Homicide' stays Baltimore Barry Levinson returns to film TV police series

October 26, 1992|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Staff Writer

The three cops are hanging around the station one night, cursing everything from the weather to the kind of "animal" who could carjack a woman's vehicle and drag her to death tangled up in her own seat belt.

One cop says he can solve the crime problem, or at least thrape problem, and the details of his plan start piling up ad absurdam: announce that, at a specified time, a certain part of a convicted rapist's anatomy will meet the sharp end of a hacksaw. On national TV. With Alan Dershowitz doing the

commentary. Pre-event, postevent shows. T-shirts, corporate sponsorships, everything.

Very police verite. Until someone yells, "Cut!" and one "cop" declares, "I smell an Emmy!"

"Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets" has come full circle. First a true-life book by Sun reporter David Simon about the year -- 1988 -- he spent with the Baltimore Police Department's murder investigators, "Homicide" has been turned into a fictionalized television series that NBC plans to air this winter. (NBC has ordered six episodes, and will decide later whether it wants to continue the series.)

But rather than go Hollywood, "Homicide" has gone Baltimore -- crews have set up shop in Fells Point, where the Recreation Center on Thames Street has been converted to a police station, and also have filmed elsewhere around town.

"The whole thing is Baltimore," said casting director Pat Moran, "from top to bottom."

"We used real cops as extras, and the real detectives from the book as consultants," said Barry Levinson, the home-grown filmmaker who directed the first episode and is executive producer of the series.

Indeed, from Mr. Levinson on down to the "atmosphere" (filmspeak for extras), the production has a distinctly local flavor. About 90 of the 100 cast and crew are Baltimoreans, estimated Tom Fontana, a New Yorker who is head writer and shares executive producing tasks with Mr. Levinson. And Ms. Moran has cast about 250 day players (actors with lines) and atmosphere to date, with several more episodes to be cast.

While many involved in the production are veterans of pasBaltimore movies, such as John Waters' "Cry-Baby" and Mr. Levinson's "Avalon," doing a reality-based TV series has been a unique experience.

"You spend years making people look younger, better, fresher -now it's, 'OK, kill 'em,' " said Betty Beebe, a make-up artist who visited the morgue to learn how to give the show's homicide victims that true-to-dead look.

"It's been fun, except for the fact that you know it's real homicides," said Janice Kinigopoulos, a hair stylist on the show.

Indeed, for many of the locals, the hardest episode to film so far has been the second one, based on the murder of Latonya Wallace in February 1988. It was one of those murders, out of the hundreds that occur every year, that gets an entire city in the gut: The sweet-faced 11-year-old Reservoir Hill girl disappeared after leaving her neighborhood library one afternoon and was found two days later, strangled and stabbed, her red raincoat and blue book bag neatly arranged, in a nearby alley. (The girl's name is changed in the series; a pair of twins from Baltimore shared the role.)

Homicide Detective Tom Pellegrini investigated the case -- still unsolved -- in real life; in the TV episode, he plays a police lieutenant who hovers protectively over the girl's body in the cold rain until the detectives come. Into the next episode, crew members were still talking about the evident emotion behind his performance.

"He really put his heart in it," said Gary Dunnigan, one of the homicide detectives advising the production.

The detectives featured in Mr. Simon's book have been Osterized and turned into composites -- the show will focus on nine detectives and supervisors. Among the regular actors are Ned Beatty ("Hear My Song," "Deliverance"), Yaphet Kotto ("Alien," "Live and Let Die"), comedian Richard Belzer and Daniel Baldwin, brother of Alec and William. Dancer/actress Gwen Verdon turns up in a guest role as a Roland Park housewife who yells at her husband when he fails to die after having a heart attack.

On a recent day, the cast and crew were shooting a squad room scene for the third episode, which involves one hot summer day in which all sorts of mayhem -- a Santa Claus threatening to jump off the roof, for example -- occurs and the air conditioning in the station is broken. The make-up crew moistens the actors' shirts in appropriate spots and, between takes, spritzes their faces with what make-up artist Debi Young calls "Hollywood sweat," glycerin and water.

In between rehearsals and filming, the actors and crew remain in constant motion and jabber. Actor Andre Baugher ("Glory" and a production of "Othello" at the Folger in Washington) cuts everyone up with his all-three-parts rendition of the presidential debates. Another actor, Jon Polito, keeps declaring every take an Emmy Award winner. Others gossip about who "likes" whom.

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