At 70, writer-producer David Milch should be enjoying the rewards of a long, successful career in television. Widely respected in the industry, he has written for Steven Bochco’s acclaimed Hill Street Blues and co-created Bochco’s NYPD Blue. He was the executive producer of HBO’s Deadwood. He’s taught literature at Yale and has a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame. By some accounts, his career has netted him $100 million. But Milch and his wife currently reside in a “modest” Santa Monica rental and are staring down $17 million in debt, desperately behind in paying their taxes and mortgages. Stephen Galloway and Scott Johnson explain how this came to be in an investigative piece for The Hollywood Reporter. The culprit, the article reveals, is Milch’s addiction to betting on horse races. The same creativity and obsession that have fueled his writing career are also at the heart of his gambling addiction, it seems. So integral is gambling to Milch’s life that he built an entire show, HBO’s doomed Luck, around horse racing. At one time, the writer even owned some prize-winning horses, though he sold the last of these in 2003.
What is truly surprising about the article is that, while Milch’s downfall is certainly dramatic, his story is but one tile in a larger mosaic. Galloway and Johnson allege that gambling remains a major, largely undiscussed phenomenon in Hollywood. High stakes poker games have eclipsed horse racing, they explain, but both remain popular “at the top echelons of the business.” Those looking for big names will find them in this article, which names such current and past stars as Ben Affleck, Johnny Carson, Walter Matthau, Tobey Maguire, and Leonardo DiCaprio as serious gamblers. The most extreme story here, one even more disheartening than the financial decline of David Milch, deals with troubled movie executive David Begelman, who embezzled money from Columbia Pictures partly to cover his gambling debts and later ended up committing suicide. More than anyone, Begelman embodies the dangers inherent in Hollywood’s addiction to high-stakes betting.