When David Milch won a Humanitas Prize in 1983 for his work on “Hill Street Blues” and was awarded $15,000 in prize money, he didn’t do what many people would think prudent and put the money in the bank. Instead, he bought a racehorse.
“I’m kind of nuts,” he professed more than a few times to an audience of devotees at a recent Writers Guild Foundation seminar. No matter. Besides winning the Humantias for his first script, he also took home an Emmy for his writing that year, and has since garnered 23 more nominations.
As many in the industry will profess, Hollywood Walk of Fame honoree Milch is one of the most prolific writers in television history.
“David is incredibly gifted and enormously complex,” says Steven Bochco, for whom Milch first worked in 1983 after arriving from Yale, where he was a professor, to work on “Hill Street.” “If he never wrote another word, the contribution he’s made to the literature of television is quite remarkable.”
Milch and Bochco went on to create another seminal cop skein, “NYPD Blue,” which launched in 1993 and ran for an astonishing 12 seasons.
It is Milch’s love of literature — he’s quick to cite Melville, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Dickens among his favorites, and sometimes all in the same sentence — as well as the drama of his own life, which have produced such rich characters from Andy Sipowicz to Al Swearengen.
“I think that everything a person writes is really the continuation of a conversation with everything that you’ve experienced, including everything that you’ve read,” he says.
“He brought a tremendous wealth of literary knowledge to us,” says Bochco, “and was able to extrapolate so much of what he read and absorbed into practical, thematic templates that he could impose on the television writing that we were doing. He lifted the bar.”
“Dave’s challenged people to make smarter, more meaningful programs,” explains “Deadwood” exec producer Mark Tinker, who has worked with Milch since they collaborated on “NYPD Blue.” “He’s a student of the human condition, and his take on the interaction between people and their situations is really unique and really informed, to the point that you sometimes question your own ability to judge life. His mind works much like that three-
dimensional board game: He’s working at all levels at all times, and you never know which level you’re accessing.”
Much of Milch’s own life experience makes its way into his characters, particularly his 30-year “research period” of alcoholism and drug addiction, which ended New Year’s Day 1999.
“Dave’s never been afraid to wrestle with his demons on the page,” says Bochco. “So many writers form their sense of life from secondhand exposure, whereas David’s life experiences are very complicated and rich, because he writes about what was firsthand to him.”
“I was trying to get Andy Sipowicz sober for years before I could get sober,” Milch notes.
He continues to battle with obsessive/compulsive behavior, using a unique writing system and style that both deals with it and takes advantage of it. Mostly, he stays away from the computer keyboard, dictating to an audience of writers and interns — sometimes up to 15 of them in a room, according to Tinker — while laying on his back to relieve chronic back pain.
“I call it ‘the art of performance writing,'” Bochco explains. “He reads to a group of young writing students, who sit and watch him write. And because he’s doing it out loud, he can editorialize as he goes,” a method Milch has practiced since “NYPD Blue.” “There’s a difference between the internal writing process, which is the way most of us write, and externalizing everything that you write as you’re writing. David doesn’t write — he says.”
This method also allows Milch to continue something he started back at Yale: teach.
“I need to teach to be at my best as a writer,” he says. “It’s a different way of meeting the same responsibility. You’re testifying to the beauty, complexity and tragedy of life, in a constructive way. As I’m working on a scene, I feel a responsibility to the truth of the character’s experience and the emotional moment of the scene, and also to try to explain why I’m going about, how I’m going about, what I’m writing to the writers.”
Over the years, say close observers, Milch’s style has evolved since his first “Hill Street” script.
One thing that hasn’t change, apparently, is Milch’s unofficial “uniform”: his daily attire typically consists of black jeans and a black T-shirt.
“Dave’s wardrobe is … functional,” chuckles Tinker. Adds the dapper consulting producer A.C. Lyles, “One Christmas I offered to have my tailor make him a suit. I don’t think he’s done it yet.”
“Alcoholics are creatures of habit,” Milch explains. “I just have a lot of those particular shirts and pants, but I am capable of wearing something else.”
Milch readily admits not to concern himself with network or studio deadlines. During production, he would often walk a “Deadwood” script over to the actors on set momemts after writing it.
This can prove difficult for the cast, with so little time to prepare for a scene. Jimmy Smits, who was nominated five years in a row for his role as Det. Bobby Simone on “NYPD Blue,” says one of the reasons he stepped away from the series was that, as an actor who feels the needs to rehearse, he felt frustrated with the late-arriving pages.
Adds Tinker: “We had ‘NYPD Blue’ scripts where the murderer changed halfway through the episode. He’s almost like a blind sculptor. He has to feel the thing in order to really get in touch with it.”
The authenticity Milch puts into shows such as “Deadwood” doesn’t come without a lot of research.
“Before he started ‘Deadwood,’ David studied the real Deadwood,” explains Lyles, a 78-year veteran of Paramount, who watched one of his mentors, Cecil B. DeMille, do the same for “The Ten Commandments.” “David knew every person that lived there, the buildings, even the kinds of beards they had. If you get a picture of that town from 1876 and compare it our set, you’ll see it’s almost an exact reproduction.”
Whether the script is on time or late, Milch frequently works with both the actors and directors — explaining the thought process and motives of each of the characters — before turning the scene over to the director to complete.
“He has such a crystal clear point of view on the scene,” says Tinker , who has directed Milch scripts, as well as produced. “It doesn’t mean you can’t add your point of view. But once you understand what he wants to do, then you really need to be the bearer of the ark.”
Such on-set explanations tend to be quite entertaining in themselves, crew members often waiting around to watch Milch’s performance in lieu of taking a coffee break.
Milch’s offscreen passions include going to the racetrack — he owns several racehorses and has won Breeders’ Cup races — and he’s quite generous with colleagues. He’s been known to hand out what he calls “sudden production bonuses” of $100 to crew members and has financially assisted the old-time cowboys and ranch hands that make up the “Deadwood” cast — as well as young scribes trying to make their way in the biz.
“He’s underwritten a lot of people’s lives while they try to undertake a writing career or are down on their luck a little bit,” Tinker notes.
Milch doesn’t see his contributions to the television medium as anything more than the result of daily work.
“I focus on the work, and let the medium take care of itself. I just try to find the beating heart of the materials I’m working with,” he says. “Every project I’ve ever worked on, I try and find its heart, and, if the public responds to it, then I’m employed.”