Screenwriter won Emmy for 'The Corner'

April 01, 2010|By David Zurawik

The death of 48-year-old screenwriter David Mills, who won an Emmy for his work on the Baltimore production of HBO's "The Corner," hit members of the Maryland- Hollywood TV and film communities hard Wednesday.

Mr. Mills, who was born in Maryland and started his writing career as a reporter at the University of Maryland student-run newspaper The Diamondback, collapsed Tuesday in New Orleans on the set of the HBO drama "Treme." He died in a New Orleans hospital, according to series creator David Simon. The cause of death was a brain aneurysm.

"He was an enormous talent," Mr. Simon said yesterday. "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."

"The Maryland area lost a very good writer and a really nice gentleman," actor and director Charles S. Dutton said from Boston, where he was in rehearsals for a new play. "I had loads of respect for him."

Mr. Dutton won an Emmy for his direction of "The Corner," an acclaimed HBO miniseries about a West Baltimore family trying to escape the culture of drugs. Mr. Mills and Mr. Simon won Emmys for their writing and production of the series, which aired in 2000.

"He and Simon loved working together," said Rafael Alvarez, a former Sun reporter who wrote alongside Mills on such Baltimore-based series as NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street" and HBO's "The Wire."

"Mills grew up in the African-American community and brought a real authenticity to the internal dynamics of the characters that a white writer could not," Mr. Alvarez added.

Mr. Mills and Mr. Simon were friends since their college days on The Diamondback. The duo went from being newspaper reporters - Mr. Simon at The Baltimore Sun and Mr. Mills at The Washington Times and The Washington Post - to success as two of the best screenwriters working in TV crime drama. In 1993 they co-wrote an episode for the "Homicide" series based on Mr. Simon's book.

The episode, which aired in 1994, starred Robin Williams in a story line involving a tourist who is murdered near Camden Yards. The work won the Writers Guild of America Award for best writing for an episodic drama.

Mr. Mills later went on to join the writing staff at " NYPD Blue," which was led by executive producers David Milch and Steven Bochco.

Mr. Mills also wrote for the NBC medical drama "ER." In 2003, he created and served as executive producer for the short-lived NBC crime drama "Kingpin," the saga of a Mexican drug operation.

"'Kingpin - that was his baby," Mr. Alvarez said.

While the writing was again top-notch, the series failed to attract an audience right out of the box and was canceled after six episodes. Though he lived in Los Angeles, Mr. Mills spent a lot of time in the Baltimore-Washington area because of his involvement in "The Corner," "Homicide" and "The Wire." In the 1990s, he appeared several times as a guest on what is now WYPR-FM, Baltimore's public radio station.

While the interviews always started out with a focus on TV screenwriting, they invariably spun off into his passions - George Clinton and the Parliament/Funkadelic, media, race and politics. The enthusiasm that Mr. Mills brought to such topics was contagious.

In recent years, Mr. Mills wrote about media, music, race and politics on his blog, "Undercover Black Man." His autobiographical information at that site is vintage Mr. Mills in its economy, firm sense of professional identity and the central role that writing played throughout his adult life.

"I used to write for newspapers," he said. "Now I write for TV shows."

Mr. Mills is survived by two sisters, Blanche Carroll of Peoria, Ariz., and Gloria Johnson of Charlotte, N.C.; and one brother, Franklin Mills, of Washington, D.C.

Services are planned for the Washington area but details are unavailable, according to a statement from HBO.

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