HEADLINE: THE MISFIT;
How David Milch got from "NYPD Blue" to "Deadwood" by way of an Epistle of St. Paul.
BYLINE: MARK SINGER
The moving images on the camera monitor offered, I thought, a plausible depiction of one of the drawbacks of life in the Old West-an invasive urological procedure conducted without benefit of anesthesia. "A situation involving significant unpleasantness" was how David Milch, the creator of "Deadwood," had described the scene being filmed on a soundstage at Melody Ranch Studios, in Santa Clarita, thirty miles northwest of Los Angeles. One of Milch's inventions, Al Swearengen-or, rather, Milch's conception of the real Al Swearengen, owner of the Gem Saloon, a tavern and bordello in the town of Deadwood, just outside the Dakota Territory, circa 1877-was about to have a metal probe called a Van Buren's sound inserted into his urethra by Doc Cochran, a tormented physician on the verge of a breakdown. If the procedure succeeded, Swearengen would pass a bladder stone and, presumably, resume hatching schemes of byzantine deviousness-a poetically unjust outcome, considering the inventory of murders and casual brutality he was responsible for. If it failed, the next recourse would be surgery, which the doctor dreaded because of its high risk of mortality. That Swearengen, the chief protagonist of "Deadwood," an unlike-any-Western-you've-ever-seen Western that ran for twelve episodes last year on Home Box Office and returns next month with twelve more, might be allowed to die seemed improbable. Yet, ostensibly important characters were not immune from getting shot or having their throats slit or their brains dashed, so who knew? In any event, it turned out that I had only a dim grasp of what I was watching.
Twenty minutes earlier, Milch had instructed the actors Ian McShane (Swearengen), Brad Dourif (Doc Cochran), Paula Malcolmson (Trixie, a prostitute and Swearengen's occasional mistress), and W. Earl Brown and Sean Bridgers (Swearengen's henchmen Dan Dority and Johnny Burns) to approach the scene-five people struggling fiercely so that one of them might properly pee-as if the patient were a woman in labor. Between takes, Dourif wandered over and Milch asked, "How was that?"
"You know, that one seemed to sail pretty goddam good," Dourif said. "It's not just me. It had the whole baby thing in there. If we get the baby thing, we all can make it work together."
"Go get 'em," Milch said.
Then he turned to me and launched into a typical Milchian riff, a garrulous but lucid stream of subtextual information-intellectually daunting, digressive, arcane, wittily profane-a phenomenon familiar to everyone associated with "Deadwood."
"It isn't just about witnessing a woman suffering," he said. "It's about the cohabitation of the spirit-where you've gone out as fully in compassion as one human being can to another. And all you're trying to do is help her through. In any operation, what you have to do is to persuade the patient to grant access to the patient's energy. The purest form of that is when you're trying to help a woman through labor, when you're saying 'Push, push!' and you're rhythmically with the woman. What you see at the beginning of this scene is the doctor-as modern medicine-collapsed into himself. Simply looking at the instruments of his own failure. Left alone, medicine kills. The predicate of modern medicine is 'We invalidate your humanity but we give you immortality, so you have to shut up and listen to us.' That's the bullshit that gets sold to patients, and Cochran knows it. He's already been broken on that wheel. He was a Civil War surgeon and all his patients died."
When Milch speaks, it's with a natural storyteller's alert, legato fluidity. His hands stay busy and he projects a cerebral intensity. He has brown eyes, a wide mouth, a strong nose, dark hair that he refuses to let go gray-he turns sixty this year-and the pale fleshiness of someone who doesn't expose himself much to sunlight. "There's a story by Hawthorne, 'Ethan Brand,' about a man who goes out looking for the unpardonable sin," he continued. "He discovers that it's the violation of the sanctity of another person's heart. To use an instrument to open up another person without a loving, terrified humility is the unpardonable sin. That's what medicine does, and Cochran has done it too much. At the beginning, he falls back on his fear. But then, in apprehending for just a moment the suffering of the others in the room with Swearengen, he's able to go past it and he finds that the minute one person is brave the spirit comes alive. What I'm trying to suggest to the actors is that the modern situation is predicated upon the illusion of the self's isolation-that business of 'I'm alone, you're alone, we can bullshit each other when we're fucking or whatever else, but the truth is we're alone. Right?' Well, I believe that that is fundamentally an illusion."
The central premise of "Deadwood" is that a populace of exiles-wily misfits, dim-witted misfits, bloody-minded opportunists, gamblers with nothing to lose, abused abusers-have gathered in a gold-mining settlement where trustworthiness and love are the rarest of commodities. Inexorably, they must curb some of their tendencies toward anarchy and savagery and embrace certain rudiments of civilized society; otherwise they will destroy themselves (or, almost as dire a prospect, be subjugated by the federal government). The emblematic speech of the series occurs in the fifth episode of the first season. It's a funeral oration for Wild Bill Hickok, who was murdered during a poker game in Deadwood in 1876. The speaker, a radiant but seemingly demented preacher who is himself doomed by a brain tumor, elaborates on St. Paul's first Epistle to the Corinthians: "St. Paul tells us from one spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jew or Gentile, bond or free, and have all been made to drink into one spirit. For the body is not one member but many. He tells us: 'The eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee; nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of thee.' Nay, much more those members of the body which seem to be more feeble . . . and those members of the body which we think of as less honorable-all are necessary. He says that there should be no schism in the body but that the members should have the same care one to another. And whether one member suffer all the members suffer with it."
Which is Milch's way of saying that, though a lawless existence at the edge of the frontier has its attractions, collective survival requires human beings to learn to function interdependently, and in that way communities become single organisms. The woman in labor must never be forsaken, the not quite diabolical pimp with the excruciating bladder stone must be comforted. It's no coincidence that Milch has spent much of his life exploring varieties of decadence and rapture, temptations of self-destruction and not quite unpardonable sinning. That life has now led him to "Deadwood," very much a collective enterprise and a peculiarly compelling vehicle for exploring the artistic possibilities of redemption and the redemptive possibilities of art.
