When a television series ends after a single season, it’s generally consigned to the scrap heap of TV history. Sometimes, however, a short-lived series is deemed so eccentric or downright bad that it remains a part of the collective pop-culture consciousness for the long haul. Such is the case of Cop Rock, the 1990 ABC amalgamation that attempted to fuse a gritty cop drama with a musical. It failed to completely please fans of either genre and was gone from the airwaves after only 11 episodes.
Created by Steven Bochco, whose work on Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue confirms that he knows his way around a police precinct, Cop Rock has become infamous over the years, decried by many as one of the worst television series of all time. Although it’s perceived by the masses as a flop, that opinion is in no way shared by those who helped first bring the series to fruition. That’s not to say that Bochco hasn’t admitted that the fusion he was attempting with Cop Rock didn’t work out the way he’d planned, nor are the series’ former cast members claiming that Cop Rock was without flaws. They are, however, all very quick to indicate that the time they spent working on the series remains one of the highlights of their careers.
In celebration of Shout! Factory finally bringing Cop Rock: The Complete Series to home video for the first time, The A.V. Club spoke with Bochco, 10 of the show’s cast members, and several of its songwriters. While some might argue that those who auditioned for the series and failed to make the cut—like, say, Jeffrey Tambor—dodged a bullet, you’ll soon see that they missed out on what could’ve proven to be one of the greatest work experiences of their careers, short though it might have been.
Teri Austin (“Trish Vaughn”)
Anne Bobby (“Officer Vicki Quinn”)
Steven Bochco (Co-creator/writer/producer)
Ron Boustead (Songwriter)
Ronny Cox (“Chief Roger Kendrick”)
Greg Edmonson (Songwriter)
David Gianopoulos (“Officer Andy Campo”)
Larry Joshua (“Captain John Hollander”)
Donny Markowitz (Songwriter)
Paul McCrane (“Det. Bob McIntire”)
James McDaniel (“Officer Franklin Rose”)
Ron McLarty (“Det. Lt. Ralph Ruskin”)
Mick Murray (“Det. Joseph Gaines”)
Peter Onorati (“Det. Vincent LaRusso”)
Brock Walsh (Songwriter)
Kathleen Wilhoite (“Patricia Spence”)
“Dream, Little Boy”—The origins of Cop Rock
Steven Bochco (co-creator/writer/producer): I can’t remember her name, but in the early ’80s, a woman who was a Broadway producer or associated with a Broadway producer came to me and said, “We’d like to talk about bringing Hill Street Blues to Broadway as a musical.” And we talked about it at the company, and I loved the idea, but it just wasn’t practical. So reluctantly we said, “No, we can’t do it.” But the idea always stuck in my head, because I thought it was a really audacious idea. And that really was the genesis of Cop Rock. I thought, “Well, if I can’t take a cop show to Broadway, maybe I can bring Broadway to a cop show!” And when I was given this remarkable opportunity from ABC in 1987, a commitment to get 10 series on the air, I thought, “Well, what am I going to do? Am I going to write 10 cop shows? Or 10 law shows?” I mean, if you have the guarantee of getting that many shows on the air and you don’t do something bold and adventurous and experimental, then shame on you.
James McDaniel (“Officer Franklin Rose”): I knew that particular format worked, because I was a fan of The Singing Detective, which at the time was one of the most extraordinary pieces of television I’d ever seen.
Bochco: The Singing Detective really wasn’t in my mind when I was developing Cop Rock, although I was a huge admirer. In fact, I once shared a stage with Dennis Potter, and… he was a mess. He was dying, he had that terrible disease [pancreatic cancer], and he was drinking all through the evening. And he was very rude to me, actually. And I didn’t care. I just thought, “How cool is this? I’m on stage with Dennis Potter!” [Laughs.] I mean, he kept lambasting Cop Rock, but mostly he kept lambasting successful American television writers for how much money they made.
Anne Bobby (“Officer Vicki Quinn”): I knew Cop Rock was going to be experimental for American viewers. The challenge was always going to be that, unlike The Singing Detective, Steven was going with original music, which would be very challenging no matter what. But for me as an artist, it was a very natural thing. Coming from theater, that moment when emotion gets to be so much that all you can do is sing, so that’s what you do. I had been doing that for seven years at that point, so it wasn’t a massive step, except for the fact that it was all new music and it was television. So I wasn’t concerned. I wasn’t sure what the outcome would be, but I was excited that people were actually taking that chance. I thought it was time that television pushed at those parameters a little bit.
McDaniel: The media said it was impossible and that it was ridiculous, but nothing’s impossible and ridiculous if you have the right pieces in place.
Bochco: Bob Iger was the head of ABC Entertainment, and he was sort of the steward of my 10-series deal at the network. I don’t think he had much faith that Cop Rock was a show that would work—in fact, quite honestly, most people involved with it told me I was crazy—but he let us do it, you know? I mean, he could’ve killed it. He could’ve paid a penalty and said, “Let’s not do this,” and moved on to the next thing. And I’ll always be grateful to him for letting us do it, because he desperately wanted a cop show from me… and I gave him Cop Rock! [Laughs.]
“You’re The One For Me”—Auditioning for Cop Rock
Bochco: We met so many singers and actors who could sing. We must’ve met 200 people over the course of trying to cast the thing.
Peter Onorati (“Det. Vincent LaRusso”): I had just come to town, really, maybe even in that year, and I’d only been in the business a short time. I was the marketing and advertising director at McCall’s magazine before I became an actor, and before that I worked at Ford Motor Company in their international division. So I was very new to the business. But one of my wife’s best friends is a fellow named Howard McGillin, who’s the longest-running Phantom [in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom Of The Opera] on Broadway, and he came out to stay at our house when he had an audition for Cop Rock. I was away doing a movie called Fire Birds at the time, and when I got back from filming, my wife mentioned that. And then my then agent/now manager Kay Liberman called me and said, “You sing, don’t you?” I go, “I sang at a couple of weddings… but that’s it!” [Laughs.] She said, “You’re singing.”
Teri Austin (“Trish Vaughn”): The breakdown for Cop Rock had gone out, and it sounded like a fabulous show that I’d really like to be a part of. I was a huge musical lover, and I went to York University and graduated from the bachelor of fine arts program there, which included musical theater, so I had some background. The casting director thought I would be good for the role and brought me in, and I was thrilled at the thought of being able to sing and dance.
