Legendary “Deadwood” Creator David Milch Remembers (Almost) All of It.

One of Hollywood’s most celebrated TV writers and producers, David Milch earned a fistful of Emmys for shows like ”Deadwood” and ”NYPD Blue.” Now, the 77-year-old former heroin addict is publishing his memoir
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For more than 40 years, David Milch has produced prolifically and influenced immeasurably the landscape of television. He wrote his first episodes in the last days of pre-cable network television, then co-created NYPD Blue, gathering Emmys along the way. He based the acclaimed HBO series Deadwood on the actual residents of an 1870s mining camp, prefiguring the current rage for neo-westerns like Yellowstone by nearly two decades. (Milch is nothing if not nimble: he had originally set the series in Nero’s Rome; when HBO informed him it already had a Roman show in development, he simply pivoted to the Old West.)

Throughout his career, Milch’s dialogue has been grounded in realism that takes on an otherworldly quality when spoken by his now-indelible characters: Deadwood’s Al Swearengen, spouting profanity-laced Shakespearean soliloquies to the whores and gamblers at his brothel; NYPD Blue’s Detective Andy Sipowicz, struggling with sobriety and cynicism in equal measure. Milch wrote dialogue that had never been heard on TV—unsparing and sometimes cruel, but with an undercurrent of compassion and redemption—and it shone like new money. His relentless rewriting is legend, seeking always, with a musician’s ear for precision, to get the rhythms right. (He dictated rewrites of entire episodes while lying on his side.) 

DENNIS FRANZ (LEFT) AND JIMMY SMITS ON NYPD BLUE.

Now, at 77, Milch has published the memoir Life’s Work, an unflinching assessment of himself as an artist and a man. Having grappled for much of his life with bipolar disorder and multiple addictions, Milch starts the memoir by acknowledging that he has Alzheimer’s. “I’m losing my faculties,” he writes on the book’s first page. “Things seem a continuous taking away.”

For a writer audacious enough to convince HBO that there would be an audience for a metaphysical contemplation of surfing (there wasn’t—Milch’s 2007 series John from Cincinnati was canceled after one season), the irony of writing a memoir in the midst of losing one’s memory must have resonated. But as ever, Milch adapted. He didn’t write the memoir entirely alone, he explains. As his condition worsened, it became a collaborative process, a “past recollection of mine being shared with me now by my family who are helping me compile this book,” he writes.

“I’m losing my faculties,” Milch writes. “Things seem a continuous taking away.”

Milch’s early life was marked by overcoming appalling events and extreme dysfunction. He grew up Jewish in Buffalo; his father, a surgeon, was a drinker and gambler who took young David to the track. (He would later kill himself in front of Milch’s brother and mother.) While attending Yale, Milch continued a relationship with heroin begun during his senior year of high school (“I wasn’t shooting. I was snorting,” he clarifies), but otherwise thrived. He joined the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity; one of his brothers was George W. Bush (“I liked him”). Literary scholar R. W. B. Lewis passed along his writing to Robert Penn Warren, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and poet. Warren gave Milch an indoctrination into American literature—Faulkner, Melville, Twain, Poe, Hawthorne—that would deeply influence his TV writing. (Milch unfailingly refers to his mentor as “Mr. Warren.”)  

BRUCE GREENWOOD AND REBECCA DEMORNAY STARRED IN MILCH’S SHORT-LIVED SERIES JOHN FROM CINCINNATI

Warren finessed Milch’s admittance to the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he managed to receive an MFA in 1970 despite a detour to Mexico to manufacture LSD. (“There were a lot of guns. Several people expired . . . I didn’t kill anyone, but I might as well have.”) A draft-dodging stint at Yale Law School ended after Milch was arrested for shooting out a police cruiser’s lights with a shotgun. Warren spirited Milch back to Yale in 1971 as a lecturer in English literature. After nine years, Milch later recalled, “My now-wife and I wanted to get married and have a family and I wasn’t making any dough teaching and, of course, what I was making I was using to buy drugs.”

And then Hollywood called, in the person of Milch’s undergraduate roommate Jeff Lewis, who had been writing for a buzzy cop show called Hill Street Blues. Milch flew to L.A., met co-creator Steven Bochco, and wrote his first episode, “Trial by Fury.” Right out of the gate, he won awards—an Emmy, a Writers Guild Award, even a Humanitas Prize, for exploring “the human condition in a nuanced, meaningful way.”  In a portent of things to come, Milch used the $15,000 prize to buy a racehorse.

