By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun
3:27 PM CST, January 18, 2013
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.
Born in Baltimore, Mr. Chew graduated from Patterson High School and attended Morgan State University where he sang in the school’s world-renown choir. He was working full time in Baltimore area theater since the early 1980s. He continued to teach in the Arena Players Youth Theatre after “The Wire” ended production here in 2007.
“He was a triple threat,” said Catherine Orange, director of Baltimore's Arena Players youth theater. “He could act, he could dance and he could sing. He was an extraordinary teacher and director for us. He believed in our kids and was a task master.”
In 2006, Mr. Chew helped 22 of his students land parts in Simon's landmark series.
“Whenever I had to dig deep and find kids who not only had the talent but the reality and the belief, kids who didn’t look like the ones in a Jell-O commercial, I called Robert,” Moran said Friday.
“I’ve had calls today from students of his who he continued to mentor and teach into adulthood. He impacted people, lots and lots of people. And I don’t think he knew that," Moran added.
"He was a quiet, shy guy. Prop Joe’s character was the exact opposite of what Robert Chew’s real character was. With a look or a gesture, Prop Joe could be terrifying. But that was just acting. Robert Chew didn’t have a mean bone in his body.”
Funeral services will be held 10:30 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 24 at the Calvin B. Scruggs Funeral Home, 1412 East Preston Street.
In addition to his sister, Clarice, Mr. Chew is survived by his mother, Henrietta; and two sisters, Tonya Chew and Maureen Little. All live in Baltimore.
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