Dmitry Lipkin knows what it's like to be an outsider. A Russian-born Jew who immigrated to Baton Rouge, La., when he was 10, Lipkin recalls an encounter during a schoolyard football game: After hearing what he thought was a slight from a fellow player, he left the field, only to realize later that the player was simply explaining the rules when he said “no rushin'”—not “no Russian.”
“I saw myself as displaced,” he says. “I was looking into the American society through the prism of a Russian-Jewish immigrant living in the South.”
Now, Lipkin, 39, is drawing on that familiar outsider's perspective as the creator of The Riches, a new FX series from Fox Television Studios and Maverick Television.
The drama, which premieres March 12, stars British actors Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver as American gypsies who assume the identity of a dead family and settle in a gated community in Louisiana.
Assimilating through television
“The show was born out of a more emotional reality than a factual reality,” says Lipkin. “They are travelers, so they don't have Social Security cards or bank accounts or a set home address, but they are part of the country. They aren't like everyone else—and I understood that feeling of otherness.”
Lipkin is also something of an outsider to the medium of television. An accomplished playwright, he had never written for TV before The Riches. But as it does in so many immigrants' lives, television played a crucial role in his assimilation. He learned English by watching cartoons and soon discovered iconic American shows like The Beverly Hillbillies and Happy Days.
After pulling good grades in high school, Lipkin enrolled at Rutgers University in New Jersey as a political-science major with plans to pursue a law degree. But he found himself drawn to “lefty, artsy theory classes” instead.
“As someone who thought they wanted to be studying international law,” he says, “I started realizing that this should be telling me something.”
During his junior year abroad in Paris, Lipkin decided that writing was his path. Upon graduating, he moved into his parents' attic in Secaucus, N.J., where the family had recently moved, and spent two years hammering out his first screenplay.
“It was a really, really awful screenplay,” he admits.
But it was enough to get him into the drama-writing program at New York University. There, he found a community of like-minded writers and started a small theater company called The Playwrights Collective.
Lipkin spent the 1990s in New York, where he wrote plays like Baton Rouge and Moscow Nights that drew on his immigrant experience.
In late 2001, Lipkin and his wife, Collette, a fellow Southerner he met in graduate school, left New York and spent the next year living in various parts of Mexico, learning Spanish and writing.
“After Mexico, I wanted a change of pace,” Lipkin recalls. “And, quite frankly, I wanted to make some money. That was the primary reason I came to L.A. Obviously, it's a bit of a crapshoot to just say, 'I want to be in television and become financially stable.' But I had been a writer for a long time, and I thought I could make it work.”
The gamble paid off. After Lipkin drafted the pitch for The Riches in his garage in California, surrounded by boxes and “the occasional rat,” his agent began setting up meetings.
“It was politely rejected,” he says. “But I knew I had a good idea. I knew I had an original idea.”
Michael Rosenberg, Maverick's president and an executive producer on the show, agreed. And so did Izzard.
A few days after Rosenberg embraced the project, he bumped into the comedian at the Maverick office and pitched him the role of The Riches' gypsy patriarch, Wayne Malloy.
“Any guy who turned down this role is insane,” says Izzard. “As you Americans would say, 'It's a humongous no-brainer.'”
“The modern american dream”
“We could have gone the way of the traditional Southern male,” Lipkin says. “But the minute they brought up Eddie for Wayne—this British comic—I got it. It made perfect sense to me because Wayne isn't the stereotypical Southern male, nor should he be.”
Izzard also appreciated the perspective that Lipkin brought to his creation. “The fact that Dmitry was a Russian who came here at 10 and became an American kid, I liked that,” he says. “He's like the modern American dream.”
With Izzard attached, the project soon caught the attention of FX Network President/General Manager John Landgraf, who says that taking a chance on an unproven writer is part of his network's mandate.
“When your main goal is to churn out a select number of extraordinary products,” he says, “you often have to look fairly far afield for your writing talent.”
After greenlighting the pilot, Landgraf provided Lipkin with a strong scaffolding of veteran executive producers and writers in Dawn Prestwich and Nicole Yorkin. “It's the best way to nurture newcomers and also deliver an exceptional product,” says Landgraf, who recalls ribbing an admittedly exhausted Lipkin about his first foray into TV.
“I said, 'I bet you were expecting to just write a 60-page script, not the 900-page script that is necessary to get out 13 episodes!'” Landgraf says with a laugh. “But Dmitry is tenacious, and that's a very good quality in a new talent.”
With nine of 13 episodes already shot, Lipkin is still furiously writing the end of the characters' journey for the season and looks forward to taking time off with his wife and daughter, Tennessee (as in Williams, the great dramatist of the South).
Recalling those early days spent in front of the TV, absorbing the culture of his adopted country, Lipkin says he envisions The Riches as a blend of “the oddball quality of The Beverly Hillbillies” with “the depth and the complexity of The Sopranos.”
“It is my hope,” he adds, “that people will fall in love with this family.”