David Milch's HBO Western series, "Deadwood," tells of a grimy mining town where drinking, whoring, killing, cussing and cheating are de rigeur. Illegally located on Sioux land ungoverned by United States law, its saloons and gambling dens seethe with debauchery -- largely orchestrated by a Machiavellian pimp, Al Swearengen, whose language rivals Tony Soprano's.
In an interview, Milch, 59, eschews expletives, although his grittily poetic speech resembles Swearengen's, as does his fascination with vice. It's an interest that dates as far back as his bar mitzvah, when this son of a Jewish surgeon learned a thing or two about sin.
"I studied with a cantor who was susceptible to being bribed," he said, raspy and with relish. "He was a great stamp collector, so I was able to get around some of the more stringent requirements."
But something about the religion apparently stuck, because Milch added that "Judaism is predicated on an ethical and legal perspective, and I imbibed that." Indeed, his TV work has obsessively focused on laws and lawlessness since he left his Yale English teaching post to write for the cop drama "Hill Street Blues" in 1982.
Milch, a creator of "N.Y.P.D. Blue," envisioned a more unusual police show in 2001 when he pitched the series that would become "Deadwood": a cop drama set in ancient Rome. The HBO executive replied that the network already had a proposed Roman series, but would Milch like to try a Western? He quickly agreed.
"I realized the genre was perfect for exploring how laws emerge in a place where nothing is explicitly forbidden," he said.
While poring through historical documents, Milch discovered that the real Deadwood, S.D., was perhaps the quintessential example of how order developed from the "primordial ooze of libertine anarchy." He decided to set the series there, mixing fact and fiction to people it with characters who had flooded the area after gold was discovered in Deadwood gulch in fall 1875.
The show's historical figures would include the famed "Wild Bill" Hickok (Keith Carradine); the crude Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert); hot-headed ex-marshall Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and his temperate Jewish partner, Sol Star (John Hawkes), who founded the town's first hardware store (their most popular item: chamber pots). During a year of meticulous research, Milch was interested to discover that Star, an immigrant from Bavaria, was elected to Deadwood's first city council in 1876 and eventually served 10 terms as mayor. Milch had conceived the series before Los Angeles' Autry Museum of Western Heritage (now known as The Museum of the American West) opened its 2002 "Jewish Life in the American West" exhibit, and was unfamiliar with how Jews helped civilize such towns.
"Jewish immigrants played a major role in providing businesses that supplied Western communities, and it was not uncommon for Jewish leaders to hold political office," said James Nottage, the museum's founding chief curator. "Certainly it was not uncommon in Deadwood, which became the center of the Jewish population in South Dakota as people rushed to mine gold from the Black Hills."
Although only a couple hundred Jewish merchants lived among Deadwood's estimated 5,000 inhabitants between 1876 and 1900, they owned more than one-third of downtown businesses, said Mary Kopco, director of the town's Adams Museum & House. "They were such a stabilizing force," added Kopco, who in 1999 curated an exhibit titled "An Unbroken Chain: Deadwood's Jewish Legacy." "It was the Jewish community that really allowed Deadwood to survive."
Their influence is literally carved in stone, as Milch discovered while wandering downtown Deadwood for inspiration. The name "Goldberg" is still engraved in the brick building that housed Jacob Goldberg's grocery, where Calamity Jane once shopped. Harris Franklin (ne Finkelstein), an ex-peddlar, liquor distributor and cattle baron, hired a synagogue architect to design his 1892 Queen Anne Victorian, now the Adams House.
A grander Victorian structure, the Bullock Hotel, stands on the site of the former hardware store, Star and Bullock, Auctioneers and Commission Merchants. The store's well-liked co-founder, Star, was "a fascinating person," according to Milch, "someone who wasn't typically associated in the popular imagination with the West."
Star was born in Bavaria in 1840, probably to a Reform German Jewish family, and immigrated to the United States at age 10. He settled with relatives in Ohio, moved to Montana in the economic chaos following the Civil War and met Bullock, with whom he traveled to Deadwood via a wagon loaded with hardware in 1876. Their goal was "to mine the miners," said actor Hawkes, who read numerous books on Judaism and pioneer Jews to portray Star.
There was one catch, however: "I'm not Jewish," Hawkes frankly told Milch upon their first meeting two years ago. "David asked me, 'Have you ever felt shame or sadness or ostracized?' I said, 'Every day.' And David said, 'Then you're Jewish.'"
It was this sense of Jew-as-outsider that Milch wanted the actor to bring to his level-headed character, albeit in a subtle way. Hawkes' Star is an assimilationist who "goes along to get along" and has keenly honed survival skills, "undoubtedly enhanced by centuries of Jewish persecution, and ramped up by the outlaw community of Deadwood," the actor said. "So when my character goes into a new place for the first time, he always knows where the exit is, as if he has eyes in the back of his head."
The fictional Star also avoids cussing, which is telling in a town where expletives indicate just how far a person is willing to go to protect himself. Milch -- who said the swearing is historically accurate -- sees Sol's refusal to cuss as part of his survival strategy, a "submissive posture that suggests, 'You'll have no trouble from me.'"
Nor does the Jewish character bat an eyelash when the notorious Swearengen tells him, "I love you people. You make $5 before I've gotten out of bed and taken a p---."
Milch compared the comment to the kind of ignorance-based prejudice he encountered while living with rodeo cowboys to research the show.
Kopco and other aficionados give Hawkes' character high marks for historical accuracy. But given Milch's interest in vice, will "Deadwood" explore the darker side of Star who bounced back from at least one scandal?
"Well, he did get fired and accused of theft as the town's postmaster," the producer said in his gravely voice. "So I think you're entitled to all those expectations."
"Deadwood" airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO.