Wednesday, March 31, 2010

David Mills, RIP

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.

88 comments:

Chris Littmann said...

Very sorry for your loss. It was a nice tribute.

Adam said...

What a terrible, terrible loss. A tremendous cultural historian, music fan and, above all else, an exceptional storyteller.

Ken said...

I'm sorry for the loss of your friend Alan. David Mills was a great writer. I was a huge fan of his work on NYPD Blue, and I'm really looking forward to Treme. He will be missed.

David said...

R.I.P. Mr. Mills

Anonymous said...

So very sad. 48 is far, far too young to go. No doubt, Mills would have charmed and mesmerized us with other brilliant work.

New Orleans' primary paper has a nice obit:

http://www.nola.com/treme-hbo/index.ssf/2010/03/treme_writer_david_mills_dies.html

Sharon said...

So sorry for the loss of your friend.

I, too, loved "Kingpin" - I remember watching it and was absolutely riveted - I was sucked into that world within seconds and longed to know what happened to the characters when the last episode ended.

Magnus Anton Lekay said...

This is like the saddest day ever for fans of his work. I can't imagine the pain of his friends and family.

I am very sorry for your loss.

mr gilbert said...

OMG so sad & so sorry to hear about his passing. Wow.

Toeknee said...

Wow – very surprising, and very sad. I’ve enjoyed his work on TV (esp. NYPD Blue) and on his blog. My sympathies go out to his family and friends, especially you Alan.

Alex Mullane said...

I'm very sorry for your loss Alan.

I'm sure he'd be heartened to read such a lovely, heart-felt and glowing tribute, both as of him as a professional and as a friend.

The world needs people to write challenging television, like the sort Mr Mills helped write, and he will be sadly missed.

R.I.P David Mills.

VenetianBlond said...

Just stunned when I saw the news. He leaves behind such a tremendous body of work, and connections like yours. He welcomed newcomers to his blog, and I felt that I knew him in an internet sort of way. What a loss.

Kate said...

Beautifully written, as always, Alan. I am sorry for the loss of your friend.

Stephanie said...

I'm so very for your loss. David Mills was an amazing talent. A lovely tribute.

David J. Loehr said...

I was also lucky enough to benefit from David's patience to a smaller extent. I'm still trying to process the news.

What a lovely tribute. It's a shame we had to read it so soon.

EVERY1TALKS said...

A fitting tribute. I am sorry for the loss of your friend.

Abbie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LA said...

Terrible, terrible news. I'm so sorry that you lost such a wonderful friend.

Pete said...

This post is a fitting tribute to a talented writer. David Mills had for years seemed simultaneously to be one of the most approachable as well as one of the most personable TV writers out there. I'm very sorry for your loss, Alan.

isaac_spaceman said...

This is so sad. What a legacy he leaves behind.

dez said...

I'm in complete shock. So sorry for you and for David's family.

John McFetridge said...

A terrible loss.

Anonymous said...

I am very sorry for your loss. My sympathies to his family and friends.
It was a beautifully written tribute.

A brief poem in observance of David's passing. A talent gone much too soon.

William Penn

They that love beyond the world cannot be separated by it.
Death cannot kill what never dies.
Nor can spirits ever be divided, that love and live in the same divine principle, the root and record of their friendship.
If absence be not death, neither is theirs.
Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still.
For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent.
In this divine glass they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure.
This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal.

jknola said...

I'm speechless. Condolences to you Alan and to all of us who enjoyed Mills' writing/blogging.

Hannah Lee said...

So sad.

Alan, I'm very sorry for the loss of your friend. He sounds like a great guy, and his creative voice will be missed.

belinda said...

Beautiful tribute for a amazing storyteller. What a terrible loss to his family and friends, as well as to the television industry and his fans.

*hugs*

Hatfield said...

This is very sad news. Sorry for your loss, Alan, but I'm sure if David could see it he would love your tribute to him. I've missed his blog and was very excited to hear that he was working on Treme. For anyone interested, the New York Times did a very good piece about Treme that features Mills and David Simon working on a script mid-shoot. A nice snapshot of the man doing what he loved.

Jeff V said...

I'm just stunned, and so sorry.

I never met David, but I considered him an "Internet friend." In fact, Alan, I first discovered him back in the days when you were doing your weekly reviews of NYPD Blue episodes. It was at a point where you were losing patience with the show, and actually took a week or so off from reviewing, and then you came back after a particularly strong episode. Mills was leading the comments, cheering on the the direction of Paris Barclay.

