David Milch’s DEADWOOD
More acclaim for a Buffalo Native
By Philip Nyhuis

Twenty-five years before the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, America celebrated its 100th birthday at a similar display of industry, technology, science, art, and anthropology spread out over 450 acres in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. Three hundred Native Americans camped out on the grounds of the 1876 Centennial Exposition for the entertainment of visitors, while the Indian Office of the Interior Department presented a popular exhibit of Indian tools, clothing, and works of art from several tribes

Milch (center) on the Deadwood set with actors
Ian McShane and Tim Olyphant.
Photo by Doug Hyun, courtesy of HBO.
Meanwhile, back on the plains, things weren’t so orderly. Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer galloped into the Black Hills with all the confidence of the Buffalo Bills running out of the tunnel into their first Super Bowl. Back then, the losing score was much deadlier, and Custer’s troops perished at the hands of outraged Sioux and Cheyenne, energized by decades of white incursions into their sacred lands. Not far from Little Big Horn was the town of Deadwood. An actual historical place that has recently become the setting for a fictional HBO series, Deadwood was created by the gold prospectors, fortune seekers, outlaws, and con artists who, like Custer, were attempting to appropriate the Black Hills from the Sioux—and doing it with considerably more success.

“This is the equivalent of the first amphibians coming out of the primordial ooze,” says David Milch, Deadwood creator and head writer. “In March, there was nothing. All the whites were lurking in the hills. In June, there were 10,000 people there. That’s a lot of people to move to Buffalo, let alone Indian Territory. It was not part of America. They were an outlaw community, and they knew it.”

With its layers of intrigue, powerful acting, and rough language, Deadwood received eleven nominations and two Emmy awards for its first season: Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series (Walter Hill), and Outstanding Sound Editing for a Series. But in its exploration of primal passion, greed, fear, and conflicting human impulses, Deadwood bears the unmistakable stamp of Milch. As with his work on Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue before it, his latest creation examines the dark side of the soul and doesn’t flinch.

For those who grew up with Bonanza or Little House on the Prairie, life in Deadwood may come as a bit of a shock. True, you don’t have to sit through any Chevy commercials. But the show’s expletive-laced language has raised the question of whether people really talked like that in 1876. Milch, who says, “I’ve had my ass bored off by many things that are historically accurate,” also insists that the dialogue is true to the characters he’s created.

“I think that a work of imagination generates its own linguistic template and that it needs to be true to itself,” says Milch. “And in that sense it has to be accurate. But this is not a piece of nonfiction. Nonfiction makes a claim to an objectively verifiable truth. And the truths of storytelling are not the truths of objective verification. If by linguistic accuracy you mean an accurate correspondence to some externally verifiable historical record, that bores my ass off, too.”

David Milch was born in Buffalo in 1945, the second son of Mollie and Dr. Elmer Milch. Dr. Milch was a clinical professor and chief of surgery at Buffalo General Hospital and, according to David, may have been the model for some of the personality traits exhibited by the character of Detective Andy Sipowicz on NYPD Blue. In his book True Blue: The Real Stories Behind NYPD Blue, written with Detective Bill Clark, Milch writes, “…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’—that is, in full human complication: to do him justice.”

The Milches lived on Hallam Road near Delaware Park; David attended P.S. 54 and then Nichols School nearby. From Nichols, he went on to Yale, where he graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. He earned an MFA from the Writer’s Workshop at Iowa University and then returned to Yale, where he taught for nine years.  Milch formed a close association with poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren and critic Cleanth Brooks, two of America’s most distinguished writers and teachers, and co-authors of the classic textbook Understanding Poetry: An Anthology for College Students.

In 1982, Milch wrote his first television script, a story for Hill Street Blues. Entitled “Trial by Fury,” the episode—which included the rape and murder of a nun during a church robbery—was the first of the show’s third season and won an Emmy, the Writer’s Guild Award, and the Humanitas Prize. Milch left his academic career and began a second career in dramatic television. He became executive story editor and eventually executive producer for Hill Street. In 1992, Milch and producer Steven Bochco created NYPD Blue. The show received twenty-six Emmy nominations in its first season. As prestigious awards continued to clutter his mantle, Milch took on writing, producing, and consulting responsibilities for other TV shows, including Beverly Hills Buntz (also starring Dennis Franz), Capital News, Brooklyn South, Civil Wars, Murder One, and Total Security.

