David Mills died last night. He was an Emmy-winning writer and producer who'd worked on shows like "NYPD Blue," "Homicide," "The Corner" and his own "Kingpin," and who was helping to run the writing staff of HBO's "Treme," which debuts in a week and a half. He was also a kick-ass blogger who ran the very entertaining Undercover Black Man blog.
He was also my friend, about whom I'll have much more to say after the jump.
Mills was, in fact, the very first friend I made in the TV business, and one of the few for whom I wouldn't have to put quote marks around the word. When I was in college running my "NYPD Blue" website, he was an up-and-coming writer on staff at that show, and he e-mailed me to tell me how much he liked the site and appreciated my work. I don't think he knew what he was getting himself into when he reached out like that, because I became an incredible pest to him over the next few weeks and months, asking him for inside dope on how the sausage got made, about his journalism career(*), about what it was like to work in television, why Sipowicz said such-and-such in this episode, etc., etc., etc. David was always patient and generous with his time, and through him I developed my earliest understanding of all the real-life factors that can affect the scripted narratives I was obsessed with.
(*) Mills was, like college classmate and "Treme" co-creator David Simon, a former newspaperman, having written for the Washington Post and Washington Times. His most famous moment as a reporter came in an interview with rapper Sister Souljah, in which she infamously said (as part of longer and much more involved discussion about the Rodney King riots), "If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?".
When I got my job with The Star-Ledger a few weeks after graduating, and found myself going to my first TV critics press tour in LA a few weeks after that, David invited me down to the Fox lot to meet him, and he set up interviews with both Steven Bochco and David Milch, which was a big deal for me as both a novice TV critic and devout "Hill Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue" fan. (Milch actually wound up taking Mills and me to the racetrack with him, with much of the "interview" taking place in the car. The tape is unfortunately lost to history, which is just as well, since Milch was in particularly esoteric form that day.)
From that day on, it became a ritual that Mills and I would go out for a bite (albeit not at the track) whenever I was out in LA, or on the rare occasions when he was on this coast. (I remember we once trekked 20 blocks through a New York snowstorm because I wanted to introduce him to the 2nd Avenue Deli; the picture above is us on a quest to find somewhere good to eat on Rodeo Drive, just cuz.) He was, as he had been from the start, always very helpful if I had a technical question, and very encouraging of my career.
Mills was tenacious, and he knew what he wanted. After Simon helped him break into the business by inviting him to co-write the script for "Bop Gun," a season 2 "Homicide" episode with Robin Williams that remains one of that great show's best episodes, Mills bounced around a few other jobs (including a brief "Picket Fences" stint where he and the other staffers sat around while David E. Kelley wrote everything), then read a newspaper account of a speech Milch gave about the lack of African-American TV writers. Mills was so irked by Milch's comments that he wrote him a letter objecting to much of the content of the speech and its assumptions about black writers. Milch was impressed enough that he commissioned Mills to write an episode for late in season two, then hired him for a staff job in season three.
Though Milch tended to heavily rewrite the scripts of his staffers, a Mills "NYPD" script always stood out to me as being uniquely his even after Milch had taken a pass or three. As the only writer of color on the show, he tended to deal with race more: in one episode, Sipowicz got in trouble for using the N-word in front of a black community leader, while another had Lt. Fancy seeking revenge on a bigoted patrol cop who humiliated him during a traffic stop. But it wasn't just the subject of race that made him stand out. Because he had been a newspaper writer with a good set of eyes and ears, his scripts tended to be richer in detail than the ones from many of his colleagues. There was more of a sense that the characters were people, and not just servants to a plot, whether they were supporting characters or minor guest stars.
After "NYPD Blue," he spent some time on "ER," where he created the character of Rocket Romano (and left before later writers turned him into a two-dimensional clown, then cut his arm off, then dropped a helicopter on him). He won a couple of deserved Emmys for collaborating with Simon on the moving HBO miniseries "The Corner," then spent a long time developing his own shows for different broadcast networks.
Only one ever made it to air: "Kingpin," a kind of Mexican spin on "The Godfather" with Yancey Arias as the head of a drug cartel. (Mills talked about the show, and embedded a few video clips, here, here and here.) Though Mills would later write for "The Wire," "Kingpin" was a very different kind of drug war story, more pulpy by design. I loved it, but felt a bit too close to the creator by that point to review it, and asked Matt Seitz to write that column: Matt called it "fiendishly entertaining" and said, "the series is a triumph for Mills, who has always been respected for his intelligence, but rarely for his showmanship. 'Kingpin' has both qualities in abundance."
NBC didn't order a second season of "Kingpin," giving its token low-rated critical darling renewal slot to "Boomtown" (which they then canceled after two episodes), and none of Mills' other pilot scripts went very far. (Here's an excerpt from "Mayor of Baltimore," a script he wrote for CBS.) He started up the blog(**) in part because he wanted a creative outlet during those years when he wasn't otherwise writing very much. The scope was pretty varied, from archival interviews from his reporting career, to long conversations with people like Simon, to streams of whatever music Mills was listening to (David was a devout funk fan, and tried and failed on several occasions to educate me on the genius of George Clinton), to funny but cutting racial commentary like his periodic Misidentified Black Person of the Week posts and one of his favorites, Attack of the Giant Negroes!!.
(**) The name came from a handle Mills used to use in one of his favorite pasttimes: posting on the message boards of white supremacy websites to see if anyone could give him a coherent argument justifying their racism. He told me he wanted to call himself "Undercover Negro," but the name would get rejected, because many of those sites have filters to prevent people from using racial epithets, because they feel it puts the wrong face on the movement.
Mills was incredibly proud of "Treme." He'd written for "The Wire" in its later seasons, but here he got to be part of a show being built from the ground up, got to spend a lot of time in New Orleans (this post has perhaps my favorite Mills photo ever), and was as excited about it as I'd heard him since "Kingpin" was about to debut.
I was pretty excited myself about the April 11 premiere of "Treme," not only because I think it's a terrific show, but because it would give me an excuse to be in more regular contact with Mills after we hadn't talked much in a while, due to the usual distractions that come with any adult life.
Last week, I e-mailed him to say I'd seen the first three episodes (including the third episode, which he wrote), and said that I really liked them.
"I'm relieved to hear that, Alan," he wrote back. Mills chose his words carefully, and his use of "relieved" made me smile; even though we hadn't seen each other in a couple of years (he was always out of town when I was in LA), he was reassuring me that my opinion, and our friendship, still mattered to him.
That was the last of many, many e-mails I would ever get from him.
Mills was in his 40s, too damn young to die, and it feels a particularly cruel twist of fate that it would happen so close to the premiere of a project he cared so much about.
Goodbye, David. And thanks.