Kathleen Wilhoite (“Patricia Spence”): My manager set me up on the audition. At the time, I had a record deal, and he was, like, “Oh, my god, you’d be perfect for this!” And I was pretty confident that it was going to be a good gig for me, because singing is kind of my thing.
McDaniel: I’d had a relationship with Steven since the last season of Hill Street Blues. I had gone on there and done a turn on that show, so I kind of knew him then, but when I had to go in for Cop Rock… Well, first of all, I had originally turned it down because I’d thought it was a ridiculous concept. But I was unaware when I turned it down that it was a Steven Bochco production. And when that came up in a subsequent conversation, I said, “Well, then of course I’m going to show up!”
Mick Murray (“Det. Joseph Gaines”): I was in New York at the time, and I was testing for a bunch of ABC pilots. I told my agents, “Damnit, I’m gonna get a pilot this year! I just hope it’s something interesting.” And they said, “Oh, I know you are. C’mon, champ, you’re gonna get in there, and you’re gonna get one of these things!” [Laughs.] So I was up for two different pilots—I believe one was a firemen-themed show, and the other was a NASCAR-themed show—and when negotiations were starting to happen for those, I got this call about Cop Rock, and I went, “Oh, my god, Steven Bochco!” I remember I had a TV set in my apartment in Hell’s Kitchen at the time, and I got, like, two stations, and a lot of times it seemed to just vector in on reruns of Hill Street Blues. And I just loved the show—I loved Steven Bochco’s stuff—and I thought, “Man, it’d be so great to work with that guy!” And literally about two months later, I was doing exactly that.
David Gianopoulos (“Officer Andy Campo”): I heard about Cop Rock through Larry Joshua. He and I were with the same agency. I’m walking in New York and I run into Larry—I was over near 42nd Street in Manhattan, and I just happened to run into him. And he goes, “Hey, I’m reading for Cop Rock!” I had no idea what it was. He said, “It’s a musical cop show.” And I ran right down to my agency and said, “Hey, I hear there’s this show called Cop Rock, and they’re auditioning here this weekend at Lincoln Center!” And my agent, Kenny, looked at me and said, “Well, I can’t get you in, Dave.” I said, “Just try!” And he looks at me, and he said, “Dave, you don’t sing!” [Laughs.] I said, “Kenny, I do! I’m singing in a bunch of different bands, I sing down in the subway… I just never told you that I sang because I didn’t want to do musical theater in New York.” I kept it a secret from the two agents that I had for, like, six years that I could sing at all! And he just said, “It’s not gonna happen.”
The next day comes. It’s the same story: I call or I come by, and I say, “You’ve gotta get me in! I hear Alexa Fogel is the casting director in New York. Remember how she called you up and asked you for my phone number when I did my first movie?” Kenny’s still looking at me like I was this weird dog walking across the street or something, but I was determined. So Friday I get this phone call from them, out of the blue, saying, “Learn two scenes and a song, and be at Lincoln Center on Saturday.” I run down to the agency, and I say to them, “You’re not making a mistake. This is gonna be great!”
Ronny Cox (“Chief Roger Kendrick”): I can’t remember how I came to be involved, but I went in and met with [Mike] Post and Randy Newman, and I heard after the fact from Steven and [director] Greg Hoblit that I was going to get the job whether I could sing or not. [Laughs.]
Bobby: It was a very standard sort of an audition in that it came through my agent. It was a TV series, but they wanted singers. The one amazing thing about the audition process was that most of the people who I saw at the audition were like me: Broadway performers. The auditions took place on a Saturday at ABC in New York, and a lot of us had matinees that day, so we were really anxious about being able to get out of there on time! I remember Larry Joshua brought his guitar. Oh, and one of the other people I saw there was my friend Jane Krakowski, who I did my very first off-Broadway show with. So there were a lot of musical-theater people there, which was unusual insofar as that was not something that normally happened with TV auditions, and it was exciting that it was Steven Bochco. But it was just another pilot.
Onorati: I went in for the audition, and they did the dramatic auditions first, and then they decided if they wanted to see further, and then you had to sing. I remember I picked something really easy: Fats Domino’s “Blue Monday.” It’s only got, like, four notes in it, but you can make it sound good. And it was funny because Mike Post, the music director, was there, and when the accompanist opened the music and started playing it [like a dirge], Mike ran over and goes, “What’s the matter with you? This is Fats Domino! You’ve got to play it like this!” And I said, “Hey, hey, take it easy on him, Mike. It says Antoine Domino on the sheet music. Leave the guy alone!” [Laughs.]
Austin: For my audition, I think I sang “Lover Man” as the ballad and Neil Sedaka’s “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” as the pop song.
McDaniel: I think I sang “Amazing Grace.” Around that time I was doing a play on Broadway, and I had to sing that at the end of the first act, so I think I sang that.
Bobby: What did I sing? It could’ve been Elton John’s “Levon.” But also, knowing me and being a Jersey girl, I wouldn’t have put it past me to have done something by Springsteen, maybe “Meeting Across The River.”
Larry Joshua (“Captain John Hollander”): I walked into the audition with my guitar in hand. I was apt to do that back then, because I used to play around town in the ’80s—and I sang two songs. I sang a song that I got off an early Tom Rush album, “When She Wants Good Lovin,’” which is a great song. That was sort of my rockabilly song, and then I did kind of a torch-song ballad called “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye.” And I could tell right away that I’d made an impression on ’em. That happens sometimes in an audition. It doesn’t mean that you’re gonna get the job, though. Thankfully, this time it did.
Wilhoite: For the audition, I sang… maybe “Easy To Be Hard”? You know, I don’t even remember having to sing at the audition. I feel like they kind of offered me the gig at the time. I call that period in the ’80s the “dark ages.” They’re all kind of a blur for me. [Laughs.]
Murray: Alexa Fogel, the casting director on Cop Rock, wasn’t at that point a fan of mine. I guess I had really blown it when I was auditioning for a part on Young Guns. She had told my agent, “Don’t even send me that guy again.” So I was very surprised when I got the call and found out Alexa was casting. I thought, “Oh, man, this is gonna be a throwaway audition, but I really love Steven Bochco, so let’s see where this goes.” But when I went in there, there was such a real feeling of freedom, because I liked these guys, I liked what they did, and I just decided to go in and have fun with it.
