Robert F. Chew, the Baltimore-born actor and teacher, just died of heart failure at the very premature age of 52. Not only was Chew a superb actor — his character Proposition Joe was a mainstay of The Wire — but he was also a mentor to many of the young actors who filled out the show’s huge supporting cast. In interviews, Chew said that some two dozen of his students had roles in the show, including the four young men — Michael (Tristan Wilds), Namond (Julito McCullum), Randy (Maestro Harrell), and Dukie (Jermaine Crawford) — whose fates are determined in the show’s harrowing fourth season. He also helped Felicia “Snoop” Pearson shape her amazing performance as an enforcer for drug lord Marlo Stanfield, a role Stephen King called one of the most terrifying female villains he’d ever seen.
I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say Proposition Joe is one of the show’s most beloved characters, a Dickensian figure with Falstaffian girth and plenty of salty wit. Though Joe is a presence in all five seasons, he really came into his own in the third, when his maneuvering to keep the street-level drug trade quiet and bloodless mirrored Bunny Colvin’s plot to channel drug dealers into nonviolent “free zones.” With his inch-thick Bawmer accent and droll manner, Chew could inject humor into any exchange.
Dave Simon, the show’s co-creator, was shrewd enough to alter the show in response to what the actors were doing, and he wrote scenes to spotlight Chew’s acting chops, such as the hilarious bit in which Prop Joe adopts four different voices and personae to track down a police officer with a few phone calls.
I’m not sure who should get credit for some of the other character touches for Prop Joe, but I always thought it was interesting that of all the high-end drug dealers using legitimate businesses to conceal their operations, Joe’s base was a repair shop. Time and again, we get glimpses of Joe working on small appliances, acting as a fixer in more ways than one. Joe also seems emotionally invested in bringing old things back to useful life. It makes his final conversation with his nephew, Cheese, all the more poignant.
I recently sprang The Wire on another unsuspecting soul, who unsurprisingly ended up completely gripped by all five seasons. What did surprise me was a subtle detail that I managed not to see until now, even though I’ve watched the whole thing several times over. As the final cut in its running critique of the drug war, The Wire ends with the same bloody ecosystem in place, only with new faces. Michael takes Omar’s place as a stickup man plaguing the dealers. Marlo has moved into Stringer’s slot as the gangster trying to go straight, though his volatile temperament makes success far less likely. Bubbles has cleaned up his act, but Dukie, school dropout and addict-in-training, will follow his old downward path. Randy is on his way to becoming another Bodie, a child of a barely functional group home who has learned to hide his decent impulses under a rock-hard mask. And Kennard seems destined to become an even more vicious version of Marlo.
But even as the partners change and the dance continues, nobody seems ready to take the place of Proposition Joe. (The only possible contender, Slim Charles, for all his street smarts and loyalty to his old boss, doesn’t have the organizational savvy to run his own shop.) So the only player not replaced is the one who exercised some ameliorating effect on the savagery of the game. I guess that says everything we need to know about where the story will go from here.