"When did you write this scene?" I asked Milch.
"Yesterday or the day before," he said.
"When did you conceive it?"
"When I wrote it. I try consciously to frustrate the impulse to think about a scene before I sit down to it, because-you know the highfalutin' expression 'You can't think your way to write action; you can only act your way to write thinking.' "
Forty years ago, as a Yale undergraduate, Milch intended to become a novelist. His condensed explanation of how he strayed from that path-despite the encouragement of his teacher and avatar Robert Penn Warren, who favorably compared his dialogue-writing skills with Hemingway's-is that he got derailed by "compulsive, ritualistic behaviors," a category that covers substance abuse along with more idiosyncratic habits. Had there been a therapeutic program for individuals who spend every single day for more than a year retyping the same twelve pages, Milch would have qualified. Eventually, he did produce a novel, which he decided not to publish. During the eighties and nineties, he had enormous success, critical and otherwise, writing for television ("Hill Street Blues," "NYPD Blue"), and "Deadwood" demonstrates that his narrative gifts have deepened. Along the way, he adopted an eccentric method of composition-writing for a live audience, as it were-to circumvent what he calls "the processes of my consciousness which are not well adapted to constructive behavior."
Milch relies on a computer but never touches the mouse or the keyboard himself, because, he's learned, such mechanical tasks offer too many opportunities for obsessive-compulsive distraction. During production, each morning a driver would deliver him from his home in Santa Monica to Melody Ranch Studios, where a half-dozen or so people would be waiting to join him in the living room of a trailer. While the others sat on a sofa or chairs, Milch reclined on the floor in the center of the room, a few feet from a microphone and a twenty-inch computer monitor, on the other side of which was a desk where an amanuensis, seated in front of a computer and another monitor, was poised to type whatever he dictated. Liz Sarnoff and Jody Welch, two staff writers, were always present, along with three or four young aspiring writers, interns whom Milch paid out of his own pocket to learn by silently observing. (Another writer, a Milch contemporary named Ted Mann, chose to stay away. "Thirteen people sitting in a windowless room watching one person talk to a screen-no, thanks," Mann told me. "I don't think I would've wanted to watch William Faulkner write, either.")
Whether starting a new scene or revising someone else's draft, Milch would usually begin with a discursive monologue about context and subtext. The pilot script, which he wrote in 2003, grew out of two years' research into the history of the West in general and Deadwood specifically, gold mining, Indian wars, whorehouse and casino protocols, public-health records, politics in the Black Hills, criminality and extralegal justice, the Gilded Age, the bank panic of 1873, and biographies of historical figures. Last spring and summer, as the first season's episodes were being aired, Milch convened the writers and interns for several weeks to explore how characters, themes, and story lines might evolve, and the transcriptions of those sessions totalled hundreds of single-spaced pages. "We want to integrate the individual story lines into the over-all emotional atmosphere," he said at one point. "The first season is about the individuals improvising their way to some sort of primitive structure. . . . There's a provisional sense of promise." In the second season, he suggested, "what ought to haunt the atmosphere is that the gold may have dried up. . . . What you want every character to be looking at is 'What's the worst-case scenario? What's the disaster scenario? They sink the shafts and there's nothing there.' " Milch has a prodigious memory, which means that these densely layered observations are at the disposal of his consciousness, as well as his unconscious, when he finally sits down, or lies down, to write. After witnessing this process on several occasions-the ambience in the room seems equal parts master class and seance-the comparison that strikes me as most apt is channelling. The only sounds are the hum of an air-conditioner and Milch's voice, or, more precisely, the voices of his characters speaking through him.
The day after the bladder-stone scene was shot, the task at hand in the trailer was an encounter between Dan Dority, an erstwhile highwayman whose grander criminal ambitions have led to an apprenticeship with Swearengen, and E. B. Farnum, the mayor of Deadwood and the proprietor of the Grand Central Hotel. Farnum, an oleaginous toady played with comic finesse by William Sanderson, lives suspended between mortal fear of Swearengen and mercenary eagerness to do his bidding. Standing at the bar of the Gem, he reports that his sleep the previous night was disrupted by pain-filled screams. Dority, determined to conceal that Swearengen is seriously ill, refuses the bait.
Wearing a pair of dark-brown corduroys, a black T-shirt, and dusty black ankle-high boots, Milch was sprawled on his right side. Loose pages lay in front of him, but he didn't refer to them as he spoke: "I wonder in short how the fuck Al is." Pause. "I wonder, comma, in short, comma, how Al is fucking feeling being it was his yap the screams was coming from." Pause. "I wonder, in short, being it was his yap the screams was coming from, how Al is fucking feeling. . . . I'm wondering, in short, being his yap issued the screams, how Al is fucking feeling." He shifted his posture occasionally-propped himself on his elbow, then sat up, leaned forward, massaged his shoulders-but never took his eyes off the monitor. Slowly, rhythmically, he tilted his head from side to side, moved his lips and jaw as if rattling the words inside his mouth, gestured as if one hand were talking to the other. A half hour later, he had it down, an entirely credible dialogue that would flow smoothly into but not foreshadow a spasmodically violent encounter between Dority and a minor character.
Farnum: I heard screaming. From Al's room. Dority: Happens up there many a fucking evening. Farnum: Al was fucking screaming, Dan. And I'm wondering how he's feeling this morning. And you dancing around the pole ain't allaying my fucking anxieties.
To gain access to the characters, Milch says, his strategy is to make himself disappear. Citing William James in "The Varieties of Religious Experience," he asserts that "all apprehensions of the deity have in common ego suppression at depth."
"James said that every vision that ever came to anyone is prefaced by a sense of dissolution of the self," he said. "It's the fragmentation of ego that allowed what he called the oceanic sense to flow in. I find that when I'm merely thinking about a scene I'm in an egoist state, which is the opposite of the state of being where you suppress the ego and go out in spirit to the characters. What writing should be is a going out in spirit. And my idea of storytelling is-I wouldn't say it's religious but I would say it's spiritual. You know, the chemist Friedrich August Kekule worked for twenty years trying to figure out the structure of the benzene ring, and he couldn't do it. And then one night he was sleeping and he had a vision of a snake swallowing its tail. So he told his students about it and they said, 'Not bad, you go to sleep and you wake up with that.' And he said, 'Visions come to prepared spirits.' The way Billy Wilder put it was 'The muse has to know where to find you.'