So I read first, and then it was time for me to sing, and Mike Post said, “Okay, throw me your music.” And I said, “You know what, Mike? I’m gonna do you a favor. You’ve probably been playing all day, so why don’t you cool your fingertips? I’m gonna do this one a cappella.” [Laughs.] I think I did a Terence Trent D’Arby song, and then I think I sang something else, because he wanted to play along with me to see where my pitch, key, and register were. As I left, Alexa was coming up behind me, and she gave me the warmest smile, and I said, “Alexa, you know, this was really great this time around. This has been a great pleasure.”
So I started walking back to my apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, about to walk the seven flights up. We’re talking old Hell’s Kitchen tenement. [Laughs.] I had a bomber jacket with a faux-fur collar on it, and I remember it was starting to snow, but I just took my jacket off and I was walking in a T-shirt. I was just feeling so good. I thought, “Hey, if I can have moments like that in the process of trying to get a job, if I can just have auditions like that, moments with people I respect where I feel like I’m having some fun with them, that’s a pretty darned good day.” And by the time I got home, I had a phone call from my agent, and they were expressing interest. They didn’t have a part from me, so I was told that they essentially took a part that was supposed to be a bit-player part, made up a part for me, and turned me into a series regular. I was ecstatic.
Paul McCrane (“Det. Bob McIntire”): I was living in New York at the time, and I went and auditioned for it, and I got a very nice call from Greg Hoblit and Steve Bochco to say that they didn’t think I was right for any of the roles they were casting, but they were going to write me in after the show went into production. And I thought, “That’s awfully sweet, and it’ll never happen, but it’s nice of them to say.” And lo and behold, it did happen! They called me up and said, “Come on out. We’re picked up.” So that’s how I got involved.
Gianopoulos: When I went in for my audition, I read my scenes, which at the time were for Peter Onorati’s part, and then I do my song, which was “Stand By Me,” by Ben E. King. And Steven says, “Would you mind reading a different part?” And I said, “No, I don’t mind at all, but… could I come back tomorrow?” Because I’d heard that they were going to have people the next day anyway, and I wanted to prepare. He said sure. So I came back the next day, I read the scenes for Andy Campo, I sang a song, and that was okay. Not great, just okay. And then they started to throw songs at me, but I didn’t have any words in front of me, and I wasn’t versed in all the songs they were throwing at me, but I was motoring through them. And all of a sudden Mike Post gets up and he goes, “They love you. I want to love you.”
So Mike Post gets on the piano, and we’re doing a Bruce Springsteen song, “Hungry Heart,” and as I started to go into the song, I kind of lost my way, and I could feel the whole room go, “Oh, now we’re not sure,” when they’d been so positive before. So I said, “Can we just stop?” And I turned away from them, and I just said to myself, “David, you’ve been waiting 10 years for this. Don’t eff this up. Now just nail it.” And I turned around, and God or whoever helped me, because I didn’t have any of the lyrics in front of me, but I went right through the song. And I could feel the air come back in the room—they all leaned in and watched—and I got past Mike Post. [Laughs.]
I went home feeling like they were gonna call, and that Monday morning, I get a call from Kenny Kaplan, and he says, “You and Larry are probably gonna get this series. We’re gonna know later today. We’ll know something.” And I ran down there like they had a million dollars in a box with my name on it, because I just knew they were gonna call. I’d never had a TV series before, and this was a Steven Bochco series. I mean, my god! So I walked out into the park, where I used to sell beer on my bike… and still did at that time! [Laughs.] But I went to this tree down there, past the fountain—the lake was frozen—and I put my hands on the tree like an old hippie, and I grabbed a rock, and I skimmed it across the ice, and I said to myself, “Kenny’s got a phone call. They’ve closed the deal. I’m going back.” And I went back, and they said, “The part’s yours. They’ve made an offer.”
“Heroes All”—The songwriters of Cop Rock
Joshua: I actually met Randy Newman a year or so before Cop Rock. I was hanging out with John Patrick Shanley in L.A. when he was doing a movie called Five Corners that was directed by Tony Bill, who is friends with Randy Newman. I think Randy was hanging out in Tony Bill’s studio or in his house, but John and I went over because they were having a party, and I remember Blythe Danner was there. Anyway, I met Randy Newman at this party, and then a year or so later we’re all in a recording studio at Fox, and we’re doing the theme song that he wrote for the show.
Bochco: I tracked Randy Newman down through his agent. We sat in a room, and I told him my concept, and he said, “You’re crazy. It’ll never work.” And I talked him into it anyway. It was amazing working with him, though, and we’ve been friends ever since. You know, Randy’s a genius. I think he’s one of the great songwriters of our time. And he wrote five beautiful, wonderful songs. He won an Emmy, in fact! He got the only positive recognition that anybody got for that show! [Laughs.] But he wasn’t really involved in the series. He just did the five songs for the pilot. Mike Post produced all the music, and he did a great job.
Wilhoite: I remember Mike Post having a funny relationship with Randy. They had a great rapport, but I remember Randy teasing him about one of his theme songs. He went like this. [Imitates keyboard noodling.] And then he was, like, “Oh, yeah, that’s a hell of a theme song!” [Laughs.] It was just such a great fucking thing to be privy to them teasing each other. It was just so funny!
Bochco: Randy used to tease Mike endlessly about being the king of the 30-second theme. [Laughs.] As you know from his music, Randy’s got a very caustic sense of humor. But they got along well.
Onorati: To think that Randy Newman wrote the music for the pilot is just amazing to me. But he just did the pilot and ran, leaving it up to Mike Post, Amanda McBroom, Donny Markowitz, and the rest of the great crew that we had.
Greg Edmonson (songwriter): I was already working for Mike Post as a composer, and Mike was kind of the big dog on Cop Rock, because he’s done all the Bochco shows that I’m aware of. They go back to their days at Universal, so they’ve been connected for a long time. And Mike knew that not only could I write, but I could produce, so he offered me the opportunity to do Cop Rock. So I did, because it was an opportunity to write songs, which is different from writing a score.
