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Tin Stars of David and 'Deadwood'

June 8, 2006 By:
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Exec producer David Milch oversees a lively "Deadwood."
Is "Deadwood" dead meat?

Startlingly, HBO had told producers of its iconic western, it's not TV, it's … gone: Get out of Dodge was the handscrawl on the saloon wall.

Just a dang-garn minute, podner … After emptying its ratings revolver, HBO just revealed Monday that "Deadwood" will make it back alive next season as a pair of two-hour movies.

Wild Bill couldn't be wilder about the idea.

The show's dodging a bullet just before its third season begins this Sunday night will be welcome news to the millions set to welcome back the gritty and at-times profanely priapic series that shows how the West was won, lost, disgraced, glorified and ultimately rode off into a scorching sunset as society evolved.

On top of that, the series is so seriously … Jewish.

That's the focus that roped in David Milch, the Emmy-Award-and-Humanitas Prize-winning writer whose right stuff as "Deadwood" executive creator stripped the myth-saddled West to reveal a brewing broth of brothels and beer; red badges of courage and tin stars tarnished with corruption; backstabbing, sidestabbing, front-stabbing and enough cursin', spittin' and fornicatin' to make a sagebrush blush.

And here's Milch, the man who milked police protocol to come up with the cream of the crop cops of "Hill Street Blues" and later, "NYPD Blues," with nothing to be blue about.

Tin Stars of David and "Deadwood": As the western settles in for its third season, is it also sizing itself up for a shroud? Is it time to circle the wagons?

Before that, Milch is spurred on to talk about "Deadwood" as the place to log on to Sunday nights when the dregs and the driftwood of other westerns won't cut it for ya. He may be the only one to separate the wheat from the chaff of the spaghetti western and definitely is the only one to portray a Jewish cowpoke without being cowed by stereotypes.

He does all this as he settles down to talk about it to a posse of fans herded into the 92nd Street Y in New York, more West Side than Wild West, but certainly accommodating to a cuss with a talent to fuss about and rawhide dialogue that would turn Zane Grey ashen. More at home with a spittoon than a spit-take, Milch certainly has mined the mortal humor of "Deadwood" even as gun fights break out in its not-so-OK corrals.

Sure, it's all based on the real-life 19th-century town in Dakota Territory, where whores and horseshoes were two of the games played in the grime of the streets and the soiled sheets of the boudoirs. But it is Milch's milieu; the clouds that cast a shroud over humanity with a sunrise, sunset that would send Tevye cowering for cover.

Of course, claims Milch, it all started oh-so-differently in his mind, "five or six years ago as originally a cop drama in ancient Rome."

Friends, Romans, go #*&%@##!? "Rome" was built another day on HBO; the gold-rush rush that "Deadwood" provides is the gold standard for unorthodox westerns.

"It was a purely criminal camp," relates Milch of those who settled in the town looking for gold in a land grab that made Manhattan seem a Dutch treat in comparison. Indeed, if today's shoot-'em-up is a drug story gone bad, this one's a Colt 45 of a killer in which bad things happen to good people by bad men.

As extreme as "Deadwood" details the sordid past, the real town was even more morally turgid, attests Milch. "As I researched 'Deadwood,' my impulse was that it was too extreme a theme," he says of its saddle-sore history that would make it a better prime target for a prime time series called "Lawlessness & Disorder."

"The crystallization of what we understand as order" was not the order of the day way back then.

But into this loopy town loped two men who would soon make hardware the 19th-century equivalent of software. "I was particularly interested in Seth Bullock and his relationship with Sol Star," says Milch of the town's two nuts and bolts who became the Deadwood backbone. "The idea of a Jew" - Star - "having a secret identity" fascinated Mulch, who cites Sol's sole standing in town as akin to "the doubleness of feelings" Jews feel about themselves today.

"Here we are today, out of the closet - unconflicted Jewish"; on the other hand … "There are other parts of us in which we are ambivalently Jewish."

What the real "Deadwood" had going - and gunning - for it, "was the ongoing dualism [faced by] every Jewish person."

A dualism to the death? To the living. "In Sol Star, I felt I had encountered a paradigm of doubleness - the emotional and personality traits I wanted to honor."

And Star was honored to have Bullock as a buddy. Both the insider and outsider, Star "was the Jew who has a powerful gentile for his beard - and that was the relationship between Star and Bullock."

A tonsorial twosome? No - a practical coupling. "People in public service - as both were - [sought to complement each other]. As business partners, they completed each other; they generated a separate fullness."

The complete picture was framed in prejudice. "Sol made a deal in which he was content to be slandered [for being a Jew] as a quid pro quo for access to the larger society," says Milch of the hard wear the hardware entrepreneur endured. "That's an ongoing drama in everyone's life."

Yet, conversely, the notion that all men are created equal didn't create havoc in the wild, wild, West. "Everything was driven by the economic motive," says the producer/writer.

And if Jews brought talent to the table, well, deal them in, and let the chips fall where they may. It was so serendipitous, says Milch of the "happy accident that allowed Jews to flourish."

And if the Goldbergs claimed a gold stake, the gelt without the guilt, life panned out for them.

"Gold was an explosive symbol," says the TV veteran known for his explosive themes and scripts. "Because Jews had been denied in [other] cultures [a role] as land holders, they learned how to deal with a society of [symbols]" - and nowhere did gold test one's mettle more than in the rush of 1876.

Indeed, adds Milch, it was the gold strike "that drew not just Jews, but also the other immigrants."

Fool's gold it wasn't although there were those fooled they could blend better into society with a little metal in their pockets. But in a way, sudden riches did have a way of aiding and abedding others, explaining Sol's unlikely hasty hook-up with Trixie whose tricks were definitely not for kids.

"Some Jews are luckier than others," jokes Milch.

As luck would have it, "Deadwood" has been both praised and vilified for facing up to its faction format. Is Milch guilty of chap-chafing real and imaginary worlds? Would a Gallop Poll trigger a brawl or bravo for the writer?

"I'm committed to not distorting the historical record but have no allegiance to a literal adherence," he says.

Indeed, his interpretation is one for the record books. Or against it: "A good deal of my research persuaded me that historical facts were other than that which was recorded."

So, how did Star stack up? "He was thrown out of office [as postmaster general] for fraud; that's true but not pertinent [to 'Deadwood']."

A dead-letter issue? "It doesn't speak to the essence of the man."

The real answer as to Jewish cowboys' role in history may require a ride into the Hollywood Hills itself. Hi, Ho … Silverman?

"Jews in Hollywood," says Milch of the town's seminal movers and machers, "are responsible for the exclusion of Jews from the mythos of the West."

Goldwyn, Zukor … biting the bullet? "Part of the deal of the Jews who started Hollywood was 'we ain't rockin' the boat.' We'll do the stories, as long as you let us do the business [end]."

To that end, "Deadwood" has brokered a better bargain. Star is a Star of David in a different constellation; so what if he thinks of life as a temple of doom more than a temple of prayer.

And if Milch himself is going to have to pack up his occasionally reported mule-headedness and head out of town after "Deadwood" lives up to its title, he doesn't have far to go, sideling with his saddle up to the network for another HBO project.

But going giddy-up back to public TV? No way, pilgrim! Milch swears like an Al Swearengen at his damned defiant best that he likes the freedom afforded by cable. Following broadcast TV's standards and codes can make for some substandard TV, he feels.

He knows what makes a high noon on cable higher than other times on network TV: "A little bit of obscenity and nudity enough to titillate was not enough obscenity or nudity for me."

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