For Ed Norris, a very unlikely dramatic debut


City police commissioner stars in HBO's `The Wire'

TV/Radio Column

July 10, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Storming away from the body of a young man who had been tortured to death, a Baltimore homicide detective vents about a diversion of scarce police resources for a political hack's petty personal matter. "Show me the son of a bitch who can fix this department," he barks, "I'll give back half my overtime [pay]."

Those lines were spoken during Sunday night's installment of HBO's The Wire, by an actor named Ed Norris, playing a character named Norris, who just happens, during his day job, to be Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris.

Norris might not be the first person you'd expect to crop up on The Wire, a tough-minded series that focuses on an attempt by a motley crew of police to take down a major drug trafficker. Baltimore is shown, not without reason, to be besieged by drugs, violence and addiction. The Baltimore police force doesn't come off much better. Police officials are almost uniformly cowed by the chain of command. A few detectives work with intensity. Others are lazy, corrupt or lack all insight.

But there Norris is on HBO, to all appearances a Formstone cowboy, strolling the back alleys behind Baltimore's unluckier rowhouses. Norris has previously appeared on national television to talk about policing and security issues, and he's no stranger to the media caldron in New York City, where he was a senior official. But this is different. It is fictional - HBO, not CNN. And it seems to sanction a vision of the Baltimore police department as overwhelmed, unmotivated and, often, on the take.

"That's what we were hired to do - to fix the deficiencies that have plagued this place for a long time," says Norris. He was explicitly picked by Mayor Martin O'Malley to sharply cut the number of murders committed in the city and to close down the open-air drug markets. In the words of his character, he was found "to fix this department."

And so, paradoxically, that's why David Simon, creator of The Wire, thought to cast Norris in the role. The two men had met for lunch at Sotto Sopra, where the writer warned the police chief that he would be putting a bleak face on the city.

Norris says he replied, "It's too bad - I've really tried to correct all these things. The problem is, you guys never miss - HBO always knocks the ball out of the park, so people will see it.

"I wish you had picked the LAPD."

Simon, a former Sun police reporter, was also the moving force behind NBC's Homicide and HBO's The Corner, and wrote the books on which they were based. (Former Baltimore police officer Edward Burns wrote The Corner with Simon, and he has also authored several episodes of The Wire.) O'Malley had been particularly chilly about The Corner, a six-part movie about the true story of an entire Baltimore family caught up in the use and trade of drugs.

"I really don't need an HBO special to tell me what the problems of this city are," O'Malley told reporters in April 2000. "I do not promote problems; I choose to address them." He preferred to focus on major cultural institutions such as the city's art museums, and said he envied the mayor of Providence, whose city serves as the lustrous backdrop for a prime-time NBC show.

But before The Wire got to the air, Simon explained his plans to O'Malley. And he told Norris that his inspiration was the department under Edward Woods and Thomas Frazier, the police chiefs that he had covered as a reporter. He has disdain for Frazier, whose policies requiring frequent rotation of assignments dismantled the city's homicide squads.

"This piece is set against a time when the drug epidemic was tearing West Baltimore apart," Simon says now. "The police department was in the hands of guys who weren't particularly adept at police work and didn't have respect for it."

Later, as he was writing the episode, he issued Norris an invitation to appear on the show. Maybe a wink to the hometown crowd, Simon said, would indicate that this program wasn't about Baltimore in the here and now - however much those problems persist. "It seemed a little unfair to make the current department carry the burden," Simon says. "I'm thinking less about the viewers who couldn't care less who Ed Norris is than Ed Norris' troops."

Simon remains convinced that the so-called "War on Drugs" is a losing proposition. But he thinks that the dedicated efforts of smart police led by someone like Norris, a former homicide detective, can turn the tide against violent crime.

In turn, Norris lauds Simon's authentic understanding of the intertwined worlds of policing and criminals but says not everything matches his own experience. The technology of the wiretap investigation is rudimentary, Norris says, compared to the city's satellite-based system used to track suspects. And not all bosses are corrupt or feeble. Norris' friend, the late Jack Maple, a storied police consultant, served as the inspiration for the central character of CBS series The District, a hard-charging police chief.

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