Obituary: David Mills, 48, journalist, Emmy-winning TV writer

By Jacqueline Trescott and Lisa de Moraes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 1, 2010; C03

David Mills, a Washington-born journalist and Emmy-winning television writer of acclaimed dramas such as "The Wire," loved the authentic stories that television could tell, savored the pulse of the newsroom and listened carefully to the folks on the street corner.

When David Simon, a Baltimore writer, was adapting his book "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets" into a television series, he knew whom he wanted to help him. "I got in touch with David right away -- he was the kid in college who was always pausing to watch episodes of 'Hill Street Blues' and 'St. Elsewhere.' He loved TV," Simon recalled Wednesday of the friend he made 30 years ago at the University of Maryland.

Simon, who collaborated with Mills on NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street" and a number of other award-winning television dramas, had the difficult task of holding a memorial service Wednesday for his friend on the set of "Treme," an upcoming HBO series set in New Orleans.

Mills, an executive producer and writer on the series, was supervising the production late Tuesday afternoon in the famed Cafe Du Monde when he collapsed and never regained consciousness. His family and colleagues said the cause of death was a brain aneurysm. He was 48.

"He was an enormous talent," Simon, who co-created "Treme," said in an obituary he wrote for distribution by HBO. "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."

Mills, who grew up in Lanham after a fire destroyed his family's Northeast Washington home, had a knack for writing that was noticed very early. Gloria Johnson, his sister, recalled that when Mills, then 10, and her son, then 5, played with G.I. Joe toys, Mills wrote their dialogue on 3-by-5 cards. He won a four-year scholarship to the University of Maryland, where he and Simon met at the student newspaper, the Diamondback.

In 1990, Mills became a staff writer for the Style section of The Washington Post. He had previously worked at the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times, where his writing caught the eye of Post editors.

Mills stood out, colleagues said, for his commitment to provocative stories about race and rap music. He wasn't afraid to tell his bosses how the paper should cover minority issues and culture. "He liked being a rebel in the newsroom. He embodied that style," former Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. said Wednesday.

"He pushed on story ideas that he thought was outside the mainstream. He thought we would say, 'You can't do that,' and, I think, he was disappointed when we said, 'Go ahead,' " Downie said.

At The Post, Mills stepped into a national debate on race when he wrote a 1992 profile of the rapper Sister Souljah. Souljah, an activist on civil rights issues, caused an uproar when she told Mills in an interview, "If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?"

She was talking in the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots following the infamous police beating of Rodney King. Bill Clinton, then running for president, joined the fray, criticizing Souljah for condoning racial violence, comparing her to David Duke of the Ku Klux Klan, and chastising the Rev. Jesse Jackson for inviting her to speak to his organization. Clinton was applauded for standing up to a loyal component of the Democratic Party. A "Sister Souljah moment" became part of the political lexicon.

Once his first script for "Homicide" was accepted, Mills found an avenue for gritty expressions of urban life. He left The Post in 1994 and blazed an impressive career in television, becoming a mentor to many young writers and filmmakers. His characters were unvarnished -- but regardless of whether they were the killer, the widow, the orphaned child or the frustrated police captain, they all possessed dignity.

Even with early signs of journalistic success, Mills had to push for a place in the largely white TV industry. After an angry correspondence in 1994 with David Milch, the executive producer of "NYPD Blue," over the lack of black writers, Mills ended up being hired for the show. His scenes won Emmys for the actors.

"David Mills was a brave and resourceful spirit and an extraordinary writer," Milch said in the HBO-distributed obituary.

A Mills-written "Homicide" episode, which aired in 1994 and starred Robin Williams, won a Writers Guild of America award in 1995 for best episodic teleplay. With Simon, Mills also contributed to HBO's acclaimed five-season drama "The Wire," which used Baltimore as a setting for a conversation about the disintegration of U.S. inner cities.

Mills also won a WGA award in 2008 for "The Wire."

Another project with Simon, the HBO miniseries "The Corner," netted two Emmys. He and Simon shared awards for outstanding miniseries and outstanding writing for a miniseries.

"He was a very good listener," Simon told The Post. "He was great at dialogue because he listened to people. He often seemed to be not engaged when he was very engaged. He was quite a shy person in a lot of ways. . . . I confess I knew him my whole life and counted him as among my best friends, and I'm still trying to figure him out."

"Treme," set to debut April 11, opens in fall 2005, three months after Hurricane Katrina. It follows musicians, chefs, Mardi Gras Indians and ordinary New Orleaneans as they try to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of the hurricane and the levee failure that caused the near-death of the city.

Despite the seriousness of his television work, Mills possessed a wicked sense of humor. He loved music and created a popular blog called Undercover Black Man, where he held forth about music and the black news of the day. Mills meshed his devotion to the Parliament Funkadelic group with his television writing, dropping references to the colorful group into scripts. Analyzing P-Funk leader George Clinton's influence in the culture was a continuing theme of Mills's life: He was the co-author 1998's "George Clinton and P-Funk: An Oral History."

On Wednesday, a writer Mills had mentored, Alan Sepinwall of the Star-Ledger of New Jersey, wrote an appreciation of his friend, singling out Mills's online columns called "Misidentified Black Person of the Week," and noted that Mills used to post messages on white supremacy Web sites.

Simon said of Mills: "What he was most passionate about was a post-racial way of viewing the world. . . . He was sort of the Age of Obama before Obama. He moved benignly between the black world and white world."

Mills, a resident of Los Angeles, is survived by his sisters, Blanche Carroll of Peoria, Ariz., and Gloria Johnson of Charlotte; and a brother, Franklin Mills, of Washington, as well as several other relatives.

Services are planned for the D.C. area, but Simon said details were not yet finalized.

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