Those who read David Simon’s landmark non-fiction book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, will in its closing pages come across a dialogue between a Baltimore PD Homicide squad detective and a young, black witness, concerning the violent death of an individual known on the street as Snot Boogie.
Those who are reading the book because Simon, over a decade later, co-created The Wire (which really is as good as they all say, people) will recognise the dialogue as having been lifted, word for word, for the first scene of episode 1 of series 1, in which the detective’s portion is spoken by Jimmy McNulty.
Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets was the product of the year between 1988/9 that Baltimore Sun crime reporter Simon, after long and patient negotiations, spent observing the Homicide Division at work: what we would now call ’embedded’. Simon’s intention was to create as honest and accurate a portrayal of the work of Murder Police in a major American industrial city as it was possible to do, and the testimony of police all across America confirmed that Simon had more closely depicted their job, in all its respects, than anyone before him.
But whilst the Snot Boogie dialogue was used in The Wire, the book had been thoroughly mined for an earlier police series, the superb Homicide: Life on the Street, which ran for seven seasons between 1992 and 1998, most of which were broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK. The success of The Wire – an altogether denser, more realistic drama – has overshadowed Homicide to a large extent, but the earlier series was a thing of beauty and a joy of its own, and against all the pressure put on it by NBC to conform, like Simon’s book it succeeded in translating the best achievable interpretation of the real Murder Police’s experience to its faithful, indeed devoted, audience. Of whom I am one.
Apart from the decade or so between the two series’ running, the major difference between the two was that Homicide was the product of Network television and The Wire came from Home Box Office. The freedoms the latter enjoyed, to depict the streets and the detectives that sought to control them, with honesty as to the attitudes, the brutality, the sexual mores, the language and the corruption, were denied to Homicide, which also suffered under the creative strait-jacket of Network commercial television, which was fearful of presenting its audience with anything they hadn’t seen before.
Nevertheless, The Wire could not have existed as it did with Homicide: Life on the Street to actively demonstrate that, with care, patience, commitment and sheer blazing talent, it was possible to do more.
The transition from non-fiction book to television series was entirely due to Director Barry Levinson, a Baltimore native, famous for directing films such as Diner, Tin Men and Rain Man. A lot of Levinson’s work centres upon his home town and uses semi-autobiographical elements, and he has a standing arrangement to be sent all kinds of creations directly relating to Baltimore. Thus he got to read A Year on the Killing Streets and recognise in it the potential for a superb film.
However, Levinson soon recognised that the book could not possibly be properly presented, in all its depth and richness, in a two hour film and, for the first time, turned his thoughts towards television, and development of the book as a series.
To this end, he formed a production company with writer/producer Tom Fontana, who had established himself working on the hospital drama, St Elsewhere. Fontana would become the showrunner for Homicide, though that term had not then gained its common currency. NBC, then the third of the three networks, agreed to finance a pilot.
No doubt they were expecting a show along the lines of Hill Street Blues, the ground breaking hit police procedural series NBC had broadcast in the Eighties. Hill Street was a landmark series, the first truly ensemble drama series outside of soap opera, with an astonishingly wide cast, offering multiple simultaneous storylines running from episode to episode. Though the influence of Hill Street would be visible in Homicide, NBC would not get what they expected.
Their influence does show in the series’ somewhat awkward title. Levinson and Fontana proposed to call the series simply Homicide. NBC objected, asking if they couldn’t come up with something more positive, something life-enhancing? Given that the series was set in a Homicide squad, investigating murders on a daily basis, the request was ridiculous. But NBC was placated by adding the somewhat clumsy suffix, Life on the Street.
Every episode of Homicide says “created by Paul Attanasio”. Tom Fontana may have been Executive Producer, Head Writer and show-runner, but it was Attanasio to whom he and Levinson turned, to create a viable TV series out of Simon’s book, to extract what events, characters and format would best serve to tell the multiple believable – and unbelievable – stories from the book.
Based on the pilot, NBC ordered a further five episodes, and based in the show’s initial ratings when the much-promoted pilot was broadcast, a further three episodes. Based on the ratings for the following episodes, another four episodes were commissioned, but when ratings started to dip, reflecting the audience’s uncertainty at getting a show that defied expectations instead of moulding itself to them, these last four episodes were held back, and broadcast in 1993 as Homicide‘s official second series.