"But it's not as if I just go with the flow. I spent a lot of fucking time studying these characters and trying to feel my way into them. And I feel that once you've done that sort of research and lived into your sense of the characters, the next essential step of the process is to suppress the self. The way that happens for me is that the only time I'll think about the work is when I'm working. I won't plan it out. My belief is: anything you're thinking about when you're not in the act of writing is probably useless."
When I was a senior at Yale, I used to meet occasionally with R. W. B. Lewis, the critic and biographer (Edith Wharton, the James family), who taught at the university for thirty-nine years and, along with Robert Penn Warren, was Milch's mentor and friend and, in some respects, peer. In the acknowledgments of "The Jameses," Lewis begins with a paragraph expressing "a very large and special debt of gratitude" to Milch. A few times, in 1971 or 1972, I encountered Milch as he worked in an office in Calhoun College, where Lewis was the master. He made a distinct impression: a cigarette-smoking wise guy with long wavy hair who, though only a few years older than I, was exponentially more worldly. Warren had arranged for Milch to begin teaching seminars in fiction and poetry at Yale that year and to work on a two-volume textbook anthology of American literature that he and Lewis were editing with Cleanth Brooks. It didn't take Milch long to acquire a cult following; his classroom style was vibrant, earthy, and often derisively funny, and details of his avocational exploits enhanced his mystique. For instance, he was a gambler who knew a great deal about horse racing and was writing a screenplay set at a racetrack. (Were his students also aware that he was an alcoholic and a heroin addict?)
Depending on how one interprets the data, Milch was either bedevilled by self-destructive urges or possessed of keen survival skills that sustained him in the face of unhealthy compulsions. A superior student-he graduated summa cum laude and won the prize given for the highest achievement in English-he was an unlikely member of the jock fraternity (Delta Kappa Epsilon; George W. Bush, president), which provided a venue for his main extracurricular activity: drinking. Jeffrey Lewis, a novelist, screenwriter, and television writer who worked with Milch for five years on "Hill Street Blues," and who was his Yale roommate for three years, told me that one of the first things he understood about him was that he harbored "complicated and huge feelings about his father." Elmer Milch was an esteemed gastrointestinal surgeon in Buffalo. And, evidently, he was multiply addicted-to alcohol, horses, and painkillers (a consequence of a near-fatal car accident two years before David was born). He was perhaps manic-depressive, without question obsessive-compulsive, and more than capable of psychologically abusing those closest to him. "True Blue," a book David co-wrote about the early years of "NYPD Blue," includes a description of an instance, when he was eight or nine, of his father striking him hard on the back of the neck-atypical, in that "my dad hit me three times in my life." What had provoked this? He still wasn't sure, other than that his father was "always driven by things it was hard to understand, and which seemed to force him to live in a very narrow and specific way, and you didn't want to mess him up." Nevertheless, twenty-five years after his death, he is regarded with great sympathy by his son.
Al Swearengen's principal foil in Deadwood is Seth Bullock (played by Timothy Olyphant), a reluctant sheriff who previously has had a respectable career as a lawman in Montana. In 2002, Milch came across, in a book called "Earlier Pioneer Days in the Black Hills," a one-page recollection of Bullock, who had gone on to become one of Deadwood's leading merchants. As rendered by Milch, he is both a man of principle and a morally flawed pragmatist. Only in superficial ways is he more "civilized" than Swearengen. Moments arise when he restrains himself from literally taking the law into his own hands; at others, he bloodily yields to the impulse.
"Mark Twain used to say that when he would formulate a character he would suddenly realize he was meeting them for the second time; he met them the first time on the river," Milch told me. "These were all characters who would have had to be what they were described as being. So Bullock, as an exemplar of the law, would have had to be a particular kind of person. Psychologists talk about the binding of one thing to another, taking a feeling that is absolutely unacceptable and suppressing it by binding it to another feeling which is completely acceptable. It's what drug addicts do when they take a drug and superimpose it on a feeling that they don't want to have. For Bullock, the law was a binding against his impulse to violence-in particular, I suspect, against his old man.
"Darwin wrote about accidents of evolution-he called them 'sports'-species which turned out to be superadaptive in whatever environment they discovered themselves in. In social terms, those are civilizers. Intuitively, I knew that there had to be a Bullock, and when I read about him it was like"-he snapped his fingers-" 'I met him on the river.' And those guys-those sports-are what made the country great. Bill Hickok was another guy like that, men who were absolute mysteries to themselves. And my dad was that way, too, a complete mystery to himself-someone who would engage in purifying acts of kindness but done in such a contorted fucking way, in no way that could ever be rationalized. There's no way my peculiar set of adaptive characteristics could have survived except in that crucible."
Milch's paternal grandmother was the oldest of nine children, among them several boys with criminal propensities. Early on, it was ordained that Elmer, the bright promise of the next generation, would go to college and become a professional rather than join his uncles in the family business-nominally furniture retailing but mainly bookmaking and bootlegging. Inevitably, occasions arose when his particular skills proved convenient. In the early fifties, when the Senate held hearings on organized crime, Milch says, his father performed timely hernia surgery on family friends seeking medical pretexts to avoid testifying. Twenty years later, hoping to help jump-start his writing career, one of Milch's great-uncles introduced him to the mobster Meyer Lansky, who was semi-retired near Miami and fantasizing about a sanitized biography. (Things didn't work out with Lansky-for starters, "Meyer wouldn't tell you the truth about what time it was.")
