HBO stunned bizzers Wednesday afternoon when it pulled the plug on its horse-racing drama “Luck” following the death Tuesday of another horse during filming.
HBO said the decision was made in concert with exec producers David Milch and Michael Mann. The series has two episodes yet to air in its first season but had already been renewed by HBO on the heels of its January preem.
The cancellation headed off mounting pressure and worry from animal rights groups and others over the care of the animals in the show. Two horses died during production of “Luck’s” first season, both during the filming of racing scenes, according to the Associated Press.
“It’s three strikes — you’re out,” said an industry insider close to the production, adding that the show faced considerable pressure from animal rights groups after the first two deaths and would likely have seen an escalation of such pressure after the third.
“Safety is always of paramount concern,” the network said in a statement Wednesday. “We maintained the highest safety standards throughout production, higher in fact than any protocols existing in horse racing anywhere, with many fewer incidents than occur in racing or than befall horses normally in barns at night or pastures.
“While we maintained the highest safety standards possible, accidents unfortunately happen, and it is impossible to guarantee they won’t in the future. Accordingly, we have reached this difficult decision.”
HBO emphasized that it was “immensely proud of this series, the writing, the acting, the filmmaking, the celebration of the culture of horses and everyone involved in its creation.”
Mann and Milch said in a joint statement: “The two of us loved this series, loved the cast, crew and writers. This has been a tremendous collaboration and one that we plan to continue in the future.”
A horse was injured while walking back to her stall during a break in production on Tuesday, and the attending veterinarian determined that the animal should be euthanized. HBO agreed to suspend filming with horses pending an investigation of the accident, which occurred when the horse reared and fell backward.
“In this most recent specific incident,” Daily Racing Form national correspondent Jay Privman told Variety, “this is something that could have happened to any horse anywhere at any time and probably happens at barns and riding clubs around the country more often than people who aren’t associated with horse racing realize.”
PETA released an official statement following the news, accusing HBO of forcing “old, unfit, and drugged horses” into the production.
“We thank the whistleblowers who refused to let these horses’ deaths go unnoticed,” PETA said. “Should Milch, Mann, and HBO decide to start the series up again, PETA will be calling on them, as we have done from the start, to use stock racing footage instead of endangering horses for entertainment purposes. PETA has called on law enforcement to investigate the deaths of the horses used on the set and to bring charges as appropriate.”
“Luck” was in the process of filming the second episode of its soph season when the accident occured, and there appear to be no plans to use any of the second-season footage or make any edits to what now becomes the series finale March 25.
The skein’s most recent airing at 9 p.m. Sunday drew 474,000 viewers, a modest showing by HBO standards, but the series’ high-profile creative pedigree — it marked Dustin Hoffman’s first TV series gig — virtually ensured that “Luck” would earn the quick second-season renewal that came Jan. 31.
There was immediate industry speculation that the horse deaths were only part of the reason that HBO pulled the plug. By many accounts, production on “Luck” was arduous and expensive. There were numerous reports of creative friction between Milch and Mann, both of whom are known for being strong-willed.
However, HBO has stuck with other sparsely watched programs, such as “Treme,” which will air its third season later this year despite averaging well below 1 million viewers in its initial airings.
In addition to Hoffman, the large ensemble of “Luck” included Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina, John Ortiz, Richard Kind, Kevin Dunn, Ian Hart, Ritchie Coster, Jason Gedrick, Kerry Condon, Gary Stevens, Tom Payne, Jill Hennessy and Alan Rosenberg.
“It’s really unfortunate,” Rosenberg told Variety. “It’s tragic about the horse, and I’m really sad that the show is going to end. I think it’s a great show, and I had a wonderful experience working on it. I think it was just hitting its stride.”
Milch remains with HBO through a first-look deal he extended in November that includes works from the estate of William Faulkner.
Milch steered the cabler’s cult-fave Western drama “Deadwood,” which aired from 2004-06; now “Luck” suddenly becomes the second consecutive series from him that will end after one season, following 2007’s “John From Cincinnati.” The only other HBO drama that has ended after one season in that period is 2007’s “Tell Me You Love Me.”
(Cynthia Littleton and Dave McNary contributed to this report.)