Why cop show Homicide: Life on the Street was revolutionary
More retrograde was the fact that the central line-up of detectives was initially going to be all-male, until Fontana and Levinson thought better of it, explains Leo. She landed the role of Howard, the only female cop in the Homicide unit. While many of the characters had direct parallels in Simon’s book, this was not the case with Howard. Female detectives were rare. There wasn’t a precedent for her, says Leo. The character was initially going to be called Kay Harvey, in a nod to Rick Garvey, one of the real-life detectives, who just like Howard had a perfect closure rate, but they decided against this as it was felt Garvey “could not possibly return to his workstation once he found out a girl was playing him,” laughs Leo.
Leo was keen to avoid portraying her in a cliched way. Howard was diligent, ambitious and highly professional, more competent than her male partner. There were also no rules about what a female detective should wear, she explains, “so we invented it”. Howard often wore a shirt and tie, she says, “something I think is becoming on a woman – which is finally being understood”.
While it was an ensemble show, Andre Braugher, who played Detective Frank Pembleton, an erudite, Jesuit-educated New Yorker with a complicated relationship with God, rapidly established himself as a standout. He had an electrifying screen presence, radiating charisma and energy. “I had never seen an actor like that on television,” says Fontana. “His rhythms were so unique to him.”
Secor’s character, Bayliss, was thrown into the deep end on his very first case, the murder of Adena Watson, an 11-year-old girl – based on the real-life murder of LaTonya Wallace, one of the most upsetting cases in Simon’s book. The detective in charge of the Wallace murder was there when they filmed many of those scenes. “It had a huge impact on his life, his relationships, and on the way that he approached his work,” says Secor, something which informed the character of Bayliss.
“Bayliss had a very high standard in terms of what was right and what was wrong,” says Secor. Bayliss’ partnership with the formidable Pembleton developed over the series. “Andre was the greatest partner in the world,” says Secor. “We saw ourselves as an old married couple.” Frequently filming in cars at 2am deepened the relationship, and the on-screen chemistry between the pair is palpable, particularly when they’re in the Box, the interrogation room in which some of the show’s most memorable scenes take place.