Robert F. Chew, who played Proposition Joe on 'The Wire,' dead at 52

An 'exceptional actor' and 'essential part of community,' David Simon says

  • Robert F. Chew in 2009 teaching at the Arena Players summer theater program. Here he leads a rehearsal of "Fame."
Robert F. Chew in 2009 teaching at the Arena Players summer theater… (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore…)
January 18, 2013|By David Zurawik | The Baltimore Sun

Click here for the gallery "The Wire: Where Are they Now?"

Robert F. Chew, a 52-year-old Baltimore actor and teacher who portrayed one of television’s most unforgettable characters as Proposition Joe on HBO’s “The Wire,” died Thursday of apparent heart failure in his sleep at his home in Northeast Baltimore, according to Clarice Chew, his sister.

Mr. Chew, who appeared in “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “The Corner,” as well as “The Wire,” also taught and mentored child and young adult actors at Baltimore’s Arena Players, a troupe he stayed with as his television career blossomed in David Simon HBO series. Through his work at the Arena Players Youth Theatre, he brought new talent to the attention of casting directors and coached the team of young actors who played students in the Baltimore City School system in Season 4 of “The Wire.”

"Robert was not only an exceptional actor, he was an essential part of the film and theater community in Baltimore,” David Simon, creator of ‘The Wire’ said in an email Friday.  “He could have gone to New York or Los Angeles and commanded a lot more work, but he loved the city as his home and chose to remain here working.  He understood so much about his craft that it was no surprise at all that we would go to him to coach our young actors in season four.  He was the conduit through which they internalized their remarkable performances."

In terms of what Mr. Chew brought to Proposition Joe, Simon said: "The Wire cast was an embarrassment of riches and it was easy, I think, for outsiders to overlook some of those who were so essential as supporting players.  Robert's depiction of Proposition Joe was so fixed and complete -- from the very earliest scenes -- that the writers took for granted that anything we sent him would be finely executed.”

Pointing to a scene that indicates the range of talents Chew brought to the production, Simon said, "Late in the run, almost as a tip of the hat to the work that Robert had done for us, I wrote up a scene in which Proposition Joe -- in order to determine whether someone was a police officer trying to infiltrate his drug crew -- gets on a pay phone and in rapid succession imitates four different characters in four different voices.  If you remember that scene and Robert's performance, you know everything you'd need to know about how good an actor this man was.”

"And apart from that, he was a fine and generous man," Simon concluded.

Pat Moran, the legendary Baltimore casting director, said, “Robert Chew was an incredible actor as good as any of them that ever stepped on the stage on Broadway or anywhere. This was a great actor, but a greater man.”

“This guy worked with young kids where he taught over at Arena,” Moran said. “That’s where I knew him from before ‘Homicide.’ And he would usher young talent into auditions that people ordinarily wouldn’t get a chance to see. And he would teach and mentor them, and the kids just adored him.”

In a 2006 interview I did with Mr. Chew, he described Proposition Joe, by saying, “If you are thinking of ‘The Wire’ as a western, Joe would be the guy in town who owns  all the land…. And 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."

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 had some of his best moments opposite other great and complicated crime figures on the urban frontier of "The Wire" -- like Omar Little (Michael K. Williams).

One of those scenes from the 2006 season featured Prop Joe, whose last name was Stewart, working his smooth magic on Omar in a barroom meeting.

The language itself was a delight in the mouth of Mr. Chew: "A businessman such as myself does not believe in bad blood with a man such as yourself - it disturbs the sleep," Joe says.

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

"By way of amends," Joe says, ignoring the disrespect and pausing for effect, "a proposition."

By the end of that exchange, as I wrote in that 2006 piece on Mr. Chew, Prop Joe had set Omar on a collison course with Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector), an equally cold blooded killer. It was just the kind of conflict from which a clever deal-maker like Joe always seemed to profit.

But the biggest winner was the viewer in getting to savor such a fine and sure-handed performance from the hometown actor playing Joe.

Mr.Chew broke into TV in 1997 with an episode of NBC’s “Homicide.” He continued with Simon on the HBO mini-series, “The Corner,” which premiered in 2000.

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