Critically, the show was a hit, especially among Police across the whole of the United States. Homicide was the most realistic, most honest and faithful portrayal of their job ever to be seen in Network TV to that point. But it performed according to its own tenets. There were to be no shoot-outs or car chases. The detectives would arrive in the scene when the body was already dead, exactly as they did in real life, and the programme was going to concentrate on investigation and interrogation. There would be none of the soap opera aspect of Hill Street Blues: the detectives would be seen in the context of their jobs, not their private lives. Nor was each case wrapped up in a 48 minute episode. Just like Police investigations, cases would roll over week after week, and sometimes they would not be resolved at all.
What’s more, Homicide looked different. Levinson chose to film using a single, hand-held 16mm camera, with the cameraman getting into the scene, wandering around between the actors. Instead of short takes, focussed solely on the active participants in any scene, the show was built from longer, repeated takes, in which everybody was present, and playing their parts, whether directly involved or not. The best, most effective and passionate takes would be edited together, and important points would be emphasised in a kind of stutter, repeating the point three times rapidly, from different takes. Emotional continuity was more important than physical continuity.
Another aspect that distinguished the show from every other on network was that it was not filmed in Hollywood. Hill Street Blues had been set in an un-named city (using Chicago street names) and had been filmed in Burbank, like all the others. Homicide was filmed in Baltimore.
There were no ‘sets’. The closest the series got to that was taking over the old Port Authority building and fitting it out as the Homicide squadroom. All other filming was done on location: if a scene called for a particular type of property, the production team found the right kind of property and negotiated to use it. A stake-out set in a private home was filmed in a private home.
The underlying reality of everything we saw was a perfect counter-balance to the implausibility of storylines that would have been completely unbelievable if they hadn’t actually happened.
Homicide debuted with a cast of nine: eight detectives, partnering in pairs, one Lieutenant as Shift Commander. The pilot episode started with a typical Homicide scene, two detectives, Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson) and Steve Crosetti (Jon Polito) and a body in an alley, talking and arguing, about anything but the case itself. The following morning, rookie Detective Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) starts his first day in Homicide, transferring in from the Mayor’s Security Detail. Bayliss is our viewpoint character: the squadroom, the Board with its array of name sin red (for open cases) and black (for closed cases), the partnering system is explained to him and to us.
We are also introduced to Stan “The Big Man” Bolander (Ned Beatty) and John Munch (Richard Belzer), and Kay Howard (Melissa Leo) and Beau Felton (Daniel Baldwin), but in a show without stars, Homicide‘s real star is introduced as a loner, Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher), who will end up being Bayliss’s partner, very much against his will.
With the exception of Kay Howard, each cast member, including Yaphet Kotto as Lieutenant Al “Gee” Giardello, was based on a member of the real-life Homicide squad in 1988, when Simon was researching his book. This would lead to friction as the show characters began to develop away from their templates, with the detectives very concerned that anything ‘their’ character did reflected back upon them.
Nevertheless, the detectives had no real objection to acting as technical consultants for the series: after all, the stories were based, usually very directly, on cases they themselves had worked! Ultimately, Gee’s real-life counterpart Gary D’Addario, became the series’ technical consultant and even acted in it from time to time, as Lieutenant Jasper, head of the Emergency Action Team: D’Addario was a natural, able to hold his own amongst actors of the quality Homicide commanded.
D’Addario went on to play a role on The Wire as did his fellow Homicide officer Jay Landsman, who played an odd dual part: his name was given to the Homicide department Sergeant played by Delaney Williams in all fives seasons, whilst Landsman himself joined the cast in Season 2 as Lieutenant Dennis Mello: sadly, no scenes were filmed featuring ‘Landsman’ and Landsman.
From the outset, NBC tried to change Homicide, make it conform to their narrow rules, their low expectancy of what the audience could/would understand (an expectancy that appeared to be born out by the show’s ratings). The second re-order of four episodes was held back to form 1992’s second season and a third season was ordered only when Fontana agreed to make at least a gesture towards more telegenic actors and a slightly more simplified approach to storytelling. Jon Polito was sacrificed for Isabela Hofman, a lovely-looking blonde in her mid-thirties, who was introduced as Lieutenant Megan Russert, a high-flyer given her first command on the shift opposite that of Giardello.
