Norris inspired `District' character

Commissioner brings credibility to `Wire' role

August 23, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Given the kind of reviews Baltimore's police commissioner has been getting lately for his travel, eating and spending habits, some might think it piling on to suddenly decide what the world needs is a critical assessment of Edward T. Norris, the actor, based on his performance as a homicide detective named Norris in HBO's The Wire.

But, actually, I've been waiting a couple of years for the chance, ever since the late Jack Maple, a superstar law enforcement consultant who described himself as a mentor to Norris, told me at a Hollywood cocktail party that Norris could act. The party was for a new CBS series, The District, starring Craig T. Nelson as a reform-minded police commissioner in the District of Columbia.

Maple, who helped create the series, told me that similarities between Nelson's character and Norris, the then-new Baltimore police boss, were purely intentional. He said one reason Norris was going to be a hit in Baltimore is that he was so good in front of the camera. Maple talked a lot about the importance of image, acting and public performance for being a successful police commissioner in today's media-saturated America. He suggested that if Norris didn't have this new contract to fight crime in Baltimore, he might be starring in The District.

I don't think Norris is ready for a starring role in prime-time American television just yet. He's probably not even ready for a starring role in prime-time Bulgarian television. (I have actually seen some of it, so shut your mouth. While Norris has the haircut for Bulgarian television, he doesn't yet have the soulful eyes.)

But the truth is that Norris is not at all bad in the role for which David Simon, creator and executive producer of The Wire, cast him. In fact, he's rather good in the way that matters most to the role - suggesting an attitude or sensibility that adds texture and credibility to the overall milieu of the critically acclaimed drama.

For his part, Simon says that he's pleased with Norris' performance in terms of the goals that were set for it.

"The initial reason that we wanted to cast him is that there was a lot of very harsh characterization of a police department in this show. And it struck me as being not fair to the existing department that a lot of what I was basing this fictional story on were events and attitudes that involved prior regimes," Simon said in a telephone interview this week.

"I didn't think anybody watching the show in L.A., Chicago or Terre Haute was going to care for one minute that the Baltimore police commissioner was playing Detective Norris. The only people I actually cared about sending a message to were the 3,000 some odd people working for the police department.

"It was sort of an internal tongue-in-cheek to the rank and file to say, `Obviously, we're not portraying the department as it is today in any journalistic way, because if we were, then the police commissioner would be named Norris and [the real] Norris would not be portraying a rank and file homicide detective,'" Simon added.

Simon said that after he pitched it to Norris that way, the commissioner asked him if he thought he could cut it as an actor.

"I said, `Well, I saw you in front of the city council, and you looked like a pretty good actor.' And he laughed at that," Simon said.

Ed Bianchi, the first director with whom Norris worked, was pleasantly surprised by the commissioner, according to Simon.

"Bianchi's first reaction when I told him was like, `What have you stuck me with? Can't I have a real actor here?'" Simon said.

"But Bianchi was amazed by the way Norris delivered the lines. One of the things you want to do on TV is to be small. By that I mean don't be big the way you would be big on stage, because the slightest movements come off as earthquakes [on TV]. Throw most of the lines away. Just say them as you would say them conversationally.

"And he was just certain of the range in which he should be. You could see he knew where his range was, and found it naturally."

Simon said they wanted Norris to be on more than the total of about five minutes of screen time he's had this season, but that the commissioner was often busy with police work when they called. (Simon said he did not think Norris appears on episode 12 on Sept. 1, but he will be on the season finale Sept. 8.)

As for the shooting schedule, Simon said on those days that Norris worked, his scenes were shot first, so they could get him on and off the set quickly. No extra takes either for the commissioner, according to Simon.

"Look, as an actor, he turned out to be pretty good," Simon said, offering a bottom-line assessment. "I'm not quite ready to give him a love scene or have him cry the oration at the funeral of a close friend. But the guy can play a homicide detective and he can play it dryly and to the point because he did the job for years."

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