Robert Chew, the actor who played Proposition Joe on the HBO series The Wire, died last Thursday at his home in Baltimore. He was 52.
He suffered a heart attack, according his sister Clarice Chew.
In addition to his role in the acclaimed Baltimore-set crime series The Wire, Chew appeared on TV shows The Corner and Homicide: Life on the Street.
His character on The Wire was the soft-spoken and apparently diplomatic drug lord Joe Stewart, so powerful that he controls half the drug trade in the city.
"If you are thinking of The Wire as a western, Joe would be the guy in town who owns all the land…. and he’s trying to make sure he has everything arranged so that the town runs the way he wants it to run — so that it runs for his profit. He’s always calculating that way," Chew said in a 2006 interview with the Baltimore Sun.
Based in part on a local narcotics figure who was killed in an after-hours club in 1984, the character Proposition is ruthless with his opponents, including Omar Little.
The Wire creator David Simon paid tribute to Chew’s abilities as an actor.
"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," he said in a letter to the Baltimore Sun.
Simon pointed to a scene in which Proposition Joe, who is trying to determine if a police officer is 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," Simon said.
Chew grew up in Baltimore and studied music at Morgan State University. He worked as music director for the Arena Players community theatre and was known for his work as a teacher and mentor to young actors.
In the fourth season of The Wire, he brought a group of 22 young Baltimore actors to play students on series. The Wire ended production in 2007.
Chew had roles in the TV movie Something the Lord Made and the film Jamesy Boy, scheduled for release later this year.