CORRIDOR of MYSTERY
VOL. 4, No. 38
DEATH BY HOLLYWOOD
A Top TV Writer-Producer
turns to mystery writing
By RON MILLER
If I had to boil down the sum total of Steven Bochco's work as a writer-producer in television in order to distill a few words that capture the essence of his talent, I'd probably go with "creator of top quality TV shows, known for their hard-edged reality laced with humor."
Once you know he created or co-created such classic TV shows as "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law" and "N.Y.P.D. Blue," then you'll probably agree those words probably fit him pretty neatly.
Which is why it was somewhat a surprise to read his first novel, "Death By Hollywood" (Random House, $24.95), and find that it's a very broad comic hoot with only a faint undercoat of reality. It doesn't appear to be the work of the man who wrote some of the grimmer moments of "N.Y.P.D. Blue," but maybe rather the one who wrote the nude scenes and the immortal scatological moments when Andy Sipowicz mixed dog poop with the pasta he served to his old nemesis, Giardello the Gangster.
Might someone have bumped Bochco off and started writing under his byline? Well, not likely, since I've seen the authentic Bochco on a few talk shows, hawking his book. Still, something like that happens in "Death By Hollywood," so the idea does have a certain resonance.
As a TV critic of more than 30 years service so far, I've seen an awful lot of Bochco shows and liked the vast majority of them well enough to rave on about them ad nauseum. I do not, however, harbor the notion that he's perfect. Nobody is, though I think he probably comes closer to it more often that most other writers in the world of television. With this novel, though, he's a good deal less than perfect.
For one thing, he has chosen to tell his story through a narrative by Eddie Jelko, a Hollywood agent of the most obnoxious sort. Jelko is profane, has a very low opinion of women and the ethics of a Hollywood weasel, which is probably another fairly accurate way of describing him. I have a problem having to see a story through this guy's eyes. It's sort of like seeing the whole panorama of seven seasons of "Hill Street Blues" through the eyes of Sid the Snitch.
The story Jelko tells seems more fitting to a 90-minute episode of "Columbo" than to anything Bochco wrote during his golden days in TV Land, which I'd say was probably 1980-95. And since Bochco used to write episodes of "Columbo" back in the years before he became a writer-producer, I'm guessing he never got it quite out of his system.
Jelko's story is about one of his clients, screenwriter Bobby Newman, whose writing career is starting to fade because he has a drinking problem, a wife who sleeps around and an inability to finish any of the big bucks assignments Jelko has been getting him lately. One night, after his wife has left him, Bobby starts spying on his neighbors with a telescope on his deck and just happens to see a very famous Hollywood lady murder a most notorious Latino actor.
Rather than report this to the police, Bobby decides to built a screenplay idea around what he has seen while getting to know the gorgeous murderess a little better than she probably ever would have permitted before he became a witness to her act of murder. What he doesn't count on is the L.A.P.D. detective who doesn't looka as baggy and tired as Columbo, but certainly is every bit as shrewd.
What comes of Bobby's elaborate scam/scheme eventually proves to be quite funny, though about as believeable as Arnold Schwarzenegger being elected governor of California. In a way, maybe Bochco is counting on us figuring that almost anything is possible in California, especially the Hollywood part of it.
What gives Bochco's quirky story a bit more lift than it would have had if somebody else had written it is the fact that he knows Hollywood so thoroughly. Just when you think he's telling you tales not even a leprechaun might have experienced, he goes and tells you one that seems hideously familiar. For instance, when he tells you the story of one Daniel Deveaux, a pompous and demanding actor who wants to negotiate himself into a mega-bucks movie career after becoming a mini-rage in the first season of a hit TV show, you might want to start thinking Bochco's really telling you what happened between him and David Caruso, the original star of "N.Y.P.D. Blue," who broke his contract in a similar manner back in 1994.
His cop, whose name is Dennis Farentino, also sounds a lot like Dennis Farina, the real-life ex-Chicago cop who became a Hollywood actor with "Police Story" and starred in the movie version of Elmore Leonard's similar-styled Hollywood hoot-novel, "Get Shorty." I wouldn't want to compare Leonard's skill with such material to Bochco's, though--at least not at this stage of Bochco's novel-writing career.
In fact, if you want to read between the lines all the way through "Death By Hollywood," you'll have lots of fun trying to figure out who Bochco is really talking about. He also sprinkles a ton of real Hollywood names throughout his book--and seems to be dead-on accurate with most of the way he uses those names. I'm not sure that's quite enough to keep you entertained, though.
Summing up, I'd say Bochco is a very intelligent, very clever writer, so most anything he puts on paper will always be worth reading. However, I think he should aim a bit higher with his next book and worry less about settling old scores and venting all those pent-up Hollywood rumors, gags and in-jokes.
©2003 by Ron Miller. The Ron Miller caricature is ©2001 by Jim Hummel. The book cover reproduction is ©2003 by Random House.
Ron Miller is a former nationally syndicated television columnist and the author of "Mystery! A Celebration," the official companion book to PBS' "Mystery!" series. He currently teaches classes in mystery and related topics at Whatcom Community College and Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington.
Home About Us Archives Talkback Shopping Mall