Rest in peace, Prop Joe.
Robert F. Chew, the actor and teacher best known as rueful gangster Proposition Joe on HBO’s The Wire, died in his sleep yesterday in his Northwest Baltimore home at the age of 52. He was a great character actor who portrayed one of TV drama’s most reliably memorable supporting characters — one modeled, however loosely, on reality. “Like Bubbles, Joe is based on an actual person of the same name, and the real Proposition Joe’s preference for negotiation over violence could not keep him from getting gunned down in a Baltimore nightclub in 1984,” wrote critic Andrew Johnston in a 2006 article about the character’s “Br’er Rabbit tactics” and “belief in crime as an honorable profession.”
Prop Joe was one of the few characters to appear regularly in all five seasons of David Simon’s urban drama. Chew was a mountain of a man with a world-class deadpan, always underselling the character’s juiciest lines. “Gotta say I’m proud of y’all for putting aside petty grievances and putting this thing together,” Joe intones during a meeting of the New Day Co-op, a democratic association of drug dealers whose meetings are run via Robert’s Rules of Order. “For a cold-assed crew of gangsters, y’all carried it like Republicans and shit.” If that scene and others like it were your only exposure to Chew’s screen presence, you’d think he was born to play the wary, imposing Joe and nobody else; but he was a skilled and versatile actor — a fact that comes through in this scene of Joe convincingly imitating three people during a phone call that was shot in a single take with no cuts.
Chew also appeared in the Baltimore-based Homicide (as violence-averse drug kingpin Wilkie Collins), The Corner (as a shoe salesman), and in the HBO movie Something the Lord Made. Born and raised in Charm City, he gave back to his community by mentoring grown-up and child performers. He worked extensively with local childrens’ theater companies, including Playworks USA, the youth theater division of The Arena Players, the nation’s oldest continuously operating African-American theater company. And Simon put him in charge of training the young actors at the center of season four, which was built around the failures of America’s public education system. Chew’s tutelage produced a number of raw yet affecting performances, many given by actors with little or no professional experience. The graduates of Robert F. Chew’s one-man academy of dramatic arts include Felicia Pearson (Snoop), Tristan Paul Mack Wilds (Michael), Julito McCullum (Namond), Maestro Harrell (Randy), and Jermaine Crawford (Dukie).
“Robert was not only an exceptional actor, he was an essential part of the film and theater community in Baltimore,” Simon told Baltimore Sun TV critic David Zurawik. “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.”