Robert 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.
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