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  • A Conversation with David Milch
  • Michael Piafsky (bio)

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Photo by Doug Hyun

The very first television episode David Milch ever wrote, "Trial by Fury," premiered the third season of Hill Street Blues and won the Emmy, the Writers Guild Award and the Humanitas Prize for 1982. Milch spent five seasons with Hill Street Blues, first as executive story editor and subsequently as executive producer. During that time, Milch earned two more Writers Guild Awards, a second Humanitas prize and another Emmy. He went on to co-create NYPD Blue, which set a record by garnering twenty-six Emmy Nominations its premier season, winning the award for Best Drama Series in 1994-1995. Milch took home Emmys for Best Writing in a Drama for the 1996-1997 and 1997-1998 seasons. The first season of NYPD Blue also earned Milch a Humanitas Prize and an Edgar Award for his screenwriting.

Milch went on to create a number of other series, most notably Deadwood for HBO. This show, which was based on actual events in Deadwood, South Dakota, during the 1870s, received six Emmy Awards, a Peabody and a Best Actor Golden Globe for actor Ian McShane.

Milch's newest show, Luck, which aired on HBO and starred Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina and a host of others, was recently cancelled. Milch is married to Emmy-award-winning documentarian, Rita Stern. They have two daughters, Elizabeth and Olivia, and a son, Benjamin.

This interview was conducted in summer, 2011.

Michael Piafsky:

You've often discussed your interest in people on the margins and borders—in two of your more recent shows, Deadwood and John from Cincinnati, you have people marginalized both by their condition and by their geographical location. How does this relate to your own chaotic youth experiences?

David Milch:

I expect that most of the human journey is involved with figuring out what the borders are and determining which ones to cross and [End Page 127] which ones to stay away from and things like that. That's a familial drama and a geographical one, and certainly one of the spirit of the psyche. One is drawn to storytelling because it's more of a palatable venue for exploring these sorts of things, but I'm not wildly enthusiastic about talking about my family background. As far as that goes, I guess it is a matter of record that I grew up in Buffalo, on the border with Canada, and that both sides of my family were recent immigrants and their process of discovering the new boundaries of their experience was certainly no less complicated than it was for a lot of recent arrivals. In particular because, on my dad's side, there were complications within the family in terms of boundaries being kept and broken. All of these things visit the family from one generation to the next, and they become part of the raw materials that a storyteller makes into a tapestry or a party hat or whatever you make of it.


A third aspect of marginalization would be your Judaism. This part of your identity has led to what you've described as "a pet psychosis of the Jew as bystander to the lived experience of the dominant society."


Elliptically, that is what I was talking about with my family experience. I think that as a species humans extrapolate a lot of our place in the world from our physical relationships. So to the extent that Jewish people (for a combination of reasons) have had a disempowered relationship to place, there is a motive for them to reimagine the idea of place, to make it as much a country of the mind as physically. And that, obviously, lends itself to storytelling, and it's also not a bad start at money changing. Because as opposed to a particular made product, we as Jews may be drawn to the manipulation of the symbols of the product—for example with regard to currency—as a way of organizing our relationship to the larger society. That, of course, has all sorts of consequences and secondary effects.


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pp. 126-142
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