And I loved his Undercover Black Man blog - one of my proudest moments as a blogger was when he added mine to his list of links. Another proud moment was when he commented on one of my posts - I even told anyone who would listen, "Hey! That guy used to write for NYPD Blue and he just commented on my blog!"

R.I.P.

Hyde said...

Well, he was definitely right about George Clinton.

What a stunning loss for everyone who cares about quality television.

Tom said...

R.I.P., David Mills. You wrote some of the most powerful, moving hours of TV I've watched.

Alan, that's a fitting tribute to your friend. Well don.

Heath Brandon said...

As an aspiring musician, actor and writer, David was kind enough to give me a shout out on his blog about my music. When I emailed him thanking him and mentioning my other interests, he responded with some invaluable advise and always responded to future emails. Guys like that are in short supply... RIP David Mills.

Dave B said...

Damn. Sorry for your loss, Alan. Just yesterday I told folks how excited I was getting in anticipation of Treme. I'm sure it will be a fitting tribute to his talents.

M.A.Peel said...

I echo the sorrow for your loss Alan. The great thing about Mills was that besides his writing achievements, he was a member of the blogging community, and thanks to Alan, brought into this community that gathers here. What a loss.

Mary Yanni said...

I'm so very sorry to hear this, Alan. I'm sad for all of us to lose such a talent, but even more for the loss of your friend.

Susan said...

Alan,

thank you for sharing this history and memory of David Mills. As an avid reader of your NYPD Blue recaps and analysis, and following you now, here, it is particularly touching to read how meaningful David was to you over time. Our world is less without this committed soul.

Kate said...

A terrible loss. So young, with so much more to live and so much more to write.

My condolences, Alan.

Celendra said...

Like many others, I stumbled on David's blog through your sidelinks and it quickly became a regular stop on my blog rounds.

Whatever the issue under discussion, you could always count on him to come at it no-holds-barred and have very little patience for fools.

Very sad day. I'm sorry about your friend.

gina said...

So sorry to hear of your loss, Alan.

Karen said...

So sorry, Alan--it's tough to lose a friend. Best to you and, of course, to Mills' family.

Tyrone said...

Awful, awful news. His UBM blog just shone with enthusiasm, as if there wasn't enough time for him to turn you on to all the cool stuff he was digging. E.g. I discovered your blog through his.

Matthew L said...

My sympathies to you, Alan, as well as to Mr Mills' family and friends. I'm sorry for your loss. I'm sure that he would have appreciated this sin cere and moving tribute.

Adrienne Mills said...

Thanks for posting this. I didn't see David often after he moved from DC but we stayed in touch online. He was always a sweet and imaginative soul.

kurt cobain wallpaper said...

This is sad.

bklyn6 said...

Wonderful post.

My condolences to David's family and friends.

Goodbye, UBM.

Heather said...

So sorry to hear about this, Alan.

Craig Ranapia said...

Alan:

I don't often offer my condolences to total strangers for the deaths of other strangers, but looking at the tributes David comes across as not only a very talented man, but one who was genuinely well-loved in an industry known for big egos and feuds that would make the Borgias faint.

A great loss.

Edward Copeland said...

A lovely tribute Alan. I feel his loss only through the loss of his talent. I know his loss runs much deeper in you and I feel for you.

Edward

DolphinFan said...

The world of TV has lost one of the most gifted writers in its history, and his friends like you Alan and his family have lost a man who was well-loved and greatly admired. I am saddened that a great talent is no longer with us and so, so sorry for your loss.

aempey said...

Helluva loss. RIP storyman.

Many storytellers tried to emulate you, many failed, and I selfishly hope another rises to your level. Not to take your place, but to continue a tradition of greatness.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful tribute. Thank you for sharing.

Alan Sepinwall said...

David Simon penned his own Mills obit.

JanieJones said...

I am truly sorry for your loss. Your tribute captured the essence of a man with great talent.
My condolences to his friends and family.

JanieJones said...

I am truly sorry for your loss. Your tribute captured the essence of a man with great talent.
My condolences to his friends and family.

Anne Sleungy said...

Nice tribute Alan. I've been following you and David Mills ever since your old NYPD Blue site so it sort of feels like I lost a friend too today.

I hope no one finds this offensive in any way. But, looking at that picture of Messrs. Sepinwall and Mills, does anyone think David Mills looks an awful like Manny from Modern Family only 30 years later?

thebitterhero said...

So sorry for your loss. Your eulogy for him is very nice and touching and give a great description of not just a writer but a man. RIP David Mills

Kelly said...