Ron Boustead (songwriter): They went trolling for songwriters, and I think everybody but me had hit songs to their credit. But I was brought in by my co-writer, Greg Edmonson, who was already in the Bochco camp and working a lot with Mike Post, who was sort of overseeing all the music for the show. Greg and I had written some songs in the past, so he knew I was a decent lyricist, but he was also concerned that some of the other writers might not have as much of a rock sensibility, and he wanted to make sure that the show had some edge. He knew that I could write that kind of song.
Brock Walsh (songwriter): I think I found my way into Cop Rock as much as anything else just by being part of the coterie of songwriters. I knew a lot of the people. Steven worked with Mike Post, and I guess I had done some writing with Mike on some other TV shows, and perhaps my name got floated that way. I think that association got my name mentioned, and I certainly responded with great alacrity and showed a lot of interest, because my interest has always been mostly TV and film. I just love working with songs in conjunction with live action. So I jumped at the chance to do it.
Donny Markowitz (songwriter): I had just won an Academy Award for co-writing “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” from Dirty Dancing, and my friend Larry Joshua recommended to Steven Bochco and Mike Post that they hire me for the show. So I had an interview with Steven and Mike, and I got the gig right away.
Larry and me, we grew up playing baseball and rock ’n’ roll together, and we lived on 85th Street between Central Park and Columbus, so we were neighbors, too. Now here we were, together again, working on this show that cost something like $1.2 million per episode. One day we were working on one of the songs that I’d written, one that Larry was going to be singing, and there are, like, 50 to 75 people on the 20th Century Fox lot. They do a take, and then they look at me and ask, “How was it?” I say, “Hang on, let me go talk to Larry.” So we go out to the center of the soundstage, I put my arm around Larry, and I say, “Hey, guess what?” “What?” “Everybody here is waiting on us right now.” [Cackles.] I said, “Remember when we were playing baseball and being fuckups? And now we’re holding up a million-dollar shoot!”
Edmonson: Cop Rock was a real challenge, because everything about it was different. Usually music people come in when the show’s been shot, edited, and is ready for post-production. In this case, the music people were involved before the show even existed!
Boustead: Once a week, we would go into Bochco’s office and meet with the writers and the director, and they would say, “Here’s what’s going to happen in this episode, and we need a song that gets us through this transition where this character is going to XYZ, and we need this to happen and need to display this emotion about what’s happening for this character.”
Bochco: It was great fun, but it was also a clusterfuck, because I think we had, like, five writers for the show, and then we had five or six songwriters or whatever it was, and then Mike Post was there, too. So these story meetings would be a dozen people! But as we would work through our stories, we’d ask the songwriters to identify which scenes they thought they could translate musically, because we wanted the songs as much as possible not just to be songs but to actually advance the story.
Boustead: The songwriters in the room, we’d sort of divvy up the songs for the week and say, “Okay, I’ll take that song,” and after that we’d have to go back, write the song, and produce a demo of that song within a couple of days—this was all happening really fast!—and then they’d cast whoever was going to sing the song, and they’d have to learn it, and then within a week or so, we’d be on the set and the singer would be singing the song live to tape. So it was all kind of miraculous to pull off, but it was a bit of a rush, too. You really had to have some chops as a writer, because you’re writing to the story—it’s not just sitting around waiting for inspiration, it’s an assignment—and if you’re writing for one of the actors, then you also have to make sure that it’s something that they can deliver.
Edmonson: It was a completely unique experience from the music side of things… and it was unique for everyone else, too! Everybody was having to consider elements that they normally don’t have to consider, and there were all sorts of little complications that you wouldn’t think about, and then all of a sudden you get there and go, “Oh, god…”
Markowitz: One week I’m writing funk, the next week I’m writing a country song, the next it’s some kind of Bertolt Brecht piece. Every week it was a different style. As a songwriter, it was the best experience you could possibly have.
“For The Record”—Cop Rock’s greatest hits
Cox: My favorite songs on the show… Well, first and foremost, I loved “Guilty” with Carl Anderson and Louis Price, the former lead singer of The Temptations. They had that song that goes, “He’s guilty, judge, he’s guilty.” All of a sudden, they cut over, and the jury’s in choir robes. [Laughs.] I mean, that’s just great.
McLarty: My favorite song has to be “Since She Chose Me,” the Randy Newman song I sang in the pilot. It was just an honor to sing one of his songs.
McDaniel: The only one that I can really remember is the eulogy that I had to do [“I Haven’t Told You How Much I Love You”]. I remember that because I think the show was so new that that meant something special to me. And I also remember the song “Sandman’s Coming,” sung by Kathleen Wilhoite. She was a new character for American television at that point in time, and I thought that was one instance where the song seamlessly integrated into the show.
Austin: Oh, “Sandman’s Coming” was such a beautiful, tender song. Just saying the name of it and thinking about it, I get chills. It was amazing.
Wilhoite: I remember being, like, “Okay, cool. I’ve got a good song, it’s written by Randy Newman, and I get to play a junkie. I’ve got this in the bag!”
Gianopoulos: Kathleen Wilhoite nailed “Sandman’s Coming.” And the way Greg filmed it was heartbreaking and beautiful. Dennis Cockrum was the baby merchant who was buying the baby for $200, and then when the police car is coming through at the end, when she’s all by herself, just the loneliness and the despair… That one hit me. That one, I just was like, “Wow.” It was intense. Kathleen just did it so beautifully.
Wilhoite: When we did that scene, we were losing the sunlight. We had a huge crane shot, and it was the middle of a lot of gang activity at the time, which was in the late ’80s. It could’ve been Compton. It was a really sketchy area. Plus, I was working with a newborn baby, which is another thing to add pressure onto things. They knew they weren’t going to have that many more opportunities, so they basically wanted me to do the song in one take so they could record the vocal live. So Greg says, “Action!” And I hear the soundtrack in my earbud, so I start singing the song, and in the middle of the song, the music swells and I sing out… and I startled the sleeping baby! And it made a funny face that tickled my funny bone. I don’t know why, but the baby just looked funny to me, and I started laughing. And I look up at Greg, who’s on the crane, and I’m going, like, “Are you going to cut this?” And he shakes his head no, and he gestures for me to keep going. So I finished the song, they yell “cut” and… that’s the take they used! To this day, people are, like, “In the middle, the way you kind of smiled at the baby… Oh, my god.” And to this day, people say, “You’ve never been as good as you were in Cop Rock!” But it was only because the baby looked at me funny! [Laughs.]
