Crime drama captures Baltimore 10th annual award: 'Homicide' ensemble makes gritty Charm City shine as TV star.

December 29, 1996

IMAGINE A GLOOMY television drama series dwelling on human depravity that makes us proud of Baltimore. The brilliantly conceived and meticulously detailed "Homicide" has done just that for five seasons. As cop shows go, it's the best ever.

This series does not splice-in location footage. "Homicide" stars the city and its ethos, traditions, shames and glories. It is entirely shot here, edited in New York. Fells Point's Recreation Pier serves as its sound stage and production office -- and police headquarters.

Making our town the fictional murder capital of America may not seem ideal tourism. Yet droves of pilgrims journey to Fells Point to see the "Homicide" sites and sight the actors, several of them denizens of the area taverns and eateries on their own time.

So confused does life become with art that a real fleeing shoplifter ran onto a film location and surrendered to actors, while production executives seeking a site for a crack house stumbled into a real crack house. Nor is the enterprise an unmixed blessing. "Homicide" has evicted kids from their playground, usurped parking places and closed streets to the inconvenience of real Baltimoreans. In return, the production pumps an estimated $27.5 million a season into the local economy.

Other shows have played on the joys and griefs of Baltimoreans, such as the popular syndicated TV comedy, "Roc," starring local talent Charles Dutton as a garbage man. Writer-producer-director Barry Levinson created a wonderful trilogy of films of Baltimore nostalgia based on his experiences growing up here -- "Diner," "Tin Men" and "Avalon." Filmmaker John Waters put Baltimore on the counter-cultural map. But "Homicide" celebrates real, contemporary Baltimore. And it anchors here a talent pool whose skills behind the camera lure other productions.

So it is fitting that The Sun's 10th annual Marylander of the Year award should go, in the plural, to Marylanders. This is a tribute to a collective, the creative team. All who have committed, conspired in, or abetted "Homicide," are our Marylanders of the Year. Cast, crew, producers, grips, writers, the lot. That's about 90 people in Baltimore -- roughly 35 came for the job and 55 were recruited here.

It all started in 1988 with Sun reporter David Simon, who took a leave to ride with city homicide detectives, resulting in his acclaimed book, "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets." He now serves the show as a story editor. Then Mr. Levinson sought to turn this nonfiction into weekly television fiction, starring his hometown. It was a hard sell, but NBC bought it, and the series was launched in January 1993.

Those early years were touch and go, a triumph with critics but with modest ratings. Yet here it is in the fifth season, already renewed through the sixth, soaring toward television heaven, acclaimed for artistic merit and truth-telling, a string of inside jokes (the pig in Pigtown) and references to real local events for the criminally informed, interspersed with introspection on the true meaning of Baltimore.

Executive producer Levinson in Hollywood; executive producer Tom Fontana in New York; co-executive producer Jim Finnerty running the show in Baltimore; actors Richard Belzer, Andre Braugher, Reed Diamond, Clark Johnson, Yaphet Kotto, Melissa Leo and Kyle Secor must be mentioned from a strong ensemble. Some have moved into the community, while others have moved on.

Most of the actors have made appearances here or helped worthy causes. Mr. Belzer stands out in that role. Mr. Braugher's powerful performances last year of a detective theologically tormented by evil were, if possible, topped this year with his stroke-stricken character incrementally recovering his old self. Off-camera, that conniving Iago has taught Baltimore's student-actors the finer points of Shakespeare.

For the good they have made, for the gifts they have brought, for contributing in countless ways, we salute the perpetrators of "Homicide," and wish them seasons more of film mayhem and a shelf of Emmys every one.

Pub Date: 12/29/96

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