Barbara Bosson, 83, Dies; Brought Family Drama to ‘Hill Street Blues’
Barbara Bosson, who starred in a half-dozen TV crime dramas from the 1970s to the ’90s but who is best known for her five seasons on “Hill Street Blues,” for which she was nominated for five consecutive Emmy Awards, died on Saturday in Santa Monica, Calif. She was 83.
Her son, Jesse Bochco, confirmed her death, in a hospital, but said the cause had not been determined.
Ms. Bosson was a relatively unknown actress when she burst through the doors of a police station in the pilot episode of “Hill Street Blues,” the much-lauded police drama that ran from 1981 to 1987. She played Fay Furillo, the frenetic ex-wife of Capt. Frank Furillo (played by Daniel J. Travanti), and she had come to demand alimony, which he was chronically late in paying.
Fay’s was supposed to be a one-off appearance, but producers, critics and audiences liked her so much that the writers — including her husband, Steven Bochco, the show’s producer and co-creator — quickly made her a part of the main cast.
With its busy camera work and overlapping story lines, “Hill Street Blues” is widely considered a landmark in TV history. Set in a gritty (but unnamed) American city, the show offered a textured take on working-class life that struck a chord with a country in the midst of stagflation and deindustrialization. It was nominated for 97 Emmys, a record at the time for a one-hour drama (it has since been surpassed by “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” “ER” and “Game of Thrones”), and won 25.
Ms. Bosson’s performance as Fay was central to that success. Her character was difficult and self-pitying, but she was also a hardworking single mother struggling to make ends meet.
“Fay is one of those transition women,” she told The Washington Post in 1987. “She grew up in one kind of set of values — she’s not unbright, but she never thought she’d have to support herself. And then she found herself divorced, poor, with a child and real angry.”
Ms. Bosson faced accusations that she had won the role because she was married to Mr. Bochco. She brushed them off, but she also said they drove her add depth to the character as a way of showing her creative independence. It was her idea, for example, to make Fay a victims’-rights advocate.
Mr. Bochco left the show over creative differences at the end of the fifth season. Ms. Bosson left soon after, claiming that the producers were trying to strip Fay of the endearing qualities she had worked so hard to add.
Ms. Bosson went on to star in several more crime shows, including the Bochco creations “Hooperman,” “Cop Rock” and “Murder One,” Her performance as a deputy district attorney on “Murder One” earned her a sixth Emmy nomination.
Barbara Ann Bosson was born on Nov. 1, 1939, in Charleroi, Pa., about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh. Her father, John, was an aspiring tennis coach who made ends meet as a milkman, and her mother, Doris, was a homemaker. When Barbara was a teenager, her family moved to Gulfport, Fla., where she graduated from high school in 1957.
She gained admission to the drama department at Carnegie Tech (today part of Carnegie Mellon University), but it was too expensive for her parents. Instead she moved to New York, where she worked as a secretary and took acting classes at night. She also worked for a time as a hostess at the Playboy Club in Midtown Manhattan.
“I put up with a lot of leering men to be able to study acting,” she told The St. Petersburg Times in 1990.
She eventually saved enough money to enroll at Carnegie Tech in 1965, but left before graduating to pursue acting. Her classmates included several future “Hill Street Blues” colleagues, among them Mr. Bochco and the actors Bruce Weitz and Charles Haid.
Mr. Bochco was married, but he had divorced by the time they met again, in Los Angeles, in 1969. They married at the end of the year.
They divorced in 1997. Mr. Bochco died in 2018. Along with her son, Ms. Bosson is survived by a daughter, Melissa Bochco; two grandchildren; and her brother, Richard.
Ms. Bosson’s first screen credit was in the 1968 crime thriller “Bullitt,” with Steve McQueen, and through the 1970s she was seen in a series of small TV and film roles. She was also a member of the Committee, an improv troupe.
Though she continued to find work in the 12 years between leaving “Hill Street Blues” and her retirement in 1997, she found it increasingly frustrating, with good roles for women her age few and far between.
“There’s this wonderful tradition in Hollywood where men as old as 60 or 70 play opposite women of 20,” she told The Washington Post. “The only time you’ll see an older woman with a younger man is if she’s so knock-them-down-dead gorgeous that anybody would go for her.”