Every August-"the one month a year that my dad allowed himself to have some pleasure"-the tribe gathered in Saratoga. (For many years, Elmer owned horses that competed at other New York tracks.) A decidedly confusing set of messages emerged from these rituals. At the racetrack, David's father would give him money, which he would in turn entrust to a waiter who would place bets for him. Then, at night, "my dad would rebuke me for being a degenerate gambler; what he was doing was yelling at himself, obviously." In the off season-this is a memory from when he was seven or eight-Milch liked to spend time in the basement in Buffalo wearing one of his father's fedoras and smoking Hav-a-Tampa cigars while reading old issues of the Daily Racing Form. ("Other than that, I was completely normal.") For several summers, David and his brother Bob, who was two years older, had commuted to Saratoga on weekends from a nearby camp. He understood at the time that he "wasn't much of a candidate for sleepover camp," but not until years later was he able to face squarely the fact that he had been preyed upon by a camp counsellor who was a pedophile. What Milch has made of such fraught relationships, betrayals, and traumas is, in essence, his life's work as a writer.
Steven Bochco, who in 1982 hired Milch to write for "Hill Street Blues" and in the early nineties collaborated with him in creating "NYPD Blue" (a reinvention of verite storytelling and better than any police drama that has come along since), has said, "David had more miles on him the day I met him than I'll probably have the day I die. He'll wrestle his demons forever, but I've never known anyone else who has learned to put his demons at his service in quite the way he has. I think that's his real genius. And David is a genius in the literal definition of that word. He is truly unique, truly original. 'NYPD Blue' allowed him to exorcise some of his demons or, certainly, to turn a light on in the room where they reside. None of this was done from a distance. He took on addiction, alcoholism, racism-things that are just so fundamental to our nature and things that are dangerous in society he found a way to explore cold-bloodedly. In a medium that is utterly fearful, he has been a fiercely brave writer."
Mileage: At Yale, Robert Penn Warren taught an oversubscribed fiction-writing seminar. As a junior, Milch followed him around for days before slipping under his office door a chapter of his novel in progress, a narrative of four days in the life of a family in Buffalo whose teen-age son has died in a car accident. The previous year, after his best friend was killed in a car accident, Milch had gone home for the funeral but should have stayed away; he spent the entire time uselessly drunk. The novel was, among other things, a gesture of expiation. Warren's seminar sessions consisted mainly of him reading aloud. Milch always sat in a corner, in thrall and saying almost nothing. Then, one evening, in what he remembers as "a pure act of stupidity, selfishness, and juvenile behavior," he brought a finished chapter to Warren at home, interrupting his dinner, and asked him to read it on the spot.
"He looked at me and said, 'Well, you act like a writer'-meaning, no manners," Milch recalled. "And he read it, and it was good and he was very good about it. Then I said, 'You know, I don't know if I want to write anymore.' To make him really come out and say-who knows, whatever-because he'd already told me, 'No one writes dialogue better than you.' Now, I've interrupted his dinner, he's been very gracious, and I say that, and he looks me in the eye and says, 'Understand, David. I don't give a shit who writes and who doesn't.' In other words: If you, David, are soliciting from me 'Oh, you must,' I ain't gonna say that, because that's up to you.
"Mr. Warren maintained certain disciplines that were in a way the best lessons he gave to me. As a model, he was crucially important. He and I stayed close pretty much all the way through. He sent me copies of the rough drafts of his poems, and we would sit down and he would tell me what he was trying to do. When he was dying, he asked me to come see him, which I did, and I find, as is the case with a really good teacher, even now I will suddenly understand something that he was trying to teach me back then about an approach to a poem."
At least three mornings a week, Milch says, he rereads Warren's poetry. The elegiac "I Am Dreaming of a White Christmas: The Natural History of a Vision," written when Warren was roughly the age Milch is now, concludes: "This / Is the process whereby pain of the past in its pastness / May be converted into the future tense / Of joy." As much as any of his hero's ideas-including the famous gentle exhortation of "Tell Me a Story" ("The name of the story will be Time / But you must not pronounce its name")-Milch has embraced this as a creative manifesto.
More mileage: After graduating from Yale, Milch briefly had a teaching fellowship, arranged by Warren, at the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. He stayed long enough to establish a reputation for brilliance (courtesy of Warren's imprimatur) and arrogance (resented for his bravado, self-satisfaction, and Ivy League pedigree by faculty members like Richard Yates and Kurt Vonnegut). A year later, needing a draft deferment, he enrolled at Yale Law School, where he lasted "about four hours"-one of the murkier elements of the Milch mythology. What happened? "Um, how does one put it? There were guns. There were police. There were street lights. I got arrested. I had become involved in quite a protracted pharmaceutical-research project involving hallucinogens. It all seemed to come together. So I was asked to withdraw." Next came "a period in Mexico that's a little dim," then a return to the University of Iowa to complete a master's degree in writing-though that was, he says, "a cover."
"I was in the employ of the same people I had been in the employ of in Mexico."
"You were selling dope?"
"Excuse me, I was not selling dope. I was manufacturing dope. Clear-light acid. But I did get an M.F.A."
From Iowa he went back to New Haven, where he began teaching and working with Warren, R. W. B. Lewis, and Cleanth Brooks on their anthology. Largely because he'd taken up heroin, he was drinking less. Milch's disarming approach to inquiring biographers runs along the lines of there's-nothing-you-can-find-out-about-m
But only relatively. In 1982, the year he left Yale for good and began writing for "Hill Street Blues," he married Rita Stern, a documentary filmmaker and painter who had been an undergraduate while he was teaching. The oldest of their three children was born in 1984. Not long ago, when I was having a home-cooked dinner with the Milches, I asked whether, given the ridiculous hours television writers tend to work, the children had seen much of their father while growing up. Before he could reply, she did: "They saw him enough." No doubt. Bochco said that when Milch first moved to Los Angeles "he was a madman." He continued, "He had this little office and he managed to turn it into this place that looked like a bomb had gone off. I went in there one day and the drawer was open and there was a ton of cash inside. I said, 'How much is that?' He said, 'I won some money in Vegas.' It turns out he was commuting to work from Vegas. He'd catch a 6 a.m. flight to Burbank and at the end of the day he'd catch a flight back to Vegas and he'd be up all night gambling."
