What Happened When I Started Going Back to the Track

How the HBO series Luck coincided with the biggest disaster in David Milch’s life.

Photo: Harry How/Getty Images
Photo: Harry How/Getty Images
Photo: Harry How/Getty Images

Writer-producer David Milch, author of a new memoir titled Life’s Work, is one of the most brilliant creative minds in television. His life story is as multifaceted, mesmerizing, and infuriating as that of his most famous characters. Born and raised in Buffalo, New York, to a mob-adjacent family, he learned about betting at the track from his father, a revered vascular surgeon who was also a chronically unfaithful substance abuser and compulsive gambler. Sexually abused at summer camp and repeatedly traumatized by his father, and by the death of his childhood best friend in a car accident, Milch started using alcohol and drugs (including heroin) in his youth. He followed in his father’s footsteps by betting on horse races, sporting events, and anything else his bookies would say yes to.

Despite all this, Milch excelled at creative writing. He graduated from Yale and went on to teach literature there for 12 years. Then he wrote an Emmy-winning spec script for Steven Bochco’s groundbreaking ensemble cop drama Hill Street Blues, got hired on staff, and joined Bochco in creating and producing another equally influential network series, NYPD Blue. His greatest achievement, the epic anti-Western Deadwood, was conceived and produced during a period of sobriety that followed a 1999 stint in rehab. Deadwood premiered on HBO in 2004, earned solid ratings, and was critically revered, but it still got canceled after three seasons owing to a series of complex factors; two big ones were Milch’s self-described lack of impulse control and inability to accept compromise, which are not helpful when dealing with network executives. Milch’s follow-up, the surfer parable John from Cincinnati, debuted the following year, satisfied almost no one, and was canceled after ten episodes.

What followed was a period of failed and aborted projects and chronic depression. Still, Milch managed to create, write, and produce one of the most fascinating works of his career, the HBO drama Luck, a loosely structured metaphysical ensemble piece set in and around a Southern California racetrack; this series, too, was canceled after one season, following a series of accidental horse deaths during filming. This tragedy was intertwined with the biggest personal disaster of Milch’s life: the loss of almost his entire fortune to gambling, mainly at racetracks. Milch’s wife, Rita, ended up suing her husband’s accountants for keeping the most damning details of Milch’s financial immolation a secret from her (the suit was settled out of court).

As the following excerpt makes clear, the production of Luck coincided with — and in Milch’s mind, amplified — his tendency to take potentially ruinous risks at the betting window in the name of chasing another kind of self-destructive high, different from but equal to the drugs he gave up in the name of recovery. Milch now resides in a memory-care facility in Los Angeles, where he is being treated for Alzheimer’s disease. Life’s Work was written over a six-year timespan with help from family and friends who supplied him with several decades’ worth of archival material and transcripts. It is a rumination on pain and growth and a record of thoughts, feelings, and insights that the author may no longer have access to. —Matt Zoller Seitz

Excerpt from 'Life's Work'

There’s a line at the end of John from Cincinnati, where Ed O’Neill’s character is talking to his dead wife, trying to describe to her what happened over the last week. He says, “Where do you start and stop? Every event and incident …” That’s how I feel trying to explain what happened when I started going back to the track, and working on Luck.

The track is such a rich world. The characters and setting, the beauty and majesty of the horses, and, on the deepest level, the purity of the connection experienced by everyone watching the race for that minute and a half, even while everything outside of that minute and a half, and even some of the things within it, are distorted in any number of ways — that’s rich ground to till. I was compelled to tell this story for a variety of reasons, not least of which was my own cultivated and nurtured identity as and commitment to being a gambler.

Gambling and horse racing were inextricably associated with my relationship with my old man. The most time we spent together was at the track, sometimes also in the company of the man who sexually abused me, and almost always with my dad’s ongoing narration of my degeneracy. That association came to inform my idea of relaxation, or enjoyment, or success. Ask my kids what it was like to go with me to the track, and they’ll tell you it wasn’t fun, or at best it was fun intermittently. They liked seeing the animals at the barn, and learning how to read the racing form so they knew who was the long shot and who was the favorite. But my eldest also describes being 5 years old, speed walking to chase after me through the clubhouse, trying to keep track of me as I went to the booth to bet, not running because she didn’t want to draw anyone’s attention, thinking, “I’ve got to keep my eye on him, because he sure isn’t keeping his eye on me.”