I'm sorry Alan.

Matt Zoller Seitz said...

This is terrible news, Alan. My condolences to you on the loss of your friend, and to TV fans on the loss of a great writer.

Lola Gets said...

This is a very sweet eulogy. I never met David, but I did think of him as an "Internet friend". Whenever I spoke of suicide, he always commented - humorously if you can believe it. David also did a little Internet research for me on my great-great aunt, Gertrude Saunders, but I never got around to writing that post. Perhaps I will, now, in honor of him.

I will miss reading his blog, and wondering if Id ever get a chance to meet him in person.

L

Liz said...

So sorry to hear about the loss of your friend. Thank you for telling us about him.

Nina said...

I was shocked to hear the news today, and very sorry for your loss, Alan. What a lovely tribute to your friend.

Greg said...

Alan - Wonderful words for a great person. It's been a long time since I spoke with David but I always appreciated what he did for me and I know that you and he were close.

Eric said...

I remember some of David Mills' WaPo writing, but I didn't know he'd been a writer for NYPD Blue. THat episode where Sypowitz uses the N-word and is then taken to the restaurant was such a great one, the scene in the restaurant is forever engraved in my memory. I'm terribly sorry for your loss.

GregM said...

RIP, Mr. Mills, and Alan, any TV writer would be proud to have you as a friend after that fine remembrance.

Josh said...

RIP, David Mills. A tragic loss, and it's hard to avoid the irony that such a terrible thing has lead to at least two heartfelt remembrances, though coming from different angles. Alan, your work here is exceptional and real; Mr. Simon's work is just as perfect, if intentionally journalistic.

A sad day, truly.

Pamela Jaye said...

please add my condolences to the pile you already have.

There was almost nothing David wrote that I ever watched, but I did like his Misidentified Black Person of the Week, and remember wondering what happened to him, (some time in the past year).

Baylink called me to tell me he had died. I peeked into his blog to see when he had last posted and his last post led me to Z on TV, where I learned of the aneurysm.

There's really nothing I can add - I think Chris Littmann's comments pretty much express my feelings.
It's always nice when someone goes out of their way to help someone else out - even more so when they are in Hollywood, the city of "Me."
(and yeah, I know not everyone there is like that, but I'm surprised at how pervasive it is.)

A few years ago, someone I didn't know well at all died. We'd only met once and exchanged some phone calls and emails, but oddly, I keep running into things that remind me of her. I find it interesting that anyone could make such a big impact in such a small period of time. So, I'd like to say that I can only imagine how you are feeling, but my mother died the year before that, and I *know* what that felt like.
Perhaps it's an age thing, though. My friend died suddenly (as well) at a young age (53) as well. So it's possible that I understand the weirdness of it being so sudden and them being so young, but I can't say I understand totally, as you had to be much closer friends than Gail and I were. (when she died, I didn't even find out for 5 months)

Anonymous said...

very sorry for your loss. thanks so much for sharin ghtis

James said...

stunned by this news - loved his writing and missed his blog. huge loss.

Yet another anonymous said...

A lovely tribute, Alan. I can only imagine how difficult it was to write it emotionally-speaking, though it's clear how easy it was to say positive things about Mr. Mills. You really made him come to life.

What a loss.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Thanks for the kind words, everybody. Bad day.

Ben said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ben said...

He was a truly gifted writer. I remember his last Homicide episode, the Charles Durning-guested "Finnegan's Wake." It was as smart and moving as TV can be.

And I'm also sorry you lost a good friend. It's always a sad experience.

Paris Barclay said...

I could never say goodbye as eloquently as you Alan. But I will say -- would I have a career without David Mills? Not nearly the same one I've had. He wrote the first episode of NYPD Blue I ever directed ("Upstairs Downstairs"), when I was called up from the minors to replace a director that fell out. It was the 12th episode of television I had ever directed, and it changed my life. Did Milch rewrite that episode? Hardly at all, as i recall. David nailed it, and it was a joy to point the camera and say "Action."
Now, I say sadly, "It's a wrap."

Schmoker said...

Unlike Simon and Milch, Mills was not a name I really knew, even though I watched all the shows you mentioned, Alan. But those shows were all pretty fantastic, and the script you mentioned for that one particular Homicide episode was out of this world. To this day it sticks with me, even though I have only seen it once or twice. Just really powerful stuff, as were the NYPD stories you mentioned and that I still remember.

A really tragic loss. I never knew it until he was gone and you wrote this, Alan, but Mr. Mills really touched me all throughout my life.

