants the series to reflect the confusion of a child thrust into an adult world. In the first episode, the staff of the hospital plays a cruel birthday joke on Doogie, in which a female staffer corners him and seemingly attempts to seduce him as a set-up for a surprise party. They realize too late that the joke isn't as funny for a 16-year-old as for a 25-year-old.

"Although later episodes might be lighter, my choice was to do something that aches, so you could see what is fundamental to the concept--the compelling complexity and difficulty of being a boy in an adult world," Bochco explained.

In episode two, Doogie is out on a date when his 16-year-old girlfriend develops appendicitis. He takes her to the hospital, only to find that no other physician is available to give her a pelvic exam.

Bochco said he would prefer the show to be on at 8:30 or 9 p.m. rather than 9:30 to attract a younger audience--but he added that some of the subject matter might be problematic for younger audiences. "(The pelvic exam) is not something I'd want to do on an 8 o'clock show--but again, it's a concept that cuts to the very heart of the show, because it's humiliating," he said.

Just as "Doogie Howser" straddles the line between being a show for adults and a show aimed at kids Doogie's age, it also falls into that suspicious category invented last year: the "dramedy," or a half-hour, one-camera film show that may contain as much tragedy as comedy. Bochco's last "dramedy," ABC's "Hooperman," never became a ratings success and was canceled last season.

"I know ABC is understandably concerned about that--and I guess everybody else is," Bochco acknowledged. "But unlike 'Hooperman,' which I think we made some mistakes with, this feels more comfortable to me in a half-hour. I think this concept tells its stories comfortably in a half-hour; I'm not sure 'Hooperman' ever did."

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