My wife Rita eventually started taking her own car when they did come, so she and the kids could drive home separate from me. When you win a race, they take your picture in the winner’s circle. Almost every picture we have where the kids are there, we’re all grimacing because we just ran through the track and I was yelling at them to hurry the whole way. At the same time, they knew if they made it through the day, I’d give them a couple hundred dollars at the end, and they liked that part too. We had a drawer in the dresser in our bedroom where I kept cash and race tickets. Sometimes there’d be hundreds of thousands of dollars cash in there. Each of my kids learned to steal with that drawer. They’d show it to friends who came over. It was one of the fun parts of our house, like having a pool but harder to explain. You pass on some lessons whether you want to or not. But making them chase after me was maybe also my way of telling them they didn’t belong there. They weren’t like me in that way. I found a way to say that too.

I wrote the pilot of Luck in 2009. After about seven years away, I was going to the track more throughout that year. HBO liked it, but I suspect they were also trying to figure out a way to get me a bit more under thumb, not rewriting things on set, which cost money. The script was sent to Michael Mann, and he ultimately came on to direct the pilot and as an executive producer as well. Part of his coming on was an agreement that he would have final say over casting, and on set, and in the edit room. I agreed to all of it, even though it was very different from the way I had grown accustomed to working, and different from television generally, where the showrunner, the final boss, is usually the head writer rather than a director. But I also knew I had had a few misses, and I think I felt compelled to show everyone I could go along to get along. It wasn’t lost on me that Michael had made a great deal of wonderful art and that someone with his level of skill could do likely revolutionary work with the racing scenes in particular. People seemed excited about the prospect of our working together. It made Dustin Hoffman interested in being a part, and Nick Nolte and John Ortiz and a number of other great actors.

We shot the pilot in April of 2010. It was not a happy collaboration for me. Michael insists upon a single voice, especially on set. I couldn’t go to the set — literally I was forbidden from going. That was a loss. If we’re going to engage with him as a reality, then it behooves me to evaluate him, and I don’t want to evaluate him. He’s a driven, enormously articulate figure, but when I watched the pilot, there were moments or sequences where I thought he was wrong. Had I been directing the series, it would have been a different series. I don’t think he knew enough about the world he was trying to portray. There are certain distortions that are his idea of the conventions of the story rather than the truths of the characters and situations. The last part of my writing is being on the set and working with the actors. I wanted the actors to live in the rhythm of walking with the goat, having the rooster around, feeding the horse a carrot. The animals are the measure of the capacity for gentleness. It’s being around the animals that changes you, but I wasn’t there with them, so I couldn’t insist on that, couldn’t see what happened in those moments. Not being in the editing room, not getting to see all the footage that was there and other discoveries that might have been, that was tough too.

After the pilot there were some real conversations about how we would continue. We all still wanted to do the show. At one point, we were discussing a different potential future project of Michael’s but also about how we’d work together going forward. We were talking about what soldiers bring to and take away from battle. I said to Michael, “When your mother fell ill, was there any fucking question where you had to be?” He said, “No, of course not.” And I said, “Don’t say of course not. For you.” For Michael, if your mother is ill, showing up at her bedside is a given. That’s a good thing, but that’s not true for me. I don’t see any human behavior as a given. And that’s just one way we see stories differently.

In July HBO announced they were picking up the show and then throughout 2010 and 2011 we were writing and shooting. I know there’s a story that Nick Nolte told of me taking a bat and saying I was going to kill Michael. I don’t remember that. But I remember feeling pretty fucking angry when I was waiting to see an edit. I felt so cut off from the process of the work. There were days I drove home and while I was at a red light I told my steering wheel, “This guy is an asshole and he hasn’t lived very much.” That kind of statement, ad hominem, ultimately diminishes the speaker. I know that. And yet I don’t want to be perceived as bending over backward to avoid a fight. That was the question then, and in deciding how to talk about this it becomes the question now. At this stage in my life — old — I don’t want to present a crippled version of my voice in order to defer. It’s a pain in the balls. A moment has to come when you say your piece. But at the time I determined that bending was something I was going to have to live with. And while I couldn’t be on the set, I could be in the clubhouse. I could still take people to the track and bet.

To better understand some of our characters who were also degenerate gamblers, Michael asked me what I felt when I won. I told him, “Nothing. Absolute contingency. Everything is at risk and the specific outcome doesn’t depend on my character flaws, so that’s a release.” I have to risk my family’s welfare, I have to risk every fucking thing, risk the humiliation afterward of, “‘Here’s a guy they say has made over a hundred million dollars in his life and may wind up under a fucking bridge.’ But there’s a chance I could win, and if I win, for about an hour and a half I get to give the money away to people and feel okay about myself.”

