Few argued the creative genius of television writer, series creator and executive producer David Milch. As the co-creator of "NYPD Blue" (ABC, 1993-2005) and "Deadwood" (HBO, 2004-06) - two series that plumed the depths of human fallibility in gritty, violent and often profane ways - Milch offered audiences a more complex depiction of the police procedural and the Western, while reaffirming the human spirit through the suffering and ultimate redemption of his characters. Milch's astute glimpses at the underbelly of human nature were informed by a troubled and often harrowing past, one colored by serious alcohol and gambling addictions. He mined much from his personal experiences for his next creation, the California surf culture drama "John from Cincinnati" (HBO, 2007). When that endeavor failed to generate the buzz enjoyed by "Deadwood," Milch returned to the drawing board, eventually returning with a long-gestating idea inspired by one of his life-long passions - thoroughbred horse racing. "Luck" (HBO, 2011-12), an ensemble drama starring Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte, garnered acclaim and big ratings right out of the gate, but the deaths of three horses during production killed the show before it reached the first season finish line. An Emmy winner and the creator of several of television's most distinctive dramas, Milch brought an unglamorous, yet captivating world view to each of his projects.
Milch was born in Buffalo, NY into a family whose history was forged by an assorted cast of criminal miscreants including bootleggers and bookmakers for the mob. His father, Elmer, was a gastrointestinal surgeon who performed timely hernia surgeries on family friends seeking to avoid testifying at the Kefauver Hearings, a U.S. Senate committee formed to investigate the Mafia in the early 1950s. His mother, on the other hand, was a devout Jew whose strict observation of the faith was not shared by his father, who told his son that American Jewish life was hypocritical. Meanwhile, his dad would take him to the race track where he would have his son hand money to a waiter who, in turn, placed his father's bets. This behavior would later give his father cause to blame Milch for his gambling problem. But such rebukes failed to sway Milch away from the track; he spent hours in the basement smoking his father's cigars and reading past issues of the Daily Racing Formin preparation for his own descent into gambling addiction.
Despite his proximity to gambling and criminal activity, Milch grew up in a relatively normal home. He did, however, suffer from a traumatizing event that he was unable face for years; he was the victim of a pedophile at a summer camp. Much of his writing later in life dealt with trauma and betrayal, the beginnings of which perhaps resided in his early personal tragedy. Eventually, Milch landed at Yale University for his undergraduate education where he decided to become a novelist. Teaching there at the time was Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Penn Warren, who was impressed with Milch's work and compared his dialogue to that of Earnest Hemingway. But Milch's obsessive compulsive behavior was evident even then; he spent more than a year retyping the same 12 pages from his eventually completed novel. Once finished, his only work of fiction was published, but read by only a few people. His compulsive behaviors soon gave way to full-blown drug and alcohol abuse. Being the 1960s, Milch took copious amounts of LSD, even helping to manufacture it for dealers in Mexico. Nonetheless, he managed to graduate summa cum laude and won the Tinker Prize for highest achievement in English.
After leaving Yale, Warren arranged for Milch to participate in a teaching fellowship at the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa. He spent a year establishing his credentials as a brilliant writer, though his arrogance rubbed faculty members like Kurt Vonnegut the wrong way. Milch returned to Yale a year later to attend law school, a stint that ended abruptly after he was arrested for blowing out street lights with a shotgun while high on LSD. At first, he managed to give the cops the slip, but the manic glee brought on by the ease of his escape compelled him to tell the police that it was indeed him who shot the lights. His stay at law school was promptly replaced by a stretch in jail. Milch then returned to Iowa for completion of his master's, though he used his position as a cover to continue manufacturing LSD for the folks he knew in Mexico. By the time Milch returned to Yale to begin teaching and working on an anthology with Warren and R.W.B. Lewis, he was a heroin addict.
