Obituary: David Eugene Mills

31 Mar
March 31, 2010

From the Times-Picayune,
Reprinted with permission.

David Simon, co-creator of HBO’s “Treme,” first worked with David Mills, a “Treme” writer and co-executive producer who died Tuesday (March 30) at age 48, when they both wrote for the student newspaper at the University of Maryland.  With “Treme” aiming for an April 11 premiere on HBO and the production aiming to wrap its 10-episode first season in late April, Simon wrote his friend’s obituary Wednesday.  It was distributed, unsigned, by the network.  Here’s the complete text:

David E. Mills, an Emmy-award winning television writer who worked on dramas as varied as “Homicide,” “NYPD Blue,” “E.R.” and “The Wire,” died suddenly Tuesday after collapsing on the New Orleans set of his new HBO drama, “Treme.” He was 48.

A former journalist who worked for the Washington Post, the Washington Times and the Wall Street Journal, Mills was on the set of the post-Katrina drama as it filmed a scene at Café du Monde in the French Quarter when he was stricken.

He was rushed to the downtown Tulane Medical Center where he died without regaining consciousness. Doctors there said he suffered what appeared to be a brain aneurism. Mills was on the film set as a writer and executive producer, monitoring filming of an episode of the series, which is slated to premiere on HBO in little more than a week.

Cast and crew of “Treme” held a memorial service in Washington Square park this morning and then suspended filming for the day.

Mills won two Emmy awards for television writing and was nominated for three other Emmys for his writing on “NYPD Blue” and “E.R.” As a newspaperman, his coverage of race and popular culture for the Style Section of the Washington Post in the 1990s was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize by the newspaper.

In addition, Mills – a light-skinned African-American who loved to explore the nuances of race, politics and culture in America, tweaking ideologues wherever he found them – maintained a much-read internet blog, “Undercover Black Man,” for the last half of this decade.

Born in Washington D.C., Mills grew up in the Northeast section of the city, attending Ballou High School before a housefire resulted in his family moving to Lanham in Prince George’s County, Md. Mills graduated in 1980 from Duval High School, where he competed on the It’s Academic team and earned a Benjamin Banneker four-year scholarship to the University of Maryland at College Park.

He immediately gravitated to the Diamondback, the daily newspaper at the campus, beginning as a staff writer in the fall of 1980, then becoming the news editor in 1981. The following year, he ran the daily broadsheet’s editorial pages and arts pages simultaneously.

“He was an enormous talent,” said David Simon, a co-executive producer with Mills on “Treme” who first met Mills in the Diamondback newsroom. “He loved words and he loved an argument – but not in any angry or mean-spirited way. He loved to argue ideas. He delighted in it, and he was confident that something smarter and deeper always came from a good argument.”

After graduating from College Park in 1984, Mills was hired by the Wall Street Journal and assigned to the paper’s Chicago bureau to cover the chemical and biotech industries. Mills soon found that he was bored by the subject matter and homesick for Washington.

He left the Journal in 1985 for a feature writing job at the Washington Times, and from there, became one of the few Times staffers to write their way onto the rival Washington Post, joining the Post’s vaunted Style Section in 1990.

His leap to the Post followed a remarkable parody of the classic Post Style celebrity profile – one in which some celebrity is interviewed for an hour or so in some suite at the Willard Hotel, with the celebrity’s every physical act and verbal tic highlighted by a reporter who has been offered minimal exposure to his subject.

Mills pretended to interview Bugs Bunny at the Willard, offering up the sort of gossipy, aside-laden snark for which the Post’s arts section was then known. Bugs bemoaned the fallen state of cartoons, reflected on his various costars – “of course, the tragedy is that Elmer only wanted dramatic roles” – and then shilled for the Humane Society, horrified that actual rabbits often lost their feet for human trinkets. It was a glorious sendup.

The Post hired him soon thereafter, assigning him to cover race and popular culture for the features section, a beat that Mills made into his own.

“He was a star from the moment he arrived,” recalled Leonard Downie, the Post editor at the time. “But he was never a prima donna. It was clear to me that David was motivated by a genuine curiosity about the world and a desire to tell real stories. If things were confusing or gritty then that was reflected in his stories.”

Articles by Mills focusing on the angry rhetoric of rapper Sister Souljah – highlighted by presidential candidate Bill Clinton – and a controversial interview that revealed anti-Semitic sentiments on the part of Professor Griff of the influential hip-hop ensemble Public Enemy caught the zeitgeist and became the focus for considerable debate and comment about race relations. The Post nominated his coverage for a Pulitzer Prize in 1992.

That same year, David Simon – a co-editor on the student newspaper with Mills a decade earlier – called with a unique opportunity: Simon’s non-fiction account of a year in the Baltimore homicide unit was being made into an NBC drama. Co-creators Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana had offered Simon the chance to write a script.