Hill Street wrapped in 1987, and, after sampling rehab, Milch, with Bochco, created NYPD Blue—a smart, literate cop drama that first aired in 1993. Milch’s idiosyncratic work ethic quickly manifested itself once the shooting began. It was pointless memorizing lines, recalls Dennis Franz, who won four Emmys portraying Detective Sipowicz, because Milch’s scripts were always in flux. There would be a final run-through but the writer would swoop in and demand sweeping changes—“getting Milched,” as the practice was known. (Milch suffered a heart attack on the set while arguing with Franz’s costar, David Caruso, over changes in a script.) The process was “extremely stressful, difficult, satisfying, and rewarding,” Franz says. “As an actor, I loved trying to decipher what he was talking about.” 

MILCH’S MEMOIR.

Mark Tinker worked with Milch as an executive producer and director on NYPD Blue and Deadwood. “You really learned how to produce a show, with all of the hurdles that Dave put in your way,” Tinker says. “But the most important thing I learned from Dave was compassion and a deeper understanding of the human condition—the difference between us all, but also the sameness.” 

For every impingement on people’s time, there was a weekly raffle of Milch’s own money to soothe their irritation. “He came on the set with a bagful of hundreds of dollar bills,” Franz marvels, some of it winnings from Santa Anita racetrack, where Milch was steadily perfecting his gambling addiction. He left $100 tips on $5 coffee tabs, but with genuine empathy behind the largesse. He could spot an AA member in need across a smoky room; he paid for lessons for any waiter who wanted to be an actor. “He was very helpful to a lot of people,” says Tinker. 

Milch especially enjoyed giving actors second chances. He offered Ed O’Neill—then near the end of his run as Al Bundy in Married . . . With Children—the lead role on Big Apple, his 2001 CBS cop drama. O’Neill, who was not sure he would be hired again after 10 years on Married . . . With Children, took the job and soon landed another long-running hit with Modern Family. “I’ve always said that I owed him a tremendous debt,” says O’Neill. “He gave me the best stuff I ever had in front of the camera.”

While supporting close friends and complete strangers, Milch himself suffered from crippling anxiety and a “tendency to become suicidally depressed when not working.” While heroin helped him “organize and structure a day,” his gambling—he claims to have bet $1 million in a single day—was ruinous. Over a ten-year period, Milch pissed away $23 million on horse racing and sports betting, according to a 2015 lawsuit filed by his wife, Rita Stern Milch, against his business managers. Also, they were $17 million in debt. This, despite Milch having earned an estimated $100 million from Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and Deadwood. The matter was settled out of court, but the couple had to sell the Brentwood house where they raised their three children and move to a rental in Santa Monica.

“I think there were some tremendous psychological issues that weighed on Dave,” says Tinker about Milch’s self-sabotage. “I think his brain probably worked a little bit too hard, and he couldn’t deal with it.”

MILCH AND THE LATE PRODUCER STEVEN BOCHCO WITH SHARON LAWRENCE OF NYPD BLUE, THE LANDMARK SERIES MILCH AND BOCHCO CO-CREATED.

Milch would be in thrall to drugs until his early 50s. He’s been off heroin and painkillers since 1999, and horse racing since 2002. In 2019, he moved into the memory-care unit of an assisted living facility. Eventually, his wife began picking him up in the morning hours—his most productive—and taking him to the guest house at their home, where he would work on the memoir and a Johnny Carson biopic script for HBO. 

Milch’s friends and associates observe that if his overindulgence in drugs was a compulsion, then writing is a drive. “He took it really, really seriously,” says Carolyn Strauss, HBO’s executive for Deadwood. “He’s a person of great appetites, and he had a great appetite for writing.”  

In Without a Net, a documentary about Milch’s chaotic last weeks on NYPD Blue, Milch reflected: “I think it’s too facile to say that [work] is an addiction—if you’re referencing to my addiction to heroin to say that it’s the same thing. Because an addiction to a drug is a way to not feel anything. And the work that I’ve tried to do is a way for sharing feelings.”

This story is featured in the September 2022 issue of Los Angeles

(Photographed by Beau Grealy)

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