"Hill Street Blues," in its time considered a remarkably innovative ensemble production-acclaimed for its vivid camerawork, kinetic pacing, and engagement with the cynical complexities of urban cop life-went off the air in 1987. During the next two years, Milch created two other series: "Capital News," about a Washington Post-like daily, and "Beverly Hills Buntz," which starred Dennis Franz, who had portrayed an end-justifies-the-means detective on "Hill Street." Neither lasted long. Money would never again be a concern-Milch's final three-year contract with the producers of "Hill Street Blues" had paid him twelve million dollars; "NYPD Blue" to date has earned him more than sixty million, with plenty more to come from future syndication rights-but he had graver preoccupations. He checked himself in to a rehab clinic and then, for the better part of a year, "lay in this dark room and wept." His personal physician suggested that he not take antidepressants. ("He said, 'I don't want to jeopardize your gift.' ")
Gradually ("I don't know that anyone really feels normal for a year after you kick dope"), he regained his ability to function. He began taking medication for treatment of bipolar disorder. Rita Stern's capsule characterization of life with her husband is "The thing with David is he's like the girl with the curl: when he's good, he's very, very good, and when he's bad he's horrid. There's nobody I've ever met as smart and as funny and as generous. He's just the best." Easier to say, perhaps, from the perspective of the present.
Milch had always been able to write while using drugs, and within a couple of years he relapsed. When I asked him at what age he finally stopped using heroin, he replied, "The answer to a question like that depends upon who you're lying to." Throughout the nineties, he abused a smorgasbord of narcotics (mainly Vicodin), even though he had developed a serious heart condition. He started exercising obsessively and soon lost fifty pounds, but he also started drinking again. After its first season, "NYPD Blue" received twenty-six Emmy nominations. Milch won the Emmy for best writing in a drama two years in a row. One of the winning episodes, "Lost Israel," dealt with the murder of a young boy by his father, who was sexually abusing him. Milch's productivity never flagged, but by the show's seventh season he was exhausted. His closest colleagues felt that his work had begun to suffer, and he didn't disagree.
He had tried but not fully honored Warren's prescription-he had written honestly of depravity and moral failure but still hadn't succeeded in transmuting the "pain of the past in its pastness" to the "future tense of joy."
"You know, they say in recovery, 'Fake it till you make it. Act as if,' " Milch told me, speaking, as he occasionally does, not in the voice of a literature professor but as a humbled believer in twelve-step orthodoxy. "I think I was acting as if I had access for a long time without ever really having access. I was writing, but I can't tell you how many times I stood up to receive Emmys or whatever and I was absolutely loaded and worse than that. Coming home every night to a wife who I adored and children who I loved and actually feeling that there was a barrier that could never be penetrated because I was impersonating a human being. And for a long time I felt that was actually the best I could ever hope for-to pretend to be a good person-because I was quite the opposite. I could see that there was a worth in the work. But, even in that work, what I felt was: I'm doing as well as I can, given the fact that fundamentally I'm no good. And that conviction of unworthiness was the deepest lesson I had been taught as a child, that I was the surrogate demon who was to act and sort of expurgate the demonic in my dad. That I was to be the bad egg. The consumption of the drug is the symptom of the disease. Then the symptom becomes autonomous. And the disease requires you to believe that you are beyond help and so it is your only friend. That predication is an exact recapitulation of the fundamental emotional malaise that you start out with. So as long as I was loaded, no matter how prolific or accomplished I was, I felt that it was an act of imposture."
On January 1, 1999, he says, he began to get clean again. And, he says, he has stayed clean since.
In the fall of 2001, three hundred people turned out on six consecutive Tuesdays at the headquarters of the Writers Guild, in Beverly Hills, where Milch had rented an auditorium to offer a free course in screenwriting. Each class session was, for the most part, a two-hour monologue-Milch being alternately funny and evangelical about writing, doing what he could to demystify the process. The homework assignments were bound by strict ground rules: write every day, for not less than twenty or more than fifty minutes, a scene with only two voices and no other narrative description; "Don't think about what it means, don't think about who they are"; and, above all, "Don't think about what you're going to write before you do it."
There was, for Milch, an intrinsic connection between the lecture series and the progress of his recovery. "The first time I shot up, the guy who was my dealer said, 'Heroin's gonna give you everything, but you're gonna have to give everything to heroin,' " he said. "That's true. The precondition of the addictive sensibility is you're alone; it's you and the dope. So it's a constricting perspective. And it's a great blessing to be released from that and, having been, it's also the case- You know, they tell you to carry the message. And the reason is not to get people into the tent; it's because the act of generosity is what keeps you fit against the distorted perspective of disease, which is isolation."
What seems odd, in retrospect, is the time lag between Milch's recovery and the recovery of one of his most compelling creations-and, it's often been assumed, though not necessarily correctly, his alter ego-Detective Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz), the central character of "NYPD Blue." When viewers meet Sipowicz in the first episode of the series, he's a self-subverting racist drunk who does everything but literally shoot himself in the foot. Instead, a mafioso with whom he's obsessed shoots him, giving him a near-death experience that leads to sobriety. Over the next several years, Sipowicz endures wrenching personal tribulations and occasionally falls off the wagon, but repeatedly rights himself and strives, despite his instinctive bigotries, to do good-because, of course, the invisible hand of Milch continues to rescue him from isolation. A lot of the cases Sipowicz works on are based on the experiences of a former New York City detective named Bill Clark. But, according to Milch, the real-life person whom Sipowicz most closely resembles is Elmer Milch.
"Insofar as there are similarities between my dad and Sipowicz, I'm grateful to have had the chance to portray Sipowicz's character; to show him in what another writer called his 'obstinate finality,' " Milch wrote in "True Blue." "That is, in full human complication: to do him justice."
In the first of his lectures at the Writers Guild, Milch said, "No one can teach you anything that you don't already know. And each of you has, in your heart, the capacity, when encouraged by a benign organizing presence, to identify the deepest truths of the human story."
