Robert F. Chew, the actor who portrayed Proposition Joe over five seasons of HBO's "The Wire," died today at 52. Early reports put the cause of death as heart failure. According to his sister, Chew died in his sleep at his Baltimore home.
Baltimore of course was the unforgettable setting for an unforgettable television series (that I just re-watched over the holidays). And Chew portrayed one of the show's most iconic characters in a series loaded with them; a high-level drug dealer who runs the Eastside with a fascinating mix of amiable ruthlessness that took an extraordinary actor like Chew to not only pull off, but to pull off in a way that makes it impossible to imagine any other actor in the role.
Mr. Chew, who appeared in “Homicide” and “the Corner,” as well as “The Wire,” also taught and mentored child and young adult actors at Baltimore’s Arena Players, a troupe he stayed with as his television career blossomed through his work with David Simon. Through the Areana Players Youth Theatre, he brought new talent to the attention of casting directors and coached the team of young actors who played students in the Baltimore City School system in Season 4 of “The Wire.”
"Robert was not only an exceptional actor, he was an essential part of the film and theater community in Baltimore,” David Simon, creator of ‘The Wire’ said in an email Friday. “He could have gone to New York or Los Angeles and commanded a lot more work, but he loved the city as his home and chose to remain here working. He understood so much about his craft that it was no surprise at all that we would go to him to coach our young actors in season four. He was the conduit through which they internalized their remarkable performances."
In terms of what Mr. Chew brought to Proposition Joe, Simon said: "The Wire cast was an embarrassment of riches and it was easy, I think, for outsiders to overlook some of those who were so essential as supporting players. Robert's depiction of Proposition Joe was so fixed and complete -- from the very earliest scenes -- that the writers took for granted that anything we sent him would be finely executed.”
Chew's first appearance as Prop Joe comes late in the first season during an annual basketball game between the East and Westside Projects. Representing the Eastide, Joe does a beautiful job of hustling Westide drug kingpin, Avon Barksdale, into doubling the bet before bringing out his ringer. The best moment arrives, though, when Barksdale mocks Prop Joe for wearing a "Pat Riley" suit, and Joe responds matter-of-factly with: Look the part, be the part, mother***er.
And with that a star was born. With just a few minutes of screen time, Chew immediately created a character you just had to get to know better.
Thankfully, the "Wire" creators and writers agreed, and over the next four seasons Joe would become an increasingly important character around whom much intrigue and plot twists swirled.
Best of all, this gave Chew the opportunity to knock out of the park some of the best dialogue ever written:
Who you tellin’? I got mother***in’ nephews and in-laws f***ing all my shit up all the time and it ain’t like I can pop a cap in their ass and not hear about it Thanksgivin’ time. For real, I’m livin’ life with some burdensome n**gers.
Without ever appealing to sentiment or in any way betraying a complex character that was equal parts wise man, businessman, and psychopath; Chew's natural charisma and ability to give his character an unspoken humanity (while always holding back something, so we wanted to know more) made it impossible for those of us watching not to admire and even like this murdering drug dealer.
If that's not a testament to an actor, I don’t know what is.
Chris Ashworth, who played the "Wire" character Segei, tweeted this about his colleague and friend today:
As another immortal "Wire" character might say: Indeed.
With a language warning, here are a couple opportunities to see a marvelous actor at work: here and here.
And if you haven't seen "The Wire," you're missing the best show ever produced for television. Fix that oversight immediately.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC