Tag Archives: The Wire

Robert F. Chew


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.       


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The highway of the future is a thing of the past

It had to happen sooner or later. The Pulaski Skyway, subject of my book The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway, will closed to eastbound drivers for two years of repair work. The state will close the span early in 2014, following Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife LAST3MILESStadium. Apparently two lanes of outward-bound traffic will remain open throughout the project, but anyone heading for New York City needs another plan.

If you want to prepare for the traffic delays, why not pick up a copy of The Last Three Miles and read about the design flaws and eleventh-hour political interference that made the Hudson County span the rollercoaster of terror it is today? Or marvel at the machinations of political boss Frank Hague, one of the biggest players in the Skyway saga, and the bloody labor war that broke out when one of Hague’s former allies, labor czar Teddy Brandle, clashed with the anti-union contractors building the causeway? It’s also available as an ebook and there’s an audio version capably read by the great Dion Graham, whose other audiobook performances put me in some damn flattering company. (He also played Rupert Bond in the later seasons of The Wire, which I never get tired of bragging about.) 

And while we’re on the subject of Hudson County and the Pulaski Skyway, this is as good a place as any to begin announcing that this coming fall will see the publication of American Dictators: Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson, and the Perfection of the Urban Political Machine, due out from Rutgers University Press. I’ll have a website and Facebook page up for the book later in the year. It’s the cornerstone of what future generations will know as The Year of the Hat Trick, about which more anon.


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Cry me a Chicago River

Still of Kelsey Grammer in Boss

Those with an appetite for trivia probably know by now that Kelsey Grammer marked the imminent second season premiere of his series Boss by pouting that he hadn’t been nominated for an Emmy. Not because Boss is a low-rated show on a third-tier cable channel that only picked up the second season because its other original programs barely appear on the radar. Not because the drama nominee lists are crowded with actors and shows that are not only far better but about to end their runs, so it’s now-or-never time to toss them a bouquet (Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad, end of story). Not even because it’s an unjust world and Emmy voters have short attention spans (they had five seasons to get it right with The Wire, end of story).

No, Kelsey Grammer thinks he got snubbed because he’s a Republican and those Hollywood libruls who keep Big Hollywood and other wingnut operations in 24/7 fits of indignation are never going to give conservatives a break. I’ll let Lance Mannion handle the Sisyphean task of shoveling away this latest dumpster load of conservative victimization porn and return to Boss itself, which I thought was absorbing and interesting in its first season, albeit with some serious reservations that might have me signing off before this second season is over.

Political bosses are a career interest of mine: Frank Hague, the preeminent twentieth-century American political boss, looms large in my first nonfiction book, The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway, and even larger in my second, which comes out next year. Boss is set in Chicago, the stomping ground (in every sense of the term) of Richard J. Daley, the only boss who matches Hague in terms of power and longevity. The titular boss is Tom Kane (Grammer), who must contend with imminent mortality (a degenerative brain disease), a personal life hollowed out by relentless ambition (dead marriage, estranged daughter), and a host of foes and fair-weather friends working to bring him down. 

No problem so far: any TV show that offers even a modicum of political sophistication or historical awareness is fine by me. There were some powerful scenes in the first season, and the moment when Kane cuts a turncoat down to size — bawling him out, then turning off the lights and leaving the office while the victim continues to kneel on the carpet, too frightened to move — belongs on Kelsey Grammer’s career highlight reel. But Boss, while set in the present day, has a level of violence more appropriate to a Mideast dictatorship than an American city. Frank Hague never hesitated to ruin his critics financially, or have them run out of town by his thuggish police force, but as far as anyone knows he drew the line at assassinations. Chicago politics can still be pretty rough, but early in Boss we see an inept minion losing both ears on a golf course, and by the end of the first season the amount of bloodshed is more Godfather than Plunkitt of Tammany Hall.   

