Real people find new roles in 'The Corner'

Many of the true-life inspirations for characters in the gritty HBO series about life on a Baltimore drug corner play parts in the story.

April 16, 2000|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff

This time George Epps would need a few takes to do the scene. This time he would not be the guy checking into the Baltimore homeless shelter, trying to end a lifetime of drug abuse, but the fellow working at the shelter who hands over a blanket and explains the rules.

This time Epps would face a dramatized image of his own life, watching his HBO movie self take the blankets and go on his way.

Just act natural, they told Epps. Just act natural.

"It brought back a lot of memories," says Epps, a recovering addict who appears briefly in "The Corner," a six-part HBO miniseries that begins tonight and runs for six consecutive weeks. "That process which I went through, the decision I had made. To go into that shelter, to do something different to save my life. It was like turning back the hands of time."

Epps, known in the series by his nickname, "Blue," is one of several people who are part of both the real story and the television cast of "The Corner," wherein art and reality have mixed in strange ways on screen and during filming last summer and fall.

In East Baltimore, which portrayed West Baltimore, members of the real street culture occasionally mingled with folks in the cast of addicts, dealers and hangers around. At one point, a fellow scrounging scrap metal with a shopping cart started picking up junk strewn by the HBO crew in a relatively tidy alley near Barclay and 21st streets. The fellow was asked to let the litter be, it was part of the set.

No wonder the series is being praised for authenticity. One would expect no less, seeing as how the miniseries is based on "The Corner," an exhaustively reported nonfiction book by former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon and former Baltimore police homicide detective Edward Burns. Burns is now teaching school and had no part in the HBO production. Simon, with former Washington Post reporter David Mills, was series co-writer and co-executive producer.

Real faces

In their quest for realism, Simon says, producers decided to use neighborhood people whenever possible.

"Because they're real people they have real faces," says Simon. "If you rely solely on SAG [Screen Actor's Guild] membership, you get actors. You get people who look like actors."

Throughout the series, neighborhood folks appear in small speaking parts, walk-ons and in segments of off-camera dialogue. The series ends with director Charles S. Dutton talking to four people whose stories are told in the series: Fran Boyd, her son, DeAndre McCullough, his girlfriend, Tyreeka Freamon, and George Epps.

The result suggests what novelist Vladimir Nabokov meant when he said "reality" is "one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes."

The real Fran Boyd, for example, makes a cameo appearance as a drug treatment center receptionist in a scene opposite actor Khandi Alexander -- who's playing Fran Boyd. The real DeAndre McCullough plays one of three police officers who arrest McCullough as portrayed by actor Sean Nelson.

Terry "Eggy Daddy" Hamlin, an ex-addict with a record of arrests on charges of selling fake drugs or "burn bags," portrays another man being arrested for the same reason. George "Joe" Laney, a recovering addict who was shot in West Baltimore years ago, plays a recovering addict who tells a Narcotics Anonymous meeting about the corner's ravenous appetite for human souls.

"The corner dominates," he tells the group, "it takes more and it gives nothing back."

Hamlin is now 52 and working for the Downtown Partnership, an agency that promotes the central business district. He says that returning to his previous life, even a reconstructed version of it, reminded him of the danger of slipping backward.

"It's scary," says Hamlin, who has been clean of drugs for three years. "I don't want to go back there."

Revisiting the old life

Epps, a slim man with wire-rim glasses and a fringe of beard, has returned to the real scene of "The Corner," West Fayette and North Monroe, but in a different role. As an employee of Recovery in Community, a drug rehabilitation center yards from the corner, Epps works the streets trying to get addicts into treatment.

His journey from the old life to the new included the moment shown in episode four of the HBO movie, in which Epps moves into the South Baltimore Homeless Shelter. Epps had just been released from a few weeks in the city jail for failure to appear in court on a drug charge, one of several jail terms he served in about 30 years of drug abuse. It was dawning on him that something had to change. He was 43.

He would live in the shelter for nearly two years while he went through drug treatment and found work. A sign painter by trade, Epps worked as a painter for a while, then as a street cleaner for the Downtown Partnership, then with Recovery in Community.

When he heard a movie was being made of "The Corner," he says he wondered if his character would be in it. As it turned out, his character has several scenes and the role is being played by Glenn Plummer, an actor Epps says he'd admired since he saw him in the 1992 movie "South Central."

Good casting, says Epps, who turned 50 in January. He notes that he and Plummer have a "similar build, similar features. He's a good actor."

They shot their scene in a shelter on Greenmount Avenue. It took three, maybe four takes, as Epps recalls. He hands Plummer some blankets and tells him how things run in the shelter.

It was the beginning, says Epps, of a journey into recovery he wishes were available to more addicts through expanded drug treatment programs.

"I had no knowledge what it would be like or what it would be," says Epps, "but I was willing to give it a shot."

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