Amy Brenneman on “Trailblazing” Mentor Steven Bochco: “Thank You for My Marriage and My Life in L.A.”
From nudity clauses and artistic freedom, the actress honors the late writer-producer for changing her career and her perspective on Hollywood.
In life, we all have those “before/after” moments. Life is one thing before, and another thing after. I met Steven Bochco in a small room in Manhattan in the mid-1990s, and that meeting was one of those times for me.
I had done a short television series in L.A. the previous summer, but then returned to my life in New York; auditions, commercials and theater. It was the life I knew. My agents were excited for me to book something during the upcoming pilot season. Since I had booked something already, they smelled 10 percent of another show.
But then I was offered the title role of St. Joan at Yale Repertory Theatre smack in the middle of pilot season. Instead of getting my hair blown out and driving L.A. freeways en route to auditions, I was considering holing up in a gray New Haven rehearsal room and climbing the mountain that is Jean D’Arc.
My agents thought I was insane (not for the last time). I agonized over the decision: be an artist or be a good businesswoman?
During my agony, I ran into my friend Peter Riegert who asked me one simple question: Will the play make you a better actor? (Does a bear shit in the woods?)
I took the play and said to my agents that I would take the train in on Mondays, my one and only day off, so that I could audition for pilots. This plan lasted for precisely one Monday. I could not have anticipated the level of exhaustion I would feel playing that role and my desperate need to decompress on my only day off each week.
“I can’t do it,” I said to my agents, who watched their 10 percent flutter away in the wind. “I’m sitting pilot season out.”
Just one more, they said. There is a new Steven Bochco show, they are hoping to cast only New York actors. Just one more. Next Monday, come in and read.
I took Metro North into the city, pretending to study the scenes I was given, but really I was nodding off around Cos Cob. I walked into that room in midtown Manhattan; it was 4:30 p.m. and pitch-dark February.
I had been brought in to read the role of Det. John Kelly’s wife — a role so brilliantly played by Sherry Springfield — and I kept messing up (because of all the nodding off on the train.) I stumbled, I went back, stumbled again, and then I looked up at David Milch, Greg Hoblit and Steven Bochco and said, “Listen, if I’m going to play this role, you’re going to have to change this line.”
I WAS JOKING.
They paused. They said, “There’s another role that might be right for you.” Would I mind looking at that one in the waiting room, then coming right back in? Secretly, I was worried about missing the train back to New Haven. Publicly I said of course I would.
The part I read for was I read for Officer Janice Licalsi, who in the pilot of NYPD Blue shoots two men at point-blank range and then proceeds to get naked for the first time in network television history. She was, indeed, the kind of person who would ask for a line to be changed.
Steven wanted NYPD Blue to push the envelope for network TV. Language, nudity, morally ambiguous lead characters, darker themes — he wanted all of it. He anticipated the freedom that would come on cable and with streaming services — shows like The Sopranos and The Wire — and he wanted to see what he could do on network. We all had to sign a now-infamous nudity clause. In my recollection, it was line item number six of my contract and it simply stated, “I agree to get naked.”
So, among his many, many gifts, Steven Bochco helped break down old stereotypes of “Hollywood.” At that point in time there were many ridiculous divisions, but they all lined up the same way. New York was authentic, while Hollywood was fake. Theater was for real artists, television was for sellouts. On and on.
I remember sitting in a bar in New Haven with an older stage actor with whom I was working at Yale Rep. He said, “Don’t take it. You are a theater artist. Don’t do television. And they are making you sign a nudity clause? They will take advantage of you, use you up and you’ll be tossed out on the pile of used-up starlets.”
I remember listening to him, nodding politely, but thinking three things: these guys made Hill Street Blues which was, like, the opposite of sleazy; I trusted them; and — the idea that is most salient to me now — I knew it was time for me to fly. It was time for me to take a chance. I said to my co-star, “Thank you for sharing. I think I’m going to do it.”
Okay, so maybe it was the bar in New Haven that was the before/after moment. Because the moment that I said yes to Steven Bochco’s dance, I began living a life that I still lead today.
I moved to Los Angeles. I fell in love with the art form that is series television. I learned that everything I loved about theater — authenticity, pushing boundaries and working with an ensemble — is what Steven Bochco is and was about.
New York theater is not more “honest” than Hollywood. That is old garbage. And if we are able to pull humanity up through dominant culture, if millions of people are touched rather than hundreds, isn’t that a good thing?
Steven’s characters were always humane — often trapped in violence, yearning for healing, never sentimental, and even in their lowest, witty. Steven showed me that I wanted to tell my own story — with humans who are smart and stupid, minds and bodies, flawed and perfect. He gave me the vision to co-create Judging Amy.
Making art and making television were no longer in opposition for me.
Then, while filming Episode 6 of NYPD Blue, a director walked on to Stage 9 on the 20th Century Fox lot. He was much younger and much cuter than most of the other directors. He was smart, compassionate, good at his job and he quickly became my best friend. And collaborator. And husband. And father of my children. So, thank you, Steven, for Brad Silberling as well. Making art, making television and making family became one for me.
My mentor Ed Bacon said Steven filled a “legacy role” in my life. People who enter our life at a pivotal moment and light the way toward our future, one that we could not have envisioned without them. I honor Steven Bochco today as my mentor and trailblazer.
Steven, thank you for my marriage and my life in Los Angeles. Thank you for your artistic courage which taught me how to have artistic courage of my own. Thank you for changing our culture with your deep humanity.
And thanks for taking a chance on me.