After reading the transcripts of the lectures, I raised with Milch the notion that for him the imperative to teach-he met one-on-one with every student-was an inevitable corollary to his belief that the act of writing should be "a going out in spirit."
"Absolutely true," he agreed. "And the one thing I can guarantee is that the person who will really benefit from the teaching is unidentifiable. And it might not become apparent until five years from now, or whenever, because the seed has to germinate. A person could look at me through ninety-five per cent of my experience and know that I had no shot. Because I was so unreliable. The only thing you could rely on me for was to betray you. The old saying is I'd steal your dope and then help you look for it. So whenever anyone asks me for help, I always try to say yes, because you know how they say, 'Coincidence is God's way of staying anonymous.' "
A few months after the course ended, Milch went to a meeting at HBO to propose a series that was reducible to the pitch line "St. Paul gets collared." More expansively, he wanted to write about the lives of city cops in ancient Rome during Nero's reign, before a system of justice had been codified. "I was interested in how people improvised the structures of a society when there was no law to guide them," he said. "How the law developed out of the social impulse to minimize the collateral damage of the taking of revenge."
According to Carolyn Strauss, the president of the HBO entertainment division, she and her boss, Chris Albrecht, though enamored of the concept, "were, like, grimacing, because we both knew that we already had a Rome show in the pipeline." It focussed on a different emperor, "but, still, how many shows about ancient Rome can you have?" (The Rome series will air this fall.)
Albrecht asked, "Can you locate the same themes elsewhere?" Milch's response was that indeed he could-in a Western. The previous year, he'd pitched a Western, though not the same vision of a Western, to NBC, and the network had been willing to commit to making a pilot but not the thirteen episodes Milch wanted. So those discussions ended, providentially. "NBC would have fled in terror from 'Deadwood,' " Milch says.
Another year elapsed before Milch delivered the script for the "Deadwood" pilot to HBO. At the outset, he read about gold strikes, knowing that he wanted to establish a setting as close as possible to uninhabited wilderness. Deadwood was the site of the last big gold strike in the lower United States. When he began researching the town, which is now a tourist destination, he discovered that there was a museum in Deadwood where he could examine artifacts, historical documents, and photographs. And, at one point, a horse-trainer friend put him in touch with Gary Leffew, a world-champion bull rider who operates a rodeo school on the central coast of California. Ever since, Leffew and several other cowboys have been on Milch's personal payroll. Like the writing interns and various other souls (many of them in recovery) who find their way into his orbit-the less lofty in the social pecking order, it seems, the greater his affinity-all are beneficiaries of a largesse that one of his friends described to me as "the Milch scholarship program."
Leffew accompanied Milch on a brief trip to Deadwood, during which, he says, "I told David that what he needed to see was the spirit of the people who were here. They were a restless bunch, people with gold fever. The closest you could get, I thought, was the modern-day rodeo cowboy. I said, 'Let me bring in eight or ten of the wildest, craziest, most fun-lovin' bunch I ever knew in this game.' When you're riding bulls, you only work eight seconds a day. You have a lot of time on your hands. You're either fighting, fucking, or doing something that's kind of wild.
"He liked the idea. So I called these guys up and laid it out. Told 'em, 'David just wants you to come spend a few days with him. You can show him how to have a really good time and he'll pay for everything.' He wasn't drinking, but he was willing to observe. I was making reservations on Southwest Airlines, but, hell, he sent a Learjet to pick everybody up, except for a couple from Canada, who flew first class. Put 'em up in four-hundred-dollar-a-night rooms in Santa Monica. All the whiskey, all the fun, anything they wanted to do, just name it and we'd do it. None of them had ever had carte blanche like this before. I tried to bring in a diverse group-loud ones, mean ones, crazy ones, some that were off the page. Some that had a little larceny in their soul. Some with addictions. They played guitars, they told endless amounts of stories, of fights and fucking and riding and the mischief they'd get into from having time on their hands. Different whores they knew. We just needed to get David's juices flowing. Later, everybody showed up for the pilot and they played background. David put 'em up in furnished apartments near Universal Studios."
The first time I visited the "Deadwood" set, I was with Milch on a soundstage as, between takes, he struggled to open a small package of Advil for Ian McShane, who had a headache. "This is what's known as being a full-service fucking executive producer," he said as he tried to tear it with his teeth. A guy in a cowboy hat who was standing nearby, Monty (Hawkeye) Henson, a three-time world-champion saddle-bronc rider, pulled a knife from his pocket and offered it to Milch: "Here, why not try this equalizer?"
"No, thank you, Hawkeye," Milch said. "Believe me, in a life filled with mistakes, this is one I don't need."
Henson was one of a half-dozen cowboys who, in a manner of speaking, had come to dinner. The utilitarian value of their presence was no longer relevant, but no matter. Whatever "Deadwood" was about, the intricate self-propagating narrative that Milch continued to excavate each time he lay on the floor and looked into the computer monitor-all those strata of subtext and subplot-was so deeply rooted in his psyche that the cowboys had become, at most, mnemonic devices. They stuck around because Milch, who is forever appreciative of a good story or an apt simile ("tighter than a bull's ass in fly season"), enjoyed their company or was grateful to them for helping to confirm what he already knew and in fact had understood about human behavior long before he ever heard of Deadwood.
Atmospherically and literally, "NYPD Blue" looked and sounded different from anything that had previously appeared on network television. Milch succeeded in redefining what the ABC censors would tolerate; flashes of full frontal nudity and certain previously proscribed words ("son of a bitch," "asshole") were deemed permissible. A public airwave is a public airwave, however, and constraints remained; "motherfucker," for instance, still wasn't suitable for prime time. Post-"Deadwood," such fastidiousness feels quaint.
The language on "Deadwood" ranges from Elizabethan-like ornateness to profanity of a relentlessness that makes "The Sopranos" seem demure. Both extremes often coexist in a single speech. Perhaps the most disturbing scene during the first season is a four-minute soliloquy by Swearengen at the conclusion of episode eleven. (The episode was written in collaboration with Ricky Jay, who played a croupier on the series.) He's in his bedroom, above the Gem Saloon, with a terrified young whore who's in Deadwood because he bought her from an orphanage in Chicago where the residents are often sold as prostitutes. Swearengen's mistress, Trixie, has taken up with another man. But in sentimentality, he makes plain, lies the risk of dishonor, which is its own sort of death.