Randy Newman ended up using “Sandman’s Coming” again for his production of Faust, and my friend sang it, this girl Jennifer Leigh Warren. She has a beautiful voice, and she sang the hell out of it. In fact, it came up for her to sing it when I did a workshop of a Randy Newman project, and… I don’t even think Randy Newman remembered that I sang the song. He had me singing background vocals to her singing the song! I was, like, “Oh, wow… The mighty, how they fall.” [Laughs.] But I’m just glad he liked the song enough to repurpose it like that. It’s a great song, and he’s a great songwriter.
Boustead: I’d say there are two of mine that are my favorites. One was actually nominated for an Emmy and lost to Randy Newman—it was hard to feel bad about that—but it was a song about the homeless, and it was called “Nowhere To Go, Nothing To Do.” It was a big production. They had a big crane shot and all kinds of extras in the scene playing homeless people, and the cops came in and rousted them out, and all of these singers were coming in and out of frame singing their lines. It was a big production, but it came across great, I thought, and I’m really proud of that one.
And then there was another one that was just kind of tongue in cheek, snarky, and semi-crude called “Give Me A Cop Who Doesn’t Shoot Blanks.” [Laughs.] That one was really fun, too. We used every double entendre in the book. Oh, and there was another one, too, “Perfection,” which takes place in a plastic surgeon’s office, where he’s about to put a woman under the knife and make her more beautiful, and there’s a line in that song that says, “Bigger is better when it’s underneath your sweater.” So we definitely had fun. And Bochco, he was all about pushing the envelope, and everybody in the room was sort of into the semi-crude humor. We got away with quite a bit for that time and place.
Walsh: There’s a scene where the storyline is that a patrol woman is hot for her partner, and she sings a song to him, seducing him. I said, “Oh, I want to do that one!” [Laughs.] And I’ll never forget it, because it’s remained part of my circle of friends’ nomenclature ever since as a kitsch reference to seducing somebody: “I want to go bumpty bumpty with you.”
Bobby: I love Peter’s “You Can’t Keep A Good Man Down.” That was a tough one, because we were actually filming that day in a working prison. That was very disconcerting. There wasn’t any threat, there was no danger, there was just… sadness. And despair. A real undercurrent of individual tension. Peter’s singing this song as he’s getting locked up, and it was a sort of chain-gang type song, really beautifully done. That was hard to watch and hard to listen to, as we’re going home at the end of the day, knowing that there were a lot of people there who had seen and heard it and weren’t going home. That was a real reality check.
Gianopoulos: There was a really great song by Mike Finnegan, who came in and sang “Let’s Be Careful Out There.” That was a real ensemble piece. We were all in the morning room where we get our assignments, and it was a real throwback to Hill Street Blues. But he nailed that song. I had actually just seen him play with Crosby, Stills & Nash—he’s a piano player—and I said, “Oh, I know you!” So we started talking, and he was, like, “I’m nervous about this,” but I’m, like, “You’re gonna be great.” And of course he was. He killed it. There were a lot of people who just had one shot to sing on the show, and when somebody really nailed it, you’d just be, like, “Wow… Your only time at bat, and you knocked it out of the park!”
Bobby: I was always so anxious about hitting a home run, because you just wanted for everyone to get up there and hit a home run every time. I guess I liked “Why Can’t A Man Be More Like A Woman,” because I wasn’t so alone out there. I felt really supported with all those gals with me, and they made me feel less anxious.
Boustead: One of my songs, “I Got Something For Ya,” was a scene where a bunch of good-looking undercover cops were trying to catch a campus rapist, so they dressed provocatively, and they’re strapping their guns to their thighs and things like that. It was a locker room scene. Sheryl Crow was one of the undercover cops. She was virtually unknown at the time.
Austin: I didn’t actually get a chance to sing or dance on the show. My storyline was with Peter Onorati, and it was sort of a romantic one, and since that was the most important part of that storyline, I was doing the dramatic thing up until the end and never had the opportunity. Steven could’ve done a few more episodes because he was such a prolific and excellent producer, and he had long-term deals with ABC, but the show wasn’t getting the ratings they’d hoped for and it was very expensive to produce, so they elected not to do all the episodes that they could’ve done. So my joke was that the network had heard I was going to be singing in the next episode and elected to pull the plug. [Laughs.]
“This Is What The Good Life Looks Like”—Best. Job. Ever.
Cox: You know, it’s funny: For a show that’s as widely vilified as Cop Rock is, I’ll bet you’ve never talked to a whole bunch of people who worked on a show that loved it as much as everybody seems to have loved Cop Rock. Of all the shows I’ve ever been involved with, I had more fun with that show than any other show. It wasn’t a great show. Sometimes it was like watching a train wreck! But I’ll tell you the truth: It was the only thing I’ve ever been involved in, be it a TV show or a movie, where I went to work every day, whether I was called or not.
McDaniel: It was a rush. We’re sitting there watching everybody lampooning it on late-night talk shows and stuff like that just for the concept, but for us as performers, it provided us with a certain closeness that I don’t know that I’ve ever had with a cast otherwise. Maybe some of NYPD Blue in the early days, but nothing that was like this. I mean, we might have been shooting a dance number in the middle of the street or something at midnight on a Friday, and people who weren’t in the scene would just show up and hang around the set, hang out in each other’s trailers, and stuff like that. That never happens on set. You don’t show up when you don’t have to work! It was just an amazing camaraderie.
Joshua: We had acting on one stage, people rehearsing songs on another rehearsal stage, people rehearsing dance numbers on another… I mean, I was waiting for Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland to show up! [Laughs.]
McCrane: I don’t know if you know this, but we sang all these songs live to playback, which is not the norm. I’ve directed a bunch of episodes of Glee and Empire and Nashville, and that’s all prerecords. They sometimes will also record live as well, but it’s mostly all to playback. So it was really gutsy to depend on Lavalier mics and in-house performances. I know that occasionally they’d go in and sweeten or correct vocal things—I’m sure Mike Post could tell you more about that—but I thought it was really daring, actually, to do it live like that.
Edmonson: That’s the thing that made Cop Rock so insane. Nobody ever does that. You go in the studio, you record your song, you record the vocals, and then you use that as playback on the set, because that way you have a master track. That way you can stop, you can go and set up the camera at different places, and everything will ultimately cut together, because it’s all working off of this prerecorded song. But on Cop Rock, we were recording it all live! All the vocals were sung live on the set. They just wanted it to feel real, and they thought that would be the way to do it.
