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Master of the dastardly

Ian McShane rousts America as the brutal 'Deadwood' antihero. It's about time.

May 30, 2004|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

He was raised in Manchester, England, his father a professional soccer player after the war for Manchester United. McShane played football but not passionately, he said. At 17 he went to London "for the first time," to act, after being accepted into RADA. Almost right away he got a starring role in a movie -- "The Wild and the Willing," costarring John Hurt and Samantha Eggar. A failed attempt at New Wave, is how McShane characterizes the film. "Not exactly 'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.' "

"I learned how to drink very well," he said of playing Richard Burton's lover in another movie, called "Villain," which came out in 1971. Each morning, he said, he'd be summoned to Burton's trailer to go over the day's lines. They'd start with vodka and grapefruit juice with their kippers. At lunch it was off to the pub to have a few pints.

They had to kiss in the movie. "He said to me one night, we were having a drink, he said, 'You know, I'm very glad you're playing this part,' " McShane said, doing Burton's baritone. "I said, 'Really, that's nice, Richard.' He said, 'Well, you remind me of Elizabeth.' "

McShane laughed. The laugh echoed through the breakfast room at Shutters, the posh Santa Monica beachfront hotel. The restaurant was empty and the sun was out. McShane had come over from his home on the boardwalk in Venice, where he lives with his wife, actress Gwen Humble.

It felt like the kind of day where you could talk to an actor about his career, all of it, and he would tell you. So the conversation got around to how McShane was in L.A. in January 1994 for the Cable Ace Awards, nominated for "Lovejoy," when the Northridge earthquake struck. He was staying at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. "And there's a lot of people in white bathrobes holding safe-deposit boxes," he said, describing the scene in the foyer at 4 in the morning, "and I see Toback [James Toback, who directed McShane in a 1983 movie called "Exposed"] who's talking to Tony Bennett, who looks like he's just finished a gig."

Toback noticed Elle Macpherson was among the shell-shocked, berobed Peninsula guests and wondered if this might be the right time to offer comfort. Bennett, McShane noticed, was holding a glass of orange juice.

Drinking it all in

Nearly all of the characters on "Deadwood" are alcoholics; there are those drinking themselves to death (Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane), those drinking socially, those drinking to cope, those enabling the copers, and those just pouring 'cause it's there.

Milch, whose TV writing has been informed by his own past battle with addiction, sees the drinking as symptomatic of the risk-taking nature of Deadwood's world. He talks about how Swearengen's world view is filtered through the alcoholic's obsessive need for control. On "Deadwood," this becomes Swearengen's fear that the grimy little world he runs will soon be swallowed up by forces greater than himself. By "the vipers," as Swearengen refers to them in one episode. "The vipers in the big nest in Washington."

"For an alcoholic, any change is fraught with peril," Milch said. He was lying on the floor of his West L.A. office to ease an aching back. Within arm's reach were piles of scripts and research about Deadwood at the end of the gold rush, the show's historical epoch. One of the folders was labeled "Jewish citizens of Deadwood."

"Like with Sipowicz," Milch said, referring to the gruff detective played by Dennis Franz on "NYPD Blue," a vintage Milch character. "If someone moves the frog on his desk, his ... day is ruined."

"Deadwood," which has been averaging an acquired-taste viewership of 4.6 million viewers this season, according to HBO, hits the tropes of the Western -- gun fights, damsels in distress -- but as art the show is really an existential drama in which troubled souls use language to both cope with the human condition and define their outsider status. The main character, Milch will tell you, is the camp of Deadwood -- a lawless place that isn't even a town, isn't even a part of the country. He sees the camp as a "single organism," with different organic systems. These unique systems are working toward a common goal -- the survival of the camp, which exists outside the ways and bylaws of mainstream society. It's an edge-of-the-world place -- like Las Vegas, down to the stolen Indian land.

Milch explored similar themes on "NYPD Blue," with television stars who didn't always appreciate being made to wait on set while Milch, unapologetic about the messiness of creative discovery, rewrote scenes into the eleventh hour. To that end, pay boutique TV would appear to be a better milieu for him; "Deadwood" episodes are shot over 10 days, 12 episodes each season, and shooting wraps before any of the episodes air. "NYPD Blue" was more of a factory -- eight-day shoots, 22 episodes a year, a network clock ticking.

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