David Mills: Television writer and producer who worked on The Wire and NYPD Blue

Sunday 23 October 2011 02:21

The recent debut of Treme, the new HBO series from David Simon and many of the team who worked on The Wire, was, from a critical standpoint, the most eagerly anticipated television event in America of the year so far. But Treme, set in New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, was given a sadder overtone when, just two weeks before the debut, the writer-producer David Mills suffered an aneurysm and died, aged 48, while supervising a shoot at the city's famed Cafe Du Monde.

Mills exemplified the mix of writing talent which brought The Wire such acclaim. Like Simon, his background was in journalism, and he mixed with ex-cops and novelists to give the show both realism and flair. As a light-skinned black man, Mills was also uniquely positioned to reflect on the racial issues which were at the core of The Wire and so much of his other work. Speaking about his own blog, "Undercover Black Man", Mills said, "when I'm around a bunch of white people, no one assumes I'm black... so I've had the feeling of being an undercover Negro in real life."

Mills wrote for many of the most highly regarded American series, including Homicide, NYPD Blue, ER and Picket Fences, as well as projects with Simon like The Corner and The Wire. "He was a good writer and a good man," said his colleague, the novelist George Pelecanos. "In the writers' room, Dave pushed us to be better. His handprints are all over Treme."

His connection with Simon began when both worked on a student newspaper at the University of Maryland. Mills was born in Washington DC, but after the family home was destroyed in a fire, grew up in Lanham, Maryland. He was the youngest of five children, born to a father in his fifties and a mother who was struck with multiple sclerosis. He was raised in part by a much older sister, serving as an older brother to his nephew Clifton, with whom he would script storyboards for their own episodes of Charlie's Angels.

After college, Mills worked in Chicago for the Wall Street Journal, then returned to Washington, working first for the Star and then the Post, primarily as a feature writer on popular culture. He also published a fanzine, Uncut Funk, devoted to George Clinton, Parliament, and Funkadelic, whose best work was collected in a 1998 oral history of the bands.

Mills' ability to get straight-talk in interviews twice led to controversy, first when Public Enemy's Professor Griff made anti-semitic remarks in 1989, and more famously, when the author Sister Souljah, in the wake of the 1992 Rodney King riots in LA, responded to Mills' question of whether a violent response was "wise" by saying, "Yeah, it was wise. I mean, if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?" Though she was placing the comment in the context of the rioters, it became a campaign issue for Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential elections.

Around that time, Simon asked Mills to write for Homicide, a series based on Simon's book about a year with Baltimore's homicide police. Mills' episode, "Bop Gun" (1994), starring Robin Williams, was nominated for an Emmy and won a Writers Guild award. He quit the Post, moved to Los Angeles, and wrote for Picket Fences, David Kelley's critically acclaimed mix of Twin Peaks and The X Files. David Milch hired him to write for NYPD Blue after Mills sent him a letter castigating Milch for saying black writers had a hard time writing for mainstream commercial television. Revelling in the ostensibly racist detective Andy Sipowicz, Mills received a further two Emmy nominations. He moved on to ER, where he created the obnoxious character of Rocket Romano.

In 1999 he was reunited with Simon, co-writing and producing The Corner, a mini-series based on another Simon non-fiction book; they shared Emmys for best drama and for writing. In 2003 NBC launched Mills' mini-series Kingpin, about the family lives of a Mexican drug cartel, as an answer to The Sopranos. Perhaps more influenced by Mexican telenovelas, it was not picked up for a full run. In 2006 he joined The Wire for the fourth series, and was again nominated for a Writers Guild award for his work on the show's fifth and final season.

Treme and Mills seemed a perfect union. Mills often referred to himself as "red-bone", a term for light-skinned blacks that originates in Louisiana, and in its racial mix, New Orleans seemed like home for him. "Race is fascinating," he said. "You can spend your life pondering it and never run out of things to say about it." Even the title of his blog was a username that Mills had created to post on a white nationalist website.

According to Simon, "he loved words and he loved an argument but not in any angry or mean-spirited way... he was confident that something smarter and deeper always came from a good argument." The brilliance of his television writing was that he could raise such arguments without making them seem argumentative. Ironically, Mills' first credited script, for episode three of Treme, ends with a funeral, in a city renowned for them.

Michael Carlson

David Eugene Mills, television writer and producer: born Washington DC 20 November 1961; died New Orleans 20 March 2010.

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