“I called David Mills because I had a singular memory of us working at the college paper, pausing in the middle of pasting up pages so that David could watch episodes of ‘Hill Street Blues’ and ‘St. Elsewhere.’ He loved television. He saw the storytelling possibilities in television very early.”

Indeed, his nephew, Clifford Porter, remembers Mills as a twelve-year-old growing up in Washington, constructing elaborate cartoon-strip episodes of popular dramas in notepad, changing and honing the plotlines until they resembled the storytelling of those television shows.

Simon and Mills wrote the script in two weeks. It proved too dark and depressing for network tastes and NBC resisted including it in the first nine-episode season of “Homicide: Life on the Street.” Before the second season, however, Levinson and Fontana convinced comedian and feature star Robin Williams to play a lead role in the episode and NBC relented.

The episode aired in 1994 and won the Writer’s Guild of America award for best script in an episodic drama. Mills immediately resigned from the Washington Post and headed to Los Angeles, looking for more writing work.

“I told him he was crazy, that the Post job was one of the best gigs in journalism,” remembered Simon. “He told me I was the crazy one to stay in journalism. That a door had just opened up for us. I didn’t see it.”

At the Post, editor Downie, in his exit discussions with Mills, remembers saying something he did not say to departing reporters often: “I could see that this was an adventure that David needed to take, but neither he nor I knew how it would end. So I told him that if it didn’t work out, we would take him back.”
Mills immediately got hired as a story editor on David E. Kelley’s “Picket Fences,” but when he discovered that Kelley did not heavily utilize his writing staff, penning most episodes himself, he walked away from that lucrative job to look for a real opportunity to write.

Shortly thereafter, he read a Washington Post article in which the heralded lead writer and executive producer of “NYPD Blue,” David Milch, had waxed philosophically on race in the writers’ room and his ambivalence about hiring black writers who, writing from a singular frame of reference, would not be able to access the viewpoints of his police characters. Mills penned a dry, sarcastic note to Milch.

To his great credit, Milch invited Mills to lunch and they talked it over. A script assignment followed, after which Mills was hired as a writer and eventually, as a producer, on the hit ABC drama. Nominated for two Emmys for his scriptwork – some of which dealt with racial nuances on the street and in the squadroom of the police drama – Mills left “NYPD Blue” in 1997.

He ever after considered Milch, however, to be his mentor as a television writer, insisting that he had worked for the best writer in television.
“David Mills was a brave and resourceful spirit and an extraordinary writer,” Milch remembered yesterday. “I so deeply regret his loss as a friend, but more profoundly as an irreplaceable asset in the writing community.”

Following a brief stint as a producer on NBC’s “E.R.,” Mills and Simon reunited in 1999 to adapt Simon’s second non-fiction narrative, “The Corner: A Year In the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood” into a miniseries for HBO. Airing the following spring, the miniseries earned Mills and Simon a pair of Emmy awards for best miniseries and for best writing in a miniseries or movie.

Thereafter, Mills entered into a series of network development deals in which he dutifully tried to thread his way through the morass of conflicting priorities, casting issues and contradictory network script notes that stand between a writer and the opportunity to have a network drama actually produced. He was most successful with “Kingpin” in 2003, a six-episode NBC miniseries that was the network’s answer to the rise of Tony Soprano on HBO. Though it received generally favorable reviews, NBC became uncomfortable with the idea of a drug trafficker as the central character in a prime-time drama and no additional episodes were ordered.

Mills and Simon collaborated again in 2006 and 2007 on episodes of “The Wire” which Mills wrote on a freelance basis, though by then, he expressed weariness with the process of television writing and told friends he needed time off.

He had established his blog and attracted a loyal readership with his insights on race and politics and he found that while it paid little, a return to prose writing had rejuvenated him as a writer.

Last year, Simon sought out Mills again to work on “Treme,” a narrative of post-Katrina New Orleans. Mills joined the HBO production as a co-executive producer and writer, penning two of the coming season’s ten episodes and becoming involved in all facets of production.

“It was as if he was coming out of a long tunnel,” said Simon. “For the last couple years, I think the frustration with the development process had worn him down and he was no longer as interested in television as a medium as he had once been. But by the second half of this season, he was as excited and as engaged as I’d seen David in thirty years. He loved telling stories and if he believed in the story, nothing was more delightful to watch than David Mills at work as a writer and storyteller.”

In addition to his journalism, blogging and television work, Mills was also the coauthor of an oral history of Parliament-Funkadelic, a favorite musical band. That work, “George Clinton & P-Funk: An Oral History” was published in 1998. Mills wrote extensively on music, funk especially, and briefly published his own periodical on the subject, Uncut Funk, in the 1980s.

A Los Angeles resident at the time of his death, Mills is survived by two sisters, Blanche Carroll of Peoria, Arizona, and Gloria Johnson of Charlotte, N.C.; and one brother, Franklin Mills, of Washington D.C.

Services are planned for the Washington D.C. area but details are unavailable at this time.

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