In March of 2011, around when I was working on writing the eighth episode of Luck, our then–business managers got in touch with Rita to encourage her to transfer the title for our house on Martha’s Vineyard to our children. We had hired them back when our children were born because I couldn’t be trusted, and whenever we were going to spend money, Rita would ask them if we could afford it. They managed the kids’ tuition, the payroll at my company, credit-card bills, taxes, the acting classes I paid for, the other tuitions and hospital bills and apartments I took care of for various people I crossed paths with. They had never raised any flags with her before, so the title change seemed strange, and Rita asked them to meet. She went into their office the next day, and they told her I had spent about $23 million at the track in the last ten years, and a lot of that in the last two, and between that, $5 million in unpaid taxes, a few mortgages she didn’t know about, and the business managers’ own fees, we were 17 million dollars in debt. Rita then asked them why they didn’t pull the alarm to her years ago. They said they were afraid I’d fire them if they did. Back when Rita and I were dating, I was a heroin addict; she would come home and I’d say, “You’re not going to believe this. They robbed us again.” I was selling the furniture.

Sometimes we are blessed with what they call a moment of clarity. One day I was looking at her and she was nodding and I recognized that she weighed about 85 pounds because she was a codependent. As I was getting sicker she was getting sicker with me. The deepest truth of the situation was, “I’m killing her.” As I’ve told the story within various anecdotes, with whatever transient charm, you may have been able to feel, “Oh, that’s just a kind of shorthand.” But when I linger to look at her and see that she was dying with me, it takes on a different dimension. And now she had learned how thoroughly I had put her and the kids at risk.

If you look at my behavior, that ambivalence toward order, toward reality, it proves out. During a brief law-school sojourn, I lived in a hotel room with a credit card I never paid. I sold my novel to multiple publishers. I don’t believe money is real. I made whole shows about that. But what you believe about money is real. Money had been one way that Rita and my kids felt safe, that I helped them feel safe — generally there weren’t too many ways I did that, and now that was gone. When she got home from the accountants that day, she had her steam-rage silence going. She handed me the list of payouts to the track. I looked at her and said, “Why are you showing me this?” I couldn’t bear to talk to her. I said I was sorry and went to bed. Our daughter Elizabeth was coming home that night for a visit, bringing her then-boyfriend to L.A. for the first time. I hid for the first two days they were there. You think this is going to be the moment they realize what you really are, and they’re going to turn away. But that’s not what happens. They call you down to dinner and then you’re all back in the kitchen together, and you keep going.

I kept working on Luck, but I didn’t tell anyone what was happening. I couldn’t go to the set and now I couldn’t go to the clubhouse either. Rita called my psychiatrist and told him about the money. I likely would not have told him on my own. With my doctors I am usually well mannered but often evasive, which doesn’t necessarily help them succeed in my treatment. But with the new context, my psychiatrist put me on Suboxone, an opioid substitute, to help dull my urge to gamble. That treatment didn’t reach any of the fundament of what was going on. In a very ham-handed, intrusive way, it pointed me toward the necessity of mobilizing my denial and suppression. I became much more an actor playing a part, and it so happened the part I was playing was my life.

It was a sad time. I lost about 45 pounds in six months. The revelation has the effect of shaming you totally. It cuts you off from every other avenue of expression in connection with those you love. And there’s a kind of doubleness, the first half of which is that you’re ashamed about the defects of your personal, private behavior, and simultaneously you feel a profound, profound shame and divorce from the blessings of your relation with the person you love. A portion of that is the terrible sense of isolation and inauthenticity, knowing that if you ever get well, then you’ll have to look at how utterly, and at some level viciously, you’ve wronged the person with whom you had promised to share your life. That final element of realization isolates you in your shame. It sequesters you so that you can never feel a genuine, unqualified love for the person you know you love. The more protracted and revelatory the confession is, the deeper, the more continuous the shame is, so as to make me inaccessible to anyone normal, including my own wife, and to compound my impulse to hang out in places of misdeed and treble my pain of various kinds in my relation with my parents and particularly my dad. You indwell with the feeling that you’re a monster and capable of whatever’s monstrous, and so there’s nothing to impede your path to whatever kind of hellish behavior provides an externalized fantasy of what you think of yourself inwardly 24 hours a day.

That’s when you start to worry about taking yourself out. It’s a kind of jailing that feels permanent. It’s a given. If you would pursue sobriety, that’s the first thing you have to accept, and in another sense it’s the last nail in the coffin, at least as you feel your situation when you’re trying to get well. It’s a bitter, bitter joke, the idea of getting well, when you feel so profoundly isolated and you feel that’s properly so because of what you’ve done. I’m still on the Suboxone.