The biggest problem with Boss, though, is Kelsey Grammer’s gloomy one-note performance as Tom Kane. Political bosses came (and come) in all shapes, sizes, parties, and temperaments. Democratic Hague came across as a cold fish, but his Republican contemporary, Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, was the Boardwalk peacock of Atlantic City. Nobody can dispute Grammer’s chops as a comic actor, but his scowly jowly Tom Kane comes across as Richard Nixon channeled through Michael Corleone at the end of The Godfather Part II. How about a dash of Jim Curley, or even Michael Flynn, to leaven all those prunes?

So I’ll be watching tomorrow when Boss gears up again. But like Boardwalk Empire (the HBO series, not Nelson Johnson’s book), the show is best viewed as a kind of alternate-universe SF story, in which people with links to our history do things that reflect Hollywood notions of gangsterism (or politics). As for Sideshow Bob’s little hissy fit — dude, after An American Carol you should be grateful people even remember your name.

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Friday finds

In 1957, five men stood in the Nevada desert while a nuclear missile detonated 18,500 feet above their heads. Here’s what happened to them.

What to expect when you’re expecting to die after being sucked out an airlock into the vacuum of space.

How to get around Arkham, Massachusetts, with help from H.P. Lovecraft.

You can make anything with Legos — including The Wire.

Now Zimmerman says it was all God’s plan. Which God was not specified.

Wanna be the Dark Knight? Better have some serious batbucks.

This isn’t going to be a great year for Scientology. First the Tom Cruise divorce, and now this movie, which promises to do for L. Ron Hubbard what There Will Be Blood did for oil tycoons.

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We’re all Lester Freamon now

I swore I wasn’t going to pay any more attention to Sarah Palin and her cross-country pity party tour, but when I hear something like this:

I find myself feeling like Lester Freamon in The Wire:

Actually, I get the same feeling these days whenever a conservative or libertarian starts talking: “English, motherfucker! English!”

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The invisible auteur

I first began to appreciate the craftsmanship of Sidney Lumet when I read his wonderful book Making Movies, which is loaded with anecdotes about the backgrounds of some of his most celebrated pictures. As he prepped for Dog Day Afternoon, his 1975 film about a Brooklyn bank robbery that turned into a prolonged hostage situation, Lumet approached the extras and civilians who would be milling behind the police barricades during the exterior scenes and gave them stories of their own to enact. For example, he asked a group of women to imagine they were members of the same bridge club, and two of the women suspected the other of being a cheat. The women wouldn’t be noticeable or even visible during much of the shoot, but Lumet wanted to make sure they wouldn’t just stand around like extras — their backstories, he reasoned, would subtly enhance the overall realism of the scene. He was coaching them in how to be invisible, in order to enhance the final product.

Becoming invisible — subordinating oneself to the service of the film — was the closest Lumet came to having an overall style. There is no such thing as a signature camera move or trademarked shot in Lumet’s bulky canon. Like Carol Reed and George Roy Hill, he was more interested in proving himself a storyteller than setting himself up as a genius. Lumet credited this to his background in theater, where the script is the key to everything: “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.”

The proof is in the storytelling. Two of Lumet’s most celebrated films, Network (1976) and The Verdict (1982), are suffused with the flavor of their screenwriters: Paddy Chayefsky for the former, David Mamet for the latter. In fact, The Verdict gave moviegoers their first real taste of Mamet’s darkly funny mode. My favorite moment comes when Paul Newman’s burned-out ambulance chaser, representing a woman left comatose by hospital bungling, talking to his mentor, tries to dismiss the opposition’s attorney as just another lawyer. The mentor, played masterfully by Jack Warden, fixes him with a who-are-you-kidding stare and says “He’s the prince of fucking darkness. He’ll have people testifying they saw her water-skiing off Marblehead.”

I’ve always thought that Network might have benefited from some directorial interference: the film’s Achilles heel is Chayefsky’s reluctance to give William Holden’s Max Schumacher , the male menopausal voice of conscience, the same harsh satirical treatment meted to the other characters. But there are subtle jabs at the way Schumacher keeps retailing the same war story over and over, which suggests his career may not have been quite as colorful as he wanted people to think, and there’s no denying the scene between Max and his wife, who takes a flame-thrower to his bullshit with a speech that Beatrice Straight savored to the last napalm-flavored drop. But Lumet was smart enough to see there was more than enough gold in Chayefsky’s scenario to overpower the tin-pot crankery of some of the dialogue. Some critics (notably the sainted Pauline Kael) dismissed the film’s satire as too over the top, but as we have learned, Chayefsky was, if anything, too gentle. The contemptible ease with which the existing political-industrial media complex diverts populist anger into ridiculous sideshows is all there in Network, which gave us the bad news a generation ahead of time. The “I’m mad as hell” scene has become a pop-culture icon, still referenced by pundits of all stripes, but look closely at what’s going on there — the way the frothing anger almost instantly degenerates into a bedlam of shouting and unfocused rage, with corporate schemers looking on and salivating at the thought of reaping this whirlwind.

Another carryover from Lumet’s theater days was his obvious love for actors and the things they could do with the right material. Though Network didn’t get the Oscar for best picture (it was beaten out by Rocky, of all things), it swept three of the four acting categories. The silent scream at the climax of The Pawnbroker (1964) remains the defining moment of Rod Steiger’s career. In The Hill (1965), Lumet gave Sean Connery one of his earliest chances to prove there was more to him than James Bond, and underlined the point with The Anderson Tapes (1971) and the unjustly overlooked The Offence (1972).  As late as 2006, Lumet rescued Vin Diesel from years of bad choices by casting him in the underrated Mafia comedy Find Me Guilty. The Godfather (1972) gave Al Pacino his breakthrough, but it was his two collaborations with Lumet, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, that gave him a career, and when Lumet received a lifetime achievement award from the Academy in 2005, Pacino repaid the debt in full with a speech of almost Wagnerian splendor.

Along with a respect for scripts and a love for watching actors cut loose with their material, Lumet’s career was distinguished by an appetite for stories exploring morally ambiguous terrain, particularly in matters of law and justice. Unless you’re a Viewer of a Certain Age, who remembers the way the sanitized television police dramas of the early Seventies shaped the public’s view of cop shops, its hard to imagine the sheer startling impact of Serpico (1973), which erased the well-scrubbed moral certainties of Dragnet and Adam-12. Considering that this was the same period in which Joseph Wambaugh was writing from the inside about the realities of urban police work, I’m surprised Lumet and Wambaugh never collaborated. What wouldn’t I give to see The Onion Field directed by Lumet?

But if I had to pick one Lumet film for desert-island status, it would be Prince of the City (1981). Serpico was one of the first films to expose the way the siege mentality of stressful police work could lead cops into a moral swamp, but Prince of the City broke new ground in its depiction of the way the futile grind of the drug war forces narcos to become almost as bad as the dealers they stalked. Few moments in film are as horrifying, or as gripping, as the sequence in which Treat Williams’ narco must abet the robbery of one of his snitches, then stand by as the snitch beats his girlfriend for using up the drugs he’d been counting on to cushion the pain of his loss. Lumet, as resolute as ever in making a film for grownups, doesn’t provide any easy catharsis or grandstanding moments. The low-key ending, in which the disgraced hero has been relegated to teaching classes at the police academy, tells us all we need to know about the rest of his police career. I agree with Digby that Prince of the City points directly to The Wire and its skeptical, hyperrealistic view of police work. That’s some damned good company.

Lumet’s resume has its share of clinkers: Power stumbled around its subject, throwing punches and missing like a barroom chump. Family Business, Running on Empty, Garbo Talks —  the less said the better. When he strayed from his favorite mode of gritty realism, the results were often disastrous: The Wiz, anyone? But when I look at Sidney Lumet’s filmography, the first word that comes to mind is “grownup.” He made grownup movies for grownup viewers, and its hard to think of anyone who could follow in his footsteps, much less fill his shoes.

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I knew it all along

I always said The Wire was a work of genius. Now it turns out the MacArthur Foundation agrees with me.

Incidentally, I’m still juiced by the fact that the audio version of my book The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway is read by Wire alumnus Dion Graham.

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Do you hear what I hear?

Audible.com has posted its spoken-word edition of my book The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of  America’s First Superhighway. You can find the link on the book’s Amazon page, or go right to the Audible page and listen to a passage. The sample sounds pretty good, if you ask me.

