A remarkable book disguised as just another TV-show tie-in, True Blue: The Real Stories Behind NYPD Blue, by David Milch and Bill Clark, is an unusual collaboration. Milch, a TV screenwriter and producer who has worked on NYPD Blue as well as Murder One and Hill Street Blues, befriended New York City police detective Bill Clark when Clark was hired to help provide accuracy in NYPD Blue’s scripts. Much of True Blue is told in Clark’s voice, as he relates details from actual cases he worked on that became plots on episodes of NYPD Blue. Clark tells these stories in a clipped, hard-boiled tone; his anecdotes are as enjoyable as a series of short stories by a good crime novelist like George V. Higgins or Elmore Leonard.
Milch, for his part, lets us in on how a prime-time drama is created and developed. He also does not shy away from the stuff many readers are going to be looking for as soon as they pick up the book — namely, the behind-the-scenes dirt on David Caruso, who launched NYPD with his vivid portrayal of moody cop John Kelly and left the show after its first season under hostile circumstances.
Milch confirms the rumors that Caruso was difficult to work with by describing a pattern repeated over and over by the actor: ”David didn’t like the emotional line of the scene, David hadn’t gotten satisfaction in having it changed, so David threw a tantrum.” In one instance, he kicked a metal trash can within inches of costar Dennis Franz’s head in a bit of improvised rage as the cameras rolled. By the end of the season, Milch notes, ”David and Dennis’ exchanges on the set were restricted to curt monosyllables about blocking,” and the show’s production team had something they referred to as ”’The Caruso Hour’ — the estimated amount of additional time it took to complete each day’s schedule because of David’s conduct on the set.”
This is jolly good stuff, and Milch makes it all the more convincing by giving Caruso the credit he is due for the excellent performances that emerged despite the bad behavior. But True Blue is a lot more than good showbiz anecdotes. The book delves deeper, telling the story of how Bill Clark’s life changed as this working-class New York cop became more involved with Hollywood, eventually retiring from the force to sign on as a full-time consultant to the show. Milch is acutely sensitive to the issues of money and class in Clark’s transition, and he’s both fascinated by and worried about the changes it brings to Clark’s life.
Finally, there’s the story of Milch himself. He is unsparingly honest, whether he’s talking about his substance-abuse problems, discussing his gambler’s love of horses and the racetrack, or justifying the craft of TV screenwriting as an art. As it proceeds, True Blue becomes, in a subtle way, Milch’s autobiography; in writing about his current life and work, he brings in details about his family and his past that add up to a telling portrait of a smart writer in Hollywood.
There’s not an ounce of self-pity here, but there is much savage humor about the absurdity and injustice of the good fortune that show business heaps upon all sorts of people, whether they’re Milch, Clark, Caruso, or any number of other people profiled in this deft, surprisingly moving book. A-