Henry Bromell, a novelist and short-story writer who brought a literary quality to some of the most acclaimed dramatic TV series of the last two decades, including “Homeland,” “Northern Exposure” and “Homicide: Life on the Street,” died Monday at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica. He was 65.
He was believed to have had a heart attack, said his longtime friend and agent Peter Benedek.
Bromell spent the last 23 years writing, producing and directing TV dramas noteworthy for their resonant characters and sharp dialogue. He shared an Emmy last year as a writer and executive producer on “Homeland,” the Showtime series about a CIA agent who suspects an American war hero is a terrorist-in-waiting.
One reason he was hired on “Homeland” was his personal history: His father had been a CIA station chief in the Middle East in the 1950s. His background also inspired him to write “Little America,” a 2001 novel about a son who struggles to ferret out the truth about his father’s life as a spy.
“He was really a wunderkind,” veteran writer-producer John Falsey, who co-created “Northern Exposure” and “St. Elsewhere,” said of Bromell on Tuesday. “His humor was never broad, always moving. He had a natural ear for dialogue.”
“Homeland” was Bromell’s latest credit in a career that developed in association with “The Family Tree,” an eminent group of TV “auteurs” who can trace their roots or training to “St. Elsewhere” and another standout show from the early 1980s, “Hill Street Blues.” Television historian Robert J. Thompson has written about the group as the pioneers of a new kind of literary drama that later attracted mainstream popularity with shows like “The Sopranos.”
“This is all coming from a group of people who have been doing this their entire adult lives — aiming … for this kind of literary drama,” Bromell told the Baltimore Sun in 2012, when he also won a Writers’ Guild Award for scripting “The Good Soldier” episode of “Homeland.”
His television career began on a fluke in 1990, when Falsey, whom he’d never met, called to thank him for his help getting into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop a dozen years earlier. He asked Bromell to help him write his new show, “Northern Exposure.”
“I didn’t even have a television set then,” Bromell recalled in a 2001 New York Times interview.
Bromell took Falsey up on his offer and began writing for the CBS series, which went on to win seven Emmys and two Peabody awards for its poetically comedic depiction of culture clash in a fictional Alaska town.
He went on from “Northern Exposure” to be a writer and executive producer for “Homicide: Life on the Street,” the NBC series that debuted in 1993. He later worked on shows such as “Chicago Hope,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “Brotherhood” and “Rubicon.”
He made his film directing debut in 2001 with “Panic,” a quirky movie about the midlife crisis of a professional hit man, played by William H. Macy.
Bromell was born in New York on Sept. 19, 1947. He grew up abroad, following his father on CIA postings in places including Cairo; Amman, Jordan; and Tehran.
“God knows what he was doing, but we were with him,” Bromell told NPR in 2010. “He was in the operation side for almost 30 years.”
A graduate of Amherst, Bromell launched his literary career in his early 20s when his short stories began appearing in the New Yorker. His first collection, “The Slightest Distance” (1974), was praised in the New York Times for its tone of “delicate nostalgia,” and his second collection, “I Know Your Heart, Marco Polo” (1979) was described by novelist Joyce Carol Oates as “highly promising” despite flaws.
He made his debut as a novelist in 1983 with “The Follower,” which Los Angeles magazine described as “an oddly didactic novel” about a waiter and aspiring actor who becomes a victim of mistaken identity.
Bromell’s first marriage, to Trish Soodik, ended in divorce; she died of cancer in 2009. He is survived by his wife, Sarah, and two sons, William and Jake.