Well, recording vocals live on the set is crazy, because when you record in the studio, you can wear headphones and hear everything, and you can try and get pitch, and you can sing with what you’re hearing in your ear. Here, they would sometimes play it out of a speaker, but they’d play it so low, so that it wouldn’t bleed into the track. So these people were trying to sing, and they could barely hear the music, and they have to act at the same time. It was wacky. And if the camera guy said, “Hey, that was great for us,” and we said, “Yeah, but it was a terrible vocal performance. We’ve got to do it again,” they’d just roll their eyes, and they’d be, like, “Yeah, okay, let’s go ahead and get lightning to strike twice!”
Gianopoulos: All of us who had to sing a whole bunch, we were out rehearsing with the musicians if we weren’t actually working, so we had a full schedule. But when you came into work, it was like camp. We all got into it, we all encouraged each other, and we’d come to watch dailies and cheer each other on. And when we knew the show was going off the air, we’d come in even more, because we knew we were going to be losing this amazing thing.
Joshua: Even after the days of shooting were over, a lot of times we all got together in the Bochco building with guitars and a little something to drink and just jammed.
Austin: After all those hours of working, you’d think they’d be beat and want to go home. But when you perform, you get all excited, your adrenaline’s running, so there’s a lot of extra energy sometimes.
Bobby: I had already been an avid Carl Anderson fan, so I was excited that he was in the pilot, and then I got even more excited when he was brought back for another episode. In fact, Jimmy McDaniel and I went to see Carl do his cabaret in Santa Monica one night! So when I knew that he was going to be on that set, I was there, so I could pull him off to the side and make him sing songs from Jesus Christ Superstar to me. [Laughs.] It was a tremendous loss that he was taken from us so early.
Onorati: Carl Anderson and I became friends after the pilot—he was in the pilot, and then he came back for another episode—and we were good enough friends that he asked me to do a reading in his wedding when he got married to Veronica Porsche. Carl’s gone now, but he was an amazing talent. I’m telling you, a lot of those relationships from Cop Rock stayed strong for a long time. William Thomas Jr., who played my partner, he’s my son’s godfather!
Wilhoite: I liked the music in it and thought the show was pretty good, but you know what happens to me when I like people that I’m working with? They have to be really lousy for me to think that they stink. [Laughs.] If I like them, I’m, like, “Oh, I like that guy! He’s so cool! He’s such a nice guy!” And then I just like their performances. I’m not a great judge of other people’s work when I like the person personally. Unless they’re terrible. And then I still wouldn’t say that they suck, because that would hurt their feelings! But I was a total idiot when I was in my 20s. I hope nobody said, “God, Kathleen was such a jerk!,” because I don’t think there was one person I didn’t like. I liked everybody!
Cox: With 13 regulars, let’s face it: There’s usually going to be an asshole someplace. But there wasn’t one on that show. I’ve never worked on anything where there was just such a feeling of, “Man, we’re all in this together!” I think it was partly because we were all looking at each other and going, “We’re all getting to do this together every day?”
Onorati: Maybe it’s because Cop Rock turned out in the eyes of audiences or objective measures to be so bad that we all stuck together. You could say that, but I don’t think so. I think we were already together before there was any evaluation of the show, objective or otherwise.
Austin: I think we’re a pretty loyal club in our devotion to what that was and in our complete joy in being able to partake in it.
Bobby: It was awesome. We had a great, great fucking time.
“Could This Be A Face That Someone Could Love?”—Enter the skeptics
Murray: I remember at one point early on I was riding on an elevator with Greg Hoblit, and I knew he’d been working with Steven for years, so I said, “Man, I loved Hill Street Blues, but that would’ve been a perfect name for this show. Were you guys thinking about doing a musical even back then?” And he just kind of gave me a deadpan look, and he said, “Are you kidding me? Even right now I’m just hoping this isn’t too weird that we end up stepping on our dicks!”
Joshua: We were a new show and there was a lot of buzz, but I ran home to New York after we shot the pilot, because my wife and babies were still there, and I ran into a friend of mine. He came up to me and said, “Listen, the show’s in trouble.” I said, “What the fuck? We haven’t even aired yet!” He said, “No, but the advertisers saw the pilot. They don’t like it.” So I knew after the pilot was shown to the money people that there were problems. But we went on for another three months, hoping that we would change their mind.
Onorati: At the L.A. upfronts, I was sitting at the table with the ABC affiliates from Sioux City, Iowa. The Four Tops entertained. Twin Peaks premiered that year, too, and a bunch of other shows. And then they showed the last scene from the Cop Rock pilot, which to me still is one of the best pieces of television in history: Kathleen Wilhoite singing a Randy Newman lullaby [“Sandman’s Coming”] to her baby before selling it into adoption for $200 for drug money. You could hear a pin drop. And this guy who’s the head of the Sioux City affiliates leans across the table and says, “Oh, hell. She wouldn’t sing when she sells a baby.” And I said, “Okay, we’re fucked.” [Laughs.] I mean, that was before the show even premiered, these are the guys who are supposed to love the show, because it leads into their news. And this guy’s saying that? So we were in tough shape right from the beginning.
Wilhoite: It was very much poised to be phenomenal, so it was a shock that people turned it into a giant joke and responded, like, “This is the worst show ever created!” I was, like, “Really? It’s that bad?” I felt like I did a fine job, I tried hard, and I didn’t feel embarrassed about my work or the show at all, so I didn’t really get the sense that it was going to be this huge joke. That was the hardest part. I was actually bummed out that people didn’t like it. That was sad to me.
Cox: A dear director friend of mine—I won’t embarrass him by telling you his name, but he’s a big-time director—when I told him that I was in Cop Rock, he watched it, and we’d talk for the first three or four shows, and he’d just call me up afterwards and say, “Ronny, this doesn’t work. This isn’t working! This just doesn’t work!” And then by the fourth or fifth show, he said, “I love this show.” [Laughs.] But for the average viewer 25 years ago, it was just a bridge too far.
