`Homicide' kills off its role model

Television: With Al Giardello assassinated, another strong black male character bites the dust.

February 14, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Gee is dead, and actor Yaphet Kotto's not at all happy about it.

If you saw "Homicide: The Movie" last night on NBC, you already know Lt. Al Giardello, the moral center of "Homicide: Life on the Street," died at the end, victim of an assassin's bullet. His death was one of the most dramatic moments in the series' celebrated history.

Last week, Kotto, who has inhabited the body of Giardello for seven years, said he thinks more than just a great character is lost with the passing of Gee. He's disturbed that a positive African-American male figure has been killed off in our popular culture.

It's happened too many times to characters he's played over the years, Kotto said, stretching back to such acclaimed performances as the one he gave alongside Richard Pryor in Paul Shrader's "Blue Collar" in 1978.

"Giardello is one of the few characters on television that presented a positive black man in a positive role with strengths and weaknesses and all the rest," Kotto said.

"When they created Giardello, they created a bigger-than-life character. Consequently, people who grew up on John Wayne and the kind of bigger-than-life characters like Clark Gable that Hollywood used to give us, saw Giardello as a father figure or maybe an uncle. I know this because of the way people reacted to me and the character publicly and privately," he said.

As an example, Kotto offered the reaction from an African-American mother of two boys, a fan of "Homicide," who he met in Washington five years ago and with whom he has stayed in touch. The children's father was killed in Vietnam, and the woman told Kotto that over the years she has been using Giardello as a male role model for them, saying, "Daddy was like that, he was just like Giardello."

"The problem now for her," Kotto said, "is that the same consequences that happened to Giardello [death] is what happened to her husband. And she wants to know how in the hell is she going to deal with that with the children. And she's asking me, `Why do they have to take down the strongest black male figure? Why must that be the conclusion of him?' I think this kind of thing can have a devastating effect on African-Americans."

Kotto, who has been in 37 films, including blockbuster hits like "Alien" and "Running Man," pointed out that most of those characters also died.

" `Running Man,' the character died. `Alien,' the character dies. Yes, back in `Blue Collar,' my character gets it there, too. Most of my characters died, and many, many black characters always seem to get it in the head, OK?"

Kotto is right about the larger loss suffered with the death of his character. I have called Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) the moral center of "Homicide: Life on the Street." But I was wrong.

In watching the film finale, I realized that Pembleton was the moral ideal, not the moral center. The morality against which Pembleton measured himself and others could not exist in the real world of the Baltimore City Police Department.

In fact, Pembleton's head nearly exploded in a stroke when he tried to measure up to it himself. The only place the moral ideal could find a home is in the classroom where, at the beginning of the film, Pembleton toils, holding up that ideal as a goal to which we should aspire.

Giardello, on the other hand, was the ethical man who could function in the real world. He could be a father figure to the men and women who worked under him, protecting them from the corrupt, scared and venal in city government.

As Giardello once told Pembleton, "Yes, it's true, I know the ways of power." But he was not corrupted by it.

Giardello measured up even by Pembleton's impossible ethical standards, as Pembleton himself made clear last night in dressing down Lt. Stuart Gharty (Peter Gerety) for being such a compromised successor to Gee.

Name one other prime-time network drama in which a black man is the moral center, outside of "City of Angels," which I would argue has yet to find what it stands for.

Hand in hand with morality goes law and order. And, if you think about urban America as a violent and potentially lawless frontier, Kotto is right in seeing Giardello as a black John Wayne.

As unhappy as Kotto is about Giardello dying, the 62-year-old performer said he's laid the character to rest and is moving on as an actor and producer.

"You know, you can't fight the world. People have the right to do their creative thing as they see fit, and I agreed to do it [play Giardello in the film]," Kotto said. "But it is now incumbent upon me to create and re-create some strong male and female African-American and Asian-American" characters that don't die.

"We need our John Waynes and we need our William Holdens, Marlon Brandos and Spencer Tracys. We need them on the screen now. We had one in Al Giardello

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