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Jeff Simon: Great cast, crew unite behind Milch in 'Deadwood'

Jeff Simon

I worried. It turned out I needn't have.

What I feared was this Friday's premiere of HBO's "Deadwood: The Movie" by my old friend and Nichols School classmate David Milch would be a major disappointment – especially to those of us who felt the original HBO series was David's finest work by far, as well as a cable-TV landmark.

Advance interviews in national magazines dealt in a detailed way with David's sad diagnosis with Alzheimer's Disease. It didn't matter whether the writer was Matt Zoller Seitz in Vulture (i.e. New York Magazine) or Alan Sepinwall in Rolling Stone or Mark Singer in the New Yorker. Singer's was an especially dismaying interview. I understand he was trying to give readers a detailed account of exactly what Alzheimer's does to a well-developed brain. In its dogged pursuit of David's candor, though, I thought it became almost cruel.

David's achievement with "Deadwood," both in the original series that debuted 15 years ago and the final upcoming movie, was to create a Western that brilliantly recreated the American language to be something like an obscenity-filled parody of Shakespeare as reinvented by Mark Twain.

It was an astonishing high-wire act to pull off.

In truth, there are moments in the first hour of the movie where the immense difficulty of the enterprise is more than apparent. What is obvious watching "Deadwood: The Movie" is that even in its worst moments, everyone in the cast and crew had David's back when and where it counted.

The script may indeed have become clumsy and clotted on occasion, but the large returning cast – every single one of them – wouldn't let a single line get away from them. What you're watching onscreen are actors in a tight spot not just bringing in what we might call their A-game, but their A-plus-game.

It's not that the script isn't full of some great writing, as it is. I particularly liked one mordant throwaway line where the Deadwood town doctor is asked about the life prognosis of a profusely bleeding man who seems mortally wounded. Says the town doctor (the marvelous Brad Dourif) dryly, "All bleeding stops eventually." Everyone who knows David will remember his father, Elmer, was the Buffalo General Hospital chief of surgery and his brother, Robert, is an anesthesiologist in Buffalo (though understandably best known as a key figure and prime mover in developing Hospice care in Western New York).

Let me confess my fear about the fate of "Deadwood" was personal. Another of David's and my classmates at Nichols just died a couple months ago from Alzheimer's. He was one of the most likable guys in the whole class and he remained that way to the very end.

That, though, wasn't what made it personal for me, as tragic as that was. What rocked me a little is that I once had, in my professional life, a serious and near-daily encounter with the terrible disease. I watched a victim decline from it over the course of a decade.

You have to understand that once upon a time Alzheimer's was virtually unknown. Certainly, it wasn't a word on everyone's lips. Few of us knew anything about it. We spoke of senility and dementia.

Even when people began to be hazily aware of the disease, it was mostly as a black comic synonym for memory loss (as in that beloved joke among Irish-Americans that defines "Irish Alzheimer's" as the disease where "you forget everything but your grudges").

It is infinitely more grave and disturbing than that as most of us know now. What I know from personal experience is that it can affect a sufferer – as well as everyone he knows – for a long time. When Ronald and Nancy Reagan called it "the long goodbye," they weren't giving us exaggerated rhetoric.

One of my earliest colleagues at this newspaper was a man many of us had enormous personal affection for. We liked his wife and daughter very much, too. He was, in fact, one of the nicest guys I've ever met in daily journalism – a true gentleman in any meaningful sense of that word that should never be treated carelessly.

Our approaches to professional matters varied widely, but we maintained enormous respect for one another. He was not just a pleasure to work with, he was a privilege to know.

We worked closely together for 18 years. We'd be in professional contact at least three times a week during that time. Depending on the evolutions of our jobs, that could, in fact, for years turn into daily contact.

So help me, a full decade before his death, things started to go wrong. They were few and far between, at first, but they were not little things. In one case, he actually lost a contribution from a colleague that had been labored over for weeks. That's something that in the old typewriter-and-copy paper era of newspapers was literally unthinkable. In that case, the victim of that lapse was livid and himself never lived long enough to forgive him.

What happened from that moment on, though, was this: Every one of his co-workers silently and unfailingly backstopped him. We dealt quietly with whatever came up. We stood guard.

I remember raising my voice once when one of his memory lapses gummed things up, but even then I never went beyond the sort of raised voice I might use with a family member (which is, in essence, close to the way I felt about him).

I was under no illusions about the consistency of his abilities, but his professional burdens continued to be enormous. Work had been increasingly piled on his shoulders for years. I treated the lapses as the probable result of overwork – or perhaps distracting difficulties at home (unlikely in that case, as lovable and vigilant as his wife and daughter were).

This went on, and deepened, for a full decade. His co-workers would mention it with each other, but immediately shrug it off. We all had his back. Everything in the paper remained seamless, even among those colleagues most annoyed.

Eventually, the day came when we learned of his Alzheimer's diagnosis. Suddenly, we all understood what he and his family had been dealing with for many years by then.

Some of us felt regret for private feelings of annoyance. Some colleagues, I know, felt some shame at their reactions over the years. In retrospect, though, I think the degree to which we closed ranks behind him speaks well of all of us.

It also spoke well of the affection people had for him, despite the exasperation.

When you watch the premiere of "Deadwood" on HBO on Friday, you can sense something similar to that emotion affected every member of that cast and crew. That seems to be what those interviewers were conveying to us and I think you can see it on the screen. David's condition minimized his daily authority over it all, but "Deadwood's" cast and crew simply weren't going to fail David. Their "Deadwood" finale is like a good final episode for the show, set 10 years after the original.

The last time I saw my old News colleague here at the paper before his death in 1988, his wife brought him to the office for a final goodbye while sufficient faculties remained to him to make it meaningful.

As he was about to walk out of the building forever, I managed to get him one last time at the elevator to shake his hand and wish him the best.

His familiar huge smile was as wide and open as it always was when we joked together and amused each other greatly on a daily basis.

But I knew as he looked at me and didn't use my name in his goodbye, that, even after 18 years together, he really had no idea who I was.

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