Someone managed to get Detective Frank Pembleton back in the box.
Members of the cast and production team of the critically acclaimed NBC drama “Homicide: Life on the Street” came together at the Paley Center in New York to talk about the distinctive drama that flouted many of the conventions of network TV. The main focus of the show, which ran between 1993 and 1999, was on how Baltimore police detectives passed the time while trying to solve murders. But there were few car chases, shootings or dramatic arrest scenes. “Every episode was like an affront to network television,” noted Andre Braugher, who played Detective Pembleton on the program and came to wider fame while working on it.
Producer Barry Levinson, showrunner Tom Fontana, producers Julie Martin and Anya Epstein; cast members Richard Belzer, Braugher and Clark Johnson; and writer David Simon, whose book, “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets,” became the inspiration for the program, all sat at the Paley for a panel moderated by Courtney Kemp, creator of the Starz series, “Power.”
From the outset, Levinson and Fontana noted, “Homicide” was unlike standard TV fare. NBC had no say over casting or scripts, for example, and the first season of the program had a washed out look Fontana believed heightened the aesthetic of the series. “Homicide” won renown for the diversity of its cast, which the producers said was meant to reflect the demographics of Baltimore, where it was filmed.
Braugher said he was stunned to be considered for the role of Pembleton, a hard-driving, no-nonsense detective who became the series’ breakout character. “Are they really going to give a black man this role,”” Braugher says he recalled thinking during the audition process. “I’ve really got to play this. I’ve got to play the hell out of this. I’m gonna tear the whole thing to shreds.”
As the series continued, some plotlines would take an entire season to resolve. And much of the focus was on conversations held by cast members in cars and bars and on street corners in moments between working on solving various cases. The series was basically “guys talking about s–t while they are trying to solve a murder,” said Martin.
Other members of the cast included Yahpet Kotto, Melissa Leo, Daniel Baldwin, Kyle Secor, Callie Thorne, Jon Polito, Ned Beatty, Jon Seda, Reed Diamond, Michael Michelle, Peter Gerety, Isabella Hoffman, Toni Lewis, Max Perlich and Giancarlo Esposito.
The panel addressed everything from cast changes and favorite episodes, some of which included one of the series most notable, in which a man is hit by a subway train at a Baltimore station. And they reminisced about things such as notable guest stars, including Robin Williams.
“We got to break all the rules and still have fun,” noted Fontana.