David Milch Still Has Stories to Tell
LOS ANGELES — The door to a room at an assisted-living facility swung open, and out darted one of its occupants: a cat named Mignonne, who was eager for some fresh companionship. Then, with more deliberation, came the apartment’s primary resident, David Milch, who was similarly happy to have visitors.
“I’m so grateful,” he said, allowing entrance to the quarters where he has lived for nearly three years, but which still feel to him like an intermediate space. “As you may imagine, things are all in a state of flux.”
To television viewers who have followed the medium’s resurgence of erudition and artistic credibility, the 77-year-old Milch is a towering figure. A onetime writer-producer on the influential 1980s police drama “Hill Street Blues,” he went on to help create boundary-busting programs like “N.Y.P.D. Blue” and his personal masterpiece, the uncompromising HBO western “Deadwood.”
Betty Thomas as Lucy Bates in Hill Street Blues, an influential television drama from the 1980s.Credit…Shout! Factory/20th Century Fox
In his industry, Milch is well known for his writing style, which blends articulate grandeur with defiant obscenity, and for his appetites. He is a recovered drug addict and a compulsive gambler who, by his own admission, lost millions of dollars on horse racing and other wagers.
Now he rises each day in his modest accommodations here, decorated with family photos, some Peabody Awards near a sink and some Emmy statuettes on a shelf, and furnished with a bed, a small TV and a refrigerator containing a single can of LaCroix sparkling water. This is where he has lived since the fall of 2019, a few months after publicly disclosing that he had been given a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.
Having welcomed me and his wife, Rita Stern Milch, into the room, Milch explained that he has not lost the powers of observation and articulation that have served him as a writer. Instead, he has found himself training those abilities on his own life as he navigates his experience with the disease.
“When you’re in transition, there’s a sense that life lives you,” he said, fiddling with an elastic bracelet that he wore to keep his room key attached around his wrist. “You’re holding on and trying to accommodate all of the impositions and uncertainties.”
Describing his present relationship to life and the way he once lived it, he added, “I’m estranged. I can kid myself, but I ain’t a regular.”
Preserving what he can remember about himself and sharing it with an audience are already demanding tasks for Milch, and now they have taken on a particular urgency. In the years since he received his diagnosis, he has been working on a memoir called “Life’s Work.”
The book, which will be published by Random House on Sept. 13, offers a poetic but unvarnished account of his personal history, abundant with the barbarity and grace that have animated Milch’s fictional characters.
The project is a quintessentially Milchian lesson in accurately depicting a life, even one composed of events that he may not always be proud of having lived.
As Rita explained, the memoir showed there was beauty in “how he took his life and turned it into art — all the experiences he had, which seemed so wild, he was able to tame in narrative and take back.”
David saw an even more fundamental value in the project: “I have felt the blessing of feeling like I know who I am,” he said.
A few days before the visit, Rita — who lives about 20 minutes away — had cautioned that he has bad days and good days; even on good days, he can be discursive in his thinking or unaware of his surroundings.
“He still thinks like a storyteller,” she said. “And maybe because I love him, but I just find it fascinating. Even when it doesn’t make a lot of sense, there’s something in it that’s just Dave.”
On a Tuesday morning in July, David Milch was in a genial mood and voluminous in his affectionate praise for Rita. He said something elliptical about the difficult work that lay ahead, now that it was time for students to enroll in their classes. He saw me admiring a trophy he’d won for a racehorse he once owned and asked, with a gleam in his eye, if I liked going to the track.
At the start of 2015, amid other health problems and difficulties with his memory, Milch received a neuropsychological evaluation and was told he had dementia; a few years later he was given a diagnosis of “probable Alzheimer’s.”
By the summer of 2019, he was becoming confused on car rides where he was a passenger and fighting with Rita over car keys he had forgotten he was no longer allowed to use. On one exit from his house, he had a particularly nasty, face-first fall on the steps. That October, he moved into the facility where he now resides.
Milch was already in the habit of composing his screenplays through dictation and had been recording his speeches at work for the past 20 years. His family members and colleagues expanded that process, recording his personal remembrances and reaching out to others for stories that could stimulate Milch’s memories, all in the service of creating “Life’s Work.”
“There were days where the recordings are a lot more wading through confusion,” said his daughter Olivia Milch. “And then there are days where he just rolls and it’s stunning, how he’s able to talk about the disease and what he’s going through.” The book’s prologue was essentially transcribed verbatim, she said, including her father’s ethereal opening words: “I’m on a boat sailing to some island where I don’t know anybody. A boat someone is operating, and we aren’t in touch.”
“Life’s Work” is by turns a brisk and brutal memoir, beginning with its author’s upbringing in Buffalo, N.Y., at the hands of his father, Elmer, an accomplished surgeon as well as a relentless gambler and philanderer. Elmer operated on mobsters, scammed Demerol prescriptions for himself and enlisted David, while he was still a child, to run his bets for him.
