Book Review: Life’s Work, By David Milch

David Milch
David Milch (Image credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

Life’s Work is a memoir by famed TV producer David Milch, who counts NYPD Blue and Deadwood among his credits. Milch’s story also touches on his considerable vices, including substance abuse and gambling. It’s a quick read, at 276 pages, and much of the book plays as though Milch is sitting next to you on a park bench, sharing his life story. 

Milch grew up in Buffalo. His father was a surgeon who dabbled in organized crime, at times operating on wounded mobsters. He was also an abusive alcoholic, and his son turned to alcohol early in life.  

David Milch's Life's Work

(Image credit: Penguin)

Milch’s best friend growing up was a kid named Judgy, and his father was an abusive alcoholic too. Judgy didn’t live long, dying in a drunk-driving accident in college. But he popped up in Milch’s work at various times in his writing career. 

That career began as a novelist. Milch studied at Yale, where his professors included Robert Penn Warren, and his classmates were President George W. Bush and John Kerry, Bush a fraternity brother. Drugs and alcohol were eagerly consumed by Milch. 

Milch then went to grad school at the famed University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where his professors included Kurt Vonnegut. Heroin and alcohol dependency continued, and he drove his professors bonkers. While in Iowa, Milch was also involved in an illicit business involving the manufacturing of acid. 

Milch found himself in New Haven again at Yale Law School, but was drunk much of the time, and his heart was never in it. 

His debut novel found a publisher but did not sell much, and Milch tried writing for TV. He landed at Hill Street Blues in 1982, and learned the tricky craft from some masters. 

His spinoff Beverly Hills Buntz did not last long, but Milch and actor Dennis Franz moved on to NYPD Blue. On that project, Milch got very close to Bill Clark, a New York detective who consulted on show scripts and stuck close to Milch for much of his remaining life. 

NYPD Blue gets a good chunk of the book, and Milch shares that Franz’s Detective Cipowiz was based in part on his father. 

Milch spent more and more time, and money, at the horse track, and said he bet a million dollars in one day–more than once. 

He holds down a series of big jobs in television despite his dependency on drugs and alcohol, and trips to the racetrack that involve frightfully large bets. He shares about his work after NYPD Blue, including Brooklyn South, and shows that did not catch on, including Big Apple and something called John From Elsewhere and His Friend Tex. He also shares about the friends (Henry Winkler, Ed O’Neill) and enemies (Leslie Moonves) he makes in Hollywood. 

Milch later pitches HBO a series detailing Christianity in ancient Rome. It reminds HBO execs of another project in the works at the network, so Milch pivots, and comes up with a western set in the 1870s with a similar theme. Deadwood is born. 

He finds the project very satisfying, but is heartbroken when it is cancelled after three seasons. 

After that is oddball surfer drama John From Cincinnati. It launches on HBO out of the Sopranos series finale, but only lasts for ten episodes. 

Milch also talks about his doomed HBO series Luck, which aimed to make sense of the creator’s time spent at the racetrack. “The hope going into this work, not fully articulated but nevertheless moving in me, was that through the art, my experiences at the track would be transformed, would come to mean something new,” he writes. 

Luck had Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte in the cast, and Michael Mann in the exec producer crew, but three horses died during two seasons of production, and the project was scrapped. 

Around the same time, Milch and his wife got a call from their business managers that his gambling has put the family in a deep, deep hole. 

Needing to get back to work, he pitched HBO a series on a Murdoch-like family called The Money, which had Brendan Gleeson, Ray Liotta and Nathan Lane in the cast. It never saw the light of day, though Milch acknowledges that another series detailing a Murdoch-like family, Succession, saw great success years later. 

Amidst his family’s dire financial situation, Milch is put on a $40 a week allowance. He is later diagnosed with dementia, seriously limiting his ability to leave the house. 

Other projects, bearing the titles Big City and Shadow Country, don’t get past pilot either, but Milch was pleased to get back onto Deadwood for a finale movie, which premieres in 2019. 

He relocates to an assisted living facility that same year. “It’s awful being crippled like this,” he writes. “Hobbled. It’s a hobbling. It’s an accumulation of the ineffectual. I can’t remember what I meant to do.”

As the book concludes, Milch finds peace with what he’s contributed to popular culture, and with his growing family. He sums himself up in a sentence: “My deepest belief about myself is that, given half a chance, I’ll steal your dope and help you look for it.”

Milch is quick to point out both his faults and his attributes, including his generosity to staff writers, crew members, and those looking to get started in Hollywood. The book moves rapidly, only slowing down when Milch offers up complicated philosophical explanations for the genesis of his various shows.  

It is a testament to Milch’s talents that he rose so high in television, despite his addiction issues. One can’t help but wonder what he might’ve accomplished without those vices holding him back. ■

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.