By Lolis Eric Elie
On March 30, 2010, David Mills collapsed on the set during the filming of an episode of 'Treme.' He died shortly thereafter of a brain aneurysm.
The cast and crew of the show gathered in Washington Square Park, in New Orleans’ Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, the morning after David’s death. Later, we gathered in City Park to dedicate a live oak tree we had sponsored in David’s memory. Mary Howell, one of the consultants on the show, and the inspiration for the Toni Bernette character, came up with the idea. “I felt like we wanted to do something to mark a place for David here, in New Orleans, putting down some new roots, like he was doing,” she said.
While the “magic Hubig’s” had become something of an icon of ‘Treme,’ we didn’t realize the impact these confections had had on David Mills until we discovered a case of them in his office after his passing. Tom Piazza, one of the ‘Treme’ writers contacted Hubig’s to secure the appropriate pies for the occasion. The labels echoed a line from our promotional posters, which in turn echoed an old Mardi Gras Indian couplet.
David Mills 1961 – 2010
Won’t Bow. Don’t Know How.
This year, on the first anniversary of David’s passing we gathered around a tree in City Park that we purchased specifically as a memorial to him.
Before ‘Treme,’ David Mills had never been to New Orleans. That seems odd in retrospect in that he was something of a music geek, the kind of person you’d expect to visit New Orleans with much the same enthusiasm as pilgrims visit Our Lady of Medjugorje. But David was more P-Funk than Fats Domino.
David Mills and David Simon were old friends and ‘Treme’ was a great chance for them to work together again. Once here, Mills grew to love the city -- its music, its casino and of course, those Hubig’s pies.
I’ve often lamented that I didn’t get to spend more time with David, learn more from him and about him. But, as David Simon noted at our memorial, David Mills tended not to say much when the topic of conversation was David Mills. “He would tell me certain things, but it was in his time,” Simon said. Simon and Mills had known each other since the two of them worked as reporters on ‘The Diamondback,’ the University of Maryland’s student newspaper. Still, Simon’s memorial portrait of his friend was drawn from three decades in which Mills dispensed details of his life by the teaspoonful.
"David also always steered the conversation toward what was at stake for the characters as individual human beings,” Tom Piazza said. “ ‘Treme’ has a strong thematic dimension, and it grapples with large issues of society and culture. David, dependably, would reel us back in to questions of character, and motivation, and emotion."
Mills created a blog. There he opined on everything from music to politics, from Smith & Wesson’s eau de toilette fragrance, to President Barack Obama’s over use of the pronoun “I.” After David’s death, his nephew, Clifton Porter II, wrote a memorial entry, and posted it on the UBM site. He captures a side of his late uncle none of us in David’s professional orbit had any clue about.
In the ‘Treme’ writers’ room, the place where we brainstorm about the direction of the show, David Mills was the constructive skeptic. He wasn’t so enamored of New Orleans that he would let us wallow in Crescent City sentimentality. He asked tough, smart questions and the show was better for it.
Still, criticizing is easy, or at least easier than offering up your own ideas. While each of us writers made contributions, large and small, David Mills contributed one particularly brilliant suggestion, the idea of using our final episode to go back in time and see how our characters prepared on the day before Hurricane Katrina made landfall. ‘Treme’ is not a show about a hurricane; it’s about people rebuilding their lives in the wake of a great catastrophe. We didn’t dwell on the storm in the early shows. But by our final episode it was time we revisited the event that gave rise to our story.
When David suggested the idea of dedicating the last show to a flashback, it was one of the few times when all the writers in the room immediately agreed. In that moment, David Mills, the sometime hell raiser and muckraker, took a turn as consensus builder.
A scholarship in David’s name has been created at the University of Maryland. For more details, please visit, http://davidmills.umd.edu/about.php.