Bochco: I could see it after the first episode. The ratings started out really, really low. [Laughs.] Which meant that people were turned off simply by the promos, because nobody had even seen it yet. It wasn’t just that it was a low number. When you looked at it in 15-minute intervals, you could just see it sinking like a rock. So it started out really low, it got lower by the week, and I think by week seven they’d pulled the plug.
“Your Number’s Up”—The cancellation of Cop Rock
“Cop Rock, the new television series that dropped pop songs into a gritty police drama, has been canceled, Robert A. Iger, the president of ABC’s entertainment division, announced yesterday. The show, which had its premiere on Sept. 26, failed to generate an audience despite the tempered enthusiasm of critics.” —The New York Times, November 13, 1990
Bobby: We knew that the ratings weren’t good. And it was a very expensive show to do, I understand. And keep in mind: I was 21 years old! [Laughs.] But you know when you’re on a show that’s off the ropes. You know it on Broadway, and you know it on TV. I was not surprised when we were all pulled to meet in the squad room so they could tell us. We all got together, and there was a bit of laughter, because we all knew what it was about, and then it got very quiet, and Steven said, “Well, we are canceled.”
Joshua: It’s funny. We got nine million people to watch that show every week, and when they told me that wasn’t enough, I was, like, “Shit! If you had a business and I told you every week nine million people were gonna come through your door, you’d say, “Oh, fuck, that’s amazing!” But behind the scenes they were saying, “We need 12 million to break even!” So they had to cut us off.
Bochco: I remember, actually, that as the show was being essentially canceled, Bob Iger said, “You know, if you’d make this show without the music, I’d pick it up.” Because it was actually a really provocative cop show separated from the music. In fact, if you think about it, Peter’s character became a sort of interesting model for the character in The Shield. But among the many reasons I didn’t want to do that was that when we were casting the show, we essentially concentrated more on singing than acting. We had some good actors, but we really looked for people who could really sing, and my feeling always was that if we took the music out, we kind of would’ve had a cast that just as pure actors would not be as stellar as that which I would have preferred. So I said, “Nah, I don’t want to do that.” So we didn’t. But, hey, he got his cop show from us a few years later.
McDaniel: I remember the conflict I had with Steven—which was not a big conflict, because it’s not like you have a big conflict with Steven Bochco—was that I was saying that maybe we were doing too many songs, especially to begin with. And he expressed to me—and I remember it like it was yesterday—that they had a commitment to do five songs an episode. Stephen Sondheim says in his book that the way that he writes is that he puts in a song where the singing becomes inevitable, where the drama rises to a point where the only way you can express it is through song. Well, I don’t know how much I believe in that stuff, but that was his formula, and… I don’t know if we had a bible like that. I think we had more of a commitment to doing five songs than really working with the history of musical theater.
McCrane: In my estimation, one of the key errors they had was that they didn’t have people on staff who really knew and wrote for musical theater… unless I’m wrong. I don’t think they did, though. What I think happened structurally on that show was that they decided on a format that was going to be a five-act structure, usually with a song at the end of each act. And the songs ended up stopping the action dead because they would often rehash something that you just saw in the scene before or something like that. But it wasn’t propelling the action forward. And I honestly think that if they had some people who knew that going in, the show might’ve had the potential to be something more.
Cox: When the songs came at the act break… They were great songs, but we were butted up against the commercials. And you know how they squeeze the sound of commercials so they’re louder? Well, they’d sound so much bigger and fuller than our songs that we always suffered. I always felt that if they’d worked out a way to not have the songs be at the act break, so that they weren’t always going straight into a big, loud, screechy commercial, it would’ve helped things.
Joshua: There were a lot of things that were left unfulfilled in terms of learning how to do it better. Because I do think we could’ve done it better. I don’t think anyone would say that what we were doing was perfect. Everybody knew there was stuff to learn yet. But I don’t think Steven could’ve done it any other way than the way he did it, because if Steven was going to fail, it was going to be by his own hand, it wasn’t going to be by someone else’s. There’s something noble and wonderful about succeeding and failing on your own terms, but there’s also a tragic flaw: You don’t take influence. I think only Steven could second-guess Steven.
Bochco: I’ve thought about it, obviously, off and on for all these years—because people never really let me forget about it! And when you look at shows like Glee or Empire, the music is much more organic to the concept of the show, whereas Cop Rock really took the conventions of a Broadway musical, where it doesn’t matter what the book is about, you just add music to it to tell your story. When you walk into a Broadway theater, you have a certain set of expectations, so something like that works. But I think when we grafted music onto a serious cop drama on television, you know, you’re not in a dark room with a thousand people. It’s a much more intimate medium, and it just didn’t take. It was not a successful graft, but it was a hell of a good try. It was adventurous and bold, and we had a wonderful time doing it. It just didn’t work for people.
Boustead: Was I surprised that it didn’t work? I was disappointed, for sure. But you know what? It was a lot to ask of an audience, because there were other gritty cop dramas on TV at the time, but in those other shows, the cops didn’t unexpectedly burst into song. [Laughs.] In retrospect—and I almost hate to say this out loud—I think some of the songs were not great and some of the vocal performances were not great. When it was good… I mean, there were moments when it wasn’t just good, it was great. It was groundbreaking TV. But there were moments where… it wasn’t good. And I could just imagine people all over the country at certain points in the show just picking up their remote and saying, “I’m out of here.”
“It’s Gonna Be All Right”—Looking back
Markowitz: I wrote “We’ll Ride Again,” the last song they sang on the show, but I think Steven’s the one who said, “This is where the fat lady sings.” He’s also the one who had the idea of actually having a fat lady coming down from the rafters in the scene.
Bochco: I don’t know if I’d call that ending cathartic, but it just seemed to me at the time that as long as we were being that bold, we might as well go all the way! [Laughs.] I mean, it wasn’t like we were suddenly going to turn our fortunes around at the last minute.
Murray: I’ll tell ya, there weren’t any dry eyes in that last performance we gave, when the proverbial—and in this case literal!—fat lady sang. She was a nice lady, but I’ve gotta tell ya. I just about choked on my tongue when she dropped down from above. [Laughs.] I mean, I knew she was up there on high, but when she started belting out her tune… Oh, my god, what a great way to go out: just saying, “Hey, you know what? Fuck it. We tried!”
