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Q&A with David Milch

(John Ritter / Photo Illustration)

FEW PEOPLE CREDIT HEROIN, rather than, say, Jesus, for giving them a new lease on life. But when award-winning television writer David Milch (''Hill Street Blues," ''NYPD Blue," ''Deadwood") spoke at MIT earlier this month, he avowed that exchanging the various ''experiments in psychopharmacology" he had been conducting on himself for a heroin habit was nothing less than life-saving.

At Yale, where he received a master of fine arts degree in English in 1970, then taught literature, Milch's drug intake included preposterous amounts of LSD. That was the operative substance when he got ejected from Yale Law School on his first day there. Milch had applied only in order to beat the Vietnam draft, but when his draft board learned his ejection involved drugs, a shotgun, blasted streetlights, and carloads of outraged New Haven police, it ruled that law school or not, this guy wasn't Army material.

Now in his early 60s-relaxed and drug free-Milch cycled through a gamut of personae when he spoke at MIT: first in the casual setting of a class on media taught by professor David Thorburn, a friend from Yale, and then, to the public, at Bartos Theater. Between these venues, he yielded glimpses, intentional or not, of a hilarious drunk, a California acid head, and a charismatic Yale don who could quote tellingly from the likes of St. Paul, William James, and Robert Penn Warren. (Warren, in fact, was Milch's revered mentor at Yale, and a friend thereafter.)

Other, rougher, personae emerge in Milch's television scripts. ''NYPD Blue"'s Andy Sipowicz, for example, opened up network tube to less idealized portrayals of police by being, at the outset, racist, alcoholic, and all too ready to lay hands on suspects (as Sipowicz's legion of fans knows, he changes). Milch goes far beyond Sipowicz in his current HBO series, ''Deadwood," based on a scrupulously researched Old West town, circa 1876, where law had not yet arrived, morality was negotiable, and eloquent vulgarity was the norm. Milch's ability to imagine the characters in this show-varying blends, most always, of savagery and compassion-certainly owes something to the fact that his father, a respected physician in Buffalo, N.Y., was also doctor to the mob.

After his appearance at MIT, Milch flew back to California, where I reached him by phone.

IDEAS: You talked at MIT about humility being essential for a writer. Why?

MILCH: Humility has to do with trying to be a vessel of purposes you're content to understand as not your own.

IDEAS: How did you personally come by it?

MILCH: By protracted exposure to miracle. As life went on, everything I believed about it turned out not only to be wrong, but comically, ineffably wrong.

IDEAS: As in your experiments with psychopharmacology?

MILCH: Those were more the effort to deal with my misapprehensions than the cause. I had the erroneous conviction that all of history tended toward my birth and would diminish into chaos or inconsequence after I was gone. When you realize that's not so, the proper humility is to defer.

IDEAS: Your father operated on mob guys so they wouldn't have to testify at the Kefauver Hearings in the 1950s. He straddled morality and amorality. Isn't that what you, or at least your characters, do?

MILCH: As a writer, I don't have a sense of my own position. I try to disappear, and not to think of myself at all when I'm working.

I've been beaten. I know what that's like. They say, who has been a nail, can learn to be a hammer. So I know what it is to beat people. Those associations filter in, but I would not expect them to be the associations viewers have when I portray the likes of Sipowicz.

IDEAS: How close were you to the mob guys?

MILCH: [Laughing] When I was 5 years old I was running phones in one Brooklyn operation.

I had one great-uncle we had to visit outside territorial waters on a boat off Florida. There were certain members of the family who would never be seen in public with my dad-not because he objected, but because they didn't want to screw him up.

IDEAS: You were on easy terms with these characters.

MILCH: Which is why I say, they were in the house whether they were in the house or not.

IDEAS: When you handed in your first ''Hill Street" script while still teaching at Yale, did you watch much television?

MILCH: Sports.

IDEAS: You didn't know the medium well?

MILCH: ''The Honeymooners," Milton Berle.

IDEAS: How was it to go from Robert Penn Warren, say, to a television script?

MILCH: I didn't know how to write a script. I've been associated with different institutions, but I've always generated my own connection to them. My connection to Yale was almost exactly the same as my connection to ''Hill Street Blues" and Steven Bochco.

IDEAS: You weren't troubled by any change in atmosphere?

MILCH: I kind of generate my own atmosphere.

IDEAS: What about movies? As American movies decrease in originality, doesn't creativity shift to cable?

MILCH: It's not that cable is populated by visionaries. The revenue model of a medium is what drives it. Movies, because they try to attract people to a special place to watch them, aren't supposed to sustain coherent imaginative engagement. They're more like a series of electrical jolts.

IDEAS: Do you want to write for film?

MILCH: I used to fix movies-in exchange for big bags of money. I can't anymore, just can't. It's too stupid.

IDEAS: Energies wane, don't they, even in the best television series, and the shows becomes formulaic.

MILCH: There's a time when creative and commercial intentions coincide. Then they diverge. If a series is successful, the commercial interest is in keeping it on, even after the creative interest is in ending it. With ''Deadwood," my intention is to end at the end of the fourth season. I can't speak for anyone else, but that's where I'm getting off the bus.

IDEAS: At MIT, you urged aspiring writers not to turn their backs on mass media, because, as you see it, the infantilization of the American mind by the media was more responsible than your Yale fraternity brother George W. Bush-you genially call him a moron-for the catastrophe of Iraq. Please say more.

MILCH: We've begun to evolve inorganically as a species, through our technology, and, especially, our media. We'll hit an evolutionary dead end if the media model is wholly economic rather than spiritual. We won't be able to control our technology and will wind up killing ourselves.

I'm doing a new show that has to do with all that. It's about surfers and interplanetary visitation. The challenge is to let the spirituality be the effect, rather than the premise.

Harvey Blume is a writer based in Cambridge. His interviews appear regularly in Ideas. E-mail hblume@globe.com.

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