The author himself grew up to develop his own crippling vices — he recalls being introduced to heroin as a high-school senior — as well as a prodigious writing talent. As an undergraduate at Yale, Milch studied with the Pulitzer Prize winners Robert Penn Warren and R.W.B. Lewis, and he vacillated between futures at Yale Law School and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop while he made L.S.D. in Mexico and continued to use drugs. “I loved heroin,” Milch writes in the memoir. “I loved checking out. You were here and you were not here at the same time. That has appeal.”
In television, Milch writes that he found a constructive outlet for his energies and learned to open his “imagination to the particular truths of a different person and a different environment.” He was hired at “Hill Street Blues” by its co-creator Steven Bochco, and together they created “N.Y.P.D. Blue,” whose sophisticated storytelling and then-unprecedented use of nudity and explicit language influenced decades of prestige TV that followed.
Milch continued to gamble, betting tens of thousands of dollars on individual horse races; he had a heart attack, received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and got sober at the age of 53. Then in 2004, he created his magnum opus, “Deadwood,” a drama set in the Dakota territory in the 1870s, a merciless era of American frontier expansion.
On that show, Milch writes, “It was time to listen, to find the characters up and walking and hear who they were and what they had to say.” He adds, “The actors told me their characters’ deepest truths. They gave themselves up, and they inhabited the parts they had come to.”
Paula Malcomson, who played the saloon prostitute Trixie, said that Milch maintained a daily presence on the “Deadwood” set as a kind of wandering, salty-tongued philosopher.
“He granted us permission to be ourselves,” she said. “He let us bring forth the things that most people would say, ‘That’s too much. This is uncouth.”
Robin Weigert, who played Calamity Jane on the series, said her portrayal of the disenchanted sharpshooter was influenced by Milch’s own language and physical demeanor.
“I will always feel that there is a little piece of David’s soul that I got to dwell inside of,” Weigert said. “It creates a different feeling than when you just work for somebody. I felt like I worked inside of him.”
But “Deadwood” was canceled at HBO after only three seasons; other shows Milch made for the network, like “John From Cincinnati” and “Luck,” had even briefer runs and still others weren’t picked up at all.
In 2011, Milch writes, his wife went to their business advisers and learned that he had spent about $23 million at racetracks in the previous 10 years. They had $5 million in unpaid taxes and were $17 million in debt, she found.
A yearslong period of downsizing followed for the Milches, during which David was able to complete the story of “Deadwood” in an HBO movie that aired in 2019. He has been open about his disease with his colleagues and co-stars, many of whom remain in his life, and say that Milch has retained his fundamental expressiveness.
Weigert visited Milch while he was still living at his home. He had forgotten the names of some of his dogs, she said, and where his bedroom was, but “we had this high-level conversation about the transmigration of souls.”
W. Earl Brown, who was an actor and writer on “Deadwood,” visited Milch after he moved to the care facility. As Brown recalled, “Dave takes a long look around the room, leans into me and says, ‘I have to tell you something, Earl: The indignities of decrepitude are boundless.’ That quote perfectly encapsulates David Milch.”
Malcomson described Milch as “the most human of anyone I’ve ever known.”
“I comfort myself a little bit, thinking he burned so bright and there was so much life lived, and maybe that was his exact quota,” she said. “I’m not saying he’s not living life now, but I’m saying that it is a different version of it.”
As the publication of “Life’s Work” approaches, Rita Stern Milch said she was anxious about seeing so many intensely personal stories about her husband and their family shared with a wide readership. Having worked as a film producer and editor, she said, “I’m a background person, a behind-the-scenes person. It doesn’t make me comfortable.”
But she said those concerns were less important than allowing David to tell readers what he has experienced while he still can. “It’s a horrible diagnosis and it ain’t fun,” she said. “But life goes on. You don’t have to hide people away. They don’t have to disappear.”
Over a pizza lunch at an outdoor restaurant near the facility, David and Rita explained that they continue to work together on writing projects, whether they end up getting produced or simply provide David with a means of keeping his mind active. (As he writes in the memoir, “I still hear voices. I still tell stories.”)
They had revisited an early screenplay of David’s called “The Main Chance,” which takes places at the Saratoga Race Course, but Rita said they backed off once David became agitated, thinking he was back at the track. They have also continued to develop a biographical series about the late-night host Johnny Carson.
On the car ride back from lunch, they listened to a radio station that was broadcasting news updates about Major League Baseball.
“Did we bet on baseball games?” David asked from a passenger’s seat.
“No,” Rita answered as she steered the car.
David smiled and seemed glad for the admonishment. “Nor are we going to,” he said happily.