Robert F. Chew, a Baltimore actor and teacher who portrayed the drug kingpin Proposition Joe on HBO’s “The Wire,” died Jan. 17 of an apparent heart ailment at his home in Baltimore, said Clarice Chew, his sister. He was 52.
Mr. Chew, who also appeared in “Homicide” and “The Corner,” taught and mentored child and young-adult actors at Baltimore’s Arena Players, a troupe he stayed with as his TV career blossomed through his work with “Wire” creator David Simon.
“Robert was not only an exceptional actor, he was an essential part of the film and theater community in Baltimore,” Simon said in an e-mail 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.”
Pointing to an example of the range of talents Mr. Chew brought to the production, Simon said, “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.”
Through the Arena Players Youtheatre, Mr. Chew brought new talent to the attention of casting directors and coached the team of young actors who played students in the Baltimore school system in the fourth season of “The Wire.”
“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,” Simon wrote. “He was the conduit through which they internalized their remarkable performances.”
Pat Moran, a Baltimore casting director who has worked on Baltimore projects including “Hairspray” and “VEEP,” said, “Robert Chew was an incredible actor — as good as any of them that ever stepped on the stage on Broadway or anywhere. This was a great actor, but a greater man.”
She added: “Prop Joe’s character was the exact opposite of what Robert Chew’s real character was. With a look or a gesture, Prop Joe could be terrifying. But that was just acting. Robert Chew didn’t have a mean bone in his body.”
In a 2006 interview with the Baltimore Sun, Mr. Chew described Proposition Joe by saying: “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.”
Based in part on a local narcotics figure who was killed in an after-hours club in 1984, the slow-moving, smooth-talking Prop Joe did some of his best scenes opposite Omar Little (Michael K. Williams), another of the great and complicated crime figures in “The Wire.”
Mr. Chew broke into television in 1997 with an episode of NBC’s “Homicide.” He continued with Simon on the HBO miniseries “The Corner,” which premiered in 2000.
Born in Baltimore, Mr. Chew graduated from Patterson High School and attended Morgan State University, where he sang in the school’s world-renowned choir. He started working full time in Baltimore area theater in the early 1980s. He continued to teach at the Arena Players Youtheatre after “The Wire” ended production in 2007.
“He could act, he could dance and he could sing,” recalled Catherine Orange, director of Youtheatre. “He was an extraordinary teacher and director for us. He believed in our kids and was a taskmaster.”
In 2006, Mr. Chew helped 22 of his students land parts in the landmark series.
“Whenever I had to dig deep and find kids who not only had the talent but the reality and the belief, kids who didn’t look like the ones in a Jell-O commercial, I called Robert,” Moran said Friday.
“I’ve had calls today from students of his who he continued to mentor and teach into adulthood. He impacted people, lots and lots of people. And I don’t think he knew that,” she added.
In addition to his sister, survivors include his mother, Henrietta Chew; and three sisters, Clarice Chew, Tonya Chew and Maureen Little, all of Baltimore.