"Now I see what the fuck's in front of me and I don't pretend it's somethin' else. I was fuckin' her and now I'm gonna fuck you if you don't piss me off or open your yap at the wrong fucking time. The only time you're supposed to open your yap is so I can put my fucking prick in it. Otherwise you shut the fuck up."
He's quite drunk, swigging whiskey straight from the bottle as he free-associates. Another sentimental threat looms: the preacher with the brain tumor requires a mercy killing and Swearengen will probably have to do the deed. He says, "He's gonna die sooner or later. I mean, he's making a fucking jerk of himself. I mean, why go on with that? Who's gonna benefit from that, huh? No, you gotta kill it and put an end to it. You don't linger on about it. You don't fucking go around weeping about it. And you don't behave like a kid with a sore fucking thumb. . . . You gotta behave like a grown fucking man. You gotta shut the fuck up, don't be sorry, don't look fucking back, because, believe me, no one gives a fuck."
But now he looks back himself, in agony. He holds up a warrant for his arrest, for a murder he committed in Chicago, and says to the whore, who might as well be a mechanical fellating device, "Can you believe that I may have stuck a knife in someone's guts twelve hours before you got on the wagon and we headed out for fucking Laramie? No! Because I don't look fucking backwards. I do what I have to do and go on."
The payoff: "Before she ran the girls' orphanage, that fat Mrs. Fucking Anderson ran the boys' orphanage on fucking Euclid Avenue. . . . My fucking mother dropped me the fuck off there with seven dollars and sixty some-odd fucking cents on her way to sucking cock in Georgia and I didn't get to count the fucking cents before the fucking door opened and there was Mrs. Fat Ass Fucking Anderson, who sold you to me. I had to give her seven dollars and sixty-odd fucking cents that my mother shoved in my fucking hand before she hammered one two three four times on the fucking door and scurried off down Euclid Avenue, probably thirty fucking years before you were fucking born."
Swearengen's pain-the shame, that his whore of a mother paid the monstrous Mrs. Anderson to take him off her hands-is something that his profanity, its awfulness notwithstanding, can barely convey. Carolyn Strauss, of HBO, told me, "Early on, the issue of language came up a lot. We asked David, 'Are you obscuring your message or the over-all acceptability of the piece in a way that may be not necessary?' He felt strongly that it was necessary. He'd done a lot of research." At Strauss's urging, Milch wrote an essay on the subject-five single-spaced pages, followed by four pages of bibliography-defending realism and freedom of expression as indispensable correctives to the varnished mythologies of the West perpetrated by Hollywood. After quoting from oral histories as well as authorities like H. L. Mencken, Daniel Boorstin, and William Dean Howells, he concluded, with an echt-Milch flourish, "If, as seems demonstrable, words like prick, cunt, shit, fuck and cocksucker would have been in common usage in the time and place in which 'Deadwood' is set, then, like any words, in form and frequency their expression will be governed by the personality of a given character, imagined by the author with whatever imperfection, as the character is shaped and tested in the crucible of experience. The goal is not to offend but to realize the character's full humanness."
One day in the writing trailer, I observed Milch as, in a jauntier-than-usual mood, he wrote a scene between a character named Wu and Dan Dority, Swearengen's protege. Wu operates an abattoir and is the spokesman-though he proudly refuses to learn English-of the Chinese residents of Deadwood, who inhabit a muddy side street called Chink Alley. He and Swearengen have a mutually beneficial working relationship and apparently share a jaundiced view of the human condition; the hogs in Wu's pen get a bonus feeding whenever Swearengen needs to dispose of a fresh corpse. (In 1876, Deadwood averaged a murder a day.) Wu also deals opium to Swearengen, who uses it to keep his whores pacified. In the scene that Milch was creating, Wu has come to the Gem in agitation, having just spied a member of a rival San Francisco tong, freshly arrived on a stagecoach and already in conversation with one of Swearengen's business competitors. Because Swearengen is still indisposed by illness, Dority tries to handle the conversation. But Wu's side of the dialogue is limited to gesticulations and the elliptical exclamations "Swearengen!," "Cocksucker!," and "San Francisco!" He says "cocksucker" about ten times, with increasing vehemence, until Dority, whose English isn't all that grammatical, either, gets the drift. Later, Milch told me what he was thinking as he wrote it.
"I believe, at a very fundamental level, that words are electrical," he said. "The generation of words is an expression of electrical energy. The reason storytelling engages us perhaps more fully than other kinds of communication is because the words in a story can mean in different ways. They contain their opposites. In that scene-'Swearengen!' 'Cocksucker!'-we understand how provisional the meaning of a word is and that its fundamental meaning is contingent upon the energy with which it's endowed by the speaker. Energy is a gossamer and intangible and variable commodity, and words in a story are more clearly contingent and variable than words in a proof. The highest form of storytelling, it seems to me, is mathematics-where literally the signs contain within themselves the most violent and basic form of energy. Einstein understood that if he was able to sign correctly he would experience the secret of energy. He was telling himself a story with those signs, and he said, 'All I want to understand is the mind of God.' Now, I don't want to understand it; I want to testify to it. I believe that we are all literally part of the mind of God and that our sense of ourselves as separate is an illusion. And therefore when we communicate with each other as a function of an exchange of energy we understand not because of the inherent content of the words but because of how that energy flows. So Dority says, 'I can't understand you, Wu. Fucking language. I just can't do it.' And what he's saying is 'I'm trying. I'm trying.' And then they work something out."
That same day, in a different trailer, I sat with Milch as he and an editor, Steven Mark, watched a cut of the first episode of the second season. It occurred to me that the dialogue was so airtight-actors reading Milch's lines almost never ad-lib or improvise-that there was less filmmaking going on in the editing room than there had been in the writing room. Milch did have an afterthought, though, as he reviewed a scene in which Swearengen, whose ribs were aching after a fight with Bullock, said, "Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!"
