When David Milch was hired as a staff writer on “Hill Street Blues” in 1982, the show’s producer, Steve Bochco, told him, “You have no idea how your life is going to change, and there’s no way on Earth you can repay me. What you can do is pass along the luck.”
Immediately before joining “Hill Street,” Milch had been an obscure scholar-teacher at Yale (from which he was graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1966), minding his footnotes as he researched William and Henry James and their kinfolk.
His college roommate, Jeffrey Lewis, was already on the show’s staff and recruited Milch. Milch’s first script, “Trial by Fury,” won an Emmy, the Writers Guild award and the Humanitas prize, $15,000 cash with which, he admitted at lunch the other day, he bought a race horse.
He became co-producer of “Hill Street” in 1984 and was executive producer its last two seasons. Last summer he made his move to pass along some of his luck.
Milch had attended a Florida conference where public-interest groups had a chance to air their gripes about television. A representative of the Urban League complained that black and other minority writers rarely got a look-in at writing for television.
Milch had to agree. Working with the Urban League, he recruited 10 young minority writers from campuses around the country, put them up at an apartment complex in Burbank, added another dozen local writers who became non-boarding students as it were, and gave them all an intensive monthlong course in scriptwriting.
“There’s a tendency to believe that working in television is a sojourn among the Philistines,” Milch says, “and that’s such tedious nonsense. To me it’s a reputable and responsible way to make a living.”
The text materials included four “Hill Street Blues” scripts, including “Trial by Fury,” three drafts and the shooting script of the pilot episode Milch and Jeff Lewis wrote for the “Hill Street” spin-off “Beverly Hills Buntz” and the scripts of several movies (“Casablanca” and “Chinatown”) and series (“Moonlighting” and others).
The recommended reading list featured Irwin Blacker’s “The Elements of Screenwriting,” “Screenplay” by Syd Field and William Goldman’s “Adventures in the ScreenTrade.”
Milch, who had been a visiting lecturer in literature and creative writing at Yale from 1971 until “Hill Street” rang, returned to the lectern as the writing program’s principal teacher, introducing guest lecturers such as Allan Burns, who was one of the founding writers of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
“The idea, I thought,” Milch says, “was to have some good people coming along maybe five years down the line. But in fact, we’ve already bought two scripts for ‘Beverly Hills Buntz’ from writers in the group. (Now we’ve just got to get someone to watch the show.)”
Milch, the son of a Buffalo, N.Y., surgeon, was a protege of Robert Penn Warren at Yale and an aspiring novelist. “I had a premature and imitative gift,” he says dismissively. But with Warren’s encouragement he taught briefly at the Iowa Writers Workshop, then fell into what he calls his disreputable years. As revealed in an Esquire profile, Milch fell into and climbed out of heroin addiction.
Warren lured him back to Yale to teach and to work on a massive critical anthology of American literature that Warren was editing with Cleanth Brooks and R. W. B. Lewis. Milch also helped on an updated edition of the popular Brooks and Warren textbook “Understanding Fiction.”
“My attraction for ‘Hill Street,’ I think,” Milch says, “was that I’d had one foot in academia and one foot in the underworld. No one but Steve Bochco would have seen what he saw in me and no show but ‘Hill Street’ would have hired me.”
Milch has two series in development, one for ABC on power- brokering in Washington, the other for NBC with Michael Warren as the adoptive father of five battered and abused kids. He is also working on a couple of movies, one about a legendary horse trainer named Buddy Jacobson.
His Humanitas horse has now become a string of horses. “They enable me to be handsomely rewarded but stay impoverished.” One of his horses, Marvin’s Policy, ran at Santa Anita Saturday. Milch had high hopes for it but it finished fifth in a field of six.
You can’t win ‘em all. Then again, if you’re lucky you don’t lose ‘em all either.