The narration is read by Dion Graham, an actor whose other audiobook credits put me in some pretty good company. Even better, he played state’s attorney Rupert Bond in The Wire, my most favorite TV show in the entire Milky Way galaxy. So now I can be a link if somebody playing a variation on the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game wants to make a link between Hamsterdam and Jersey City.

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Friday finds

This video collection of the 100 best lines from The Wire is so NSFW it isn’t even funny. Actually, it is pretty funny a lot of the time. There are easily 100 more lines just as good, too.

Back in those innocent days when publishers didn’t consider the designation “midlist” a synonym for “leper colony,” Brian Moore was the ultimate midlist writer: a producer of consistently excellent to great and near-great books, a critical fave, unspectacular but steady sales, occasionally courted by movieland — The Luck of Ginger Coffey was an early star vehicle for Robert Shaw, Cold Heaven made for one of Nicholas Roeg’s better films, and Catholics was an unlikely made-for-TV success. This fine essay reminds us of Moore’s qualities, and why his work deserves to be returned to print.

Attercop! Attercop! (Via Jeff.)

As anyone who’s ever enjoyed one can tell you, an eggcream is a drink named after the two things it never contains. The same principle applies to the upcoming memoir by Karl Rove.

Considering that Roger Corman launched the careers of Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson, Jonathan Demme, James Cameron, Peter Bogdanovich, John Sayles, and Martin Scorsese, I’d say that Oscar was waaaay overdue.

“Her domineering father was the president of Tenneco and pals with men like Sen. John Tower, she grew up with George W. Bush, she was engaged to the son of a diplomat who did the CIA’s bidding. But after years of going to war with her controlling old man, devouring seditious issues of the muckraking Texas Observer, and furtively meeting the bravest Texas progressives, she eventually decided to raise a middle finger to all of her gilded upbringing.”

It was the biggest leopard seal the photographer had ever seen. So, naturally, he dove into the frigid Antarctic waters and swam up to it. And then the strangest thing happened.

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Friday finds


A staple of Kurt Vonnegut’s public appearances was his use of graphs to chart out the lives of fictional characters, and how people feel the need for more drama in their lives because their favorite stories have led them to expect something more eventful than running errands and going to work. Of course, some of us occasionally get the feeling we’re characters in somebody else’s story.

A couple of my New Press homies managed to get four wrongly convicted Wrong Guyssailors pardoned and released from jail with their book The Wrong Guys: Murder, False Confessions, and the Norfolk Four. I think the last time something like this happened was when an Errol Morris documentary, The Thin Blue Line, got Randall Dale Adams exonerated and released from prison after being wrongly convicted of the murder of a police officer. The book includes a great deal of interesting information about the psychology of false confessions, and their role in death-penalty convictions. Read about it here in The New Yorker, then buy the book here.

A pity nothing like this happened for Cameron Todd Willingham.

It’s back-to-school time for Mr. Prezbo, aka Geoff. Think of it as a special extended edition of the fourth season of The Wire.

The inner life of a waterspout on the Washington National Cathedral. I’m serious. Work with me on this, people, and just check the link.

The genre that dare not speak its name, and an author who doesn’t want you to know she writes it.

Dumb things writers say in their query letters.

“There was a night at Worldcon (the annual convention of the World Science Fiction Society) in Montreal, when, at two in the morning, in an absinthe bar, I found myself accosting the writer Larry Niven, one of my childhood and for that matter adulthood idols, and begging him for forgiveness because I stole an idea from one of his short stories and used it in The Magicians. It had been preying on my conscience. And I’d had a lot of absinthe. Niven, probably wisely, was ordering two glasses of ice water. He forgave me. But that may just have been to make me go away.”

Look forward to the Rapture without worrying about your pets. But, wait — I thought all dogs were supposed to go to Heaven?

Dust off your crayons, charge up your iPod, and order up The Indie Rock Coloring Book.

Anglophiles, here’s your next reading list. And your next listening list, too.

Civil War historian James M. McPherson talks about Abraham Lincoln.

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