HBO Places a Bet on Luck: An Inside Look

Dustin Hoffman stars in the Michael Mann/David Milch HBO drama.

By , Columnist
After viewing a few episodes of the new HBO series Luck, I had to wonder why the concept of horse racing, gambling, and life among the denizens of the track hadn’t been put to such excellent use as a television series before.

The characters run the gamut from the down and out to the well-to-do. You know these guys. You’ve seen them at the racetrack; their gazes edgy and intent as the horses fly around the track, fingers clutching tickets as if those wrinkled slips were lifelines. Their stories are compelling and even if you don’t feel an affinity for all these characters, you’ll want to tune in to find out what happens to them.

It doesn’t hurt that veteran director Michael Mann, best known for his series Miami Vice and Crime Story, and Deadwood executive producer David Milch are responsible for creating Luck. With esteemed actors such as Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, and Dennis Farina on board, it’s hard to imagine that the show could be anything but a quality entry into the competitive world of cable television drama.

Hoffman is Chester “Ace” Bernstein, an affluent businessman who has just been released from three years in federal prison. The reason for his incarceration is not immediately known, but we find out soon enough through his conversations with Gus (played by Farina), his right-hand man and bodyguard. Gus is also fronting as the owner of the two-million dollar Irish horse Ace has just purchased.

This story, as well as those of a disreputable but sharp-as-a-tack trainer Turo Escalante (John Ortiz), and veteran trainer turned owner Walter Smith (Nick Nolte) will certainly be compelling enough to keep you watching. But it’s the story of Marcus (Kevin Dunn), Renzo (Ritchie Coster), Jerry (Jason Gedrick), and Lonnie (Ian Hart), four degenerate gamblers who live, sleep, eat, and breathe horse racing that is the most colorful. When we first meet them they are pooling their scant funds to bet Jerry’s hunch on the day’s long shot: a high-stakes Pick Six winners contest. The story only gets better from there.
In a media interview, executive producer Mann discusses what inspired him to co-create Luck.

Why did you decide to get involved in Luck?

The attraction for me was David Milch’s wonderful script and then to bring together and work with Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina, John Ortiz, Jill Hennessy...everybody else in this outstanding cast. What was challenging, directorially, about telling these stories was the ambition to immerse audiences in the interior lives of the degenerate gamblers, trainers, owners, and Ace they can experience this world with the intimacy of being inside it. That’s what made David’s material so challenging. That imperative determined all my choices in casting, shooting, editing, music, everything.

Dustin Hoffman plays the complex lead character, Chester “Ace” Bernstein. Why did you go to Hoffman? What does he bring to the role?

Dustin’s one of the great actors in American cinema. We’ve known each other and have wanted to work together for a long time. The excitement about Dustin playing Ace Bernstein is precisely because he hasn’t played this king of a character before. He’s played characters-Ratso, Raymond-who are somewhat reactive to circumstances and people.

On the other hand, Ace is the bow that breaks the waves. Ace is the man with the plan and knows more than he reveals about what’s going on. His motives and moves are designed and precise, calculated. Ace sees the probabilities of the outcome of events spatially, as if equations are structures in the sky. He sees luck as preparation colliding with opportunity, and knows the probability of how most people will react. He’s a tough-minded individual, yet there is still an openness to him. He’s capable of being moved by nature, by a horse, by a woman. He has repressed that side of him for much of his life, but the inner radiance of Bernstein isn’t extinguished. And it’s in the playing out of the stories that the radiant center of Bernstein is illuminated.

What is it about horse racing that appeals to you?

The exquisite nature of the animals. You come to regard them as great athletes with sensitive spirits. The slightest shift in the attitude of the jockey is responded to by the race horse. I have a horse and I ride, but he’s not a thoroughbred race horse. My first impression of being up close to a race horse when we started was: imagine going 40 to 43 miles an hour next to a 1500-pound jackrabbit. In our frames of reference, animals that large aren’t supposed to move that fast.

What does Nick Nolte’s character, Walter Smith, bring to the story?

Nick plays a weathered Kentucky trainer with a lot of miles on him. He seems to carry a dark cloud from his past, as if he’s a refugee from a scandal that’s filled him with regret that happened years ago. It’s implied but unrevealed in the pilot. I think the wonderful work that Nick did when he was talking to his horse conveys with only attitude, not text, this dark shadow. We’ll learn in later episodes it’s about a scandal that occurred in Kentucky years earlier. But Nick’s understanding of Walter Smith and his history is so total and specific that we guess some of the whole from the fraction of Walter telling his horse about the horse’s father who was murdered and that for Walter there’s no flight available from accountability.

Why did you collaborate with HBO on this project?

HBO does some of the best work not only in television, but in American entertainment generally. And this has been one of the best experiences I’ve had working with a studio. We may be in a golden age of cable television, in a way, because HBO is both commercially successful and their business model and their success is based on doing unconventional, edgy dramas.

Luck premieres on January 29 at 9 PM on HBO.

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Mindy Peterman is a freelance writer whose focus is on television, movies and pop culture. She has written over one hundred articles for the award winning website and has conducted interviews with producer Peter Asher, psychic-medium John Edward, Greg Grunberg and Bob Guiney from Band…

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