Adding Drama to Reality

In Understanding Poetry, Brooks and Warren write:

Because Shakespeare wrote a play about Macbeth, who killed a king and stole a throne, we do not have to assume that Shakespeare ever committed murder or robbery. Sometimes, very often in fact, the events in a poem are fictitious products of imagination. But the imagination is not entirely free; it is conditioned, too, by the experience of the poet. It is true, as Robert Frost says, that the poet needs only samples for the imagination to work on, but it does not work in a vacuum.

Although the murder of the nun in “Trial by Fury” was keyed to an actual event, Milch used it to create a whole cast of characters with entirely original relationships, motivations, and histories of their own. Several of the characters in Deadwood are based on historical figures but, like Shakespeare, Milch creates a whole new context for them in which to love, plot, scheme, threaten, murder, fornicate, and finagle.

“Everything David has done has been a composite,” says David’s brother, Dr. Robert Milch. “But [“Trial by Fury”] was one type of story that he could embellish upon and relate in ways that pertained to other characters. He’s always realized the import of the storyteller, but more than that it’s the audience’s ability to identify with the characters that make the stories come alive.”

Like his characters, David Milch is a richly complex human being with a dark side that he discusses openly. In True Blue, he writes that “… like Sipowicz, for a long time I was an active addict, although I was more of a plural offender.” And brother Robert observes admiringly that “the travails through which he has come is a story of triumph in many ways.”

But Milch is also capable of inspiring uncommon respect, devotion, and loyalty among those with whom he works. Herewith a few verbal tributes culled from various sources: Producer Channing Gibson: “One of the most brilliant human beings I’ve ever been around. David’s brainpan is as massive as it gets. He’s a huge intellect and really warm and generous.” Writer Tom Fontana: “He is an incredible, insane, sweet genius.” Producer Steven Bochco: “He’s just awesomely talented.” Actor Timothy Olyphant: “Couldn’t be more eloquent and smart and funny and insightful.” Actor Ian McShane: “Wonderful. Extraordinary. He’s just a super brain.”

Few people have the vision, the brilliance, and the balls to rattle the cages of the television gods and create something entirely new within an established genre. Milch has done it twice: first with NYPD Blue and then again last year in Deadwood’s first season. When NYPD Blue premiered in 1993, over thirty ABC affiliates refused to carry the show, including WIXT in Syracuse. But Milch insisted that Blue was “a profoundly moral show” that strove “to tell certain stories that involve the candid presentation of human relationships” and that there was never any intent to create scandal or controversy for its own sake.

For Deadwood, Milch spent months researching the period, the place, and the prominent personalities of the community. But he makes a clear distinction between research and the creative act of writing the show. “One does one’s research and then forgets it,” says Milch. “It has to become part of your imagination rather than part of an arsenal of information. And once it’s part of your imagination it becomes transmuted by the creative process the way any other experience does. It isn’t like taking an arrow out of the quiver. It’s an expression of your deepest nature and all your experience. I don’t want to sound mystical about it, but it’s not something where you look up words. The characters are alive to you and you try and feel the way they would speak.”

For those without the mind of Milch, the process sounds not only mystical but magical, creative alchemy that transforms rigorous research into riveting drama. Meanwhile, Milch is currently working on the second season of Deadwood, which is scheduled to air in March, 2005. An HBO spokesperson says the company plans to re-run the first season’s twelve episodes before the new series begins.

David Milch currently lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Rita Stern, a documentary film editor and producer. They have three children: Elizabeth, Ben, and Olivia. Milch’s mother, Mollie, a former member of the Buffalo Board of Education and first president of the Youth Board, lives in Buffalo. Dr. Robert Milch is the medical director of the Center for Hospice and Palliative Care and is clinical professor of surgery at the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

Phil Nyhuis is a writer and jazz musician living in Buffalo.


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