Ironically, Milch claimed that his addiction to junk was what saved his life; it provided him with structure, normalizing what was once a chaotic and often dangerous existence. Not that he acknowledged heroin was without risk; he knew that it would take everything from him while at the same time give him everything - a warning he heard the first time he shot up. Milch finished his stint as a teacher at Yale in 1982 when his college roommate, Jeffrey Lewis, a television writer and big believer in his work, convinced him to write an episode of "Hill Street Blues" (NBC, 1980-87). Milch wrote a script without knowing what he was doing - even the abbreviations INT and EXT, used to denote interior and exterior locations, were a mystery. But executive producer Steven Bochco brought Milch on staff, despite seeing immediately that his new writer was haunted by demons. Also in 1982, Milch married documentary filmmaker Rita Stern, with whom he had three children. Milch's talent for writing television was apparent from the start and "Hill Street Blues" - one of the first cop shows to depict officers as complex and morally ambiguous characters - proved to be the perfect outlet for his dark, enigmatic worldview.
In 1983, he won the Humanitas Prize for excellence in writing for a one-hour drama - a prestigious award with a cash prize of $15,000 that Milch promptly spent on his first race horse. His thirst for gambling began taking a heavy toll; he would fly back and forth from Los Angeles to Las Vegas after the day's work on "Hill Street Blues," only to return to work the next morning. Meanwhile, writers for the network's other hit series "St. Elsewhere" (1982-88) would await in horror the various items Milch would send out the window from his second story office. By the time "Hill Street Blues" finished its run, Milch had little concern for money; his final three years on the show netted him $12 million. He then went to work as an executive producer and co-creator of the "Hill Street Blues" spin-off, "Beverly Hills Buntz" (1987-88), starring Dennis Franz in a reprisal of his character, Lieutenant Buntz, who retires as a cop and moves to Beverly Hills to open a private detective agency with Sid the Snitch (Peter Jurasik). Despite the show's pedigree, it failed to last beyond the first season.
Milch went on to co-create another series, "Capital News" (ABC, 1989-1990), a one-hour drama about life behind the scenes at a powerful Washington, D.C. newspaper. That, too, failed to last more than a season. The network, which balked at his original idea about a show centered on a powerful Washington lobbying firm, put the program on permanent hiatus after airing only four episodes. For the next few years, Milch floated around Hollywood doing lucrative but unrewarding script doctoring on feature films. It was at a low ebb that he reunited with Bochco to create "NYPD Blue," a stark police drama set at the 15th precinct in New York City that focused on the officers and their struggles to sustain a fragile grip on their humanity while battling criminals and their inner demons. "NYPD Blue" premiered to much fanfare, thanks to a liberal sprinkling of never-before-heard obscenities and the occasional flashes of nudity. Over 50 ABC affiliates refused to air the initial episodes because of the content, but once the show displayed consistently high ratings, they dropped their pretensions for decency and hopped aboard the gravy train.
Milch's work on "NYPD Blue" earned him a couple of Emmy Awards and a second Humanitas Prize, the earnings of which were again dumped into a race horse (over the years Milch had a few successful thoroughbreds, including Awesome Daze, who won Hollywood Park's $100,000 On Trust Handicap in record-setting fashion.). During his time on "NYPD Blue," Milch suffered serious heart problems and underwent several angioplasties to clear coronary blockages, resulting in him channeling his obsessive-compulsive behavior into a rigorous diet and exercise routine. Despite the health kick and though he tried to get clean on more than one occasion, Milch remained addicted to heroin, Vicodin and alcohol. Meanwhile, the excess of work, exercise, family and drug addiction began taking its toll by the end of his legendary run on "NYPD Blue." Prior to leaving the show in 2000, he joined Bochco and Bill Clark, the former New York City cop whose stories made their way into "NYPD Blue" scripts, to create another cop series, "Brooklyn South" (CBS, 1997-98). Unfortunately, the show lasted only one season.