"Lose that 'fuck fuck fuck,' " he told Mark. "Just have him say 'Fuck!' "
The first television script Milch ever wrote was an episode of "Hill Street Blues" titled "Trial by Fury"-in Steven Bochco's estimation, "arguably the best episode we ever made." (Milch had been recruited by Jeff Lewis, his former Yale roommate.) "Trial by Fury," an anatomy of the aftermath of two murders-that of a nun, for which all the investigative resources of the police department were mobilized, and that of a poor Hispanic man, which the cops virtually ignored-won an Emmy and a Writers Guild award and a Humanitas Prize, which was given by the Catholic Church and came with a check for fifteen thousand dollars. Milch used the money to buy an interest in a racehorse. "Over the next ten years," he wrote in "True Blue," "I bought and campaigned more horses, a few of which won big races, although on balance they'd cost me a lot more than I made." This has the ring of an honest understatement. Bill Clark, the former detective, who in 1992 was hired as a technical adviser for "NYPD Blue" and later became the executive producer, as well as one of Milch's closest friends, told me, "I hope you never have the experience of going to the track with David. He goes to the window and he starts betting compulsively." (Not that he limited himself to horses. Once, when Clark was in New York, Milch called from Los Angeles and asked him to collect a quarter of a million dollars in cash that he'd won the previous weekend betting on football games. Clark was also aware of at least one occasion when he'd bet more than five times that amount on a single Sunday.) In the mid-eighties, at Saratoga, he reactivated his father's racing colors. Milch's horses have run all over the world, often with thrilling success-in 1992 and 2001, he won Breeders' Cup races-and when he shows up in person the track officials usually designate a betting window for his exclusive use.
One day, after Milch and I had eaten lunch and were heading toward his trailer to continue our conversation, he said, "I haven't made a bet in months, but my trainer"-Darrell Vienna, the same person who'd introduced him to Gary Leffew, his cowboy connection-"called me this morning and said he's got a horse that he's quite optimistic about that's running today. Because of the transference to these trainers as these benign surrogates, I've been obsessed ever since the phone call. I've got to go bet that horse. It registers as a sort of disloyalty not to honor the trainer's taking the time to tell me. I'm sure at some level it feels like ingratitude to my old man or something."
In the trailer, he picked up the phone and called a bookie: "Has Darrell got a horse going in the sixth? . . . Yeah. What are the odds? . . . How many are in there? So there's eleven? Do me a favor and bet twenty-five hundred across. Thanks a lot."
An assistant knocked on the door and announced that Milch was needed on the set to rehearse a scene. A half hour later, we were back in the trailer, where Milch talked about the importance of his relationship to Robert Penn Warren, the explaining of which required a brief detour through the writings of the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, then moved on to a George Santayana essay, "The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy," which argued that in mid-nineteenth-century America "a secret contempt for the life of the mind" had developed and that credit for "rescuing American cultural thought and behavior from gentility" belonged to William and Henry James. "In trying to understand how that would have taken place, I began to read about the Jameses," he said. "William James was a big hero of Mr. Warren's." In the way that they pursued knowledge and lived their lives, the Jameses had rejected the genteel tradition-"a sterile reverence for the past as past rather than a substantive connection to what's going on."
He continued, "Henry required of himself a consistent, fully committed existence, as William James did. William not only became an extraordinary teacher but his writing was beautiful. And he revised the idea of psychology, of philosophy. His essays on politics are wonderful. And on the physiology of thought-he articulated the idea that it's the way you learn to play the cards you've been dealt, rather than the hand itself, that determines the worth of your participation in the game. And the fact that the playing of the cards itself defines the quality of the game was, for me, a liberation. Mr. Warren spread out pretty much all the literary artifacts of American culture for me to study, as part of my working for him on that history of American literature. And in that I found the refraction, the perspective that I needed, to give me access to play the cards that I'd been dealt."
It was time to listen to the call of the sixth race at Santa Anita. Milch dialled a number, and then we both listened as the horse he had bet on-twenty-five hundred dollars to win, twenty-five hundred to place, twenty-five hundred to show-started near the back of the pack, then took off and won by three lengths. After he hung up the phone, I asked, "When you win, is the satisfaction in winning money or just in winning?"
"There's no satisfaction," he said. "Just a release of anxiety. There is no joy in the compulsive act. It's a sterile recapitulation, a sterile release of tension."
I wondered whether, given that drugs and alcohol were still a part of his life during the years he was writing "NYPD Blue," the creating of "Deadwood" had somehow been a more redemptive experience.
"I don't think that the fact that I've gone on to do 'Deadwood' makes the work on 'NYPD Blue' less redemptive," he said. "I think that had I not done the work on 'NYPD Blue' I wouldn't have lived to do this. Because William James says there are two kinds of spiritual experiences-sudden and gradual. An unfolding. To the extent that I've been granted a spiritual experience, it's been a gradual unfolding. I see all sorts of continuities from Sipowicz to Swearengen. The difference between them is more environmental than it is essential. Each of them is a character who does more good than he can acknowledge or accept. Each has more generosity than he can articulate. To the extent that that spiritual experience has deepened, I've been able to dramatize it more directly. That was why I wanted to get to a more primitive environment, where the dramatic expressions of what might be described as spiritual experiences are not so refracted by the social construct."
Who, I asked, was his favorite character in literature? The answer was Falstaff.
"Falstaff illustrated the purest form of the idea of expression as joy," he said. "Take Mr. Warren's formulation that 'this is the way that the pain of the past in its pastness is converted to the future tense of joy.' Falstaff was a character who had done everything. And whose capacity for language, the exuberance of whose expression was such that every experience, in the method of its expression, ultimately had a joyful effect. For me that was and continues to be- You know, people say that my writing is dark. And for me it's quite the opposite. It sees light in darkness and it doesn't try to distort darkness. The essential thing is that the seeing itself is joyful."