The show premiered in January 2012, and HBO picked it up for a second season after the first episode aired. In March, while we were shooting what would have been the second episode of the second season, a horse died. Two horses had died while we were shooting the first season. HBO paused production, and then HBO, Michael Mann, and I agreed to end the show. The official version was that it was canceled because those three horses died. They died in very ordinary ways — one got spooked by a rabbit and hit his head when he fell, one of their knees shattered, one broke its shoulder. We were working with the American Humane Association and following every protocol. PETA was doing a land-office business sensationalizing what happened and trivializing the love and care and effort of the people who cared for those animals and the spirits of the horses themselves. Whether or not you think thoroughbred horses should be bred at all is a separate question, but they exist, and running is in their nature; it fulfills the deepest movements of their spirit. I think animals should be a part of art. To exclude them would be life-hating. Any living thing is subject to the laws of mortality.

I was relieved when the show ended, and Rita even more so. I suspect HBO was too — we were way over budget. Still, I found some dear friends while making it. Dustin is one. The writer Eric Roth is another. Eric’s attempts at helping Michael and me work together were heroic. That’s a blessing of the work we do, getting to know and love people we wouldn’t otherwise.

I wish I had more time with every one of those actors. I especially wish I got to spend more time with Kevin Dunn and Jason Gedrick and Ritchie Coster and Ian Hart, who played the Degenerates. What the four of them were able to play, what you were able to feel watching them, was the truth the characters themselves didn’t understand. As individuals on the show, they have to lose — they win the big jackpot in the first episode, and over the course of the season each of them dissipates his quarter. But before they run completely out of money, out of some totemic impulse to memorialize the original victory, they buy the Cheap Horse, and thinking it’s about the horse, they unite in friendship and their hearts open up. That process occurs in every one of the story lines in a different way. Ultimately, in the overall construction of Luck, by pulling back from the individual story lines, as you feel the simultaneity of all these different spirits moving in a kind of concert, drawn and brought together under the same sky, you find there is a unifying principle in the midst of all the seeming disparity and pathology. It looks as if the narrative is pathologizing everyone, but when you pull back and experience the story as a whole, you realize that what looks like pathological behavior is people vibrating according to their past experiences and the present coercions or liberations of their environment.

It’s useful to think about what’s involved in the process of gambling in its connection to Las Vegas, which is a much more comprehensive and straightforward symbol than the racetrack. Horse racing would never admit it, but Las Vegas has been one of the deaths of the sport. Casino gambling provides the ability to gamble beyond time, rather than the particular moment of a race, and of course doesn’t have the inconvenience of having racehorses. The race itself, the creatures, the shared event, there’s something there that still insists on life as lived in time. Casinos go beyond that. You can’t find a clock in a casino. The difference between night and day, it’s very hard once you’re in the casino to see the outside. When you go to Las Vegas, that city is organized intentionally to obliterate the disciplines of time. The entire environment is contrived to assault the individual sensibility with the symbols of the American definition of success and to make accessible the most garish versions of the American definition of success, absent the constraints of time and history.

The ad campaign, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” That’s not self-evident. It’s a fiction that suggests, “Whatever you do in the real world, don’t worry about it. You can come to Vegas and reinvent yourself and here are the instruments for reinvention. Craps, pai gow, slots. Talk about a range of possibilities! You can either be a pai gow degenerate, or you can be a slot degenerate. It’s not like you have to confine yourself to one thing. You stay up, you don’t have to sleep. The food’s right here, if you happen to remember you’re a creature who eats.” That is the embodiment of a system gone mad, which has recognized that human beings can be made to want anything based on association. As long as you have the symbol agreed upon, which is currency, you can be a part of a self-sufficient and perpetual alternative reality.

As long as you’re winning, you don’t care about time, but the moment that you run out of the currency that entitles you to admission to the world, you’re out, and back in the time you wanted to leave. The house is there forever. The house has inexhaustible currency, and you’re there only as long as you can play within the rules of the game, which is as long as you have dough. Ultimately, since your energy is not inexhaustible, you’re going to fuck up, and you’re going to be out. People who have had that experience sit around with a kind of stunned, vacant look in their eyes asking themselves, “What just happened?” What happened was they were exposed to a false environment, an environment that reorganized the categories of reality, which seemed to deny the dominion of time, and whose predicate was ultimately revealed to be inimical to the human spirit.

Excerpted from the book LIFE’S WORK by David Milch, out September 13 by Random House. Copyright © 2022. All rights reserved.

What Happened When I Started Going Back to the Track