HBO's 'Luck' runs out of luck
HBO’s “Luck” didn’t have much of it.
The low-rated drama, which is set at a racetrack and stars Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte, was abruptly canceled Wednesday after the injury and subsequent euthanasia of a horse used in the production led to widespread criticism. The show was already facing intense criticism from animal rights activists, who were investigating two previous horse deaths connected to the series last year.
The cancellation comes just days after People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sent HBO a letter charging that “Luck’s” producers ignored advice from animal safety experts and created conditions that posed “unacceptable” risks to equine performers.
“It is with heartbreak that executive producers David Milch and Michael Mann together with HBO have decided to cease all future production on the series ‘Luck,’” HBO wrote in a statement late Wednesday afternoon.
Milch — creator of HBO’s “Deadwood” — and film director Mann are known for hard-charging and somewhat obsessive work habits as well as an uncompromising creative style.
Initially, HBO agreed to halt the filming of scenes involving horses pending an investigation into the latest animal death and sought to refute the accusations of poor work conditions for the animals: “Recent assertions of lax attitudes or negligence could not be further from the truth.” The network said it partnered with the American Humane Assn., as well as with racing experts, “to implement safety protocols that go above and beyond typical film and TV industry standards and practices.”
In making the cancellation decision, however, the network bowed to the uncertainty inherent in working with live animals — especially when a safety record is already under scrutiny. “While we maintained the highest safety standards possible,” HBO said in a statement, “accidents unfortunately happen and it is impossible to guarantee they won’t in the future.”
Animals are becoming more common in TV and movie productions, a trend that many activists deplore. The AHA, which monitors animal safety in filmed entertainment, kept track of more than 2,000 productions using non-human performers in 2011 — 100 more than in the previous year.
In this week’s “Luck” incident, the horse had just passed an inspection by Dr. Gary Beck, a veterinarian for the California Horse Racing Board, according to the AHA. The horse was being walked back to its barn at Santa Anita Park when it “reared up, fell backwards and was injured.”
“We see several of those injuries in the stable area every year,” Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director at the racing board, said in a statement supplied by HBO. “They are more common than people realize.”
Even so, after it was determined that the horse could not recover from its injuries and needed to be euthanized, the AHA demanded a stop to filming involving horses pending an investigation.
HBO said it was “deeply saddened” by the Tuesday incident and that “an American Humane Assn. Certified Safety Representative was on the premises when the accident occurred, and as always, all safety precautions were in place.”
However, PETA was already moving forward with a complaint about the deaths of two horses, Outlaw Yodeler and Marc’s Shadow, during filming of the drama’s first season last year.
According to a necropsy report, those animals had been in severe pain and were under heavy medication at the time of their deaths.
In a letter dated March 6 to Michael Lombardo, the HBO president of programming, and Bruce Richmond, a vice president of production, Kathy Guillermo, PETA’s vice president of laboratory investigations, warned: “We are hearing from multiple credible sources that horses are once again at risk on the set of ‘Luck.’
“We understand that there are currently no licensed humane officers on the set. This is inexplicable, unacceptable, and dangerous. While the American Humane Assn. may have a representative present for filming, this is inadequate. We ask you to return at least one, and preferably more, California licensed humane officers to the set and to ensure that their recommendations about the choice of the horses used and the filming methods are followed to the letter.
“During the filming of the first season, there were reportedly four humane officers monitoring the use of horses. We are told that the production company, to its shame, did not always follow their advice, and this accounts, at least in part, for the two deaths during filming. These officers had rejected as unfit a number of horses who, we are now told, have been returned to the ‘Luck’ set for the filming of the second season.”
The animal rights organization has forwarded its original complaint about the two horses in 2010 and 2011 to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.
Though the first season of “Luck” had only nine episodes, the second season was scheduled to shoot 10. The show’s season — now series — finale will air Sunday, March 25.
The show has performed poorly, even by the standards of premium cable. Despite its lofty creative pedigree and all-star cast, the premiere attracted just 1.1 million viewers, according to Nielsen. Subsequent episodes have struggled to hit the 500,000 mark.
-- Scott Collins and Patrick Kevin Day
Photo: Nick Nolte in "Luck." Credit: Gusmano Cesaretti