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Revelations in Blue

Writer-producer David Milch helped change the way TV sees cops' lives. His success has helped stabilize his own.

January 25, 1998|Brian Lowry | Brian Lowry is a Times staff writer

Having struggled with addiction, he remains thoroughly committed to his work and family, while still grappling with his own inner demons.

While that description fits Andy Sipowicz, the gruff detective on ABC's "NYPD Blue," it also applies to the man who helped create him.

David Milch, "NYPD Blue's" co-creator and executive producer, has lived a life nearly as colorful as any of his characters. Now, he just wants to hang around long enough to savor being at the top of his game and having survived it.

Those associated with the Emmy-winning police drama--which survived a baptism in controversy because of its standard-pushing content and aired its 100th episode earlier this month--say Milch is the soul of Sipowicz and the creative force behind one of television's most-decorated programs. Though co-creator Steven Bochco remains the primary name identified with the show, Milch has steered the series since its first season, flanked by former New York detective Bill Clark, with whom he has forged a near-symbiotic bond.

Milch, 53, is about as happy as he can get to have reached that 100-episode milestone, having undergone multiple angioplasty procedures to clear coronary blockages shortly after the program premiered. Since then, he's become near-obsessed with diet and exercise, without showing any willingness or desire to diminish his work load.

Characterized as "brilliant" and "complicated" by those who know him, Milch is widely recognized within the industry as one of television's finest writers.

"He's absolutely stark raving mad and the most brilliant guy I know. He thinks on about 20 different levels at the same time," says Mark Tinker, a producer and director on the Tuesday night series.

"David is arguably the best television writer in town, so it was an incredible learning experience," adds Gardner Stern, now a producer on CBS' "Michael Hayes," regarding his three seasons on the show. "The episodes were constantly evolving in his mind."

Milch freely admits he has reached this point almost in spite of himself, thanks to his wife and children as well as to Bochco and Clark, all of whom have helped insulate the writer from his excesses--which earlier in life included a 10-year addiction to heroin plus problems with gambling and alcohol abuse.

Bochco, Milch says, "has sort of been responsible for creating the environment in which I can function, and that's no mean feat on several fronts. I never have to talk to the network, and that's enormous. There is no one in town I'm aware of who doesn't have to do that. He fights all the fights about language and about nudity.

"It's no accident that I was just as talented for better or worse for a lot of years and couldn't get out of my own way. Steven has known how to create an emotional environment here where I'm comfortable."

"Here" would be Bochco's airy offices on the 20th Century Fox lot in Century City. Milch shares a wing of the building with Clark, where the two are serenaded by African gray parrots named Toody (after the character in "Car 54, Where Are You?") and Scarlett (as in O'Hara), who chirp profanities in Clark's New York accent.

That office serves as the central nervous system for "NYPD Blue" and "Brooklyn South," the CBS series about uniformed cops that premiered last fall and recently won a People's Choice Award. Despite that honor, the new series--after a promising start--hasn't appeared to be a choice of many people based on its recent ratings.

Milch wears a T-shirt as he blocks out stories for both series. The walls feature pictures of his wife, Rita, and children--ages 8, 11 and 13--as well as Robert Penn Warren, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet-novelist (he wrote "All the King's Men") who mentored Milch at Yale.

Milch's devotion to the two shows represents a major undertaking for someone whose health remains an ongoing concern.

"I'm working harder than I've ever worked in my life this year," says the producer, who feels a heightened sense of urgency now that he has reached this creative pinnacle, after his share of frustrating run-ins with studios and networks earlier in his career.

"You get to the point where you're asking yourself, 'Well, if they weren't [expletive] me over, how good would I be?'

"As an artist, you just want a chance to see what you can do," he says. "I had gotten to the point, in no small part because of Steven, where I was getting to find out just how good a storyteller I was, and then I got sick. I was very sad about it--I wasn't depressed, I was despairing."

Milch remains a study in contradictions: Having taught creative writing at Yale before coming to Hollywood, he tosses around phrases like "provisional myth" with a professorial air that can send listeners running for a thesaurus. Yet he's equally comfortable hanging out with cops or detailing how a detective might beat a "skel" (criminal) in order to secure a confession.

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