NBC were still playing cautious: their order was for thirteen episodes, with an option for a further nine, to make up a complete season. Fontana’s team threw down a gauntlet to the network, scheduling episode thirteen as the first of a three-parter, in which three of the detectives were shot and wounded: cancel us now!
But long before that point had been reached, NBC had been sufficiently encouraged by the early ratings to take up their option, albeit for only seven episodes and not the full nine. Nevertheless, as the series end approached, everybody anticipated cancellation, and Levinson returned to direct the final episode, a deliberately unconventional, low-key story that would have been characteristically Homicide but which would have been completely inadequate as a series closer.
Nevertheless, NBC chief Warren Littlefield retained a belief in the series and renewed Homicide for a fourth season, for the first time with a twenty-two episode order.
It came too late to save the patience of two of the cast. Ned Beatty and Daniel Baldwin, both of whom thought the series brilliant, had grown frustrated at the lack of faith and promotion Homicide received from the network. Beatty, who resented the need to live in Baltimore nine months of the year, had been offered the chance to return to the stage and musical comedy. Baldwin had spent so much of his own time, money and energy in promoting the series, was burned out. Both left.
A fortuitous off-season Police convention provided a convenient excuse to write both detectives out in a manner that didn’t preclude them from returning: Bolander and Felton, having misbehaved, were placed on twenty two weeks suspension, enabling either or both to return for season if they chose. It was delightfully self-referrant,though neither actor took up the option.
Reed Diamond, as Detective Mike Kellerman, was added for season 4, and partnered with Lewis. Despite the fact that the show deliberately did not have stars, almost unconsciously the Pembleton/Bayliss partnership had started to dominate the show, and the deliberately lighter weight, ‘frat boy’ pairing of Lewis and Kellerman was a very fruitful counterbalance to that. Season 4 would be very successful commercially, enough so for NBC to give Homicide the luxury of a two season order, forty-four episodes. The show would seize that opportunity with both hands.
It made up for another change insisted upon by the network. The pressure to standardise, to restrict episodes to single stories, solved in 48 minutes, to bring in more telegenic actors, even monkeying around with running orders on a series that utilised an underlying continuity: these things never changed throughout the seven seasons. For season 5, NBC insisted on a change of opening credits.
Gone were the original smoky, hazy, black and white credits, the swirling, half-shadowed close-ups on actors faces as their names were shown. NBC wanted something clearer, jazzier, more colourful, and simpler to identify the cast. The incredible, atmospheric music was left untouched, thankfully, though it closed on Richard Belzer’s voice, answering the phone with the word ‘Homicide’, in case the viewer had missed the title. Nobody liked it, except NBC, but the show accepted these little defeats in order to preserve the more of its higher aims.
There were more cast changes. Isabella Hofman, pregnant, moved on, appearing only as a guest in the final two episodes. Her place was taken by Max Perlich, who’d been a recurring character throughout most of season 4 as J.H. Brodie, a weasely videographer hired by the police to document crime scenes. Intriguingly, the team had signed up Michelle Forbes to play the new Medical Examiner, Dr Julianna Cox, but delayed her arrival until six episodes in.
The underlying story that would ultimately form the spine for seasons 5 and 6 was discovered by accident. Drugslord Luther Mahoney, polite, immaculate, civicly lauded, was meant to appear in a single episode, frustrating Lewis and Kellerman, but guest actor Erik Todd Dellums was so good in the role that the rivalry between him and the Police grew into a fascinating battle that would end explosively in season 5, but overhang almost all of the following year.
Cast changes at the end of each season were by now a regular element. Melissa Leo and Max Perlich were dropped after season 5, both as a result of off-screen scandals, though Perlich was rather more culpable for his downfall than Leo. Two of their replacements, Jon Seda as Detective Paul Falsone and Peter Gerety as Detective Stu Gharty, were introduced as guests in the season-closing two parter, whilst Callie Thorne as Detective Laura Ballard made her debut in season 6.
Though Gerety was an older man, Seda and Thorne were firmly in the mould of NBC’s ceaseless demands for pretty people. The former would feature so heavily in season 6, when it was known that Andre Braugher was leaving at the end of the season, that several fans resented his obvious grooming as a replacement star.