Bochco: I’m sorry it didn’t work, but I’ve never been ashamed of it or embarrassed by Cop Rock. You know, if you’re a baseball player and you get a base hit three times out of 10, and you do that for 20 years, you’re going to be in the Hall Of Fame, but you’re still gonna strike out sometimes. That’s inevitable. But at least I went down swinging! [Laughs.] After 26 years, I didn’t think it’d ever come out on DVD, but I think it’s great that it’s finally happened. I doubt it’ll be reevaluated, though. I don’t think anybody’s going to change their minds particularly. The few people that really like it are going to enjoy the hell out of it, and people who thought it was ridiculous will probably still think so. But I thought it was a very bold, adventurous attempt at something, and to whatever degree some small portion of the audience really got into it, I’m delighted.
Cox: When people mention Cop Rock to me, they’re always bemused. Once in a blue moon, people will come up and say they love it, but they’re the rarity, I can tell you right now! [Laughs.] A lot of people come up and think they’re going to rag me a little bit about being in Cop Rock, but when they find out that I loved doing it, it plays with their mind.
McDaniel: Generally speaking—and I’m just being honest—the people who happen to mention Cop Rock, they say it with a wry smile on their face… and that’s basically when I tear ’em apart. Because people always want to run down your discography, and they’ll say, “Oh, yeah, and I remember Cop Rock, too.” As if I’m supposed to be in league with the fact that that was one of my greatest failures. And I let them know that I’m not really on board with that thought. And by the time they walk away, they walk away a little bit different, because 98 percent of the time, the person’s never even seen the show. People can say what they will, but we were trying to do something. And let’s face it, television would be a lot better off if there was room for experimentation.
McLarty: Some actors would come up and try to belittle Cop Rock, so I’d just have to quote my salary. That’d shut ’em up! [Laughs.] But despite some of the hostile reactions, many people loved the show and told me so, which is always a nice occurrence.
Wilhoite: If I get recognized for anything, it’s for being the screwed-up chick in ER, for Gilmore Girls, and then it’s musical-theater people saying, “I’ll never forget you in Cop Rock.” Oh, I can always tell how old someone is if they recognize my voice because I played Pepper Ann. [Laughs.] But when people recognize me from Cop Rock, I feel genuinely proud of my work on that, and it makes me feel good. Nobody wants to be recognized for something they don’t think you did very well on or for something that was kind of stupid and that you’re embarrassed of. I mean, you still say thank you, because you don’t want to be insulting, but if you get recognized for something that you feel like you’re proud of, it sinks in deeper, and… it really feels good.
McCrane: I have never had the experience of someone saying, “That was the best show on television. I’m sorry they killed it.” [Laughs.] It is almost always with a certain schadenfreude-istic pleasure that they remind me that I was in that. Although I’m proud to have been a part of it! It’s not a job I wish I hadn’t done. I wish it had succeeded, and I have no embarrassment about it whatsoever. But, yes, people seem to delight in being able to say, “You were in Cop Rock, weren’t you?” But I’ve got to tell you something: It was really, really fun, and it was a really good group of people on all fronts.
Gianopoulos: Several years ago, I was at a bar called The Well in Hollywood, and it was the first year Glee was out. They had just won their Emmys, they came into the bar, and I don’t know how it came about, but somebody said, “Hey, one of the guys from Cop Rock is over there!” And one of the cast members came over and said, “You’re our hero! We refer to your show a lot. That’s the one that broke it in and made our show possible!” Which I thought was… maybe not true. [Laughs.] But I took the compliment and just said, “Wow!”
Bobby: We paved the way for Glee and Ally McBeal and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, even if the pavement was a little bit rough. [Laughs.] But we owe a debt to The Singing Detective, and The Singing Detective owes a debt to Broadway musicals. People are looking for new ways to express themselves, and music has become so much more popular. Hell, we owe a debt to the variety shows of the ’70s! But every generation has a different zeitgeist, and music was not something that people were all that eager to embrace at the end of the ’80s.
Edmonson: It just came at a weird time where people were not interested in the idea of intertwining music with drama. Even after Cop Rock, James L. Brooks did a musical [I’ll Do Anything], and this time Prince did all the music, and when they tested it, the people said, “Oh, we just don’t like the idea of people breaking into song in the middle of talking.” So they threw all the music away! But then down the line comes Glee, and it’s a huge success. So what changed? Well, sometimes you’re just ahead of the curve. Did the show have problems? Of course it had problems. But they were all solvable. You just had to have time to solve them. And at 11 episodes, you’re only just barely figuring out how to even get the show done.
Austin: Several years after Cop Rock, I was doing a French-American TV movie in Geneva, Switzerland, that was very popular at the time, and when I was being interviewed for it, one of the reporters was just raving about Cop Rock and how fabulous it was, and all of these other writers were nodding that, yes, it was so wonderful… and they didn’t seem to know it was a big bomb in America! [Laughs.] But, you know, they do so many limited series in Europe that it didn’t strike them as odd that we only did those few episodes or that we didn’t do a second series. It was just, “How does it feel to have been part of the fabulous Cop Rock?” And I said, “Oh, it was amazing!” I just kept it to myself that the reason there’d only been that many episodes was that it had been canceled. I figured, “Hey, if they think it’s great, let’s go with that!”
Boustead: People did love it. It’s one of those things that’s turned into a cult classic at this point. Some people say maybe it was ahead of its time. I don’t know. But I’m sure glad to have been part of it. I thought it was fantastic.
Joshua: Most people I’ve run across, when they know I’ve done Cop Rock or they realize it, they’re usually part of the nine million people who watched it. And, yeah, I’ve come across people who’ve derided it or called it Cop Schlock, but it doesn’t hurt my feelings any. It was a great creative effort. It didn’t work and there were a lot of reasons for that, but I can’t let that bother me, because what I saw and what I felt was great stuff that I will carry with me to the end.
Onorati: I don’t think I’ll ever get a chance to do something like that again. It was one of the most amazing things in my career. It was a great moment and a great way to start out here, no matter what the fate of the overall production was. You know, I came to town wanting to do what everybody else wants to do—get an Emmy, get an Oscar, whatever—and then over the years I’ve realized from my career that the best thing you can possibly do is make a living and put your kids through college and keep your house! [Laughs.] But I still always wanted to get an Emmy, just so that I could get up there and say, “Thank you very much. Cop Rock is the best thing I ever did. Good night!”