There are people who have “yesterday”‘ kinds of faces. Those who looked like they should have lived 50 years ago. Or a century ago. I thought John Sayles did an amazing job casting Eight Men Out. He chose actors who looked like they could have walked out of the 1920s–the granite-faced Michael Rooker, the perpetually country-looking D.B. Sweeney. . .John Mahoney, who looks so much like a guy from the middle of the American century it makes even his voice sound like the past, and my pal, John Cusack, who looks like every hopeful Irish guy from the levee district of Chicago’s 1920s.
They are faces that carry the histories of the places we come from.
I’m fascinated by the old television series, Naked City, where the cops look like cops and the people look like average Americans– New Yorkers, actually. There was nothing cosmetic in this show. The cops were bulldog-looking-type actors who, in the parlance of the old days, “had faces for radio,” which made sense. A great many of these actors, William Conrad, Jack Warden and Ward Bond
had been radio actors. In the early ’50s, television was a brand new thing and Naked City was kind of television “noir” as it were.
They took on themes of racism, drug addiction, delinquency and recidivism, with a surprising frankness. There was a reason for this. Television, back then, was written by playwrights, getting a quick paycheck as well as getting their message across. There was right and wrong and thankfully, in Naked City, good didn’t always triumph over evil. It was, for its time, a tough bromide for middle America. Life isn’t fair, and bad men are as much a part of history as good men. It was not cynical. It was cold-eyed and honest and knew us for the ungentle species we are.
I’m an insomniac and my favorite chewing-gum for the brain is cop shows. The sun never sets on the Law and Order franchise. Somewhere in the bowels of cable, 24/7, one of those shows is on. My favorite ones were the old ones with Michael Moriarty and George Dzundza and the young Chris Noth, who was believable as a hot-headed young Irish cop (and later not so much as the vacuous Mr.Big on the “Four Annoying Sluts from New York Show” or Sex in the City, as you probably know it). Let’s just say, it was never any mystery to me why these idiots were single.
The first seasons of Law and Order reminded me mightily of Naked City. The pie-faced Moriarty’s rectitude and moral certainty was at the center of the show. The two cops, Dzundza and Noth, were not nice guys, but harried men grudgingly doing their jobs
honestly, but not immune to the unfocused bigotries their vocation has taught them to have, and full of working-class resentment. In other words, they were believable.
The great Broadway pro, Steven Hill, was the old and wizened and politically savvy and mostly expedient Adam Schiff, who covers his ass publicity-wise at all junctures and is still, somehow, just. I liked that they were imperfect people doing lousy jobs that coarsened them as humans and colored their dim view of the world.
The last great TV cop was, ironically, a career Broadway song and dance man named Jerry Orbach, who was an interesting man. He logged more performances of The Fantasticks on Broadway than almost anyone in that cast. He was also a friend and confidant of Crazy Joey Gallo, the Columbo family mobster and hit man widely rumored to be the killer of Albert Anastasia in 1957. Orbach’s performance as a bent cop in Prince of the City redefined his career, and after Paul Sorvino left Law and Order, Orbach was paired with Chris Noth to play Lennie Briscoe, a former alcoholic cop with rumors of a shady past. Orbach took a sketchily drawn character and gave it real weight, imbuing Briscoe with a world-weary exhaustion and cynicism that manifested itself in gallows humor in the face of tragedy.
Briscoe is a tragedy himself. A failed husband and negligent father who loses his only daughter to the streets, his only defining grace is as a policeman. Ever-vigilant, competent and unrelenting, it is the purpose he clings to because it is the only decent thing that inhabits him.
Orbach played this role until his death in 2004–he worked right up until the end battling prostate cancer. He was one of those guys with the yesterday face; a guy who had the face he deserved–impossible to forget, and unlike any other.
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