Sadly, Michelle Forbes also moved on, ten episodes into season 6. The team bemoaned their decision to cast her as Medical Examiner, instead of as a detective, wasting such a good actress and restricting her storylines.
Virtually all the team expected cancellation, which contributed to their building season 6 up to an intense, dramatic release that was truly memorable. It was a fitting send-off for Braugher, and also for Diamond.
Because the series was saved by changes forced on NBC elsewhere in their schedules. Having been forced to absorb the loss of three established programmes, the network decided it could not afford to further denude the line-up of established shows and offered Homicide a seventh season.
There were changes. Braugher had left because he had had enough, grown tired and seeking a fresh challenge. Diamond had to leave, because the inexorable logic of his story, developed over the past two seasons, left Kellerman with no ground to stand upon, though he would guest as a PI in a two-parter in season 7.
Channel 4, who had begun to treat Homicide very badly, scheduling double bills starting at 12.30am, openly announced the ending of season 6 as the last ever episode of the show, lying to an audience that it gamble would not be aware of the final season.
With Kellerman and Pembleton out, there were more cast changes. Giancarlo Esposito debuted as FBI Agent Mike Giardello, Gee’s son, and the new FBI liaison with the Baltimore PD, unaware that he was being used by his superiors. Michael Michelle joined as Detective Rene Sheppard, a former beauty queen, and Toni Lewis, who had been a recurring character since early in season 5, was finally elevated to the cast as Detective Terri Stivers.
Homicide‘s final season is generally agreed to be its worst. Soap opera plotlines, especially the affair between Falsone and Ballard, dominate. Bayliss, who has taken up both Buddhism and his bisexuality, is lost throughout most of the season: with Kyle Secor having decided to leave irrespective of the show’s fate, pressure is put upon him throughout the back half of the series to provide a memorable exit that leaves an astonishing question open.
But by then it was known that everyone was going with Secor. Fontana went to NBC to discuss renewal for season 8, which NBC were prepared to do, only if the show made more drastic changes. These were to fire everyone but Belzer, Thorne and Michelle, move the show to Florida and set it on a boat.
In short, chuck out Homicide, set up a spin-off as a comedy-thriller with the sardonic, wise-cracking Munch and the two sexiest women (no doubt spending a lot of their time in bikinis or halter top/shorts combinations) as private eyes. Fontana said no.
So after seven seasons and 121 episodes, Homicide: Life on the Street ended, in fitting manner with stories left unresolved. But this was not the end of the story.
Eighteen months after the cancellation of the series, Homicide returned in a 90 minute television movie. The story is commonly known as Homicide – Life Everlasting after the title of the script that was published over the internet, but it was officially Homicide – The Movie. It answers the outstanding question from season 7’s finale, but leaves the rest of the story open. It features the entire cast, everybody who was a cast member, including Polito and Baldwin, whose characters were dead, and fittingly it elevates series-long recurring character Zeljko Ivanek (DA Ed Danvers) to cast for this last outing.
The need to find something for eighteen cast members, not to mention other series regulars, to do in ninety minutes distorts the story, though it’s wonderful to see Pembleton and Bayliss, both of whom are now outsiders in all senses, strut their stuff one last time. But it is in the movie’s climax that it transcends all possible complaints.
When the show ended, four members of the cast – Richard Belzer, Clark Johnson, Yaphet Kotto and Kyle Secor – had appeared in all seven seasons. And Munch lived on: he and Richard Belzer were pinched to star in Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Actually, Belzer had originally pitched to partner with Jerry Orbach as Lennie Briscoe on Law and Order itself, the two having worked wonderfully well together in three crossovers with Homicide, but was shifted to the spin-off since Briscoe’s new partner had already been cast. As a result, Belzer has gone on into the record books for portraying Munch on no less than ten different TV shows and five networks (albeit that one show and one network are represented by an ‘in character’ appearance on a late night talkshow). And Belzer has now portrayed Munch for 22 years, outdoing James Arness as Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke and Kelsey Grammar as Frasier Crane, who each played their characters for 20 years.
I’ll be going on to look in a little more detail at each of Homicide‘s seven seasons and, of course, the movie. But I’d suggest you start equipping yourself with the DVDs, especially if you’re a fan of The Wire. I promise you you won’t be disappointed.