Ellen Gray: David Milch, Michael Mann, Nick Nolte and Dustin Hoffman roll out new HBO series 'Luck'

The HBO series' writer David Milch (left) and director Michael Mann.

LUCK. 9 p.m. Sunday, HBO.


PASADENA, Calif. - "Does anyone mind if I take my shoes off?" rasped Nick Nolte.

No one did.

And it was off to the races with the four horses in the lead of HBO's track-based drama "Luck": executive producers David Milch ("Deadwood," "NYPD Blue") and Michael Mann ("Heat") and stars Dustin Hoffman and Nolte.

And five journalists who were just hoping not to get thrown.

Yeah, five on four. It's not how I usually do this job, but maybe HBO was playing by movie-star rules. Or maybe it was just a question of having Milch and Mann present a united front - the two had been extraordinarily deferential to each other in an earlier news conference - to tamp down reports that they hadn't always seen eye-to-eye during the filming of "Luck's" nine-episode season.

Hard to imagine much tension between Nolte and Hoffman, whose "Luck" characters occupy somewhat different spheres in the show's complex universe. We'd already seen Nolte, who plays a veteran trainer-turned-owner, picking something off Hoffman's shirt at the news conference.

And it's possible Hoffman, whose character's a mover and shaker fresh off a three-year prison stretch, might've nudged the sleepy-looking Nolte into consciousness once or twice.

Those two seemed to be at a different party altogether, one where Nolte's impression of "Luck" co-star Richard Kind doing an impression of Nolte in a long-ago stage performance for actor George Segal (who's so far not in "Luck") was too entertaining to be interrupted - or even triggered - by an actual question, though I'd apparently gotten the ball rolling by asking if either of the actors had ever had this many hours with a single character.

Nolte reminded me he'd starred in the 1976 miniseries "Rich Man, Poor Man" and noted that television is "a brilliant way to work if you have brilliant material. It's better than film, and I'll tell you why: Film, you know the beginning, middle and end. You know the end, you do. And in that sense, you can really focus and create a very interesting character, make the transitions seamless and everything else, but you've got the end. In this, when we're handed the script every two weeks . . . and it's a surprise."

"It's the closest thing to life that I've ever done," said Hoffman, who acknowledged knowing nothing about television, or indeed, about Milch's work, when Mann called him about the part.

"The closest thing that I have been able to equate to working 45 years trying to learn this f------ racket, is that I am learning about this character as I am learning about myself," he said.

Eventually, I imagine, movie actors won't have to explain why they choose to do television - if you're over 25, it's where the writing is - but I had been struck by the 74-year-old Hoffman's decision to take on the role of "Ace" Bernstein, a powerful man whose three years in prison have apparently aged him considerably, and in ways we don't often see in lead characters.

"Yes, he's older. Your third act is an invisible act, by the culture," Hoffman said.

"Right?" he said to Nolte, who was chuckling (having earlier barked one word - "Seventy" - in reply to a question about why he was doing a TV series).

"You're in a nursing home [or] you walk by people on the street and you don't want to know - " Hoffman continued.

"You know they're not called nursing homes now?" Nolte said. "They're called rehab facilities."

"And all the surgery is there to eliminate the look of the third act," Hoffman said.

Milch, who wrote the pilot for "Luck" and who, according to Mann's description, had final say over "the words on the page" for the series, then chimed in, quoting poet Robert Penn Warren, with whom he studied at Yale, as saying, "The secret subject of every story worth telling is time, but you can never say its name."

(It's lines like that - along with the fact that many of his characters share his idiosyncratic approach to language - that make talking with Milch such fun, though if you Google that quote, you'll see he's summoned it up more than once over the years.)

"In miniature, there's a moment when Dustin's character says, '67 degrees, 67 degrees, 67 degrees is perfect. In there, too hot, too cold. Sixty-seven is perfect,' " Milch said.

"And what his character is portraying in just that moment is the price that he paid [in going to prison], the loss of time, what he has lived into and the aftermath of that prologue about 67 degrees is a whole meditation about, I don't trust myself, I don't trust anyone. It's all about time, and I think that you're exactly right: The bravery of the way that Michael shot that and Dustin portrayed it is exactly to that purpose," he said.

You could argue, too, that it took a certain courage for Milch, whose long-acknowledged addictions include an overfondness for gambling on horses, to place a show at Southern California's Santa Anita Park, where, Mann had joked, the red carpet had been rolled out, "primarily because David has probably spent so much money [there] over his lifetime."

It was "very dangerous, very dangerous," Milch told me when I caught up to him as he left the news conference. "Scared the hell out of me."

So, I asked, half-joking, did he have a "sober coach" who went with him to the track?

"Yes," he said, not joking at all.

As for whether it matters that there'll be viewers - including myself - who don't know a "Pick 6" from a pickax:

"It matters profoundly, but you can't let it," Milch said. "You just have to sort of pray, grab your genitals and jump. In that order."


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