By the time he left "NYPD Blue," Milch was noticeably burnt out. He was also on the path to kicking heroin for good, vowing with a new year's resolution. He then branched off on his own without Bochco for the first time in awhile to create "Big Apple" (CBS, 2000-01), a police drama set in New York that focused on the NYPD joining forces with the FBI to battle organized crime. The show was sprawling, complex and widely hailed by critics. But audiences failed to latch on and the series was canceled after its first season. In the fall of 2001, Milch returned to his core passion of teaching when he gave a five-part series of lectures at the Writer's Guild theater in Beverly Hills. In typical stream-of-consciousness style, Milch detailed his writing process - how he never thinks about what to write prior to writing, but does obsessive amounts of research - while quoting Scripture and recounting his years of depravity. Milch gave the seminar gratis, paying for the space on his own dime and offering one-on-one face time to discuss assigned writing exercises - a generous display perhaps in part born from years of deceit and betrayal fostered by his addictions.
After years of writing for network television, Milch decided join forces with HBO. He came in with the pitch "St. Paul gets collared," elaborating on the idea of a series set in ancient Rome during the time of Nero and centering it on the city's police in order to examine how society is imposed and formed in the absence of law. Though interested in his idea, HBO passed because they had a similar show already in development. When executives asked if he could use the same themes in a different setting, Milch said he could fit it in a Western realm, the result of which eventually became "Deadwood." A demythologized take on the once-classic American film genre, "Deadwood" was set in a prosperous gold mining town where miscreants, charlatans and fortune hunters of all stripes came in droves to make their fortune in 1876. The show focused on both real and fictional characters, namely a ruthless saloon keep, Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), whose quest for personal enrichment often butts heads with a reluctant Sheriff Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and a new mine owner (Molly Parker) whose Victorian manners barely help mask her addiction to Laudanum.
"Deadwood" was hailed by critics for its realistic depiction of the Old West, as well as its rich, multi-layered characters and Shakespearean language mixed with a steady stream of vulgarities. The overabundance of curse words turned off some, but Milch contended that their liberal use was true to the times, particularly in a place where survival depended on how one's language could ward off would-be threats. The show was nominated for several Emmys and Golden Globes after its first season, but was passed over for its second season. In January 2006, months after season three completed shooting, HBO expressed interest in renewing the show for a fourth. But by mid-May, the cable network shocked Milch and cast alike when they released the actors from their contracts, effectively canceling the show. Fans reacted strongly with an Internet movement that managed to raise funds for a full-page ad in Variety, urging the network to reconsider. HBO claimed that the show was too expensive to maintain, with an episode reportedly costing upwards of $5 million, and that Milch was committed to other projects.
Any hope of the series being revived or to be concluded in rumored feature films evaporated in the fall of 2007 when the elaborate sets for the frontier town were dismantled and Milch instead focused his attentions on his latest endeavor. Concocted by Milch and "surf noir" author Kem Nunn, "John from Cincinnati" (HBO, 2007) was a drama set in Southern California's surfer culture and centered upon a dysfunctional family and a mysterious young man (Austin Nichols) whose sudden arrival affects all their lives. Unlike "Deadwood," however, Milch's new offering met with mixed reviews and failed to generate the fervent interest of viewers. As soon as the show completed its first season, "John" was promptly canceled by HBO, although the network continued to develop properties with Milch. Although a filmed police-drama pilot, "Last of the Ninth" (HBO, 2009), was not picked up, Milch seemed poised to hit pay dirt with his next effort. An ensemble drama starring such Hollywood heavyweights as Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte, "Luck" (HBO, 2011-12) was set amidst the high-rollers and low-lifes of the world of thoroughbred horse racing. And while the well-received show was off to a terrific start, Lady Luck was not smiling when two horses were put down after sustaining injuries during filming. After a third animal had to be euthanized following an on-set injury, Milch, co-producer Michael Mann and HBO - under intense criticism from PETA and other animal rights groups - regretfully and abruptly announced that the show was ceasing production.