`The Wire' Watch -- ROBERT F. CHEW


Each Sunday throughout the HBO drama's 13-week season, TV critic David Zurawik will highlight a must-see character or story element appearing in the current episode.

Proposition Joe Stewart is one of television's most unforgettable characters, and that is, in no small measure, attributable to the Baltimore actor and teacher, Robert F. Chew, who plays him.

Based in part on a local narcotics figure who was killed in an after-hours club in 1984, the slow-moving, smooth-talking Prop Joe more than lives up to his nickname in tonight's episode of The Wire.

In a barroom scene, he meets - and works his magic on - Omar Little (Michael K. Williams), one of the most menacing gunmen on the urban frontier as created by David Simon.

The language itself is a delight: "A businessman such as myself does not believe in bad blood with a man such as yourself - it disturbs the sleep," Joe begins.

"I bet it do," Omar says, exhaling cigarette smoke in Joe's direction.

"By way of amends," Joe says, ignoring the disrespect and pausing for dramatic effect, "a proposition." By the end of the exchange, he has set Omar on a collision course with Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector), an equally cold-blooded killer. It is just the kind of conflict from which a clever deal-maker like Joe always seems to profit.

"If you are thinking of The Wire as a western, Joe would be the guy in the town who owns all the land," Chew says. "In that scene with Omar, he's trying to make sure he has everything arranged so that the town runs the way he wants it to run - so that it runs for his profit. He's always calculating that way."

And from the rhythm of his speech to the eyes that seem to be seeing things that others don't, Chew plays the character so that one can almost feel the gears spinning inside Joe's head as he lays out his syrupy spiel.

"He's an incredible actor - first-rate range, always in the pocket emotionally on every line. He's an absolute pleasure to write for," said Simon. "If he went to New York or Los Angeles, there would be a lot more work. Thank God for us, he's in Baltimore."

The 44-year-old Chew broke into television in 1997 with an episode of NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street, which was based on a book written by Simon and published in 1991. The actor also appeared in Simon's HBO mini-series, The Corner (2000).

But the 1982 graduate of Morgan State University had been working in local theater since the early 1980s - most notably Baltimore's Arena Players, a troupe with which he stayed connected even as his television career took off. He continues to teach in the Arena Players Youth Theater Program, and has helped 22 of his students land parts in The Wire this year.

"He has provided us with a lot of talent - especially young actors that he has nurtured," says Simon, whose series this season explores education, both in the classroom and on the streets of Baltimore.

"In that vein, we asked Robert to be the acting coach. ... As every script was published, Robert would work with the young actors and hone the key scenes before filming. He was a major influence on this year's production."

There is no hint of Prop Joe calculation in Chew's answer, when asked if coaching while simultaneously portraying a key role was exhausting over the course of 13 episodes: "Oh no, absolutely not. It was a joy. Those young actors were so professional and had such energy. No, no, not at all. It was a pleasure."


THE WIRE // Airs at 10 tonight on HBO

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