Ostiose Vagrant said...

My condolences to his family and friends. From his works and blog and stories, my impression is that he had a keen sense of social issues and a sharp wit. He definitely found his voice, both as a writer and in life.

Tina said...

Thank you for a beautiful tribute, Alan. What a tragedy for his friends and family. And selfishly, I am sad for all the writing we won't now have at his far-too-young death.

Blair Waldorf said...

I'm very sorry for the loss of your friend. I enjoyed Mr. Mills's blog and would check in to read it from time to time. I have a deep and abiding love for New Orleans and have been excited about Treme since he first posted about it. This is very sad news.

Bob Westal said...

More condolences on the loss of your friend and obviously great talent, from someone else who remembers "Kingpin."

Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry to hear of this loss, but I can't imagine the Times running a better obituary than what I just read.

The world has lost a great voice.

Alfred A. A. said...

Truly heartbreaking news. My condolences.

filmcricket said...

My condolences, Alan. That was a lovely tribute.

King Killer Dave said...

I'm so sorry for the loss of your friend, Alan.

He was an exceptional writer and person, and I'm sure he'd be proud of this tribute from a trusted friend and colleague.

Terry said...

I'm very sorry for your loss Alan

vix said...

I was shocked and saddened to hear about Mr. Mills' passing; anytime the world loses a great writer is a sad day indeed. And David Mills was a terrific scribe. Kingpin was terrific and I was very disappointed when it was not renewed. My condolences on the loss of your friend and mentor, Alan; I have been a fan of your writing as well ever since you penned NYPD Blue recaps on alt.tv.nypd-blue.

Anonymous said...

When I saw the Obituary in today's Tribune I immediately turned to the web to see if you added any information. In doing so I read a beautiful piece about your very dear friend. I add to those above expressing my deepest sympathy to you for your loss.

Anonymous said...

Nice tribute, Alan. Also a nice quote that made it into the Wash. Post story yesterday. I still consider the episode David Mills wrote (or co-wrote) of NYPD Blue, in which Andy has fallen off the wagon but recovers by the end of the episode (after the death of Andy Jr.) to be maybe the single most moving hour of television I have ever seen.

Jimmy J. Aquino said...

My condolences. I admired UBM's TV scripts (I knew he was involved with ER but had forgotten that Romano was his creation), from their insight on race and reporter's eye for nuance to their George Clinton shout-outs and soul music references, and I was honored to have been made a part of UBM's blogroll. This was a nice tribute to your friend, and he was a friend you made because of your NYPD Blue recaps and fan site! (Those recaps were also my first exposure to your writing.) The Internet doesn't work where I live, so I found out about Mr. Mills' death when I saw a Damon Lindelof tweet about his genius that was posted on Wednesday on the G4 channel's news ticker, of all places. I couldn't believe he was gone. I wonder how the creator of Misidentified Black Person of the Week would have reacted to being thought of as Latino-looking in this comments section. I bet he would have reacted with humor because he had a great sense of it. I wish there was a way we could read his parody of Washington Post celebrity profiles in which he pretended he interviewed Bugs Bunny, which was mentioned in a New Orleans Times-Picayune obit.

Conrad Ege said...

To Alan Sepinwall, you indeed did lose a great friend and colleague, you and David Mills both had done great work in your reviews and writings of some of the best television shows of all time. Without David Mills, there surely will be a void and I know that void will be even more personal to you having came up in the business the way you have. I am very sorry that David Mills had to die at age 48 and I am sorry that you lost him as he was one of the best friends anyone in the business could have had. David Mills RIP, Alan Sepinwall, you lost an irreplacable friend who will surely be missed.

Reginald Hudlin said...

One of the many things I have to thank David for is turning me on to this site.

David and I met a lifetime ago over our mutual love of P.Funk (sorry you never got on board the mothership, Alan). I remember when I read that "Bop Gun" script. It impressed me that it was so HIM at the same time perfectly fit the fabric of the series. That's a quality I aspire to when I work as director on different series.

I was also proud when he added me to his blog list. He was a tasteful man with complete integrity and craft. Of course I wanted his approval!

RIP David Mills. You gave us a lot, but we needed so much more of your.

Reginald Hudlin
wwww.hudlinentertainment.com

Thrasher said...

Thrasher
Disclosure ( I coined the label "one drop"'one drop rule" )for David during many of our rants on his blog..He called me a cockroach after I was mad that he would not develop my script and character I created Dr.Cukoo..I will miss our banter it was hot and heavy but I truly know he loved it..I kept him grounded..